Although every line of Scripture was written by "Semitic-thinkers," almost everyone today who reads and comments on this sacred collection are "Greek-thinkers."

Among other things, that means we're "analyzing" words of "synthesizers." We Greek-minded individuals mentally tear things apart when we think of them. Semitic-minded people mentally pull things together. We passionately endeavor to eradicate contradictions; they just as passionately try to surface contradictions.

Since the middle of the second Christian century, when "Greek-thinkers" captured Christianity, we've lost an essential key for understanding the Scriptures: We continually search for "either/or" components in "both/and" literature.

Who is God?

That is particularly true when we reflect on biblical concepts of God, especially as we find those concepts in Sunday's first reading (Exodus 32:7-11,13-14) and Gospel (Luke 15:1-32).

In Exodus, Yahweh's clearly has had it with the Israelites. He intends to wipe out this recently freed band of Hebrew slaves, and make Moses and his family the new Chosen People.

"I see how stiff-necked this people is," Yahweh tells Moses. "Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation."

We know from Isaiah that you can take Yahweh's word to the bank. In chapter 55, God reminds us, "My word that goes forth from my mouth...shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." In this Exodus situation, that can only mean the Israelites shouldn't invest in any long-term life insurance.

But, flying in the face of Isaiah's theology, the Exodus author tells us that Yahweh eventually "relented" in the punishment He had threatened to inflict on His people." How can Yahweh go back on His word?

Semitic thinkers have no problem with such a contradiction. They simply reply to our either/or objections with the comment: "On one hand, God must keep His word. On the other hand, God can change His word."

In the Gospel, Jesus creates a parallel contradiction when He teaches His enemies about God's forgiveness of sinners. On one hand, God is obligated to follow strict norms of justice. On the other hand, He is unbelievably merciful.

Such contradictory behavior surfaces in Jesus' parable about the prodigal father. Though obligated and expected to follow strict justice toward both sons, the father puts that obligation in the background when he finally encounters his long-lost prodigal son.

As he explains to his justly complaining older son, "You are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

Yahweh on Yahweh

Perhaps the key to understanding these contradictions lies in a comment one scholar made during a lecture on Jonah. There, too, Yahweh "repents" and, to the chagrin of the prophet, doesn't destroy the Ninevites.

"Yahweh doesn't have to be faithful to Yahweh's word," the scholar stated, "as long as Yahweh is faithful to Yahweh's people." Only a fool would keep his or her word when circumstances change enough to make that word "counter-productive." God's relationship with us is more important than His reputation.

The author of the second reading (I Timothy 1:12-17) recognizes that divine attribute. "Christ Jesus," he writes, "came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated."

Real relationships never revolve around "either/or." Such a mentality will eventually kill both parties. Relationships grow and prosper only when they're "both/and."

(9/13/07)