STUDY ONE: IN THE BEGINNING GOD … THE ONLY GOD
© Rosemary Bardsley 2013
Genesis 1:1 reads ‘In the beginning God …’ This immediately raises the question ‘Which God?’ making it necessary for us to determine who it is that the Bible is talking about here.
In ‘the west’, post-modernism, with its accompanying relativism, subjectivism and loss of absolutes, has made the word ‘god’ a meaningless relative term, in which there is no fixed content, no common meaning, no clear definition, and no absolute truth or reality.
Not only do we as Christians speak of ‘God’ in distinction from the ‘God’ of Islam or the ‘gods’ of Hinduism, for example, but also we have to define ‘God’ in distinction from the multitude of changing personal concepts of ‘god’ that have resulted directly from the denial of the existence of absolute truth.
A. BASIC HUMAN FRAMEWORKS FOR UNDERSTANDING THE WORD ‘GOD’
The following ‘isms’ provide a range of worldviews in which humans understand the word ‘God’:
Agnosticism: Belief that it is not possible to know if there is a ‘god’, or to know ‘god’ even if there is a ‘god’ there.
Animism: Belief that spirits/gods inhabit all natural objects, and fear of these spirits.
Atheism: Belief that there is no such thing as a ‘god’.
Deism: Belief that there is a God, but he is not involved in the world.
Determinism: Belief that everything, including what we do, is pre-determined by a range of factors/forces.
Dualism:  Belief that God and Satan are equal powers; or  belief that God and ‘matter’ are both eternal.
Fatalism: Belief that there is a God, and that he has predetermined everything that happens.
Henotheism: Belief in local gods [compare polytheism and animism]
Materialism [Naturalism]: Belief that ‘matter’ – the natural, physical world - is all there is. [Compare: evolution]
Monism: Belief that all is one.
Monotheism: Belief in one god.
Panentheism: Belief that ‘god’ is in everything.
Pantheism: Belief that all is god. [Including concepts like ‘mother earth’, ‘cosmic mind’ etc]
Polytheism: Belief in many gods.
Secular humanism: Belief that man is the centre of all things; there is no god, no spiritual dimension.
Spiritism: Belief in, communication with, and worship/fear of the spirits.
Theism: Usually refers to belief in a personal God who is involved in the world, as distinct from deism.
Task #1: Which of the above perceptions of ‘god’ express …
The biblical perspective
The most common perspective in your culture
The most common perspective in contemporary Western culture
Task #2: Now link the following religions with the relevant ‘god concept’ in the isms above.
B. THE ‘GOD’ OF GENESIS
B.1 God as the only God
Here is a powerful quote from Christian theologian Karl Barth:
‘We must be clear that when we are speaking of God in the sense of Christian faith, He who is called God is not to be regarded as a continuation and enrichment of the concepts and ideas which usually constitute religious thought in general about God. In the sense of Christian faith, God is not to be found in the series of gods. He is not to be found in the pantheon of human piety and religious inventive skill. So it is not that there is in humanity something like a universal natural disposition, a general concept which we Christians call God and as such believe in and confess; so that Christian faith would be one among many, an instance within a general rule. A Christian Father once rightly said that Deus non est in genere, “God is not a particular instance within a class”.
When we Christians speak of ‘God’, we may and must be clear that this word signifies a priori the fundamentally Other, the fundamental deliverance from that whole world of man’s seeking, conjecturing, illusion, imagining and speculating. It is not that on the long road of human seeking and longing for the divine a definite stopping-place has in the end been reached in the form of the Christian Confession. The God of the Christian Confession is, in distinction from all gods, not a found or invented God or one at last and at the end discovered by man; He is not a fulfilment, perhaps the last, supreme and best fulfilment, of what man was in course of seeking and finding.
But we Christians speak of Him who completely takes the place of everything that elsewhere is usually called ‘God’, and therefore suppresses and excludes it all, and claims to be alone the truth. Where that is not realised, it is still not realised what is involved when the Christian Church confesses, “I believe in God”. What is involved is man’s meeting with the reality which he has never of himself sought out or first of all discovered. “What no eye hath seen nor ear heard, what hath not entered into the heart of any man, God hath given to those who love Him”, is St. Paul’s way of speaking of this matter. And there is no other way in which we can speak of it. God in the sense of the Christian Confession is and exists in a completely different way from that which is elsewhere called divine. And so His nature, His being is different from the nature and being of all alleged gods.’ [Dogmatics in Outline, p35,36]
What Barth is saying about God can be expressed in one word: holy. The key meaning of ‘holy’ is ‘set apart’ – distinct, unique, one of a kind.
Genesis does not make even one reference to God as holy or to the holiness of God. Yet this is the God of whom it speaks from verse one onwards: the God who alone is God. This is assumed and obvious in chapters one and two.
If the physical universe exists as the result of a divine creative act, then the God who created is, of necessity, the only God.
