Column: ‘Hand of God’ metaphor replaced by reality of the cross

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

A multitude of statues often fills the typical Catholic church. We Catholics like to encounter the sacred through our senses. Images of the saints and other holy figures bring us closer to the Divine.

In contrast, the ancient Israelite religion discouraged the making of images, especially religious ones. It rejected the example of neighboring peoples, who made images of their gods for use in worship. The Israelite religion condemned this practice as idolatry.

The God of Israel had no body, but was pure spirit. How could anyone make an image of that? So, the prohibition against images reinforced the understanding of God’s nature as spirit, as well as avoided the mistakes of the pagan cults.

While the Israelite religion avoided any imagery of God, at times metaphorical language would ascribe body parts to God, albeit on an incomplete basis. We hear a good example of that in Sunday’s first reading, Dt 26:4-10: “He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm.” This phrase, “his strong hand and outstretched arm,” reoccurs several times in the Book of Deuteronomy (4:34, 5:15, 7:19, 11:2, and 26:8).

Similarly, the phrase “the hand of God” appears frequently in the Old Testament. A few times, the Old Testament mentions “the mouth of the Lord,” but only rarely. For the most part, the Bible draws upon the image of an arm or, in its shortened version, a hand. If we were to take this literally, we would arrive at the bizarre image of God as a disembodied human arm.

Traditional Christian iconography, in fact, has sometimes pictured God in that way. A fresco or painting will show God as an arm protruding from a cloud. It is a visual rendering of this metaphor so commonly found in the Bible.

And what does the metaphor mean? If God does not possess actual body parts, what does the “hand of God” mean?

The phrase “strong hand and outstretched arm” points to the action of God in our world, which frequently appears as strong and decisive.

That action is further described in our reading as “with terrifying power, with signs and wonders.” Specifically, “with his strong hand and outstretched arm,” God has liberated the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and has brought them into the Promised Land. With its frequent repetition of that phrase, the Book of Deuteronomy is focusing upon that redeeming action.

As a parallel to that, during the season of Lent, we focus upon the redeeming action of God through Jesus Christ. Instead of the metaphor of the “hand of God,” we hold up the cross as the image that points to that saving reality. Through the cross, the strength and power of God are revealed most clearly.

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