by Sheryl Anderson.
I recently travelled to Ghana. I went to represent the Methodist Church in Britain at the Conference of the Methodist Church in Ghana. The opening of the Conference was an unforgettable experience; an event both entirely Methodist and thoroughly Ghanaian, which lasted nearly five hours. One of the most moving parts of the service occurred when the various groups and organisations within the life of the Church processed into Sekondi Methodist Cathedral, singing Wesley hymns, and offering gifts to give thanks to God. The familiarity of the worship demonstrated the Ghanaian Church’s roots as an ‘Overseas District’ of British Methodism. In contrast, the procession of the traditional chiefs exhibited a character and decorum most emphatically Ghanaian. Wearing magnificent robes and much gold, accompanied by a retinue of courtiers, the chiefs brought a quality of dignity and nobility to the proceedings. Speaking through an advocate – no chief acting in an official capacity talks directly to the assembled company, but always through a spokesperson – each one brought greetings and gifts. They were treated with deep respect and honour, as befits kings. The Conference was truly graced by their presence.
As I watched and listened I realised I was in the presence of customs, conduct and attitudes that are as ancient as human society. I was reminded of the behaviour of the Old Testament kings, whose royal courts comprised family members, officers, advisors, soldiers, servants and hangers on. Clearly, the writers of the Old Testament observed the way important men exercised power and authority, and decided that God, who is even more important and has the most power and authority, must behave like this too.
Consequently, we find descriptions of God’s court, and of God scheming and plotting to affect the affairs of humans.[i]
At the beginning of the Book of Job (one of the lectionary readings set for this time of the year) we see a similar scene portrayed. The heavenly court gathers; present are all sorts of beings and functionaries who come together to wait on the pleasure of God, the heavenly king. These courtiers include a specific individual, a character named in many translations as Satan.
I am not a Hebrew scholar, but the inference in the way the Hebrew is translated seems misleading. The actual word is ha-satan, and it means, the satan. In most English translations of the Bible it is written with a capital letter, so it appears that this is a being whose name is Satan. However, this an interpretation of the text. It is possible to understand the term as a role, an occupation. Just as in the court of an ancient Middle Eastern king there were various roles that must be fulfilled, so the writer imagines it is the same in the heavenly court. The Hebrew word satan means something like, accuser, or prosecutor. Therefore, another way of understanding the text is that there is a Public Prosecutor in God’s heavenly court, whose task is to present the evidence against those who break God’s Law. This interpretation helps to make sense of what happens next, for it seems that God and the Public Prosecutor have a contest, the object of which is Job’s faithfulness. The challenge is to discover whether Job is faithful because he has led a fortunate life and never endured any suffering, or because he truly loves and respects God. As the Prosecutor says in Job 1:9, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’
The Book of Job identifies a common misunderstanding about God. Human flourishing is often profoundly thwarted by circumstances. We can explain this by imagining that the universe is engaging in a cruel game with us. For believers, it is easy to assume that the opponent is God – a capricious player, seeking to manipulate us by trickery and cunning. This misconception of God leads to the following logic: if I can guess the correct moves I can win the game and get what I want. Conversely, if I do not get what I want, or it is taken away, I must have somehow failed to play correctly.
Christianity offers a counter to this false construction. Surely, the mark of a loving God is that God would be born among us, live among us, suffer death as we do, and, by so doing, enable us to encounter the beauty of love, in that love can continue to grow, withstand and overcome even the most evil acts. In other words, God became what we are so that we might become what God is.
[i] See for example 1Kings 22:19-23. It is important to notice that this passage tells us more about the behaviour of kings in the ancient Middle East than it does about God.