The following meditation was given by Devon Miller for Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite on August 2, 2020.
The Face of Yahweh
What does God look like? Would you recognize God if you were to meet this being that everyone seems to know so much about in the street? What form does God take?
This past week an archaeologist by the name of Yosef Garfinkel claimed he discovered several figurines made during the time of King David that Garfinkel claims to be representations of the Hebrew God Yahweh. An important part of the discovery were several heads thought to be the face of Yahweh. Other scholars have dismissed Garfinkel’s findings as preposterous, noting that the Israelites were forbidden to make any images to represent God. Nevertheless, Garfinkel follows a long line of humans who have sought to unravel the mystery of what God looks like.
Michelangelo’s Face of God
During the Renaissance of the early 16th century, the genius Michelangelo made several attempts to paint the face of God in his famous paintings found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
In one, he portrays God as a benevolent father creating Adam, the father of the human race. In his less famous panel called “The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants,” Michelangelo paints God as a less patient figure as he orders the moon out of his sight.
Jacob Wrestles with God
In today’s passage from Genesis, we find Jacob on his return from Haran, where he had become “exceedingly prosperous,” accumulating large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys (Genesis 30:43). Oh, and by the way, two wives. Most of this he had swindled from the father of his two wives, who was no less deceitful in how he treated Jacob. But, as those things go, Jacob’s welcome wore thin when his trickery was discovered and so he had to move on. And where did he choose to go? The only place he really could go, and that was home—home to the land of Canaan.
But this had its own set of risks, because who lived in Canaan but none other than his own brother, whom he had snookered out of his birthright, prompting his flight from home in the first place. But Jacob had to take a chance.
So what did he do? He sent his flocks and servants ahead of him to meet Esau as a sort of appeasement to see how Esau was going to react to the news that Jacob his brother was returning. Then brave Jacob stayed behind with his wives and children to watch the outcome. If they survived Esau’s anger, Jacob would boldly join them.
During the night, while his envoy was making its way toward Esau, Jacob encountered a man. The two struggled, or fought, or wrestled all through the night. When morning approached, the man told Jacob he has another appointment and asked Jacob to please let him go. But Jacob was not so quick to let this stranger out of his headlock. So, his foe touched Jacob’s hip, dislocating it, causing Jacob to walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
The man gave Jacob a new name, “Israel,” because Jacob had struggled with God and man and had prevailed (v. 28).
Then Jacob—now Israel—asked the man what his name was, but the man refused to answer. Israel, left in the dark, figured he had encountered God and called the place Peniel, which means, “I have seen God face to face” (v. 30).
Who was this mysterious man? Scholars cannot agree who they think this person might have been. He is just as mysterious to them as he was to Israel. Some think it was God. Some think it might have been the Angel of the Lord. Some think that it was a pre-appearance of Christ before his birth. No matter, Israel thought he had seen God’s face. Unfortunately, he leaves us with no description of what God looked like.
Again, I ask, what does God look like? In Psalm 17, the Psalmist claims that in spite of being taken advantage of by adversaries, “I will be vindicated and will see your face: I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”
Growing up, verses like these caused problems for me. As a child, I believed that God must have a face, a body with hands and arms and feet and hair and eyes and ears just like you and me. It was pretty clear from verses such as these that God was just a really powerful human being.
So what’s going on? It is a little trick we as humans use to explain things that we poorly understand. It is a thing we call “anthropomorphism.” The word comes from the two Greek words anthropos meaning “the human race;” and morphe which means “to form.” Put together, anthropomorphism means to give human attributes to something that is non-human. Humans have done this for ages. Aesop’s Fables are a great example of this trick. Aesop gives animals human traits to teach moral truths. We do it with such things as the North Wind, which is portrayed as an icy old man with a hoary breath that finds its way down the back of our neck.
