John Shelby Spong discusses The Religious Prophets.“Does God change? Can God change?” retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong asked Tuesday at the start of his afternoon lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. In certain religions and passages from sacred texts, God is defined as the ultimate embodiment of perfection, so the idea of a changing and transforming God is impossible, Spong said. However, an analysis of humankind’s historical conceptions of the divine evidences that not only have humanity’s ideas of God morphed through the millennia, but even within the pages of the Bible the nature of God has evolved.“The fact is the concept of God changes very dramatically even in the pages of Holy Scripture, which makes it really difficult for fundamentalists,” Spong said. “Because if you literalize the Scriptures and find that even the concept of God changes, somehow you’ve got change along with it.” In the second lecture of his weeklong series titled “Re-Claiming the Bible in a Non-Religious World,” Spong evidenced the changing Judeo-Christian concept of God through an examination of Biblical text and the stories of four minor prophets: Hosea, Amos, Jonah and Malachi. The Bible begins in a world that is marked by tribal religion, Spong said. “There are two things that are always true about a tribal deity. First, the tribal deity always has a chosen people. And secondly, the tribal deity always hates everybody that the chosen people hate,” he said. That early understanding of God as a tribal deity is evident in the book of Exodus, Spong said. In Exodus, God hates the Egyptians because the Egyptians enslaved God’s chosen people, the Jews. “This God decides to attack the Egyptians with vengeance and with power. We call that the story of the plagues,” he said. “God hits the Egyptians up one side and down the other.”This understanding of God as a vengeful, violent deity that would murder the first-born son of every family, and thoughtlessly drown Egyptians in the depths of the Red Sea, is not a friendly identification, Spong said. The understanding of God as a tribal deity appears in Exodus, the Book of Joshua, and again in the Book of Samuel, when the prophet Samuel orders King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites, he said.“Tribal religion is part of human development, it’s part of our history, it’s part of the Bible, and yet if you read that entire book, you will discover that this God changes dramatically,” Spong said. “The same God who sends plagues on the Egyptians, and stops the sun in the sky to kill more Amirites, and calls for the genocide of the Amalekites is also quoted as having said: ‘You are to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ ” The transformation of the Biblical conception of God, from a vindictive tribal deity to the ultimate example of love and forgiveness, occurs in the books of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.The Hebrew Scriptures contain the 16 books of the prophets, major prophets and minor prophets. Those figures of the Hebrew Scriptures facilitated change, Spong said. “The prophets didn’t think of themselves as predictors of future events,” he said. “They thought of themselves as breaking people into a new awareness of the meaning of the Holy.” Using his imagination to enliven the black and white outlines of four minor prophets’ personal histories, Spong dove into their lives and examined how their personal understandings of God were born and how each prophet’s work has influenced Judeo-Christian understanding of the Lord. “Hosea was an older man, a holy man, a sedate man,” Spong said. Hosea married a young, beautiful woman named Gomer. In the dawn of their marriage, Gomer and Hosea frequented parties and engaged with the “Jewish jet-set.” When Hosea tired of parties and nightlife, Gomer continued fraternizing in the social circles of fast-paced society, Spong said. Eventually, one night she did not return home. Hosea panicked and began a relentless search to find his wife. “In the meanwhile, Gomer was on the fast-track. She had become the favorite plaything for the jet-set,” Spong said. “And it went on for months, it went on for years, until the inevitable began to happen. Gomer looked in the mirror one day and saw crow’s feet on each side of her eyes. She suddenly began to sag in places she had never sagged before.” As Gomer aged and lost favor with the in-crowd, she turned to prostitution. When her services were no longer sought, she became a slave. One day, Hosea happened upon a slave sale, where he saw the old, bedraggled and destitute Gomer. He immediately bought her for 15 pieces of silver, brought her home and reinstated her as his wife and the woman of his household. Despite all of her misdeeds, Hosea realized that he loved Gomer no less. “It was out of that experience that he came to a whole new understanding of God, and Hosea redefined God as love,” Spong said. “Over the years, people heard in the words of Hosea the word of God, so someone at sometime made the decision to incorporate Hosea into the sacred texts of the Jewish people, and the tribal God of the past was transformed into the God of infinite love,” Spong said. Amos, the second minor prophet whose writings contributed to the transformation of the Hebrew perception of the nature of God, was a simple, uneducated man, Spong said. “He looked out upon his land, and he saw an enormous split between the way people worshipped and the way people lived.”In order to rectify that discrepancy, Amos traveled to Bethel and began to preach to whomever would listen. He first began by regaling audiences with tales of the sins of people from foreign lands. Once crowds of listeners had assembled, Amos turned on the crowds and told them they were the worst of all. “And he said: ‘Do you not know that worship is nothing but human justice being offered to God? Do you not know that human justice is nothing but divine worship being lived out, and if you ever separate worship from justice, you have become an idolater?’ ” Spong said. Amos did not know he was a prophet, Spong said. But like Hosea, he wrote down his thoughts and understanding of God, and eventually, his writings were incorporated into the Hebrew Scriptures. Those writings added a new dimension to the Hebrew comprehension of God. Amos redefined God as justice, Spong said. The story of Jonah is a story written by an anonymous author — not the story of Jonah the prophet — during a time of upheaval and prejudice in Jewish history, he said. It was a time when certain figures in the Jewish nation promoted the idea that the Jewish nation had to be purged of foreign influence. “It was a kind of Jewish period of Joseph McCarthy,” Spong said. In the story, God sent a Jewish prophet, Jonah, to preach to people living in the land of Nineveh. The prophet was hesitant to go because the people of Nineveh were gentiles. Despite futile attempts to avoid reaching Nineveh — one of which resulted in some time spent in the belly of a great fish — Jonah eventually reached the people of Nineveh and preached to them. To Jonah’s surprise, the people of Nineveh immediately began to beg for mercy and forgiveness. When Jonah realized God would forgive the people of Nineveh, he grew angry and left the city, Spong said. While outside the city walls, Jonah sought protection under a large, shade-bearing tree. Jonah began to love the tree because of the protection it provided. When God made the tree disappear, Jonah lamented its absence. God asked Jonah how he could have so much feeling for a tree but no empathy for the 120,000 people of Nineveh, Spong said. The book of Jonah redefined God’s love as limitless and without prejudice, he said. “What prejudice really assumes is that God cannot love beyond the boundaries of your love and so it’s OK for you to put boundaries on your love and have some people who are outside those boundaries, some people for whom you have no responsibility,” Spong said. “Jonah says there are no boundaries. Jonah says that all prejudice is outside the bounds of the love of God. And God was redefined by Jonah.” The last prophet Spong discussed in his lecture was Malachi, a name meaning “my messenger.” “It was Malachi who heard God saying, ‘Have we not all one father, has not God created us all?’ ” Spong said.Malachi redefined God as universal. The four minor prophets did not write down their stories and insights to be prophets, Spong said. They were individuals who wrote down their understandings of God. Later in history, when the prophets were no longer living, people saw the word of God in their writings and included them in the Holy Texts. Thus, they each influenced the dramatic changes in Jewish understanding of God within the Biblical text. “Hosea transformed God into Love. Amos Transformed God into Justice. Jonah put an end to the possibility that any human prejudice could be rooted in the will of God, and Malachi told us all that God was universal,” Spong said. In his lecture, Spong stressed that Christians must remember the work of the Jewish prophets that dramatically transformed the human understanding of God from a violent tribal deity to a God of love and forgiveness. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a tradition of understanding God that had been built, changed and transformed by the prophets who came before him. “Please remember that Jesus was a Jew. Please remember that Judaism was the womb in which we Christians were born,” Spong said."
Bishop John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong, whose books have sold more than a million copies, was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for 24 years before his retirement in 2001. Acclaimed as a teaching bishop who makes contemporary theology accessible to the ordinary layperson, he is considered the champion of an inclusive faith, both inside and outside the Christian church. In one of his recent books, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Discover the God of Love (2005), Bishop Spong sought to introduce readers to a new way to engage the holy book of the Judeo-Christian tradition. A committed Christian who has spent a lifetime studying the Bible and whose life has been deeply shaped by it, Bishop Spong says that he is a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply, but who recognizes that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence.
A visiting lecturer at Harvard and at universities and churches worldwide, Bishop Spong delivers more than 200 public lectures each year to standing-room-only crowds. He was previously a 2:00 pm Lecturer of the Week at Chautauqua in 2000. His bestselling books include Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, A New Christianity for a New World, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and Here I Stand. His extensive media appearances include a profile segment on "60 Minutes" as well as appearances on "Good Morning America," "Fox News Live," "Politically Incorrect," "Larry King Live," "The O'Reilly Factor," "William F. Buckley's Firing Line," and "Extra." His newest book is Eternal Life: A New Vision - Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.