Portraits of a Mature God – An Interview with Mark McEntire

It is well known by those who read widely in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament theology that there is a bias in our discipline toward certain biblical books and away from others. This is nothing new; the New Testament cites Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the Psalms disproportionately to other books in the Hebrew Bible. From a faith perspective, one might justify operating with “a canon within a canon,” but as academics interested in the canonical heritage of ancient Israel, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament theology must aim to attend to the widest scope possible.

One scholar who is exploring under-represented texts of the Hebrew Bible is Mark McEntire, Associate Professor of Religion at Belmont University. He is currently writing Portraits of a Mature God: Choices in Old Testament Theology (Fortress Press, 2013), a project that expands upon two of his recent publications: “The God at the End of the Story: Are Biblical Theology and Narrative Character Development Compatible?” (Horizons in Biblical Theology, 33.2 [2011] 171-189) and “Portraits of a Mature God:  What Would a Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures Look Like if Ezra-Nehemiah Was at the Center of the Discussion?” (Perspectives in Religious Studies, 39.2 [2012] forthcoming).

Mark graciously agreed to an interview, and I am happy to share our discussion here on the blog:

As indicated in the title of your forthcoming book, Portraits of a Mature God: Choices in Old Testament Theology, your focus is on a particular kind of divine portrayal in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. What is a “mature God,” and what is the basic gist of your book?

The impetus for this book is the observation that when Old Testament theology left behind approaches that focused on the history of religious concepts in Ancient Israel and began looking at how God is portrayed in the Old Testament, almost all of the attention was still on the books at the beginning of the Bible.  So this project began with an article called “The God at the End of the Story:  Are Narrative Character Development and Old Testament Theology Compatible?”  The primary issue I tried to examine in that article was whether Old Testament theology could get beyond the dialogical model that places diverse portrayals of God in tension with one another and move toward an approach which examines these portraits along the canon’s own narrative trajectory.  One of the questions that puzzled me was why the work of people like Jack Miles (God:  A Biography) and Richard Elliott Friedman (The Disappearance of God) had received so little attention in Old Testament theology.

Where do you see a mature God being portrayed in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament?

Of course, Ezra-Nehemiah is the central place to look, because this is the narrative end of the Old Testament as the story of God and Israel.  Perhaps the starkest example are the texts in these books like Ezra 1:1 and 6:22 in which God “turns the heart” of a foreign king to favor the Israelites, compared to God’s  repeated “hardening of the heart” of Pharaoh in Exodus in order to prolong the confrontation all the way to the tenth plague.  The divine character in Ezra-Nehemiah and in books like Esther and Daniel acts in more subtle ways inside of human beings and invisibly through human processes.

Is a mature God something that exists in Israel’s latest literature, at a certain place in the canon, or both (or neither)?

I do not attempt to date texts, but try to operate along a narrative trajectory.  It is difficult to avoid the assumption that texts placed in line by their date of composition would produce a similar trajectory.  The end of the story told in the Old Testament resides in two places, restoration Judah and Diaspora Judaism.  The latter is the location of the book of Daniel.  I think the final form of Daniel is a product of the second century, but I do not think my argument depends on that conclusion.  The most striking image in this regard is the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7.  This text and its background have received significant treatment in Jason Bembry’s recent book Yahweh’s Coming of Age.  His interests are somewhat different from mine.  While he surveys portrayals of deities that indicate age in the broader Ancient Near Eastern literature, I am interested in how the portrayal of divine behavior of God in Daniel 1-6 prepares readers to see an aged appearance of God.

In your soon-to-be-published article, “Portraits of a Mature God: What Would a Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures Look Like if Ezra-Nehemiah Was at the Center of the Discussion?” you attend to the character of God in Ezra-Nehemiah, something you point out is not often done in the discipline. What inspired this somewhat unique investigation?

Ezra-Nehemiah played a significant role in my dissertation twenty years ago.  I left it behind for a decade or so, but came back to it in my 2004 work Dangerous Worlds:  Living and Dying in Biblical Texts.  I think I discovered then that this strange book was always with me.  In my earlier readings I was probably more interested in the strange ways that the human characters behave in these books.  I have come to see now that at least some of this strange behavior is in response to a particular kind of deity.  We have a lot more in common with these people than with Abraham and Sarah, or Moses, or David.

Why do you think the character of God in Ezra-Nehemiah is neglected in books on Hebrew Bible/Old Testament theology?

