Power in the Bible

Issue 1808

9 August 2018

What does the Bible say about “power”? The subject is current and of great interest,[1] but not at all simple. Anyone searching for the word “power” in the Old Testament would be disappointed: it does not exist in Hebrew.

Is that because Sacred Scripture does not provide any cause for reflection about power? Far from it. However, we do not find any theoretical statement about it since the biblical tradition is a lived experience that becomes clearer over the course of the narration. It is necessary, therefore, to bear in mind that conceptualizations and language have evolved over time, and that certain realities are often connected to a particular period in history. This is why the term exousia, “authority,” and some others that belong to the same semantic domain, such as dynamis, “strength,” and kratos, “force,” appear in the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament.

 

Power and the strength of God

The discourse on power begins with the first page of Genesis, where the strength of God unfolds, culminating in the creation of the human person, God’s most luminous exaltation. Such dynamism, when in reference to God, is a positive thing, since it creates, liberates and saves. It manifests as wisdom and a perennial gift. It is a force without limits. Dynamic strength belongs to the Creator and defines power when it refers entirely to God: it is the manifestation of God’s glory. We rejoice in the glory of God, which is revealed through the creative act and in the gift that has been given to us. Indeed, the encounter with infinitely divine strength makes us who we are as free creatures.

Like children of Adam, however, we betrayed God’s original design and were removed from paradise to experience poverty, misery and, above all, the loneliness and precariousness that threaten our existence. God did not ignore the failure, nor has God abandoned us in sin.

The event that would seem to nullify divine power is revealed instead as a new creation. So begins the story of salvation in which divine omnipotence paradoxically speaks the language of fragility and sharing. This was not a show of strength, but was “the condition needed to reach humanity from the bottom, from the roots. Salvation does not come from someone who has everything and gives a bit or even most of that everything, overwhelming us with abundance. It is, instead, the strength of someone who places himself at your level, beginning from the lowest level, and raises you up, transforming you. He is someone who shares of his fullness, after having participated in your misery. In this effective communion with impotence and misery, which is well known and not imaginary, and is suffered daily, he guarantees the real substance of his fullness, which he wants to share with you.”[2]

The strength of God is thus communicated to people through the face of mercy and forgiveness,[3] which is neither compensation nor counterbalance, but is the most direct consequence. God does not have excessive temptations, ambitions, insecurities or empty spaces to be filled. God does not aim to crush or destroy humankind, but to save us. And this happens precisely because God is omnipotent.

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