The Return of Jephtah by
Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini,
or, God likes his virgins
But God has changed—or rather our understanding of God has changed—in other ways as well. In the 11th chapter of the Book of Judges, Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to Y-WH to fulfill a vow he had made—a vow to perform human sacrifice should God make him successful in battle against the Ammonites. This indicates that in the 11th century before Christ Jews still believed that God found human sacrifice acceptable. Yet clearly this practice was done away with fairly early on as subsequent biblical texts do not mention human sacrifice being offered to God—indeed prohibit it—and by the Christian era it is an embarrassment to the rabbis who alter the story to say that the girl was not in fact killed but sentenced to perpetual spinsterhood.
These examples don’t imply any change in God but they clearly spell out that our knowledge of God is evolutionary. We continually refine our understanding of God and of his law. It is not a fixed reality. I will bring up other examples of how in Christianity the concept of God changes radically as we come to understand God at ever deeper levels. Some will claim that during the period in which revelation occurs that God tells us more and more about himself but once the canon of scripture closes—with the death of the last apostle—all that can ever be known is known. But we will see that the Christian concept of God has continued to evolve long after the apostles. Scripture reflects the experience of God—it does not “reveal it.” God has revealed God’s Self to humans over the course of centuries—millennia—and continues to do so. This does not mean that every human articulation of the encounter with God is of equal weight. There is a tremendous amount of subjectivity in religious experiences of which we must be very careful but it is simply untrue to claim that we no longer learn anything new about God.
Of course there are those who are terrified of not being able to control what others believe about God. One priest I know says that in the almost forty years of being a priest, the subject that most angers his listeners when he preaches is “The Mercy of God.” “You would be surprised,” he says “of how many people demand God to be ‘just’ by which they mean that God should follow the same moral code to which they hold, and when you say that his Mercy overflows our sins—or rather, it overflows the sins of 'others'—such as abortion, homosexual intimacy, entering the United States illegally, thinking for oneself rather than blind obedience to “The Church”—they go nuts. Of course these are the children of those who thought that God wanted black children to go to a different school than white children or be nursed in ‘separate but equal’ hospital wards and the great-grandchildren of those who thought God wanted some people to ‘own’ others.” Ah yes, there are many of our presuppositions about God to which we had better give some thought.