February 1, 2019

supplementary gods

For I know that the Lord is great; our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the Lord pleases he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth; he makes lightnings for the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.
Ps. 135:5-7

In Psalm 135:5, I see the word Lord occurring twice in English. But this isn't what I'd see if I read it in Hebrew. There, in the first clause, the Name of God (יהוה‬) is given, and in the second, "our Lord" is אֲדֹנֵינוּ (or Adonai-nu). As in other psalms, the way I read this in the 21st century is very different from what it was originally read. Israel's continually repeated proclamation was that their God—the One who had chosen them—was יהוה‬, and that יהוה‬ was great. So when they want to say that יהוה‬ is above all gods (אֱלֹהִים or elohim), it's not incidental that they affirm יהוה‬ not as God (though that would certainly have been true), and not just as Lord (also 100% true), but as our Lord. In other words, you all have your gods, and you might consider them your lords, but our God is יהוה‬, and as our Lord, יהוה‬ is greater than your gods.

And so I'd think that the verses that follow must certainly have something to do with what I've just read. And indeed they do. I need to picture ancient religion here, and how sacrifices were made to the gods to satisfy their appetites. If the combination of the right sacrifices and the right prayers were offered up, then the gods were satiated and the people's needs or desires were met. Praise and worship had a goal then, and that goal was the manipulation of the gods. I do this for you and you do that for me—quid pro quo.
A representation of the gods of ancient Rome
This was never Israel's relationship with יהוה‬, however. Worship and praise were offered for their own sake. יהוה‬ couldn't be manipulated into doing the people's bidding. And just as (above) each of the nations' gods had a particular portfolio, an area of responsibility or power, Israel's God does what God pleases in all the different areas assigned by other peoples to distinct gods. The recitation that follows affirms that יהוה‬'s power is not limited to a particular skill set, but that יהוה‬ is all-powerful in every area.

When Israel was unfaithful, it was because they doubted this One God's power in every area of their lives, and began to stray to the worship of specialist gods who, they imagined, could help them in specific areas. This was particularly true in times of drought, when it was hoped that where יהוה‬ had failed them, a fertility god such as Baal would come through.

It's easy for me to put down people of old who were naïve or unfaithful enough to believe that the omnipotent God was insufficient, and that supplementary gods were needed to fill the gap. And yet I have my own doubts and my own unfaithfulness. I worship One God faithfully, I think, but I still think money will be my salvation in certain specific areas of my life. I sing hymns about God being my greatest treasure, but I still long for possessions to make me happy. I sing Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, but gladly hand over control of my life to other people.

How does praying the psalms help me understand what has happened in the past, and how to keep history from repeating itself in my life?

O God, you are God of all that is, and you are my God. May I forego "all the vain things that charm me most," and see you as all-sufficient. I pray this in the Name of the One who taught me to pray...

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