God’s Hiding Places: Four Pavilions (Part 1)

ArkO God where art thou?
And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
(D&C 121:1)

This is the beginning of Joseph’s impassioned prayer in Liberty Jail as he sat in the helpless dark, awaiting his final appeal against his cruel enemies from a silent, hidden God . Both the American executive and judiciary were surprisingly willing to escape from the cries of Justice in the Missouri streets. But one would expect something better from the Governor of the Universe. So, like Job, the Prophet argues with his apparently vacationing God. Joseph continues his plea: “Stretch forth thy hand . . . Let thy hiding place no longer be covered!”

This is not just about Missouri, nor is it just about Mormons. This is about the universal nature of human spirituality in the mundane world—God hides. God is not here when we cry the loudest, when we need Him or Her the most. Like a wizard in an adventure, God slips away at the most inopportune times, without explanation, right when the dwarfs arrive at the door. “Where art thou?” ,and, “Where is the pavilion,”—the tent, the veil, the object that covers God from our universal sight?

In this post, I present four answers to that existential question of the God who hides: one each from Jesus, two Rabbis, and an agnostic Mormon. Hopefully between the four we might find some insight into the Divine game of hide-and-go-seek.

Pavilion 1: Jesus— Seeing God’s Finger

For Jesus, God is represented by both a close Father (Aram: abba) and an apocalyptic King whose arrival we anticipate (Gr: basileus). Therefore, Jesus found God in two manners: the experiential religion of a first century holy man, and in the drama of the end of the world. But the coming of the kingdom at the end of the world was, for Jesus and his followers, already breaking upon human experience, forcing human decision in its wake:

But if I with the finger of God cast out devils,
no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.
(Luke 10:17 // Ex. 8:19),

Therefore, the traditional, grand apocalyptic signs of the end of the world were not to be sought after:

And when the Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them,
“The kingdom of God does not come with observation: One cannot say,
Look here! or, Look there! But, see, the kingdom of God is already among you.”
(Luke 17:20-21, translation mine)[1]

In short, God is not hiding. He is not coming with royal armies or in the typical stellar signs of the end. We can at least see His finger in Jesus’ exorcisms. Where else can we see the finger of the hidden Father and King? Jesus also implied that we see God’s finger in the most unexpected places—in the blessed poor who cultivate their poverty like an herb, in those that mourn, with the meek who inherit the earth (when was the last time the meek inherited anything, let alone the earth?), and standing alongside the persecuted. We see him in the wandering, itinerant preacher with no money, no baggage and no sandals, with unaccomplished children at play, at a wedding celebration, at a meal with friends, at the party of sinners and tax collectors. We see God’s finger in the hand of the suspicious Foreigner applying his charity to the Wounded along the dangerous road, with a prostitute, among the destitute and sick. For Jesus, God is not hiding. God’s only pavilion is in our own lack of compassion. “Be compassionate, as you Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36)  By looking in high places, we fail to see His finger. The hidden God is right in front of us.

His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”
[Jesus answered,] “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said,
‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out
upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”
(Gospel of Thomas 113)

Pavilion 2: Rabbi Eliezer— God is in the Argument of Witty Minds

For ancient Rabbis, God is in the Holy Book. One story about the location of God’s hiding can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, (Baba Metzia 59b). In this story, Rabbi Eliezer appeals to miracles and the voice of God to win an argument against his fellow rabbis about a case of ritual purity:

“It is taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: ‘If the Halakhah (religious law) is in accordance with me, let this carob tree prove it!’ Sure enough the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, and some say 400 cubits, from its place. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob tree,’ they retorted.

“And again he said to them ‘If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the channel of water prove it!’ Sure enough, the channel of water flowed backward. ‘No proof can be brought from a channel of water,’ they rejoined.

“Again he urged, ‘If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it!’ Sure enough, the walls tilted as if to fall. But R. Joshua, rebuked the walls, saying, ‘When disciples of the wise are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what right have you to interfere?’ Hence in deference to R. Joshua they did not fall and in deference to R. Eliezer they did not resume their upright position; they are still standing aslant.

“Again R. Eliezer then said to the Sages, ‘If the Halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven.’ Sure enough, a divine voice [like the ‘bath kol’ or voice from heaven at Jesus baptism] cried out, ‘Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, with whom the Halakhah always agrees?’ R. Joshua stood up and protested: ” ‘The Torah is not in heaven!’ (Deut. 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You wrote in your Torah at Mount Sinai, `After the majority must one incline’. (Ex. 23:2)”

“[God laughed with joy], saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.’ ”

Arguing with God is a Jewish tradition that dates back to stories of Abraham and Job. In this rabbinic tale, the hidden God is found in the tangle of the human mind in argumentation and with majority vote. In this story, even the walls honored both sides of the argument by neither falling or standing up straight: “they are still standing aslant.”  It is by human reasoning from the Holy Book that God’s direct revelation is overruled. Hence, one does not deal with God directly. That is too dangerous. One needs the intermediaries of the Holy Books and the mind of the sages. In this story, even God is not above His own law. God, too, must defend his own logic. The Talmud is the divine mediator along with reason. “To love the Torah more than God is to avoid the madness of direct contact with the sacred that is unmediated by reason.” No prophet can deceive us. God must never become too lazy to be arbitrary. According to this story, God cannot hide in the Authority of heaven. As this story suggests, the claim to revelation is at times nothing more than a claim to arbitrary power. If God is really God, we can only find Him or Her  in the free and open debates with God’s children. (Part 2,  tomorrow)

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[1] “He basileia tou theou entos humon estin” can be translated as either :”the kingdom of God is within you” or “the kingdom of God in among you.” The KJV translates it with the former wording. I like the concept of the inner kingdom in the KJV translation. But it is too gnostic sounding to be the preferred choice of translation for a saying of Jesus.


Comments

God’s Hiding Places: Four Pavilions (Part 1) — 9 Comments

  1. Looking forward to part 2, but I must point out that an important element is missing from the Rabbi Eliezer story. He is upholding the traditional interpretation as he recieved it from his teachers (for the importance of this, see the rabbinic traditions about sages risking martyrdom to ordain successors) against the innovation introduced by his fellow sages. Their point is that since God has given the law to man, man is responsible for its interpretation, and God must play by his own rules. It isn’t so much about finding God, but about the proper boundaries of authority. However, it does play an important role in setting the stage for the later lawsuits against God.

  2. Also, I never got around to posting it, but I wrote a small piece comparing Joseph’s experience in Liberty jail to R. Levi Isaac of Berditchev’s suit against God and how both answer a question in Psalms.

  3. Thanks for those insights, Allen. I would love to see that comparison of Joseph Smith and R. Levi Isaac of Berditchev’s suiit against God!

  4. “That story about R. Eliezer is great!”

    It doesn’t end there. Out of vindictiveness (and probably a sense of impunity having bested God Himself), R. Eliezer’s colleagues ban him behind his back, burning items that he ruled pure. R. Eliezer cries out to God, who avenges the wrong done him by sending natural disasters such as crop failure, and slays several of the leading sages. As one modern scholar has explained it, God may be happy when His children defeat Him, but they have no right to attack their fellow-man.

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