Story and Generalization in Old Testament Theology

What is the relationship between story (divine verbs) and generalization (divine adjectives) in the Hebrew Bible? Two highly regarded Old Testament theologians have contrasting opinions on this question which makes for an interesting dialectic. Walter Brueggeman contrasts Gerhard von Rad’s “historical creeds” with the Yhwh Creed of Exod 34:6-7, describing it as “credo of adjectives.”

Yhwh, Yhwh, a deity who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and exceedingly loyal and faithful, guarding loyalty to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin, but who will not surely acquit, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the sons and on the grandsons to the third and fourth generations. (my own translation)

He argues that “for each of these adjectives, . . . Israel must have available for itself a rich variety of verbal sentences that support and give credence to the adjectival claims” (Theology of the Old Testament, 216). Compare this with Fretheim who argues quite the opposite, “Regarding the nature of the discussion of God in OT theology, it must be attentive to the generalizations [Brueggemann’s “adjectival claims”] as to the history/story [Brueggemann’s “verbal sentences”]. It is the former which makes the latter intelligible and coherent” (The Suffering of God, 28, cf. 24-29).

Initially, I found Brueggemann’s argument consonant with my own inclinations. It makes little sense, intuitively, to speak of God as “compassionate” or “gracious” if God does not first act compassionately or graciously. We need verbs that speak to divine compassion or divine grace that allow us to characterize God as compassionate or gracious. Yet, when I read Fretheim on the matter, I found myself facing a sophisticated and not altogether implausible reading of the Hebrew Bible. Fretheim argues that Israel has abstract concepts of the divine which provide coherence to their experience with God, even and particularly when their experience lacks the verbal affirmations which, according to Brueggemann, funds the adjectival claims. He points to Lamentations, a text which he observes “never appeals to salvific events in Israel’s past”:

My soul . . . is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness . . . . For the Lord will not cast off for ever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Lam 3:20-32, cited in The Suffering of God, 27)

It would be an interesting study to explore throughout the Hebrew Bible the dynamic between story and generalization in greater depth. Has Fretheim sufficiently argued his case, or might Brueggemann have equally compelling evidence? Perhaps there is a third way, a true dialectic in the theology of the Hebrew Bible that will never subordinate story to generalization, or vice versa.

What do you think? How would you engage the tension between story and generalization as it pertains to God in the Hebrew Bible?

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7 thoughts on “Story and Generalization in Old Testament Theology

  1. Joseph,

    I take your implied answer to be an advance on both B and F. That is, a dialectic obtains in biblical Yahwism. Stories give rise to generalizations, but, in the absence of positive stories of one’s own, hope is based on the generalizations alone. The generalizations, furthermore, are not only grounds for hope in times of despair, but lead to challenges of the status quo and requests for rectification and healing (Itikkun olam).

    I have a quibble. Your translation of chesed with loyalty strikes me as misguided. I encourage you to take a look at the discussion of this concept by Tikva Frymer-Kensky and Tamara Cohn Eskenazi in the recently released Ruth commentary in the JPS Bible Commentary series. Chesed is rather about kindness and generosity. It has a domino effect far exceeding that of the lack thereof.

    1. John, isn’t chesed being reliable to provide good to loyal subjects? In other words, an unfaithful suzerain fails to protect his vassals, he lacks chesed. “Loyalty” and “kindness” strike me as more personal.

    2. I appreciate your quibble, John. I re-read some of Ruth (in Hebrew, of course) and then picked up the commentary. What a pleasant surprise! I’ll post tomorrow morning about Frymer-Kensky’s essay on ḥesed and follow that up on Wednesday with a post on Eskenazi’s essay, “The Theology of the Book of Ruth.” Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Chesed per se is not about protocol governing suzerain-vassal relations. A destitute widow is capable of showing chesed to a person toward whom she has zero obligations no less than a man of means without obligations toward her (see the book of Ruth). In the context of defined hierarchical relations, chesed remains kindness, generosity, largesse; it is noble, even if it is a case of noblesse oblige (= benevolent, honorable behavior considered to be the responsibility of persons of high birth or rank).

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