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?
I am reviewing Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann’s massive God of the Living: A Biblical Theology for an academic journal, and I am thoroughly enjoying this journey. Perhaps I will have more to say about their volume in the future, but for now I want to draw attention to a particularly poignant observation they make about a particular set of divine behaviors, “Hiddenness and Wrath” (chapter 11, pp 339-60):
The combination of wrath with love and hiddenness with revelation would suggest that both involve complementary options for divine behavior. Such, However, is not the case. By no means does the God of the Bible have “two souls in his breast.” Instead, the God who is “slow to anger” is known by the characteristics that express his intention not to be angry: by his graciousness and mercifulness and his abundant love (ḥesed). Accordingly, the New Testament says that God is a God of love (2 Cor 13:11), indeed , that he is love (1 John 4:8, 16), while the contrary statement, that he is a God of wrath, indeed, that he is wrath, is inconceivable. One can even intensify this clear asymmetry between wrath and love and between hiddenness and revelation further. God hides and grows angry because of his love and for the sake of his love. It must, therefore, be asserted emphatically that God’s wrath is his reaction to injustice and defiance (see Rom 1:18), not a divine affect, not one of God’s dark sides, and certainly not a divine attribute. (339-40)
In a quote recently highlighted by Charles Halton, Feldmeier and Spieckermann make it abundantly clear that “the craft of exegesis developed in academic theology” is an “indispensable path” for the knowledge of God. These two demonstrate great capacity for theological reflection as they navigate the text and the channels of life, be they ancient or modern. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the weight of the task of talking about God. In the conclusion where they reflect on “The Bowls of Wrath in the Revelation of John” they write:
The Revelation of John is the radical response to a situation experienced as radically corrupt. The fact that it opposes injustice and, in all its distress, still introduced a hopeful perspective, constitutes its significance. On the other hand, it bears the mark of an undifferentiated black-or-white viewpoint that results in the one-sidedness and gruesomeness of the vision cycles that require theological correction by reconnecting them to the overall witness of the Bible. The danger that lurks in language about God’s wrath if not appropriately distinguished from the wrath of believers is conspicuous here. (360)
This need to exercise caution concerning John’s portrayal of divine wrath reminds me of something which Terence Fretheim argued in The Suffering of God, “There is always that in the metaphor which is discontinuous with the reality which is God. God outdistances all our images; God cannot finally be captured by any of them” (8). To speak of the Bible as an “indispensable path” for the knowledge of God is not to resolve the challenges one faces in the task of talking about God.