Words, the glorified sounds we use to describe our thoughts, are always a matter of interpretation. For the most part we are able to communicate our ideas accurately enough to have meaningful conversation. However, language also changes over time, definitions evolve and words find new uses from their original uses. Language is seldom (if ever) as simple as black and white.
Things get especially complex when we take ideas written in one language and try to translate them into another language. It is exponentially more difficult when the original language is now archaic and the exact inflection or intentions of the words lost to time. Certainly there are clues, languages follow patterns or hints from context and translators follow these leads like detectives. But there’s always that left which remains open to interpretation.
Is it a description or is it a name?
Biblical descriptions of “God” present a challenge. Here’s the attempts of various translators to take writing in an ancient Hebrew book and convert it to English that illustrate the point:
“And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?” (Judges 13:18 KJV)
“He replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.“ (Judges 13:18 NIV)
“Why do you ask my name?” the angel of the lord replied. “It is too wonderful for you to understand.“ (Judges 13:18 NLT)
“And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” (Judges 13:18 ESV)
“The angel of God said, “What’s this? You ask for my name? You wouldn’t understand—it’s sheer wonder.“ (Judges 13:18 MSG)
So, according to the King James translation, we either have an angel named “secret” or an ‘angel’ with a name that is beyond our words. I would go with the latter judging by the context as I see it.
Taken together different translations give us wonderful, too wonderful to understand, beyond understanding, secret and means “incomprehensible” according to Strong’s concordance. I do get the impression the meaning is truly incomprehensible, truly something beyond words or human naming and mysterious.
Can God be properly named?
The three letters ‘G’ and ‘o’ and ‘d’ have come to represent the supreme being and divine entity of the Christian Bible. It is a noun, used like a proper name and a word loaded down with preconceived ideas. One of those ideas is that something that is the secret mysterious beyond comprehension power behind the entire universe is something that can actually be named. It is certainly useful to have a placeholder name or common description, but any word used is an infinite understatement.
This is why God was not named openly. Naming potentially lowers this dimensionally unlimited and timeless being that can be understood with our finite minds. But it is not blasphemy that concerns me. What bothers me is that words evolve, words can begin to carry new meaning or different assumptions and be misconstrued. It seems better that we leave God something beyond comprehension than to ignorantly ‘box in’ the infinite. At very least we would be wise to see a God beyond our own understanding of a three letter word.
God is not a noun, not a verb or a man…
“God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19 NIV)
That “not human” in verse above is rendered “not a man” in another common translation and ome have taken issue with the New International Version for the departure from gender specific descriptions of God. But that’s straining on gnats (Matt. 23:24) and making God the equivalent of a homo sapien male is giving men infinitely too much credit and God way too little.
No, not that I’m saying the Spirit (or Word) of God could not fill the form of a man like a hand in a glove or an avatar becomes a representation of a human being on an internet forum. But making God just a man is also a vast understatement. Humanity may bear the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27) and yet we aren’t the beginning and the end, omniscient, sovereign or infinite.
God of the paradox...
Western thinking likes binaries. The logic of this is true thus that can’t be true is natural for us. A person can either be alive or dead from our perspective and never both. Yet, as science takes us to the furthermost ends of the universe, to realms of the almost incomprehensibly large to the infinitesimally small, our normal scientific assumptions break down.
The most brilliant scientific minds of our time have established with convincing theory that both logic and reason taper into oblivion at the bookends of time and space. On one end a brilliant flash of light, energy and expansion from a source beyond human comprehension. On the other end black holes both infinitely massive and infinitely small. At either end there is what appears to be irrationality of something from nothing returning to nothingness.
Matter itself is a mysterious and seemingly impossible duality when brought into focus. Not only is there is less and less as we zoom in to the level of quantum mechanics, but what is left that remains is a seemingly impossible duality where clearly distinct categories of particle and wave merge into a seemingly irrational both. It is a paradoxical dualism that demands we look beyond normal scientific assumptions.
There is something incomprehensible. There is something beyond my understanding and beyond the collective understanding of humanity. We try to name, explain, categorize the universe. We attempt to peer around the corner of space-time with theories, mathematics, scientific instruments, reason and logic. But in the end we live in the mystery of our own existence and we also can live beyond it.
God who is both/and…
Both skeptics of religion and the religious are guilty of creating a God in their own image. If you’re concept of God is an equivalent to a ‘flying spaghetti monster‘ then you have a small god perspective. If your idea of God is limited to descriptions and language found in the Bible then you too have a small God perspective. God is more than the information used to attempt to define God. God cannot be reduced to mere attributes or human moral constructs.
God is incomprehensible. Yet, God’s work is also personal, knowable and…
“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names…” (Philippians 2:6-9 NLT)
…a sheer wonder of a paradox beyond mere human words.