What Kind of God Do You Believe In? An OT Perspective

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.

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19 thoughts on “What Kind of God Do You Believe In? An OT Perspective

  1. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    Hmmm, what kind of God do I “believe” in? This is not only an interesting question, but it is also, in my opinion, THE question with which each person struggles, whether he/she would word it that way or not. It is tantamount to asking “What is the meaning of life”? Ultimately, I have come to accept that the question is more important than any answer to it, for in the perpetual asking of it we are in essence transcending ourselves in the worshipful acknowledgement of the great OTHER. Even if it doesn’t lead one to any definitive answer about God, it is the question that embodies all that it means to be human: birth, life, death, and beyond; from the heights of joy to the chasm of grief; from the rapture of the highest physical pleasures to horrors of the most inhumane sadisms; it is the maddening madness that is the depths of justice, injustice, and chaos. In short, your question, John, is THE question, the question we must live in order to truly live at all. And it is when a person stops asking that question, in my opinion, that one becomes faithless; the poetry that connects Creator and created dies as another soul is lost to the meaningless prosaic of mindless faith.

    While I know the above sounds incredibly mystical and even postmodern – and doubtless it is postmodern– I feel compelled to give my presuppositions before answering your questions outright:

    1) As hard as I have tried, I cannot escape that “God is.” (And trust me when I say, “I’ve tried.” It’s another story, for another time, and one not well suited for blogging.)

    2) However, I have yet to fill in anything after “God is.” As is even evident in your own list, it is a struggle to speak about God in any absolute positive/negative category. Even to say that God is a paradox is in too restrictive in language, for God seems to be One who delights in defying the confines of the indicative.

    3) What I can say is that I hold the TaNaK to be a repository of the ancient Hebrew/Israelite attempts to answer this same question and to (re)apply their answers again and again to their own lives and the world as it was around them.

    4) Consequently, I feel I should leave the question of what role the Hebrew Bible should play in one’s faith to the imagination, as I think most Christian churches would preclude my answer to it anyway. Suffice it to say that the TaNaK informs my faith, and I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

    Thanks for a provocative post!

  2. Michael says:

    John: Glad you’re back, friend! I’m glad you wrote this (I really MUST read your article.).

    I really coming to agree with the god you describe at the end of your post. It’s not a pretty description, but it does seem to deal honestly with all the evidence.

    Hmmm….

  3. John Anderson says:

    Michael: Thanks. I agree and disagree with your assessment that this is not a “pretty picture.” To be sure, by modern standards some of these qualities are perhaps unethical or at the least undesirable. But what does it mean if they are qualities that God possesses? An interesting question with which I am still struggling. But the picture, I think, is not only a more honest with Scripturally but also a more honest one in general. Looking at the chaos in the world, it seems such a view of God is necessary. It made sense to ancient Israel, who no doubt saw her existence as typified by chaos often. Our contemporary situation is not that much different. In a way this conception of God touches on issues of theodicy with divine pathos. But it also touches on the troubling character of God (deception, etc.) in relation to the covenant/ancestral promise, which is what I argue in my article and which my dissertation will argue as well. Do post something up here (and on your blog if you like) when you have read the piece.

    Roy: You sure your wife didn’t write that first paragraph?! It did get a little sappy towards the end of that first paragraph, buddy . . . . but I also have an idea of where you are coming from.

    I am a bit unclear as to what you mean by “God is.” If you are speaking in relation to creation, God as ultimate power/authority/etc., then yes, I still have difficulty escaping that view. I think back about a year ago when I was writing the paper I will be presenting at SBL New Orleans arguing for a trickster/deceptive God at the outset of the Jacob cycle, and then hearing the news my grandpa had an aneurysm and was fighting for his life. I recall emailing Dr. Bellinger and saying something to the effect of “it seems a bit ironic right now that I am writing about a trickster God when I very much need an entirely different type of God right now.”

    I think you are spot on in saying God delights in traversing boundaries and expectations. I also agree with your point #3 . . . . I struggle, though, at times to negotiate the “timeless truth” aspect of these texts with the very obvious notion that they are quite “time conditioned.” I still think there is something there.

    Lastly, I would press you, Roy (and you too Michael!!) to expand here. How does the HB expand or inform your faith? I all too often hear people say it is the bedrock for understanding the NT and Jesus (which is correct), but then the exegesis that follows is usually quite atrocious. Again, let’s not whitewash God. Let’s not whitewash the cross. And let’s not whitewash Jesus. Please.

    Others?

    • Roy "Eli" Garton says:

      First and foremost, I’m sure my wife would like to distance herself from my first paragraph, theologically (to some extent) and stylistically (to the fullest extent). That so-called “sappy” style – a throwback to my contemplative days in seminary 🙂 – is one which I’m not sure you’ve read from me before, so you’re razing is quite understandable at this point.

      Allow me to clarify, though, some things that I said and the rationale behind some of the things that I did not say:

      1.) For me, the statement “God is” operates on a spectrum: on the best of days it is an ontological statement that is for me beyond reasonable doubt, but on the worst of days it is a confession of my God-consciousness, which I can no more escape than the influence of my parents.

      2.) The HB informs my faith in much the same way that my God-consciousness does. It is a part of my theological heritage; thus, to deny its influence on my presuppositions about God would be disingenuous. In all honesty, the same thing must be said for the NT.

