Review, God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann

Tod Linafelt and Timothy K. Beal (eds.), God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.  Paperback.  350 pp.  $28.00.  ISBN: 08006-3090-4.

Any biblical scholar is well aware of the name Walter Brueggemann.  He is no doubt one of the towering giants in biblical studies during the twentieth century, writing prolifically and touching on virtually every topic in the Hebrew Bible for nearly four decades.  It is thus quite fitting that this volume honor him with essays by former students (Beal, Lee, and Linafelt), a former teacher (Terrien), past colleagues (Gunn, Hulet, and O’Connor), authors in Brueggemann’s series Overtures to Biblical Theology (Fretheim, Crenshaw, Moberly, Patrick, Rendtorff, and Trible), as well as those who have engaged Brueggemann in conversation throughout his career (Barr, Blumenthal, Clements, Clines, Gottwald, Miller, and Westermann).  One can easily see that the contributors to this volume constitute a veritable ‘who’s who’ of biblical scholarship over the last fifty years.  Here, they all come together to engage Brueggemann’s understanding of God as a character of “tensions” and “ambivalences” (3) and as One that is intimately involved in history (hence the title, God in the Fray). 

In the Introduction, Linafelt and Beal state that this tribute is meant to stand alongside Brueggemann’s magisterial Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy as a companion volume, evidencing how others have engaged Brueggemann’s thought.  The essays are divided into five parts: Part One (Engaging Brueggemann’s Theology); Part Two (God in the Torah); Part Three (God in the Prophets); Part Four (God in the Writings); Part Five (Continuing the Dialogue).  Given the richness of this volume, and the shear number of its contributors, this review cannot hope to be all inclusive (there are a total of 22 essays).  What I will hope to do here, however, is provide the briefest of summaries for each essay (some more thorough than others), noting simply its main thrust, thesis, and conclusions. 

Part One: Engaging Brueggemann’s Theology
The first essay is by Norman Gottwald and is entitled “Rhetorical, Historical, and Ontological Counterpoints in Doing Old Testament Theology.”  Gottwald begins with great praise for Brueggemann’s emphasis on rhetoric as a fruitful entrance point to and basis of OT theology, yet he questions Brueggemann’s jettisoning of history and ontology from the enterprise of OT theology.  Gottwald argues, however, that Brueggemann’s Theology is not ahistorical; among the evidence he adduces is Brueggemann’s claim that the final shape of the OT is a response to exile and the notion of “power and justice in the public realm as the locus of Israel’s theology” (16).  Gottwald also notes that Brueggemann’s theology is not without ontological concerns.  In the end, Gottwald praises Brueggemann for underscoring the caution with which one must approach OT theology, yet also notes that historical and ontological questions are still likely to be asked and occupy a place of importance given that the readers of these texts are “meaning-seeking and time-enmeshed humans” (23).

Terence Fretheim‘s “Some Reflections on Brueggemann’s God” discusses the issue of divine “ambiguity” as endemic to God’s own being and not simply God’s acts or Israel’s understanding of them.  Fretheim also treats the “will” of God, a point which he sees lacking in Brueggemann’s theology.  In conclusion, Fretheim advances three specific areas of emphasis that he sees lacking in Brueggemann’s theology: 1) Point of view: no distinction is made by Brueggemann between Israel’s words about God and God’s actual speech to Israel; 2) Character: does not the divine character differ from other characters in terms of what is said textually about him/her and what exists as real/true about God/other characters?; 3) Genre: what import might genre designations play in discussing divine speech (i.e., Fretheim writes “People . . . . say all kinds of things about God when they are in dire straits, but would never so speak in a carefully formulated theological statement” [36]).

David Blumenthal, “Confronting the Character of God: Text and Praxis” begins by discussing instances where God “swears” to do something in the Hebrew Bible.  He next focuses on a text from the Zohar (1.50b-51b) as a means of defining and describing God.  Lastly, he moves into a discussion of his own book, Facing the Abusing God, where he describes God as an “Abuser.”  The book, though, is also preeminately about healing, about the ability to speak boldly to God, even when one is afraid to do so.  Such, he argues, is the basis of the covenantal love between God and humanity.

Part Two: God in the Torah
James Barr, “Was Everything that God Created Really Good? A Question in the First Verse of the Bible” analyzes three options for how one is to comprehend Gen 1:1: 1) a first act of creation prior to the creation of light in v. 3; 2) a temporal expression [“in the beginning of God’s creating . . . . “]; 3) summary of entirety of creation serving as a preface, and the subsequent description of creation explicates this basic statement.  Discussion of these issues conjures up two larger religious questions: 1) what is the relationship between the initial goodness of creation and religious confidence in which one lives; 2) creatio ex nihilo.  In the end, Barr labels his discussion of these matters “an exercise in hermeneutical complications” (65).

