Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Potter and his clay, and questioning God

One of the most difficult passages in the Bible to interpret is Romans 9. This is primarily because the chapter quotes scripture virtually every second verse, and every time scripture is quoted we need to look at what it meant in its original context with a view to determining what Paul understood the scripture he was quoting to mean, in order to understand what point Paul was trying to make. So lets go on an inconclusive exegetical ramble through one small bit of it:

Romans 9:19-21
You will say to me then, "Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" 20 But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, "Why have you made me like this?" 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?

So, without further ado, let’s turn to looking at some of the other passages in the Bible that are similar to this:

Here is the chronologically oldest usage of the Potter imagery, so I have quoted it here at length:
Jeremiah 18:1-12
1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." 3 So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.
11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. 12 But they say, "It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will."
Point of the wider passage:
The lengthy quote is fairly self-explanatory. God is effectively saying “look, I have the power to destroy you if you don’t turn from your evil ways, so you better, or I will”.
Meaning of the Potter imagery:
If a nation doesn’t do good and stubbornly does evil instead, God will destroy that nation and turn to another nation to start building up and using in his plans.
Thoughts on possible misinterpretations:
This passage clearly depicts the potter (God) responding to man’s (the clay’s actions), when the clay goes wrong God alters his plans dynamically to account for it. Ironically, this is the exact opposite of the meaning that I see often given by default to the potter imagery. The idea that potter imagery in general depicts God’s unconditional power and man’s lack of free will, is clearly shown to be false in this instance.


Isaiah 29:16
You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, "He did not make me"; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, "He has no understanding"?
Point of the passage:
The people have forgotten God’s power and turned to wickedness. They claim to be religious but their religion has no practical meaning. They assume God cannot see the evil they are doing. This passage says: You’ve got it wrong, do you think God is as ignorant as a human? Do you think he can’t see what you’re doing? Your view of God is too small. This shouldn’t be your view toward your maker!
Meaning of the Potter imagery:
The point of the potter imagery is to get an analogy for the maker and the made. God created humans, just like a potter creates pottery. Just as the pot shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that a) the potter didn’t make it, and b) that it is more intelligent than the potter, so similarly humans shouldn’t make these mistakes about God.
Thoughts on possible misinterpretations:
This passage doesn’t at all say or imply that we cannot question or criticize God. Rather, it’s concern is that there should be a minimum level of things we agree about God: That he is our maker, and that he isn’t stupid and ignorant.


Isaiah 45:9
8 Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also; I the Lord have created it. 9 Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, "What are you making"? or "Your work has no handles"? 10 Woe to anyone who says to a father, "What are you begetting?" or to a woman, "With what are you in labor?" 11 Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands? 12 I made the earth, and created humankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.
Point of the wider passage:
A description of God’s mighty acts and his power and his purposes for Israel. God makes clear that he wants righteousness to flourish upon the earth. So when vs 9a follows straight on with “Woe to you who strive with your Maker” looks like it’s probably thinking of those who try and frustrate God’s plans for righteousness… ie the wicked. Yet 9b doesn’t seem to fit very well with this, it looks more like it’s talking about criticisms of God by the examples given, which would mean vs 9a is talking about striving with God in terms of criticizing him. It seems we can either pair up 8 & 9a, and 9b & 10 in terms of them making two separate points, or we can match 9a&9b together. Either way, we still need to answer whether 9&10 are a reference to vs 8, ie when people challenge what God is doing with Israel are they criticizing his plans to let righteousness flourish upon the earth in general, or are they challenging the particular details of what God is trying to do at the time? Furthermore, the questions in vs 10 are just plain stupid questions, in terms of the fact that the answer is obvious (a child) and that the parents don’t have much control over what kind of child they have, whereas the questions in verse 9 look more sensible, but are they meant to be parallels?
In any case, it’s fairly safe to say that the general point of the passage is that God knows what he’s about, and he’s working to make righteousness and salvation happen throughout the world.
Meaning of the Potter imagery:
In general the point seems to be that God the potter is intelligent enough to know what he’s doing, and he doesn’t need us looking over his shoulder making blatantly stupid comments as we try to point out his mistakes.
Thoughts on possible misinterpretations:
I see this passage mentioned a lot in defense of the idea that we shouldn’t criticize God (especially concerning the idea of unconditional election). The focus of the passage is really on God’s blessings of nations (ie the restoration of the nation of Israel from exile) rather than about plans for individuals, however I think using the passage in this way is probably within the bounds of reasonable interpretation for this passage.


