Ah, when I need something to really chew on, Walter Bruggemann is always a good go-to.
I have testified here at IM to a journey of having learned something much different than what I was taught in my evangelical background. That is, that God and his people, particularly as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, share a contentious, give-and-take relationship that is as filled with ambiguity, unsettledness, and mystery as it is with certainty.
Indeed, the biblical testimony even suggests that there is a mutuality in the relationship, which encourages us to think humans have some ability, through arguing and wrestling with God, to change things with God even as God, of course, has power to change things with people.
After all, is not the name “Israel” a testament to that? (see Gen. 32:28). “A people who wrestle with God and prevail” is the very definition of the community of faith in the Hebrew Bible. And, as we’ve emphasized repeatedly, this also characterizes the actual nature of those scriptures themselves — a vibrant, often contentious conversation about and with God and God’s people in the community.
For many Christians, on the other hand, the view is that the gospel of Christ has brought a sense of closure to this whole sense of uncertainty, lament, questioning, complaining, and disputing with God that characterizes First Testament religion. The answer has come. What questions can remain?
But is this truly what a life with God is like?
I’ve said enough. Chew on this.
• • •
I have repeatedly stressed that Israel deals with an incommensurate God who is endlessly at risk in mutuality. That is, YHWH is seen by Israel to be genuinely dialectical, always on one end of a disputatious transaction that may effect change in YHWH as well as in YHWH’s partners. We have seen this profoundly unresolved already in Exod 34:6–7. We have seen it regularly in the noun-metaphors used for YHWH. Most largely, we have seen this dialectical quality in the juxtaposition of what I have called core testimony and countertestimony. Israel’s transactions with YHWH are indeed characteristically open and unsettled.
It appears to me, granting the enormous difference made by a christological center in Christian faith, that the real issue that concerns us in Old Testament theology is this: Classical Christianity is tilted in a transcendental direction, which gives closure to YHWH and to YHWH’s relationships with the partners. There may be many reasons for such a closure; perhaps not least is the need of a derivative tradition (Christianity) to substantiate its claim against the precursive tradition (Judaism). For whatever reason, this tendency to transcendental closure compromises the genuinely dialectical quality of Jewish testimony. That compromise, moreover, is of crucial importance for what is possible and what is precluded in our discernment of God, world, and self.
I do not imagine that Christianity in its classical forms will yield much, soon, on this score. But there are hints that as Christianity in the West is increasingly disestablished, and so may distance itself from its Hellenistic-Constantinian propensity, it may move in the direction of its Jewish dimension of genuine unsettlement between YHWH and YHWH’s partners. There is no doubt that this drama of brokenness and restoration is shared by Judaism and Christianity. In Judaism, it is a drama of:
- exile and homecoming,
- death and resurrection,
- Pit and rescue,
- and chaos and creation.
To that set of categories of discernment, Christianity adds (decisively for its identity) crucifixion and resurrection. That of course is a specific move the Old Testament (and Judaism) do not make. The differential on this point is very great.
What strikes me more, however, is that these traditions are, in the main, agreed. That agreement is the basis for a genuine alternative to the nihilism of the modern world, a nihilism contained in the elimination of this incommensurate, mutual One in the interest of autonomy and self-sufficiency. This testimony of Israel, echoed by Christianity, not only gives different answers—it insists on different questions, wherein the answers offered are perforce thin and tenuous, but not for that reason unuttered. The intramural quarrels in the church, and the ancient alienations between Christians and Jews, are unconscionable, in my judgment, when this lean, resilient tradition stands as a fragile alternative to the embrace of the Nihil.
• An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 175-176)