R.S. Thomas: God Writes in the Sand

Pieter Van Lint

Pieter Van Lint

Samson, when he found himself surrounded by enemies, seized the jawbone of a fresh-kill donkey and swinging it hither and thither dispatched his foes. Or so the biblical book of Judges says (15:14-16).

I was jawboned recently by a coterie of biblical literalists – people who assume that God dictated the words of the Bible. Armed with that assumption, they flailed me with scripture passages ripped out of context, declaring, “That’s what God says, so the matter’s settled.”

That approach to the Bible represents a basic misunderstanding of God’s way of messaging.

God writes in the sand.

So the words of the Bible are human attempts to capture divine messages as they are being blown away.

The Bible’s writers tell us about their experiences of the presence of the Transcendent One, the Anonymous One, the One who is self-named I AM WHO I AM (Exodus 3:14) – experiences that are couched in the language of myth, history, poetry, novels, letters, theological reflection, etc.

But the words of the Bible do not capture God. They do not give us a ‘fix’ on God.

God is always somewhere ahead of Scripture’s words . . . escaping from them . . . in the future of them.

R. S. Thomas describes a dream:

Always in my dream
he kneels there silently
writing upon the ground
what I can’t read – signs
and diagrams; and his accusers
have withdrawn. He was with the future
always, . . .

The “he” in line two refers to Jesus. Like Jesus, God is with the future always. Like Jesus, God writes in the sand.

One day, a passel of biblical literalists flung an adulteress at Jesus’ feet and demanded that, in accordance with “the law of Moses,” she be stoned to death. Jesus responded by bending down and writing “with his finger on the ground.” When he looked up, the woman’s accusers had melted into the crowd.

Thomas, reflecting upon that incident reported in John 8:1- 11, draws the conclusion that Jesus “was with the future / always.”

The line break between “future” and “always” gives added emphasis to “always.” Jesus did not live with the literalists in a law-book past.

When Jesus straightened up from writing in the dust, the men who wanted to stone the woman who had found love in a way contrary to “the law of Moses” had vanished. Then she was set free by a different love to move into a fresh future.

God writes in the sand, forcing us to understand that God is “with the future / always.”

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“Always in my dream” – “Symbols,” No Truce with the Furies, 38.

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11 thoughts on “R.S. Thomas: God Writes in the Sand

    • A few hours ago, I wrote my post for Sunday, February 2. It deals with Tyrrells using RST to flog their chips’ contest. A friend who lives in Pwllheli called my attention to the potato chips and RS snafu, if that’s what it truly was. Had not known about Whitman.

  1. I think this may be what Jesus was meaning when he said ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, nor suffer ye them that are entering to go in.’ (please excuse the archaic language, but I have always loved the poetry of the King James version)

  2. RS spoke out against the new liturgy, in preference for the poetry of the King James, not only as priest and poet, also as prophet, he saw that it would not stop the ebb tide of falling congregations. Enjoying this piece John as I hear now your voice as the priest/pastor of the past, refering back to your original message within the blog.

    • I wish, Sue, that RST and I had talked more about liturgy. We discussed his aversion to revision, his conviction that he could judge English but not Welsh liturgies, and his insistence on standing in front of the altar for the Eucharist.
      Once again, it was a matter of being able to evaluate the poetic qualities of only your birth language. Perhaps it’s worth noting that for all of his love of the KJV, he used “you” as the pronoun for God. This, as it happens, was in line with the thinking of the KJV translators, for “thee” and “thou” were reserved for family and close friends in the KJV’s era.

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