Joseph W.H. Lough
No one will be surprised to learn that I am troubled by our tribal God. Local gods. No problem. But, tribal gods. There’s the rub.
But before we get there, I want first to dispatch the alternative, the universal, transcendental, immaterial God – the God whose very lack of any identifiable features or attachments makes this God at once quite easy and quite irrelevant. For, whatever else we can say about the biblical God, that God is not a God without features or attachments. Which is presumably why the psalmist is bold to invoke his God – this tribal God – when confronted by his enemies. The psalmist is certain that his enemies are God’s enemies; that God will defend him because God takes his side in this dispute.
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away! (Psalm 58:6-9, ESV)
Don’t get me wrong. I can well understand why the Jews might want the Babylonians to leave them alone. Just as I can understand why the author of the St John’s Revelation might relish the destruction of the Romans who have razed Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, slaughtered God’s people, and sent them fleeing into permanent exile; or why communities anywhere and everywhere might wish the destruction of those who occupy their homes and communities.
Still I am troubled by our tribal God, by this God’s localism, by this God’s parochialism.
Which brings me to wonder whether there might not be some way for God to be our advocate without simultaneously being another’s foe. Am I here wishing for an irrelevant God, a God Who is so universal, so transcendent, so unattached as to be of no concern or interest?
But, let us suppose for the moment that God is the tribal God of all of the tribes, not collectively, but individually. Let us suppose that God is as disturbed by the suffering of my enemy’s communities as God is by the suffering of my own community’s members. Does this not shift the ground beneath us? What if the enemy is not this or that community, this or that foe, but . . . death, pain, hunger, nakedness, violence and violation?
And what if the blessings that God wants for God’s “chosen people” God also wants for all people?
We have a choice about how we are going to interpret these tribal passages. We can interpret them . . . tribally. That’s how many Christians choose to interpret them. This is, after all, their plain, straightforward meaning. However, we might also interpret them as witnesses to the kinds of responses to pain, hunger, violence, and death with which we are all familiar; they testify to how we would respond; they testify to how we do respond. In this case, there is nothing particularly divine or revelatory in these passages except that they mirror back to us how we ourselves would and do behave under similar circumstances. And, I suppose that, insofar as they validate our normal, human response, these passages provide some comfort, some reassurance that God is taking our side against our enemies. That does seem to be how the psalmist is responding to his hardship.
However, we could also conjecture that the same good things that God wants for God’s “chosen people” God also wants for others in God’s creation; or, more specifically, that what God wishes for the Jews stands as an emblem for the specificity of God’s intentions towards everyone. In which case, God’s tribalism is less an indication that God favors some tribes but disfavors others than it is a sign of the specificity of God’s favor. We could then rest confident that God opposes the violence of the violent and resists the hatred of the hateful; just as we could rest confident that God favors the clothing of the naked, the sheltering of those who are exposed, the feeding of the hungry, and so on – not in general, but specifically.
In this case, we could also adopt a critical position to tribalism, to the mistaken belief that God will side with my tribe even when my tribe is the cause of pain and hardship for others. God will not. As these passages clearly indicate, God wants only good for God’s people.
Do you believe in the tribal God? Or do you believe in the God who wishes good upon all tribes?