I think this happens for two reasons, both of them related to the way Old Testament theology developed in the first half of the twentieth century. First, in Wellhausen’s framework, the religion of the Second Temple period was portrayed as a rigid legalism which had degenerated from the vitality of the periods of the exodus, settlement, and early monarchy and from the piety of the prophets and the psalmists.  There was an element of anti-Semitism in this, of course, and a tendency to view the Old Testament through the lens of Luther’s conflict with the Roman church and Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees.  Jon Levenson offered some important correctives for this in Sinai and Zion:  An Entry into the Jewish Bible, but this is working its way through the field slowly.  Second, in the United States, Old Testament theology focused on the “mighty acts of God.”  As I wrote in the article you mentioned before “the God of Ezra-Nehemiah is not a mighty actor.”  This deity has simply not been a good fit for the frameworks we have established in the past.  Even the productive and helpful shift to a dialogical model, such as Brueggemann’s, places these texts in a debate for which they are ill-suited.  The voices coming from Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua drown them out too easily.

If Ezra-Nehemiah portrays a mature God, how would you characterize those books more typically cited in works on Old Testament theology, books like Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah? Are we to consider their divine portraits immature?

I recognize that “immature” is a problematic word, because we so often use it negatively.  It is difficult for me not to see the God of Genesis 1, who declares all of creation to be “very good,” as rather naïve.  The deity portrayed in the wilderness narratives, particularly in Numbers 11-21, is dangerously impulsive.  The God of the exodus story is vengeful, while the divine character in the book of Judges is wavering and uncertain.  Of course, one can argue that it is the human perception of God that is maturing, but such a claim moves outside of the biblical text and into the field of the history of religion, so this is not the task of Old Testament theology.

What are the implications of a mature God for Hebrew Bible/Old Testament theology? How do you want your work to impact future work in the discipline?

What we are searching for is a way to talk about the divine character portrayed in the Old Testament. It strikes me as troublesome, and perhaps even dishonest, to talk about this God having a “dark side,” which seems to be common even in academic biblical studies.  Aside from this being a modified Marcionism, I have to ask why nobody ever talks about God’s “light side.”  This is because the aspect which would receive that label is presumed to be God’s normal, default way of being while the so-called “dark side” is an aberration.  I would prefer to look for an integrated divine character in this long story who is going somewhere as a character.  If that is the case, then the end of the story certainly needs more attention, if not the most.

Thanks Mark for taking the time to share with us your project, and best of luck on its completion and reception!

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3 thoughts on “Portraits of a Mature God – An Interview with Mark McEntire

  1. Thanks, Joseph, for hosting this interview. McEntire’s approach is a breath of fresh air. Here are a few comments designed to further the conversation.

    I am probably not the only one who struggles with the relatively sharp distinctions McEntire draws between the characterizations of God in distinct blocs of biblical text. Nor am I ready to treat the characterization of God in Gen 1:1-2:3a in isolation from the characterization of the God in Gen 6-9.

    Finally, though I am happy to see the characterization of God in Ezra-Nehemiah given the attention it deserves, not to mention that of the book of Daniel, and that of Qohelet, ben Sira, and Wisdom as well, in terms of a narrative trajectory I would think that texts like Isa 65-66; Jer 31-33; Ezek 36-39; 40-48; Joel 4; Zech 12-14, together with Daniel, stand at the end of a narrative trajectory more than Ezra-Nehemiah does. In pointing this out, I am simply trying to take the narrative implications of the cited texts seriously. The above named prophetic texts, including Daniel, share a common narrative perspective. The standpoint in terms of a mise-en-scene stands to the left of the standpoint of Ezra-Nehemiah, but leaps to the right of E-N insofar as the texts offer *prophetic* narrative.

    1. John, I agree that there is much more to be considered than Ezra-Nehemiah when one is interested in the end of the narrative. Ruth narrates the kind of “mature God” McEntire sees in Ezra-Nehemiah, and it makes me wonder what “narrative” then signifies (e.g. end of the story?, end of the canon?, which canon?).

      Additionally, I think the book of Genesis taken as a whole betrays the kind of narrative character development that McEntire sees spanning the larger biblical narrative (McEntire cites Humphreys’ The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal to this effect in his earlier article). This reminds me of Moberly’s claim that Genesis is the OT of the OT.

      There are many unexplored avenues when it comes to the theology of God at “the end of the story,” and I am anxious to see both how McEntire works this out and how others will respond and continue this discussion.

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