And we have done this with God-the greatest mystery unknown to humans. We see things happen around us that we are unable to fully understand and we attribute these actions to the mysteries of the universe in terms that we can manage to understand, that is, in human terms.
The Face of God
So what did these people see who claimed they saw the face of God? After all, wasn’t Moses told by God that no one could see the face of God and remain alive (Exodus 33:20)? Yet, a few verses earlier, Moses is said to have talked to God face to face as one does with a friend (Genesis 33:11). What or whom was Moses talking to? What did he see?
For the Hebrews, the idiom “to see the face of God” did not mean that one was looking into another person’s face. It meant that you were looking in the same direction as that person. In other words, you saw what that person was looking at. It meant that you cared about what that person cared about.
The Backside of God
God also told Moses that he could not look directly in God’s face; God would only show Moses the backside of God (Exodus 33:23).
It reminds me of times when I am driving down the road we live on, and I come across rubber marks of someone turning kitties with a four wheeler or car. I didn’t see it happen, but I know something powerful has been there ahead of me and left its marks on the road. I imagine that must be what it is like to see the backside of God. We see the trail of something powerful and mysterious that has crossed our path and are left speechless in trying to explain what we have seen. So we give it some human attributes—eyes, ears hands, feet; words, theories, equations, theologies—to make sense of what we cannot see.
Jesus, the Face of God
It has been said that Jesus has given a face to God. I would not disagree with this. If children ask us what God looks like, we can show them Jesus. But this has its ow set of problems. We don’t even know what Jesus looked like. The image is a computer-generated image of what a man from Palestine would have looked like two thousand years ago. But it is no more Jesus than Garfinkel’s figures are Yahweh.
But we do know a little bit about what Jesus did and what Jesus said and that can go along way in explaining what the face of God is looking toward. Jesus lied a lie of love and self-sacrifice for a world that had little interest in his quirky message and ideas.
Louis Fischer, the biographer of the great Ghandi, has said that Ghandi “was one of the most Christlike people in history.” Do we see the face of God, or the backside of God when we look at Ghandi’s life?
Ghandi claimed that religion was the pursuit of truth, that God was Truth. So to seek truth was to seek God. But Ghandi was not satisfied with this. He preferred to say, “Truth is God.” In other words, truth was not an attribute of God; Truth was God. As the Apostle John wrote in his Gospel, “They that worship must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
It reminds me of another one of John’s sayings: “God is love” (1 John 4:16). I wonder if John meant,”Love is God?” In other words, is love an attribute of God, or when you see love in action, is that love? This seems to line up with whatever else John has to say about love. “Whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God in him” (John 4:16). Earlier in the same chapter, John writes, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7-8).
This summer we have been reading and learning about the founding fathers and mothers of the both the Jewish nation and the nation of the United States of America. This past week we lost one of our founding fathers: John Robert Lewis. We rarely think of contemporary figures as being founding fathers, but two hundred years from now, if we live in a more united nation, if we live in a more just nation, if we live in a nation where all people are free and equal, John Lewis will be remembered as a founding father of this nation.
He was a man that was loved by many, if not all. That includes Congress men and women from both sides of the aisle. It was not that he agreed with everyone or that they all agreed with him. It was because he valued everyone as a person and gave them the respect and love they deserved.
Nancy Pelosi, in remembering her colleague, Lewis, spoke these words: “John Lewis was considered the conscience of Congress. He also was a Christian, who was Christ-like. You look at the Beatitudes, and so many of them apply to his life, day in and day out.”
To look on John Lewis is to see the face of God, because Lewis was looking for truth and he was living out love. When looking in the direction that Lewis was turning his attention to is to see the face of God. To see the deeds of Lewis’s life is to see the backside of God.
Over the past three months, we have lived through unprecedented times, at least in our lifetimes. It is easy to focus on the dark, the ugly, and the evil. But there are also sparks of truth and love in our midst. Where have you come face to face with God in your struggle with God and with men? Where have you seen God burning rubber in your community?