Nancy Lee, “Genocide’s Lament: Moses, Pharaoh’s Daughter, and the Former Yugoslavia” argues the exodus story offers a human response to genocide through four social elements: 1) critique of a social arena where a leader employs rhetoric to the detriment of another people [exod 1:9-10]; 2) human response to suffering in lament speech [2:23-25]; 3) significant, bold action taken by individuals for the aid of others; 4) oppressed community’s telling of the story.  The divine response, however, differs; YHWH’s vow to kill the Egyptian firstborn, notes Lee, stands in stark opposition to his desire to preserve Hebrew children.  She expresses great concern at this co-opting of God; such a view runs the risk of precisely what the text states: that the death of children is part of the divine purpose.

James Crenshaw, “The Sojourner Has Come to Play the Judge: Theodicy on Trial” investigates the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19 as one in which a figure decries the injustice of the present situation to a “culpable (?) deity” (87).  Crenshaw then mentions a hsot of other instances in which YHWH is addressed as the accused: the Deuteronomistic History seeing exile as a divine action responding to covenantal infidelity, Isaiah, Jeremiah as one seduced and raped by the deity, among others.  In the contemporary situation interpreting these texts, however, Crenshaw avers that theodicy has been replaced by anthropodicy (92); the deity is often (problematically) exonerated, and humanity alone deemed at fault.

Dale Patrick, “God’s Commandment” looks at the Pentateuchal laws as having a “concept of ‘commandment-ness,’ of some essence or iea that transcends and includes all particular prohibitions, prescriptions, judgments, and so on” (93).  At bottom, what does it mean that the law is advanced by God? 

R.W.L. Moberly, “God is Not a Human That He Should Repent: (Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29)” attempts to make sense of texts stating YHWH does not repent against the backdrop of texts stating explicitly that YHWH does indeed repent.  What emerges from such an investigation is, reminiscent of Brueggemann’s Theology, a sustained tension that will nto give way to any simple reduction or harmonization.  Moberly lists three conclusions: 1) the OT struggles as a whole “with that faithful commitment of God, of which ‘God does not repent,’ whent he cirucmstances of life seem most clearly to deny it” (122); 2) while God’s repenting is absent in the NT, God is still there both “relational and responsive” (123); 3) Paul in Rom 9-11 speaks of God’s election of Israel as that which is “not to be repented of” and perhaps demonstrates that Paul was thinking of Num 23:19 or 1 Sam 15:29.

Part Three: God in the Prophets
David Gunn, “Colonialism and the Vagaries of Scripture: Te Kooti in Canaan (A Story of Bible and Dispossession in Aotearoa/New Zealand)” examines how the Bible was “implicated” in the European settlement of New Zealand.  Gunn holds that there are three parts to the implication of the Bible: 1) 19th century British ideology employed the idea of “the chosen people;” the settlers were also supported by this ideology in reference to their own experience; 2) the notion of “the land” as a place to be colonized and inhabited; 3) dispossession and the Promised Land. 

Ronald Clements, “Who is Blind But My Servant? (Isaiah 42:19): How Then Shall We Read Isaiah?” seeks to answer the question posed in the subtitle of the article.  As many are likely aware, Clements takes a redactional approach, tracing the development of the book of Isaiah over three centuries into a literary whole.  Much of this contribution rehearses Clements’ own theses (see the many footnotes to his own articles).  For Clements, the redactor of the entirety of Isaiah is “the first interpreter and a true disciple of the prophet” (153).  One of Clements’ most poignant insights is the recognition that “belief in the sovereign divine freedom to create and perform new things (Isa 43:19) within the historical process was central to the Israelite understanding of prophecy” and thus provides “the essential hermeneutical key toward understanding the editorial freedom with which new prophecies lend new directions and possibilities to earlier ones in the creation of the great prophetic books” (155-156).  At bottom, prophecy does not equate with divine determinism

Samuel Terrien‘s “The Metaphor of the Rock in Biblical Theology” examines how the metaphor of the “Rock” may inform a bipolar theology of the Bible, which Brueggemann advances both in his Theology and in his earlier pair of CBQ articles.  Terrien focuses specifically on Isaiah, identifying the Rock with the cosmic acts of God.  Moving forward, he notes the Qumran community associated the Rock with the community, and in the NT it is Jesus who is the cornerstone, evident in texts such as Matt 16:18, which carries the theme of the Rock from the OT (as identified and concerned with God) forward into the NT; Jesus as the Rock is the visible manifestation of God on earth.  And in an interesting concluding point, Terrien muses on whether the designation of Peter as the rock is a polemic against Petrine supremacy given that it is in dissonance with the wider NT portrait of Jesus as the Rock; Matthew’s statement “get behind me satan” may evidence this polemic.

