Mars Hill Forum #121: “What is Yahweh Elohim’s Nature’s in the Bible, and Allah’s Nature in the Quran?” March 25, 2007, New Testament Church, Plymouth, MA, Guest: Dr. Imam Talal Y. Eid

Prepared Comments by John C. Rankin

Good evening.

I am seeking to address the most compelling international issue of our day – “Islam and the West” as some define it – in a proactive fashion that seeks honest communication with Muslim leaders.

When we consider the 1400 year conflict between Islam and the West, we who are Christian are called to follow Jesus. In Luke 10, Jesus commissioned seventy-two disciples to announce the kingdom of God in the religiously mixed towns of the Trans-Jordon. They were to look for “a man of peace,” likely a well-known and respected leader. If they found one, they then knew the whole town would be receptive to them. In most every culture across history, civil societies have their men of peace. They are those who can be trusted to be men of their word, to have the well-bring of the community at heart.

My goal is to find men and women of peace within the Islamic Ummah or community, and seek such honest conversation. In Imam Talal Eid I find such a man.

Religious, political and economic liberty is the goal for all people equally – a bequeathal of the intrinsic nature of the Gospel, of the Bible on its own terms. The central question is this: Do I live what I believe in how I treat those who believe otherwise?

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When I use the name Yahweh Elohim, I am citing the Hebrew for the name and nature of the Creator defined in Genesis 1-2, the God of the Bible.

The Bible on its own terms is a story line – the only fully true story ever told. Out of the story line come doctrines or teachings, and the three all-defining doctrines of the Bible are those of creation, sin and redemption. Or to put it another way – the order of creation, the reversal and the reversal of the reversal. Yahweh Elohim intended for us the healthy order of creation, we went the wrong direction away from it, and he restores us to the right path through Jesus the Redeemer.

Genesis 1-2 equals the good order of creation, and this is unique in the face of all religious and secular literature in history.

In other words, in the biblical order of creation, all is good – there is no brokenness of trust, no war, no fear, no discord. In fact, all is shalom – the Hebrew word for peace which has a deeper reality where it refers to integrity and wholeness. In contrast, the essence of sin is the brokenness of trust, where Adam and Eve broke trust with one another and with Yahweh Elohim, in their act of disobeying his goodness.

Thus, to know the content and nature of the biblical order of creation is to have the interpretive power to understand the Bible and human history. In the order of creation we are introduced to the nature of the Creator, Yahweh Elohim.

For myself, I grew up in a secular humanist and agnostic Unitarian context, indeed, as a Darwinian evolutionist. But even as an eight-year old, I was awestruck by the nature of the universe. I remember trying to figure out where the universe ended. So around 1961 I hitched a ride on Flash Gordon’s spaceship, and we traveled to the end of the universe. And do you know what we found? A large brick wall with a sign posted on it – “End of Universe.” Now I was momentarily encouraged in the age of Sputnick – the sign was in English, not Russian.

But was I satisfied? No. My next question was this: What is on the other side? We cannot conceive of where space ends. And the same is true for the defining concepts of time and number. When does time end? What happens one minute later and on and on? What is the biggest number in the universe? Infinity? No, that is a philosophical construct which acknowledges that numbers have no limit.

So we live within the confines of space, time and number, and no one can dispute this reality. None of us are able to wrap ourselves around eternity. The only written concept in history that is greater than time, space and number is the name and nature of Yahweh Elohim in the Hebrew Bible – he who is greater than space, time and number, whose power is unlimited, whose nature is good, and whose power is the power to give blessings to we who are made in his image. The biblical definition of the image of God is that we are created by Yahweh Elohim, intended to share the goodness of his nature as fully as possible for finite creatures.

There are at least five important qualities to understanding the nature of Yahweh Elohim in the Bible:

  1. Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time and number.
  2. Yahweh Elohim’s power is the power to give good gifts to all humanity.
  3. Yahweh Elohim is free.
  4. Yahweh Elohim is greater than being male or female.
  5. Yahweh Elohim is great enough to come to us as a Friend.

We begin with Genesis 1, where we have the grand design of creation, and in Genesis 2, where we have the first covenant which the Creator made with the first man and woman – the covenant of freedom.

1] Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time and number.

