Monday, May 10, 2010

The Uniqueness of YHWH

In 1959, the Protestant theologian Walther Eichrodt did a comprehensive study on the Old Testament in his book Theology of the Old Testament. I am in the process of reading the first volume and I must admit that it is quite challenging for me. I can’t stop reading it though because he is absolutely brilliant. In his book, he explores all aspects of ancient Judaic life and ideology. He sees the Old Testament as not only leading to the New Testament and essential in understanding the latter but also finds that the New Testament gives us a better understanding of the Old Testament as well. For the ancient Israelites, Eichrodt argues, the covenant was the central focus of the nation and explains all the actions of the Jews. Even though the Israelites often borrowed customs from the pagans around them, they always adapted these customs to their understanding of YHWH. In other words, although their liturgical celebrations, law, or lifestyle sometimes seemed to be the same from the outside, from the inside, the way the Jews perceived their God was very different from the way the pagans viewed their gods. For the pagans, the gods served man and not vice versa. Baal did not need man, but man needed Baal if he wanted healthy crops. In comparison, YHWH needed the Jews because after all, He had created a covenant with them; both sides needed each other for there to be an agreement. The Jews would follow their God and God would protect His chosen people.

 In war, the pagan gods were always on the side of the Canaanites, Hittites, and Jebusites. However, by the covenant established between YHWH and the Hebrews, He only helped the Israelites when the latter held their portion of the covenant. Over and over again, YHWH, it says in the OT, abandoned the Jews and supported their enemies when the Jews were unfaithful. Nothing like this happened in the pagan world.

And it is not only amongst the pagans that the Jewish God stands out. Eichrodt compares Moses with other great religious prophets like Zoroaster and Mohammed. While Islam and Zoroastrianism are centered on the life of one particular prophet, Judaism is not centered on Moses. Rather, it is not Moses himself who is exalted but God. It is God who spoke through Moses and he is only seen as a mediator. After Moses, there were other, equally important prophets who emerged like Elijah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The lives of these prophets were not as important as the message they gave. The Passover is a celebration of what God did for the Hebrews and not a celebration of the man Moses and his great accomplishments. Once again, YHWH was the sole being who was deserving of praise. 

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