Kathleen M. O’Connor, “The Tears of God and Divine Character in Jeremiah 2-9”  examines the “multiple and unstable” (172) characterization of God in Jeremiah.  She contends that one can discern three characterizations of God in Jeremiah: 1) YHWH as “angry, jealous, petty, and abusive” Divine Husband [2:1-4:2]; 2) YHWH as military general behind the decimation of creation [4:5-6:30]; 3) YHWH as weeping and grieving God, greatly troubled by the destruction of Israel [8:18-9:22].  Seminal to O’Connor’s reading is that each of these three characterizations sees YHWH responding to the community defined metaphorically/symbolically as a female.  Furthermore, point #3, YHWH weeping, reveals a shift in the book of Jeremiah, tethering YHWH to the community in a way that brings about meaningful healing.  At the close of Jeremiah, one sees God and Israel engaged in “a common suffering” (184).

Rolf Rendtorff, “Alas for the Day! The ‘Day of the Lord’ in the Book of the Twelve” looks at the way in which yom YHWH contributes to a unity for the Book of the Twelve.  He begins by focusing upon the theme in Joel and Amos, and then moves to Obadiah, arguing that Amos is framed by Joel and Obadiah.  This frame creates a unit of three writings concerning with the day of YHWH in the Northern Kingdom, despite Joel and Obadiah speaking to Judah.  Zephaniah expands this theme, offering unique terminology (1:18; 2:2, 3).  Lastly, the final chapter of the Twelve, Malachi 4 returns to this theme, which again has resonances with Joel, serving to solidify all the more the unity of the Twelve under this theme.

Phyllis Trible, “Divine Incongruities in the Book of Jonah” emphasizes the inconsistency of God in Jonah.  She divides the book into two scenes: chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4.  Ultimately, she argues that YHWH’s repentance concerning Nineveh’s punishment is not to be attributed to Nineveh’s repentance but rather is a response to Jonah’s own pitying of the withered plant; because Jonah pitied the plant, YHWH pities Nineveh.  This pity, says Trible, is ad hoc and highlights the utter freedom and arbitrariness of the deity.  Within this short, four chapter story, “sovereignty, freedom, retribution, vindictiveness, violence, repentance, mercy, and pity” (208) all exist as part of the divine characterization.

Part Four: God in the Writings
Patrick Miller, “Prayer and Divine Action” explores the relationship between the pray-er and the deity.  Nine points are emphasized: 1) God’s involvement arises by means of prayer; 2) Petitionary prayer is an art of persuasion of the deity; 3) Intercession seeks to accomplish a change of heart in YHWH; 4) Scriptural prayers both expect and often receive a miraculous word from God; 5) Trust in God is both an aspect of the prayer and a vital part of the transformation; 6) God’s providential activity involves blessing, preservation, and enhancement of human life; 7) In Job, human questions are met with divine questions, underscoring YHWH’s inscrutable activity;  8  ) prayer as plea presupposes the existence of a moral foundation underlying creation; 9) God ruling from the divine council and enacting judgments and decrees differentiates God from humanity, and it is God who rules for and in the world.

Claus Westermann, “The Complaint Against God” deals with the human complaint against the deity as an example of a theological tension in the text.  Westermann first analyzes the historical development of this complaint in the history of Israel’s traditions.  Concerning specific aspects of this complaint, Westermann avers that these complaints reveal nothing about God’s essence or character but rather speak of Israel’s experience of this God (i.e., Moses’ statement in Exod 5:22 that YHWH is mistreating the people).  As one may expect based upon Westermann’s other works, the complaint against God only ‘works’ due to the close relationship between plea and praise in Israel’s prayers.  Despite the complaint, praise of God persists.

And now . . . very, very briefly . . .