In Genesis 1, the Hebrew name for God is Elohim. It is the masculine plural form of El, a word for God. Since it is in the plural form, various nineteenth and early twentieth century critics of the Bible supposed it is was a reference to many gods, a throwback to a polytheistic time. But not so. It is what is known as the “honorific plural,” naming the One God who is greater than all the false gods, greater than all the deities of pagan nations. In Hebrew and other ancient Semitic and pro-Semitic languages, they did not use capitalized letters to show honor, but had other ways. The honorific plural essentially states that Elohim the true God in his unified essence is greater than all the numbers of false gods piled up – by an infinite factor.

Another way of putting this is that Elohim is greater than the concept of number, and this reality paves the way for the biblical understanding of the Trinity – One God, One Nature, Three Persons, a community from the outset. No polytheism.

In Genesis 2, the name Yahweh is introduced, the personal name of the Creator who precedes the name of Elohim, and who makes the first covenant with Adam and Eve. The name Yahweh is close to the infinitive tense of the verb “to be” in Hebrew, and carries with it the nature of Yahweh being

greater than space and time. One way to translate Yahweh’s name is by “I AM,” or the “Divine Presence,” who as Yahweh Elohim, is greater than space, time and number.

The nature of the Creator is crucial when it comes to defining human society, where in history we have three possibilities. First is unity without diversity, where the result is totalitarian or dictatorial government; second is diversity without unity, where the result is competing tribal claims on power, and hence, overall social chaos; and third is diversity in service to unity, where the individual and the social order are in balance for the good and freedom of all. We all have unique personalities and gifts to give to each other, and as we do, we experience diversity in service to unity. This is what it means to be made in the image of God, Yahweh Elohim who is greater than space, time and number; he who models and gives to us diversity in service to unity, and as ultimately fulfilled in the church which the apostle Paul calls the body of Christ, where the many members work in cohesion with one another in service to the head.

2] Yahweh Elohim’s power is the power to give good gifts to all humanity.

When Yahweh Elohim created the universe, he did so for one reason – as a gift to man and woman made in his image, to rule over his good creation and build a healthy society. We are the crown of his creation. This is the power to give.

We have two choices in life – give and it shall be given, or take before you are taken. The biblical order of creation is unique in profiling this power to give as Yahweh Elohim’s nature. There is no such idea in pagan religion or a secular construct. In the eyes of skeptical scholars who seek to come against the Bible, they speak of the Babylonian genesis as a comparison point with the biblical Genesis. But the Babylonian genesis starts with no account of a good creation, only finite, sexually promiscuous and destructive gods and goddesses who create us out of an original act of destruction, and only for the purpose of making us slaves to other gods who are slaves to the chief gods.

3] Yahweh Elohim is free.

The nature of freedom is the power to do the good, Yahweh Elohim is free, and his power is unlimited. Therefore, the question is raised: Is Yahweh Elohim free to do evil? No, for to do evil is to become a slave to evil, and evil is by nature the power to take and destroy, the opposite of Yahweh’s power to give.

As image-bearers of God, men and women are made to be free also. But since we are finite creatures, we do not have the power to say yes to Yahweh Elohim’s goodness without the power to say no to it. We will reap the fruit of either choice. If Yahweh Elohim were to force us to do the good, he would be evil, for goodness is a gift, and a gift cannot be forced and still be a gift. Only pagan and capricious deities force themselves on people. The true Creator, Yahweh Elohim, does not. The Bible declares that God is love, and love by definition is a choice, not something imposed. Forced love is an oxymoron, or in other words, it is rape – something intrinsic to various pagan deities. Thus, Yahweh Elohim’s nature is the power to give, and the power to give is the basis for freedom, and the opposite of slavery.

4] Yahweh Elohim is greater than being male or female.

Pagan deities are either male or female. But Yahweh Elohim is greater than human sexuality, and both male and female are made in his image – both male and female come from him. Why then is Yahweh Elohim called “Father” and why does he take on the male pronoun? In Genesis 1, 2 and 5, the text is clear that the male pronoun refers not to Yahweh Elohim being a male, but to the nature of the power to give. As well, in the Bible, Yahweh Elohim freely assigns to himself female metaphors, and Jesus likewise.

In a pagan world, all the deities and their subservient humans are enmeshed in the power to take before being taken. This is a prescription for relentless war, and secularism is also enslaved to the same. It is easy to initiate the power to take. But where in history is the power to give initiated, free from any pollution of the power to take? Only in Yahweh Elohim.

