Long before anyone ever came up with a word like “omnipresence,” humans believed that the gods lived “up there,” in the heavens. That’s right, before “Heaven” came to mean “the spiritual realm where the righteous go to live in bliss forever” it simply meant “the sky and everything else up there.” It’s where the gods lived, because they sure didn’t live down here with the mortals.
This is what the Hebrews of the Old Testament believed, but this belief wasn’t restricted to ancient Israelites; it was the common belief of all the peoples of the Ancient Near East.
It’s actually not just an ancient belief, but we’ll get to that. The point is, everyone believed—no, everyone knew—that the gods lived somewhere else. Occasionally they would visit the mortal realm, usually to mess with the lives of humans, but they were perfectly capable of doing that from the heavens, so they didn’t bother with making the trip.
Usually, they didn’t bother with the humans at all, just kinda ignored them and went about their business. When the humans needed some favors from the gods, like rain so that their crops could grow, they would offer sacrifices in the hopes that the aroma would catch the attention of some god, who would like the meal and would throw some rain their way.
But it had better be a good meal if you wanted to catch the attention of a god.
But the suffering of mortals wasn’t enough; who cares if mortals suffer? It happens all the time, you get used to it, and if you hear their groaning at all, you learn to tune it out. And that’s what they did.
You can see all of this underlying these verses from Exodus 2: “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”
The Israelites cried out, and their cries went up to the heavens, and this one god, Elohim, not only heard, he took notice. He didn’t tune it out, flip the channel, turn the page, or hang up the phone. He took notice. He cared.
And he did something about it. And we know the rest of the story: Moses, the burning bush, the plagues, the Passover, the Red Sea,
, the Promised Land. Mt. Sinai
Somewhat overlooked as little more than a curiosity is the fact that in the journey from
Egypt to Canaan, Elohim dwelt with the Hebrews continuously. He didn’t just come for regular visits, but he hung around all the time, first in the form of a pillar of cloud during the day which turned to fire at night. But clouds and fire are too transitory, too ephemeral; clouds blow away, and fires burn out. So to show them that he wasn’t going away, Elohim had the Israelites build him a movable home, a tabernacle, which was not much more than a tent—a substantial tent, but a tent nonetheless. The point is that God—which is our translation of Elohim—wasn’t going away, wasn’t going to ditch them in the desert to go back to the comforts of the heavens. He was with them for the long haul.
With our belief in the omnipresence of God, which we tend to impose on our Old Testament readings, we miss how radical this is. God left his home and made his dwelling among mortals.
It wasn’t just a visitation; it was a permanent dwelling. OK, back my statement that the ancient belief that the gods lived someplace else is not just ancient. It’s actually very contemporary, for though we no longer think of the place where God lives as a physical location like the sky or the earth’s atmosphere, most Christians still hold to some sort of belief that God resides someplace other than here. Sure, we have fancy words like “omnipresence” by which we understand that God is everywhere all the time and can’t be limited by time and space, but listen to our language. We talk of dying and going to spend eternity with God in heaven, and we sure don’t see that as being here, where we are now. Whatever or wherever it is, it’s someplace else.
But the biblical witness—not just that of the Old Testament, but of the New as well—is that we don’t have to go to God, either before or after death, for he has already come to us. In the incarnation of Christ God came to us, and when Jesus ascended the Holy Spirit came to dwell with and in us in such a way that the
temple is no longer needed—Paul says that we are the temple or dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. And the Bible ends, not with humans going to dwell with God but with God making his dwelling place with humans. Jerusalem
God notices our suffering. He hears our cries. He comes to us and never leaves.
This is good news.