David J.A. Clines, “Quarter Days Gone: Job 24 and the Absence of God” is a powerful essay on divine absence in Job, reading the text from four different ‘perspectives’: Job, the Narrator, the Author, and the Reader.  Clines sees Job as a “danger” to theology namely because it depicts, in its questions, not only a specific, difficult portrait of God but also one of Job–he is the asker of uninteresting questions, evident in God’s response from the whirlwind that there is an order to creation, yet it does not function the way Job and his friends presume it does.  Sam Balentine, “What Are Human Beings that You Make So Much of Them? Divine Disclosure From the Whirlwind: Look at Behemoth” reads YHWH’s response to Job from the Whirlwind not as a chastisement aimed at Job but instead as a revelation of a new understanding for what it means to be created in the the image of God.  Rather than being the objects of a subdued creation in which YHWH is disinterested, the Joban revelation confirms that, created in the imago Dei, humanity should–indeed, is expected, to address God boldly and confidently, yet all the while remembering their place as “dust and ashes.”  Tod Linafelt, “The Impossibility of Mourning: Lamentations After the Holocaust” and Timothy Beal, “C(ha)osmopolis: Qohelet’s Last Words” close out the final section of essays.

Part Five: Continuing the Dialogue
The final part of this volume includes a thoughtful essay by Brueggemann–one he wrote without having read any of the papers in this collection–entitled “Theology of the Old Testament: A Prompt Retrospect.”  Here Brueggemann reflects upon the task of OT theology and his impact upon it.  First, he notes that OT theology must move beyond the monumental contributions of Eichrodt and von Rad in the twentieth century, all the while still retaining a deep appreciation for the contributions made to the discipline by these two scholars.  In the second part of his essay, Brueggemann outlines six contributions he sees as evident in his work:
          1. OT theology, in light of von Rad, is not to concern itself with history.
          2. A response to (1) above is an emphasis on rhetoric or what ancient Israel narrates about her faith.
          3. A “verbal process” is emphasized as opposed to a thematic treatment and organization for OT theology.
          4. Juridical language of testimony, Brueggemann hopes, will be the main take-away from his work.
          5. The juxtaposition of core- and counter-testimony is novel and important in Brueggemann’s work.
          6. Pressing Eichrodt’s notion of covenant further, Brueggemann has seen God as related (unsolicited testimony).

Brueggemann next notes several points of continued dispute and debate emerging from his work:
          1. A nonfoundationalist perspective
          2. The nature of historical criticism
          3. Jewish and Christian readings and avoiding supersessionism
          4. Toward the Church (or, the necessity of relating OT theology exclusively to the NT).

Brueggemann clarifies his understanding of OT theology as a process of testimony, dispute, and advocacy in which Israel and God both are engaged in disputation with one another, and it is this perspective alone that allows for a pluriform view of the OT witness.

The final contribution to this volume is a nearly exhaustive bibliography of Brueggemann’s writings and publications (up until 1998, running 18 full pages!) by Clayton Hulet

This volume, in my estimation, succeeds in the goal Linafelt and Beal set out for it: to be an accompanying volume to Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old TestamentGod in the Fray contains over 20 essays by some of the most renowned biblical scholars of the twentieth (and twenty-first!) century that engage Brueggemann’s thought–indeed, Brueggemann’s God–in a way that does not cut Brueggemann any slack.  Some essays are critical and seek to fill a gap (i.e, Gottwald on history, or Fretheim on the will of God), while others are more applications of Brueggemann’s categories of OT theology or endeavors to make sense of tensions in the divine character.  While there are obviously aspects of several of the essays with which I would take some issue, this is no doubt to be expected, and should not be seen as detrimental to the overall quality of this work.  In my own personal work, Brueggemann has proven to be seminal; not only do he and I share a similar view of the task of OT theology, we also share a similar understanding of the God of the Hebrew Bible.  If you are at all interested in Brueggemann’s work, then this volume is a must read.  No where else will you find such an impressive cast of scholars engaging the thought, critically and respectfully, of one of the most important figures in biblical scholarship today.


6 thoughts on “Review, God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann

  1. John Anderson says:

    Thanks Nick! And yes, that is usually my practice as well. But I made this review more thorough (though still not, given the depth and breadth of the volume) for a variety of reasons: 1) I think this volume has been underrepresented and ‘underappreciated’ . . . I mean, this is Brueggemann, and there are some HUGE names included here; 2) I honestly enjoyed the majority of the essays [you can probably tell which ones I enjoyed less!]; 3) I took longer than I wanted to in completing this review in general, so I wanted to make it up by writing what I hope is a very fine one.


  2. John Anderson says:


    No, no published reviews. I have written plenty of reviews for class assignments, though, so I am well aware of the genre and how to shape them.

    Why do you ask?

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