Yahweh Elohim gives first to the man, who receives and is empowered to initiate the power to give to his wife. Thus the man is called “he” as the first created image-bearer of God the Father, yet he is incomplete without his equal and complement to whom to likewise exercise the power to give. As he does, she is free to receive and give back to him as the “she,” all rooted in the “he” of God the Father’s power to give. Adam and Eve are thus always free to initiate the power to give to each other, and give back to Yahweh Elohim in thanksgiving in praise. A prescription for peace.

Then, as man and woman become one in marriage – the two becoming one – as image-bearers of God they reflect the nature of the Trinity, of the Three who are One, thus again reflecting how Yahweh Elohim is greater than being male or female. And on such a foundation, the equality and complementarity of man and woman are defined.

5] Yahweh Elohim is great enough to come to us as a Friend.

In redemptive history, Yahweh Elohim becomes the friend of Abraham and Moses, and becomes flesh in Jesus, who is also the “I AM” as Jesus declared to the Pharisees in the Gospel of John. In other words, Yahweh Elohim is uniquely great enough – greater than space, time and number – so as to have the power to become a human being, walk in our presence, heal our infirmities, drive out the demons, suffer for our sins, die in our stead to remove our sins, rise again and come again. Jesus calls his disciples his friends, the basis of a Christian’s personal relationship with him.

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This is, of course, a brief review of huge biblical territory. As we look at these qualities of Yahweh Elohim, what truth-seeking human being is not attracted to each one of them?

My goal tonight and in this series is to be proactive – to lift up Jesus as the One who fulfills the whole Bible. When we approach any historical conflict, such as Islam in the face of Judiasm and Christianity, I have no desire to take down the belief of any Muslim person, or for that matter, any pagans or secularists who dispute the Bible. Yahweh Elohim, through Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, alone is the Judge of all people on the Last Day. Let the Light shine, and all darkness will dissipate.

On this basis of grasping the nature of Yahweh Elohim, and in view of the realities of creation, sin and redemption, we can look squarely at the historical issue of the person of Ishmael, the starting point for Arab and Muslim identity. Yahweh Elohim’s power to reach out to Ishmael and be his Friend is crucial if we strive for peace, and for freedom from any form of slavery. From the text of Genesis 16 on outward, I have written a summation entitled “Imagine Ishmael,” where the attitude of a biblical people is set forth.

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Imagine Ishmael.

As a young boy, perhaps five years old.

There he sits outside the small tent, meant to spend these years at play and wonder, yet the intrusion of undeserved pain already gnaws at his soul. There, at the bitter edge of a large nomadic community, he lives alone with his mother Hagar. They are shunned by most people, with furtive glances that young Ishmael doesn’t know how to define, but he feels them deeply and unhappily. His mother loves him dearly, holds him tight and teaches him the basics of hygiene, language arts and social skills, of how to grow into manhood.

But his father is not present to model such a manhood, for Abraham is married to Sarah, and Ishmael is the son of a hastily arranged and foolish concubinary with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar. In other words, we come to learn that Ishmael is the son of a discarded slave-woman whom Sarah despises for no good cause. Ishmael has no legitimate inheritance rights or honorable standing in the community. He is rejected and feels the shame deeply, all for something which is not his fault, which is not his mother’s fault. But at age five, he does not understand these social and sexual realities – he only feels the shame, and doesn’t know why he has to feel it, when other boys his age do not. They have daddies at home.

Then imagine the periodic community-wide feast involving perhaps 2,000 people. The seat of honor goes to the patriarch, the wealthiest and most powerful man in the area – Abraham. And next to him sits his beautiful wife Sarah. Then back at the edges sit Hagar and little Ishmael. Hagar has told him before that this man is his father, but little Ishmael is not allowed to see Abraham, for Sarah would be furious, and they would have to flee for their lives into a desert that only holds death. Ishmael listens, and most of these words are not really understood, but serve as background for the years ahead. At this moment though, the little Ishmael only has one desire – to sit next to his daddy in the sight of all the people, to be honored as daddy’s little boy. So simple, not possible, and thus Ishmael grows to be a wild donkey of a man, always fighting for survival and for a dignity and honor not given.