      3) While I’m not in the white-washing business, I’m also not in the business of drowning in my own theological confessions! Wisdom precludes such rash divulgences, and I’ve known more than a few professors whose theological liberties have cost them a job. (Beside, what I’ve said already is enough to drum me out of many conservative denominational schools . . . presuming, that is, that I could score a job in the first place! 🙂 ) What I will say, however, is that I hope for a time when we will all exert an awareness that our theological constructions – whether denominationally kosher or intensely person – are just that “theological constructions.” And as such they imply a certain level of epistemological conservativeness and gracious tolerance toward those who hold to different theological paradigms.

      Besides, John, you know where I stand on all this stuff anyway . . . at least I think you do. 🙂

  4. Mike Koke says:

    Thanks John for the provocative post about how are systematic theologies can sometimes be too neat and tidy for the uncontrollable and passionate God of the Bible. My question would be if there is room for progressive revelation in the biblical portrait(s) of God? Doesn’t the understanding of God develop from Patriarchal Religion to Mosaic Yahwehism to the lofty thoughts of a Deutero-Isaiah to the New Testament and to the Ecumenical Councils (so could the “O” words be a legitimate development)?

  5. John Anderson says:

    Mike: What you describe may be the case. But at the same time, such an evolutionary model of Israelite religion (see Wellhausen) or a movement from a less to more refined view of God has fallen on hard times. I don’t find myself convinced by them. Such views also seem to feed into the neo-Marcionism that I reject.

    Surely there is a sort of evolution in thinking about God, but whether this thinking is true to the biblical witness or not is another question. Part of my point above is that, unfortunately, it seems often it is not. Fretheim himself writes about how Jesus seems to become the focus to the detriment of God. He calls this “Jesusology.” I may post something up about this tomorrow.

  6. John Ottens says:

    Re: Relationship of the Testaments.

    I’m not sure if this will be quite what you’re looking for, but the question of the relationship of the Testaments has been central for me in the past few years as I’ve sought to take the OT more seriously, and I take every opportunity to bring my (tentative) conclusions into dialogue with able conversation partners. Here is the route that I’ve been taking in trying to make sense of the OT/NT connection:

    What if we were to understand the theology of the NT using an OT/Jewish framework? Rather than thinking of the church as a spiritual fulfillment of Israel, could we envision the church as the faithful remnant of the Jews (identified by their allegiance to the Messiah) and the gathered nations who have abandoned their idolatry to join faithful Israel and worship her God? It seems to me that if we understand the revolutionary events of the NT as sociopolitical continuations of the OT, rather than as a full-stop spiritual fulfillment, the Bible reveals itself to be shot through with a surprising and compelling continuity; I feel that this also lends momentum and urgency to the mission of the church in the present.

    I know that this is an unforgivably brief summary and that there is plenty that I’ve left unsaid here, but (if the contours of my thought are at all comprehensible) what do you think? How does this compare with your own efforts to integrate the Testaments?

  7. John Anderson says:

    John: I tend to agree with your basic premise, yet I would nuance it a bit. My take is that Paul has it exactly right in Rom 9-11: the church is the branch, Israel the tree. The church can be snapped off easily, Israel has deep, solid roots. Only with a proper appreciation and respect for Judaism and its Jewish heritage is the church fulfilling its destiny. I think the gospel of Matthew makes the same claim (which I argue in an article that is currently under review for publication). The church is indeed a part of Israel. But with that said, it is in no way part of Israel to the detriment of Israel.

  8. John Ottens says:

    ‘But with that said, it is in no way part of Israel to the detriment of Israel.’

    Except for the branches which have been snapped off to make room for the church?

  9. ben says:

    Hi John,

    I really appreciated this post. My opinion of God changed dramatically when I wrote my MA thesis on 1 Sam. 15. There it is twice said that God changed his mind (vv. 11, 35) and then in the center of the passage it says that God does not change his mind (v. 29). I realized that my conceptions of God had no way to deal with this one passage! But I came to essentially the same position as your final statement: “God is . . . . a paradox. Vulnerable yet powerful. Tricky yet faithful. Present yet absent.” Thus, I would modify your statement: “God is . . . . intimately and deeply affected by creation to the point that God at points changes His mind,” by adding that God is sufficiently Other, he is sufficiently not part of his creation that it can also be said that he does not change his mind. Great, but hard stuff. – Ben

  10. John Anderson says:

    John: I’m not quite sure what you mean. Either way, I would respond that Israel is not a branch. Israel is the tree, with deep roots. Israel cannot be snapped off. She can be uprooted though, I suppose. But along with that uprooting would go all the branches.

    I also read the ancestral promise in Gen 12:1-3, especially the aspect of blessing to the nations, as the task of Israel, a task in which they are sometimes successful and sometimes not. I think Jesus carries this task forward (I have argued as such regarding the gospel of Matthew). So that is where I see continuity: the promise.

    ben: Good stuff, thank you. I am always appreciative of those who wrestle with the questions. We may not like the answers, but at least it is a more truthful engagement. I also think your amendment is a fine point; it encompasses the ultimate and unpredictable paradox God is.

  11. drchrisheard says:

    @Ben: “It,” whatever “it” is, does not say that God does not change “his” mind. Samuel, as a character in the story, makes that claim—in between claims by the narrator that God has done just that. It’s not a paradox. It’s characterization. And maybe irony. But not paradox. The narrator and Samuel disagree.

    Ditto for the other “God does not change his mind” text in the Tanakh, in the story of Balaam. It is the character Balaam, not the narrator, who says that God does not change “his” mind—after God has certainly changed “his” instructions to Balaam several times!

    @John: Why did you start your list with that “trickster” line? Hmm? 😉

  12. John Anderson says:

    Chris: Total happenstance! I have no explanation for why that would have been the case (wink). Maybe I was moved by the Spirit to put that first?

    Or maybe just for a little . . . . emphasis.

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