The Biblical God Who Goes ‘To and Fro’ in the Earth

By Walter Brueggemann

The God who is disclosed in the Bible does not conform to our generic notions of God, either the stern disciplinarian of righteous indignation or the generous Santa Claus of availability. Nor does this God conform to our more reasonable “orthodoxies” of “perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.” Our conventional notions of God derive primarily from the logic of Greek philosophy that yields a God who is a fixed point of reference “contaminated” by the vagaries of lived reality.

But the God of the Bible does not arise from the syllogisms of such logic that hold promise of certitude. Rather this God, so definingly Jewish, inhabits open-ended narrative. (Rabbis do not voice syllogisms; they tell stories!) And in open-ended narrative, unlike logical syllogism, all sorts of things can happen that are surprising, unexpected, inexplicable, and sometimes disconcerting. Thus this narrative-dwelling God is part of a plot and emerges as a full character who acts amid the plot. Both the plot and the character violate ordinary, generic religious categories. The outcome of this way of disclosure is a God who is free and elusive and ofttimes irascible. It is this God who warns David not to try to box God into his temple, for this is a God who “moves about” (to and fro) with freedom, who refuses our settled categories (II Samuel 7:6).

The large plot in which this God is cast as lead character is that God evokes (creates) the world and spends the rest of historical time wanting to heal and restore a broken creation, that it may become an organism of authentic shalom. This work of healing restoration entails, on God’s part, both judgment against those who violate creation and generosity that makes new creation possible. This large plot that runs from “creator of heaven and earth” to “his kingdom shall have no end” consists in many lesser sub-plots in which God is the defining character: the emancipation of the Exodus (Exodus 3:7-9), the wonder of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:14-5),  the healing of a sick king (Isaiah 38:9-20), deliverance from lions (Daniel 6:16-24),  the raising of a dead son (II Kings 4:32-37), and so on. In each of these inexplicable exhibits of God’s power for life, God is at work contributing to the larger plot a new creation.

In that plot, YHWH, the God of Israel, emerges as a full character who works in engaged concert with the world and its inhabitants. The defining term for this dialogic engagement is “covenant” wherein God makes commitments, both to the creaturely world (Genesis 9:8-17) and eventually to Israel as a vehicle for God’s work in the world (Deuteronomy 26:16-19). Given that relatedness, it is clear that YHWH has a complex internal life and is capable of all kinds of emotional extremity, from rage and jealousy to self-giving love and generosity. It is precisely the dialogic quality of YHWH’s role that makes narrative possible, because without such a readiness for risky interaction there can be no lively story to tell. This lively dialogic engagement, moreover, is what makes praise and prayer possible for Israel. In its prayers of lament, complaint, and protest, Israel can and does impinge upon God to generate new divine initiative. Thus the wonder of the biblical God and the scandal of the biblical God is that God is available, at risk, with freedom; engagement with this God is always with open-ended possibility of another story yet to be told. And we are among God’s partners in the demanding, wondrous destiny of covenantal existence. The temptation of the church is always to tone down and domesticate God and require God to fit in to our reasonable notions or our moral passions. But it is clear from this disclosure that this God is can never be corralled by our reason or our passion, any more than could David with his temple.

It is this God, we confess, who inhabits the New Testament as well, who has “become flesh” (John 1:14) or, as we say in the creed, “Who became man.” It is the daring conviction of the church that in the Son we have seen the Father (John 14:9). That is, in the bodily life of Jesus we have fully seen the character of the Father God of the Old Testament. This “equivalence” is such a familiar cliché to us in the church that we do not notice what a radical claim it is. The formulation of “Father-Son” (albeit in patriarchal language) is the church’s capacity to connect what is in fact is incommensurate, namely the holy God of creation and new creation, and the human character from Nazareth. This incommensurability of the two means that the witness to Jesus in the New Testament will not square in every detail with the character of God in the Old Testament, and that there are important differences between the two. Given that, however, the linkages and the reiteration of plot and character in the narrative of Jesus are to be fully appreciated.

Thus Jesus is a player in the large plot of the restoration of creation. His wondrous deeds are summarized in Luke 7:22:

Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.

All the items in this inventory are acts whereby the creation is restored to full function. Indeed, these acts replicate the inventory of the restorative actions of YHWH on the lips of Israel:

…who executes justice for the oppressed;

who gives food to the hungry.

The Lords sets the prisoners free;

the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers;

he upholds the orphan and the widow… (Psalm 146:7-9).

The feeding miracles of Jesus are a “jump-start” on the abundance of creation that is to “be fruitful” (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10). His stilling of the storm is the restraint of chaos that makes a safe, viable life in the world possible (Mark 4:35-41).

It is clear that Jesus, Son of the Father, is a fully engaged agent in the life of the world. Thus he engages the power people in their scramble for truth (Mark 12:13-37). He engages the “losers” and brings them to new life (Luke 13:10-1719:1-10). Finally he confronts “the rulers of this age” as he engages the Roman Empire and its governor (John 18:28-38).

He is, moreover, fully capable of full range of “human emotions” that turn out in fact to be a full range of divine emotions. Thus he variously knows anger and sadness and joy. We do not need to overstate the consistency of the Old and New Testaments, but we are able to see that the God of ancient Israel who is capable of severe wrath and lavish generosity is the God exhibited in the person of Jesus.

All of this remarkable, elusive testimony concerning the one who is “truly God, truly man” comes to play when we affirm that we are made in the image of a God meant for dialogic engagement for the sake of the restoration of creation. We are commonly seduced by cultural religion to imagine that we are made in the image of a God who is “all powerful and all knowing.” And then we are more “God-like” when we ourselves are all powerful and all knowing. But that is not true! We are, rather, made in the image of this God who is bent on generative dialogic freedom and risk. The summons then is to go freely “to and fro” into the neighborhood for the sake of restoration.

Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary