A living god
The first time the God of Israel is called “a living god” is in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”). Moses reminds the new generation of Israelites that when their parents were at Mount Sinai the revelation of God terrified them. They begged Moses to be their intermediary because they were afraid that if they listened any longer to the voice of God they would die. They justified their fear by adding:
“Because who, of all flesh, has heard the voice of a god chayyim speaking from the middle of the fire, as we have, vayechi?” (Deuteronomy 5:23)
chayyim (חַיִּים) = plural of the adjective chai (חַי) = alive, living. (As nouns, both chai and chayyim = life. Derived from the root verb chayah, חָיָה = lived.)
vayechi (וַיֶּחִי) = and survived. (A form of the verb chayah.)
The Israelites were not monotheists at that point; they assumed that there were other living gods who may well have spoken from the middle of a fire. The Hebrew Bible refers to “a living god” eleven more times,1 always in reference to the God of Israel.
What is a “living god”?
When Joshua orders the priests to carry the ark to the edge of the Jordan, he tells the Israelites that God will make the river part.
“By this you will know that a god chayyim is close to you and will definitely drive out from before you the Canaanites …” (Joshua 3:10)
The implication is that a living god can take action in the world, like a living person. A dead god is at best an inanimate and powerless idol.
Jeremiah draws this contrast in one of many biblical passages railing against statues of gods:
And as one they are stupid and foolish,
[Their] foundation emptiness, a piece of wood,
Silver hammered flat from Tarshish …
The work of a craftsman and the hand of a smith …
But God is truly a god;
[God] is a god chayyim,
And king forever.
From his fury the earth quakes,
And nations are not able to contain [God’s] wrath.
Thus you shall say to them: “Gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish …” (Jeremiah 10:8-11)
Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, life is a characteristic not only of humans but also of all other animals (but not plants); one word for “animal” is chayyah (חַיָּה) = living creature. God gives all of us both life and death.2
Moses warns the Israelites three times in this week’s Torah portion that they must follow God’s rules in order to keep on living.
“And now, Israel, pay attention to the decrees and to the laws that I am teaching you to do, so that ticheyu and you will enter and occupy the land that God, the God of your fathers, is giving to you.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:1)
ticheyu (תִּחְיוּ) = you will live, you will stay alive. (A form of the verb chayah.)
Here Moses means that if the Israelites obey all the rules, then God will let them live and ensure that they occupy the land of Canaan; but if they do not obey the rules, God will kill them. He gives an example of when people disobeyed one of God’s fundamental rules: exclusive worship.
“Your eyes saw … what God did in Baal Peor, that God, your God, wiped out everyone who followed [the god of] Baal Peor from your midst. But you who stuck to God, your God, all of you are chayyim today.” (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)
Later, Moses says the people must:
“… observe all [God’s] decrees and commandments that I order you [to follow], you and your child and the child of your child, all the days of chayyekha, so that your days will be long.” (Deuteronomy 6:2)
chayyekha (חַיֶּיךָ) = your life, your lifespan. (A form of the noun chayyim.)
In this context, the reward for obeying all God’s rules is not just survival, but a long life. Still later in the portion Va-etchnnan, Moses says:
“Then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, lechayyoteinu as today. And we will be righteous when we observe and do all these commands before God, our God, as [God] commanded us.” (Deuteronomy 6:24-25)
lechayyoteinu (לְחַיֺּתֵנוּ) = to keep us alive. (A form of the verb chayah.)
This time either following the rules or being in awe of God, or both, seem to result directly in both staying alive and being righteous. God tells the Israelites what the rules are in order to help them live longer and better lives.
In Moses’ three statements connecting God’s rules with life, the words for living mean 1) not being killed, 2) having a long life, and 3) being sustained by doing the right things.
What good is life?
The Hebrew Bible assumes, realistically, that most people want to keep on living; only a few characters question whether living on is worthwhile. Life is also desirable in the bible because it lets humans, like God, take action in the world, in “the land of the living (chayyim)”.3 There is no life after death; the animating souls of everyone who dies go down to the land of the dead, Sheol, where they lie inert, unable to do anything.
Two of the actions in the land of the living that God wants from the Israelites are to have children and to occupy Canaan. In next week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses says:
All the commands that I command you today you shall observe and do, so that ticheyun and you will increase and you will enter and possess the land that God promised to your fathers. (Deuteronomy 8:1)
ticheyun (תִּחְיוּן) = you will live. (Another form of the verb chayah.)
Today we might value life because only the living can create things that delight us, and only the living can work on restoring this planet that we have occupied and degraded.
The Torah also assumes that God wants the praise and thanks of humans, which only the living can do.4 In the book of Isaiah, King Hezekiah writes a poem thanking God for his recovery from a grave illness.
For Sheol does not thank you
[nor] death praise You;
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope
For your faithfulness.
only he can thank you
as I do today… (Isaiah 38:18-19)
Today we can still praise and thank God, though we might use different words, or stop to meditate with silent awe and joy. We can appreciate everything in the world that humans did not make, from the sun to the ocean to life itself.
Here’s to life! Lechayyim!
- References to “a living God” take the form elohim chayyim (Deuteronomy 5:23, 1 Samuel 17:26 and 17:36, Jeremiah 10:10 and 23:36) or elohim chai (2 Kings 19:4 and 16, Isaiah 37:4 and 17, Hosea 2:1) or eil chayyim (Joshua 3:10, Psalm 84:3). I am not including the name of the spring in the wilderness where an angel of God speaks to Hagar: Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (בְּאֵר לַחַי רֺאִי) = Spring of the Living One [who] Sees Me (Genesis 16:14).
- Deuteronomy 32:39, 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7.
- The phrase “land of the living”/eretz chayyim occurs in Isaiah 38:11 and 53:8; Jeremiah 11:19; Ezekiel 26:20; Psalms 27:13, 52:7, 116:9,and 142:6; and Job 28:13.
- Also see Psalms 6:6, 42:9, 85:7, 88:11-14, 115:17.