A common question I get when some find out I am a religious academic is something along the lines of “do you believe in God?” (For those who don’t know how I would answer this question . . . . yes, I do believe in God). But the more important question I try to stress is not do I believe but what kind of God do I believe in?
Some may assume this is a ridiculous question. God is truth, life, love, not to mention omni-everything. This may indeed be the case–I don’t claim to know the inner recesses of God’s mind or being!–but biblically it does not seem to be the portrait. Not all the time, at least. Take for instance God’s question in Gen 3:9 to the hiding Adam and Eve: “where are you?” Take the image of God throughout the Primeval History (Gen 1-11), who tries effortlessly to ‘get it right,’ moving from the failure of Adam and Eve to Cain killing Abel, to the righteousness of Noah amid the abominations of his household, to his selection of Abraham, who along with his descendants prove to be an especially rascally bunch. While some may aver that the emphasis should be placed on humanity’s failings here, one still needs to look at the opposite yet complementary side: what of God in all of this? If God is omni-everything, then he would have known of the debasement of humanity, foreseen the flood, and likely, in good and compassionate concern for creation, not gone that route. If God is omni-everything and went that route, God is then no different than traditional ancient Near Eastern conceptions of deities (see the Atrahasis Epic and The Gilgamesh Epic) and is responsible for not only knowing but also fore-ordaining the death of nearly the entirety of creation. Is that the type of God you believe in?
I first read Terry Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective some seven years ago, and I have described it as ‘exploding my paradigm’ of God. In a way, much of my subsequent scholarship, writing, and publishing has struggled with this issue.
God is, to my eye, quite unpredictable. Walter Brueggemann has argued as such:
In its core testimony, Israel has uttered [YHWH] as a God who is straightforward in dealing with [YHWH’s] partners. In Israel’s cross-examination, [YHWH] emerges not only hidden as in wisdom theology but also on occasion as devious, ambiguous, irascible, and unstable . . . . These voices of witness, nonetheless, constitute a part of Israel’s countertestimony, and while these texts are commonly disregarded in more formal theology, they are important data for our understanding of who [YHWH] is said by Israel to be (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, 359).
Preconceived notions of God that one brings to a text are ultimately unhelpful if used as a grid within which the text must fit tidily. It won’t fit. Indeed, the text should not be expected to conform. Nor should God. Fretheim writes:
God’s appearance in human form reveals God’s vulnerability . . . . It suggests an entering into the life of the world that is more vulnerable, where the response can be derision (see Gen 18:12-13) or incredulity (Judg 6:13-17). It is to put oneself concretely into the hands of the world to do with as it will. It is revealing of the ways of God that the word is enfleshed in bodies of weakness within the framework of commonplace, everyday affairs, and not in overwhelming power. For, even in those instances where the vestments of God’s appearance are threaded with lineaments of power, they clothe a vulnerable form. There is no such thing for Israel as a nonincarnate God (106).
As I write this, and as I note that I agree very much with Brueggemann and very much with Fretheim, I continue to wonder how these two strands–these two very distinct (and conflicting?) views of God can be held together. Obviously ancient Israel had little problem doing so. I also have little problem doing so. But it is striking to look at how God is “imaged,” as I have heard Fretheim say, in the Hebrew Bible. I have more to say on this, but that will be another post.
This brings up some related questions:
1) The relationship between the Testaments: I reject the neo-Marcion tendency that seems still to pervade scholarship and the life of faith, drawing a sharp distinction between a wrathful, murderous God of the Hebrew Bible and a kind, loving God in the NT. Ummmm, crucifixion, anyone? Let’s not whitewash the crucifixion. And let’s not whitewash God. Please.
2) What role does the Hebrew Bible play in one’s faith? What role should it play? And should (or does?) the Church employ it properly?
3) Is God’s unpredictability ever tempered by predictability? Constancy?
So who is God in the Hebrew Bible? I would answer as follows . . . .
God is . . . . a trickster, deceptive, cunning, and unpredictable figure.
God is . . . . the one who elects Israel and chooses her for covenant relationship.
God is . . . . steadfast in the covenant with Israel.
God is . . . . intimately and deeply affected by creation to the point that God at points changes His mind, repents, withdraws, mourns, etc.
God is . . . . one who suffers because of, with, and for creation.
God is . . . . a paradox. Vulnerable yet powerful. Tricky yet faithful. Present yet absent.