Ibn Ishaq, the first biographer of Muhammad, claims this lineage for him, and Islam grew out of Arabia 2600 years after Abraham. There is a deep struggle in the subconscious of Ishmael’s lineage. The Arabic word for struggle is jihad. Virtually invisible in the Qur’an and Hadith, this is an inner struggle for honor to erase the undeserved shame, for freedom from a birthright of slavery. It is an inner struggle at the root of the historical and original jihad against all who will not submit to Islam. And in the face of this reality, the calling for biblical people is to honor Ishmael, to honor all Arab and Muslim peoples, and all others including ourselves, as equals in the sight of the Creator, Yahweh Elohim, the eternal Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only then can the message of the Prince of Peace cut through the boiling tempest of the Middle East — he who was rejected by men as he went to the cross in our stead, then rose from the grave with all rejection conquered. Hagar called Yahweh “the God who sees me,” and the name Ishmael means “God hears.” Do we also see and hear?

And far more broadly than the world of Arabia and Islam, there is a universal struggle. The world’s greatest social evils are rooted in “the chosen absence of the biological father,” whether physical or emotional in nature.

If we listen to the children of divorce, we can trace most pain back to what is, or is at least perceived to be such a chosen absence.

If we listen to women forced through an abortion by the chauvinism of irresponsible men, we can trace most of the pain back to such a chosen absence.

If we listen to men and women struggling with issues of homosexual identity or actions, we can trace most of the pain back to such a chosen absence. And likewise for many who struggle with heterosexual promiscuity.

If we look at the emerging soul-searching pain of the children of donor sperm, such a chosen absence is not only deliberate, but mockingly so for perhaps a pittance of cash.

If we look at the poverty in the ghettos of the United States, we can note how at least seventy percent of black children grow up in the pain of such a chosen absence.

If we look at polygamous cultures where sons do not have the chosen full presence of their fathers – in the midst of the sibling rivalries due to the positioning struggles of rival wives – then we can understand people like Osama bin Laden.

Historically, the pain of such a chosen absence, and in a unique way, most deeply affects the Arab and Muslim soul tracing back to Abraham and Ishmael. Abraham’s absence was chosen yet unchosen – he chose the folly of breaking his marriage covenant with Sarah, at her initiative, but then to keep his marriage intact, yielded to her war against Hagar and Ishmael; yet he never stopped yearning for his son Ishmael, to be a full father to him, but had no power of choice to make it a reality.

How complex broken trust becomes across the pages of history, ever since the original covenant of one man, one woman, one lifetime was assaulted. And only because the Son of God willingly died on the cross for us, splitting the Trinity for some hours in history, yet with unbroken trust in God the Father, and unbroken trust in the power of the Spirit to raise him up from the grave – only because of this calendar defining event, do any of us have hope.

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What I have stated, from the biblical account of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac – is a risky proposition in the presence of Muslim persons. It is risky because if not heard in context and its entirety, it can be mistaken for focusing on the shame of Ishmael as a weapon against Arab and Muslim peoples in history.

But in fact, I am doing the precise opposite. By acknowledging the historical reality reported in Genesis, I am making an accurate diagnosis of the historical pain of Ishmael’s shame and yearning for true honor, to then be free to address guilt common in all humanity, and seek the forgiveness ultimately provided for in Jesus. We are all equal as image-bearers of God, we are all equally violated by sin and have acted sinfully, and we are all equally in need of honor and forgiveness. I no less than anyone, being a descendant of William I of Normandy, born in 1028 A.D., and who due to the nature of his birth was also known as William the Bastard.

The nature of being an evangelical Christian is rooted in the Greek word euangelion, which means to announce Good News. It is universal in nature.

The nature of the biblical Creator, Yahweh Elohim, defines all goodness. Do we find anything not good in the five qualities we have looked at?

  1. Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time and number.
  2. Yahweh Elohim’s power is the power to give good gifts to all humanity.
  3. Yahweh Elohim is free.
  4. Yahweh Elohim is greater than being male or female.
  5. Yahweh Elohim is great enough to come to us as a Friend.

Is there any way that Islam or any other religion or worldview can improve upon this biblical understanding? And to pose this question means I am always free, as a seeker of the truth, to learn otherwise. And I am always free to be proactive in my love for God and neighbor, seeking to honor the image of God in all people equally, yearning for the universal shalom of the biblical order of creation to be restored “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Thank you.

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Prepared Questions:

  1. Is there any good order of creation defined in the Qur’an?
  2. Is Allah singular in nature? How does he parallel or contrast the trinitarian nature of Yahweh Elohim?
  3. Is diversity in service to unity a good thing? If so, how does the Qur’an serve this end?
  4. How does Allah’s nature interface with Yahweh Elohim’s power to give?
  5. Is Allah free?
  6. Is Allah male?
  7. Can a man or woman have a personal relationship with Allah?

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