God in Recovery

By Walter Brueggemann

Reading the Bible is troublesome, because much of its testimony flies in the face of conventional popular religion that is culturally conditioned and unreflective; it flies, equally, in the face of sturdy, well-established orthodoxy. The Bible poses acute challenges both to rigorous believers and to casual believers who make common cause in faith that collides with biblical testimony. Nowhere is this more evident and inescapable than in the way in which the God of the Bible, most especially the Old Testament, is deeply enmeshed in violence. This “divine violence” collides with modern rationality that wants a God who conforms to our best reasoning. The outcome of that collision is a deeply vexed question about the testimony of Scripture and the God to whom it attests.

I. There is no doubt that the God of the Bible is enmeshed in violence. This is evident in God’s ready mandate for Israel to destroy in ruthless ways the Canaanite population that occupies the “land of promise.” And before that, the paradigmatic rescue from Egypt entailed the divine drowning of the Egyptian armies. That divine violence is not only enacted against Israel’s enemies; according to prophetic imagination, divine judgment enacts violence even against God’s own recalcitrant people. This evidence tells powerfully against our preferred affirmations that “Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so,” or “God is good…all the time.”

II. We have two long established preferred strategies for overcoming the notion of divine violence.  The easiest ploy is to say that the claims of violence attributed to God are simply human projections in the service of some ideology so that it is human projection, not divine character. Thus divine violence against the Canaanites is in the service of Israel’s land-ideology. And even divine judgment against Israel serves the rigorous moral passion of the prophets who thus give divine sanction to their own ethical passion. Such a strategy has a compelling quality to it, because it is obvious that we do project on to God whatever our favorite passion may be. Except that if we treat as “human projection” all that we do not like about God in the Bible, we have to consider that what we like about God in the Bible (“God is love”) may also be only human projection. It is a very slippery slope to be selecting only what we prefer.

A second popular strategy is to notice that God has “evolved” and progressed from a primitive character to one capable of mercy, compassion, and justice. Of course what we usually mean by that is the “human articulation” of God has “evolved.” This strategy has been popular since the nineteenth century with Hegel’s notion of historical reality and, more especially, since Darwin’s great work concerning evolution, with the thought that God “evolves,” as does all else in the natural world.

Both of these explanatory strategies conform to modern Enlightenment reason and provide a way past the hard parts of the testimony. The result is a more “enlightened” God who conforms to our Enlightenment reason, even though it is a God who cannot save.

III. Both of these explanations attract us; but I suggest that they are too easy, because they do not grapple with the deep claim made in the church that these texts are revelation and that they reveal the truth about God. Thus I suggest we have to push behind and beyond such “modern” strategies to consider the claim that the God of the Bible is indeed saturated with a history of violence, as is God’s people (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim), as is the world over which this God presides. Thus I propose that we need, after we have done our best critical thinking, a post-critical naiveté, albeit a “second naiveté,” as Paul Ricoeur has proposed. That is, given all that we know about mistaken human perception and about the evolution of “religious ideas,” we will consider the truth of this testimony.

My take on it is that the God of the Bible is “in recovery” from a propensity to violence, a recovery that requires, on God’s part, intentionality and resolve against an easy reactive treatment of any opposition. Such a view permits us to see that the character of God in the Bible is a real character, with a real internal life, and an on-going resolve to be faithfully God. (Such a view of God does not lead to so-called “process theology,” because that way of thinking lacks any sense of divine character or agency.”)

On the one hand, we can see texts where God is challenged for God’s propensity to violence. In the narrative of Exodus 32, God in God’s anger is about to assault the recalcitrant Israelites. Except that Moses intervenes and intercedes on behalf of Israel. Moses urges God to reconsider for the sake of God’s own reputation (Exodus 32:11-13). In response to that intercession, it is reported:

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people (v. 14).

Later on, in Numbers 14, Moses again intercedes to change God’s mind about God’s proposed wrath. This time, in verse 18, Moses quotes God back to God from God’s statement in Exodus 34:6-7), and urges God to act in forgiveness. The exchange goes like this:

Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now. Then the Lord said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked… (vv. 19-20).

In both cases, God’s new reach depends upon urging from God’s human partner. Thus YHWH’s “recovery” depends on bold human agents who will dare to challenge God’s intent and summon God to alternative behavior.

And even Jesus needed to be instructed! In his confrontation in Mark 7:24-30, Jesus contrasts the entitled “children” (Jews) with the contemptible “dogs” (Syrians). He is still thinking in tribal categories. The Syrian woman, however, intervenes with a powerful protest that has been especially noted by Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza: “But she said…” (v. 15). She summons Jesus to a fresh horizon that he then embraces. He has been changed by the confrontation! With both Moses and the Syrian woman, God (and then Jesus) are summoned beyond their initial position. The future of God depends upon daring dialogic engagement with bold human partners!

Along with such demanding confrontation, “recovery” also requires critical self-reflection. In Hosea 11:1-9 we are given poetic access to God’s internal life in which God reaches new self-awareness beyond God’s rage at Israel. After God has vented against disobedient Israel(vv. 5-7), in a moment of reflective self-awareness God makes a new resolve:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
My compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
For I am God and no mortal,
The Holy One in your midst,
And I will not come in wrath (vv. 8-9).

With both dialogic challenge (Exodus 32; Numbers 14) and self-critical reflection, God moves in recovery beyond violence.

Such a way of interpretation requires taking biblical testimony as revelatory. God as character has a real life of awareness and resolve that is more than mistaken human perception. God’s recovery, like everyone’s recovery, is slow and sometimes disrupted. The kicker, moreover, is that we are made in the image of this God.  As the newspapers make unmistakably clear, we also are “in recovery” from violence. We share that addiction with the God in whose image we are made. In our life, as in the life of God, such work is slow; it requires good companions and great intentionality.

Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary