Saturday, January 17, 2015

Eternal or Eonian? Part Three (The Olam God)

Although it is evident from the many examples given earlier that the Hebrew word olam was used in reference to things that are clearly temporary in duration, it may be objected that the same word is also applied to God, his rule, his mercy, his truth, his glory, etc. (see Deut 32:40; 1 Chron. 16:34; Psalm 9:7, 29:10, 102:12, 104:31; 117:2; Lam 5:19; Eccles 3:14; cf. Ex 3:15; Psalm 33:11; 66:7; 100:5; 103:17; 104:31, 105:8; 117:2; 135:13; 146:10; Isaiah 51:6, 8; Dan 2:44, etc.). If olam should best be understood to denote a limited, indefinite duration of time, then wouldn't verses such as these mean that God's existence (along with his reign, his mercy, his truth, etc.) is also of a limited duration? Not at all.

The fact of God's eternality (i.e., his having no beginning or end) stands by itself, and does not rely on the meaning of the word olam. Many consider God's eternality and everlastingness to be expressed in the divine name "Yahweh," for example. We're also told that God is "incorruptible" (which implies his being everlasting or eternal). And in Psalm 102:27 we're explicitly told that God's years have no end. But the idea of eternity, or absolute endless duration,is not inherent in the word olam as it is used in the Old Testament. It is not God's eternal, time-transcending existence that is in view in these verses (which was likely a fact taken for granted by the writers of Scripture). Instead, what is in view when olam is used in reference to God is his continuous, faithful and personal involvement with his creation in all of the time periods of redemptive history, whether past, present or future. It is thisfact that the scripture writers are emphasizing by their use of olam in reference to God, his rule, his glory, his mercy, etc.

Understood in this way, the use of olam in verses such as these is not an argument for or against that which is "eternal" or "everlasting" in the absolute sense of the word. Moreover, by use of parallelism (a common literary device used by the Hebrew people) the authors of Scripture frequently explain their use of olam when applied to God, his reign and other things by adding parallel expressions such as, "throughout all generations," "to a thousand generations," "many generations," "from generation to generation," "from age to age," "unto children's children," etc.[1]Such expressions as these keep the perspective on the ages of history rather than pointing to an "eternal" state of existence. It is in reference to a world in which generations of people are born, live and die that olam is used in many such verses. None of the above verses have any reference to "eternity." Nor were they written to, or for, anyone inhabiting "eternity."

The Olam God

As a review of the conclusions we've arrived at concerning the meaning of the Hebrew word olam, let's consider Genesis 21:33, where God is described as the "olam God." What is the meaning of this description of God, if the word olamdoesn't have God's eternality in view? I think the context can help us out here. A few chapters earlier, we read that God had made an "olam covenant" with Abraham:

"And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an olam covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an olam possession, and I will be their God" (Gen. 17:7-8).

As part of this olam covenant that God made with Abraham, God promised to give to Abraham the land in which he was sojourning as a stranger. Significantly, in the verse that immediately follows the one we're considering (in which God is referred to as "the olam God"), we read that Abraham was, at the time, sojourning in the land of the Philistines (Gen 21:34). This historical detail should bring to the reader's mind the covenant that God had made with Abraham. At some future time, God is going to fulfill his covenant promise to Abraham, and the land of the Philistines in which he was but a sojourner (when we're told he "called on the name of Yahweh") will belong to him and his descendents, as an olam inheritance.

Now, this raises the question: When God fulfills his promise to Abraham and Abraham finally possesses the land, how long will the land be in Abraham's possession? The answer to this question will help us determine how long the duration of time is that is represented by the word "olam" in Gen. 17:7-8. Although the duration of time was apparently unknown to Abraham when God made this promise to him (remember that olam denotes a "hidden" duration of time, whether past, present or future), does Scripture give us any indication elsewhere of how long it will be (either exactly or approximately)? Well, we know that, according to Revelation 21:1, the present heaven and earth is one day going to "pass away" and be replaced by "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21:1). So assuming the land will be in Abraham's possession as long as the land exists to be possessed and inhabited (which is, I believe, a reasonable assumption to make), Abraham's possession of the land cannot be understood as an "eternal" possession. Why? Because according to what is revealed in Revelation, the entire earth (of which the land promised to Abraham is a part) is one day going to cease to exist and be replaced by a new earth. But in spite of the fact that the present earth is ultimately going to be destroyed and replaced, Abraham will still have plenty of time to enjoy the land promised him by God. For according to Rev. 20, the present earth is going to remain in existence for at least a thousand years after Abraham is resurrected at Christ's coming. Thus, the time period expressed by the Hebrew noun olam in Genesis 17:7-8 is at least a thousand years.

Having established that Abraham's "olam possession" of the land is not "eternal," let's return to Genesis 21:33, where God is referred to as the "olam God." Is Moses saying that God's existence is limited to the time period during which (as well as leading up to when) Abraham enjoys his "olam possession?" Not at all. Moses was no more limiting God's existence to time by the use of the word olam than God was excluding himself from being the God of others when he identified himself as "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Instead, Moses was emphasizing the fact that God was the God who endured through all the ages of history, and was more than able to fulfill his covenant promises to Abraham that he and his offspring would receive the land. He is called the "olam God" out of recognition of the fact that he is intimately involved with all that takes place within the time periods of history, overseeing and directing them according to his sovereign purpose. 

[1] Gen 9:12, 16; 17:7; Ex 3:15; 12:14; 27:21; 30:21; 31:16; 40:15; Lev 6:18; 10:9; 17:7; 23:21, 31; 24:3; Num 10:8; 15:15; 18:23; Deut 23:3, 6; 32:7; Josh 8:28; Psalm 33:11; 45:17; 49:11; 61:6-7; 72:17; 79:13; 85:5; 89:1-2, 4, 29, 36-37; 100:5; 102:12; 103:17; 105:8; 106:31; 135:13; 145:13; 146:10; Prov 8:23; 27:24; Isa. 34:10, 17; 51:8-9; 58:12; 60:15; 61:4; Lam. 5:19-20; Dan 4:3, 34; Joel 3:20; cf. Eph 3:21

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