Task #3: Consider these scriptures that link the act of creation with the fact that there is only one God:
Thus Genesis 14:19 and 22 describe God as:
‘God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth’
‘the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth’.
In both of these the word ‘creator’ has the added connotation of ‘possessor’ or ‘owner’.
And in Genesis 24:3 Abraham refers to God as ‘the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth’.
B.2 God as the sovereign controller and source of all things
Because God is the one and only God and the Creator of all that exists, God is also the one who is in sovereign control of all things and the continuing source and sustainer of all things. This sovereignty and providence of God is understood throughout Genesis. Only a God who alone is God could do what God does. For example:
• Genesis 3: he has the authority to place a curse on the physical earth
• Genesis 4: he has the authority to place a boundaries around Cain
• Genesis 6-9, 11, 19: he is the judge of all the inhabitants of the earth
• Genesis 12 etc: he initiates an everlasting covenant of salvation that encompasses the whole earth
• Genesis 37-50: he overrides the wickedness of men and uses it as a tool in his saving purpose
Only a God who alone is God, who is also the Creator, has both the authority and power to do what the God of Genesis [and of the whole Bible] does. The existence of even one other god would undermine and diminish both his authority and his power. The removal of the fact that God is the creator would do so also.
B.3 The beginning of other ‘gods’
In the first few chapters of Genesis there is no reference to other ‘gods’. Even Eve in her rebellion against God still acknowledged God as the giver of life [Genesis 4:1]. Even Cain in his lack of faith still presented his hypocritical offerings to the real God, not to substitute, counterfeit gods, and recognized that his own survival was dependent on God [Genesis 4:3,13,14].
The first mention of other gods is in Genesis 31 where Rachel stole Laban’s household gods and Laban pursued Jacob and his company to retrieve them [verses 19, 30-35]. The second mention is in Genesis 35, where Jacob orders his household to get rid of their ‘foreign gods’ as he approached Bethel [35:2-4].
B.4 The (false) territorial concept of God and gods
As (sinful) humans spread over the earth the idea arose that God was limited to a specific territory. This is obvious in Cain’s conversation with God in Genesis 4. Cain, condemned to be a ‘wanderer on the earth’ [verse 12] believed that, being driven from the land where he had lived, he would be hidden from the presence of God [verse14] and therefore beyond God’s protection. But God put his mark on Cain as a symbol of his protection wherever Cain went.
We find this concept that God is limited to a given territory repeated in Jacob, who was surprised to discover that God is with him, even though he has travelled away from his father’s land: ‘”Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” ‘ [28:16,17]
This concept of a god/God limited in authority and relevance to a person or territory is possibly also expressed by the following:
• Jacob to Isaac: ‘the LORD your God’ [27:20]
• Laban to Jacob: ‘the God of your father’ [31:29]
In both of these the speaker appears to have had only limited understanding of God: Jacob certainly did not realise at that time that God was the God of all the earth, and Laban had his own household gods.
C. WORDS AND TITLES FOR GOD USED IN GENESIS
C.1 ‘God’ – elohim
This is the word used most frequently in Genesis; it is the plural form of ‘el’, and is used to refer to the one supreme deity. The fact that it is a plural word is understood by many Bible teachers to refer to [or at least to assume] the Trinitarian nature of God, which we will look at in a later study. Note that this word is also used to refer, without the upper case ‘G’, to idols.
C.2 ‘LORD’ – Yahweh
This is second most common word for God in Genesis. This is an interesting fact in the light of Exodus 6:3, where God states that although he was known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, he did not make himself known to them as ‘the LORD’. It is not that he was not ‘the LORD’ at that time; Exodus 3:14-16 makes it clear that he was ‘the LORD, the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’. However, he had not yet revealed himself as ‘the LORD’. The patriarchs, however, had no real perception of the significance of the name. That revelation would come through God’s mighty acts recorded in Exodus.
C.3 ‘LORD God’ – Yahweh elohim
The third most common reference to God uses the combined title: ‘the LORD God’.
C.4 God Almighty – El Shaddai [and, once, Almighty God – Shaddai El]
God refers to himself by this name in 17:1 when addressing Abraham; the other Genesis uses of El Shaddai all have some connection with Jacob.
C.5 Lord – Adonai
This is a reference to God as ‘lord’ or ‘master’ – the one in authority. Only used six times in Genesis.
C.6 God identified as the God of various people
Quite a number of times God is identified by some reference to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob (Israel): God of my master, the LORD thy God, the God of my Father, the God of Abraham, the God of your Father Abraham, etc. He is once called ‘the fear of his father Isaac’. He is once called ‘the Mighty One of Jacob … the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel’.
C.7 God Most High – El Elyon
This name is used in the report of Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek.
C.8 The God who sees – El Roi
Hagar gave this name to God in Genesis 16:13,14 when he saw and rescued her in her distress.