Isaiah 64:8
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
Point of the wider passage:
Israel sinned and God abandoned them. Because God has left them and stopped doing mighty deeds of power, the people have forgotten God and turned from everything he taught them. Isaiah wants God to come back and do great deeds which will make people remember him again and turn back to the ways of righteousness. Isaiah tries to convince God, giving reasons why God ought to be merciful. One of those is that Israel was God’s son, God’s own work and creation (64:8).
Meaning of the Potter imagery:
That God ought to be loving and compassionate toward his creation. (See Job 10:9 for an identical statement using potter imagery)
Thoughts on possible misinterpretations:
Totally absent from this passage are any ideas of the potter’s unconditional power over the clay, or his ability to do with it as he pleases. That’s just not the point of this passage.


Sirach 33:7-15Why is one day more important than another, when all the daylight in the year is from the sun? 8 By the Lord's wisdom they were distinguished, and he appointed the different seasons and festivals. 9 Some days he exalted and hallowed, and some he made ordinary days. 10 All human beings come from the ground, and humankind was created out of the dust. 11 In the fullness of his knowledge the Lord distinguished them and appointed their different ways. 12 Some he blessed and exalted, and some he made holy and brought near to himself; but some he cursed and brought low, and turned them out of their place. 13 Like clay in the hand of the potter, to be molded as he pleases, so all are in the hand of their Maker, to be given whatever he decides. 14 Good is the opposite of evil, and life the opposite of death; so the sinner is the opposite of the godly. 15 Look at all the works of the Most High; they come in pairs, one the opposite of the other.
Point of the wider passage:
I have always found this to be quite an intriguing passage. It would appear at face value to be saying that God makes people good or evil. However, Sirach 15:11-20, a declaration of the free will of man, states flat-out, several times over, that God does not force people to do evil and that man can do good if he chooses. Let’s assume that the author was consistent, and see if we can understand this passage in light of the other. Looking closely, we see that the passage doesn’t precisely say that God forces people to do evil, what it says is that God creates people in general and that some of those people are good and others are evil. God, it says, blesses and exalts some, while cursing and bringing low others. We can therefore reasonably assume (based on the rest of the book) that the writer thinks that those God blesses, he blesses because they are good, and those God curses, he curses because they are evil.
Meaning of the Potter imagery:
God has the power to bless or curse men and he will act with knowledge and wisdom in the use of this power (thus, if the rest of the book is any indication, exercising this power based on men’s deeds).
Thoughts on possible misinterpretations:
I like this passage because it demonstrates the dangers of reading too much into the text, and assuming that the author really means what the passage seems to be implying. Clearly the mistake is to think the author is advocating predestination (when really he is dead against it) because of his description of God’s sovereign power and the use of the potter imagery.


Wisdom 12:12For who will say, "What have you done?" or will resist your judgment? Who will accuse you for the destruction of nations that you made? Or who will come before you to plead as an advocate for the unrighteous?
Point of the wider passage:
The context of this extract is that it is part of big long passage in praise of God’s mercy and love. This particular quote is used to make the point that even though there is no authority above God that makes sure God does the right thing, God acts in a merciful and loving fashion regardless.
Thoughts on possible misinterpretations:
Interestingly again, if we were to consider this text out of context we would get the wrong meaning. The meaning of the text is not at all that we ought not to question God. Rather, it’s that God is so powerful that we would be physically unable to stop him from doing whatever he wanted if ever he was to act unrighteously.


Wisdom 15:7A potter kneads the soft earth and laboriously molds each vessel for our service, fashioning out of the same clay both the vessels that serve clean uses and those for contrary uses, making all alike; but which shall be the use of each of them the worker in clay decides.
Point of the wider passage:
That men make idols. The gods that some people worship are made by potters.


2 Timothy 2:20-21
In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. 21 All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.
Point of the wider passage:
We ought to turn away from wickedness and do good so that we might be useful to the Lord in his work.
Meaning of the Potter imagery:
That we can make ourselves into different types of vessels, and that we ought to make ourselves good and useful to God.

====

Having completed our survey, let us consider the results.
Romans 9:19-21
You will say to me then, "Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" 20 But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, "Why have you made me like this?" 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?

Let us consider first the parallels to verses 19-20. Passages that use similar language are Wisdom 12:12, Isaiah 45:9, and Isaiah 29:16. What were the points of those passages?
Wisdom 12:12 => God acts in a merciful and loving fashion regardless of the fact that no one could stop him if he did otherwise.
Isaiah 45:9 => God is intelligent enough to know what he’s doing and doesn’t need our help when making his plans about how to act with the nations.
Isaiah 29:16 => We need to realise that God isn’t stupid.

Let us then consider the parallels to vs 21.
2 Tim 2:20-21 => That we can make ourselves into different types of vessels, and that we ought to make ourselves good and useful to God.
Sirach 33:7-15 => God has the power to bless or curse men and he will act with knowledge and wisdom in the use of this power (exercising this power based on men’s good or evil deeds).
Isaiah 64:8 => That God ought to be loving and compassionate toward his creation
Jeremiah 18:1-12 => If a nation shows doesn’t do good and stubbornly does evil instead, God will destroy that nation and turn to another nation to start building up and using in his plans.

Interestingly, we see common themes repeated several times in the parallel verses above:
God’s love, compassion and mercy.
That God is not stupid
God’s interactions with the nations.
God’s blessing of the good and cursing of the evil.
That we ought to do good.

Now we need to ask: Do these themes fit with the context of Romans 9:19-21. Are these ideas actually relevant? The answer is that four and a half of the themes are present in the context:
God’s love, compassion and mercy (“Mercy” turns up in Romans 9:15,16,18,23)
That God is not stupid (Paul concludes this section of Romans with “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” Rom 11:33)
God’s interactions with the nations. (God’s dealings with Israel, and the Gentiles are what this section is all about.)
God’s blessing of the good and cursing of the evil. (This is the half a one. There are several passages which could be interpreted this way, but they are disputable, and I don’t want to assume any conclusions here)
That we ought to do good (Rom 12:1-2, and possibly 9:30-10:4 depending on your interpretation)

Looking at which themes most closely fit Rom 9:19-21, we see that God’s mercy and God’s interactions with the nations are complete matches, with the other themes being less clear in varying degrees. Picking out the parallels that had those themes, we get:
Wisdom 12:12 => God acts in a merciful and loving fashion regardless of the fact that no one could stop him if he did otherwise.
Isaiah 45:9 => God is intelligent enough to know what he’s doing and doesn’t need our help when making his plans about how to act with the nations.
Isaiah 64:8 => That God ought to be loving and compassionate toward his creation
Jeremiah 18:1-12 => If a nation shows doesn’t do good and stubbornly does evil instead, God will destroy that nation and turn to another nation to start building up and using in his plans.

Substituting the meanings of these passages into Romans 9:19-21, we get a conclusion regarding a likely interpretation of Romans 9:19-21:
Romans 9:19-21
You will say to me then, "Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" 20 But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, "Why have you made me like this?" 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?

Interpretation:
God acts in a merciful and loving fashion regardless of the fact that no one could stop him if he did otherwise. God is intelligent enough to know what he’s doing and doesn’t need our help when making his plans about how to act with the nations. If a nation shows doesn’t do good and stubbornly does evil instead, God will destroy that nation and turn to another nation to start building up and using in his plans.


In order to draw any further conclusions, or refine the meaning of this passage we would need to perform a similar analysis of ever other piece of Romans 9, in order to compare and contrast the conclusions, fit the pieces together, and fine-tune the conclusions based on Paul’s precise wording and flow of argument. Given that I am not going to make any assumptions here about the meaning of the rest of Romans 9, I cannot place this verse in context and complete the rest of the interpretation of it.

Suffice to say, points to take away from this:
1. Romans 9 is a fantastically difficult and painfully slow passage to interpret due to the high number of quotations.
2. Once you do start paying attention of the scriptural quotations made and look carefully at what they are actually meaning, this alters the interpretation of the passage very significantly. This has been seen here, as the averagely ignorant reader skimming through Romans 9 would probably read this passage as meaning “How dare you question God? He can do what he likes.” But our more careful analysis has revealed that if Paul is actually thinking about what the scriptures he is alluding to actually mean in their context (and it would be a brave exegete indeed who wished to simply assume that Paul didn’t know what the scriptures he was using actually meant) then his meaning could well be significantly different to what it looks like at face value.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Andrew- I once had a friend who claimed to be a Christian but trans-gendered. I used the Potter/clay quotes as an example of why sex change is wrong. What I mean to say is I believe that this concept does not only apply to nations but to individuals who act according to their own interests even when they clearly conflict with the plan of the Almighty. thanks for the extensive exposition on the Potter/clay relationship.

Mona

12/8/05  

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