December 5, 2020

Brueggemann: The hurt God and the possibility of faithfulness

Noah and the Rainbow, Chagall

Noah and the Rainbow, Chagall

Walter Brueggemann is among my favorite Bible commentators and theologians. He represents a generation of scholars in a tradition that my evangelical/fundamentalist roots taught me to avoid. But though he comes from the Protestant mainline with its history of embracing higher critical approaches to the Bible, Brueggemann, like many others has been honest about the limits of those kinds of analyses. He is eager to recognize that scripture is for the faith and life of the Church, not so that “experts” might write academic tomes.

Furthermore, I love his emphasis on the place and importance of imagination in reading the Bible. He calls the text of scripture: “an ‘alternative world’ of well-being, freedom, and responsibility, alternative to the world of dominant secular culture or to the conventional world of church teaching that too often has become thin and arid. . . . an ‘alternative world’ that invites faithful imagination” (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination). In the same passage he quotes, with hearty approval, the great Catholic scholar Raymond Brown: “After all, in the Scriptures we are in our Father’s house where the children are permitted to play.”


• • •

To finish this week of reflections on the Bible, I offer a quote by Walter Brueggemann from his commentary on Genesis. In this passage, he focuses where the text does: on the God who is revealed here and on Noah who at this point in the story is poised to become the new Adam, God’s representative in a new creation.

The text upon which he is commenting forms a two-part introductory statement expressing God’s intention to send the flood (Genesis 6:5-8, 11-13):

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.

…Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

Here are Brueggemann’s comments:

We are confronted in this text not with a flood, but with a heavy, painful crisis in the dealings of God with creation. It is popularly thought that the crisis of the flood is to place the world in jeopardy. But a close reading indicates that it is the heart and person of God which are are placed in crisis. The crisis is not the much water, which now has become only a dramatic setting. Rather, the crisis comes because of the resistant character of the world which evokes hurt and grief in the heart of God. Franz Delitzsch has seen that the depth of pathos of God expressed here is matched by the extraordinary statement of Hosea 11:8-9. …The narrative is centered in the grief of God, whose heart knows about our hearts (cf. 1 Chron. 28:9; Jer. 17:10; Ps. 139:23; Rom. 8:27). This daring assertion about God is problematic in every static theology which wants God always acting the same and predictably. But the text affirms that God is decisively impacted by the suffering, hurt, and circumstance of his creation. God enters into the world’s “common lot.”

In our discussion of 1:1-2:4a, we have seen that God’s creative power was not coercive and authoritarian. Rather, it is invitational and permit-granting. While God wills creation to be turned toward him, he does not commandeer it. So in this narrative, bringing the world to trust and obedience is not done by God’s fiat. Rather, it is done by the anguish and grief of God, who enters into the pain and fracture of the world. The world is brought to the rule of God, but only by the pathos and vulnerability of the creator. The story is not about the world assaulted and a God who stands remote. It is about the hurt God endures because of and for the sake of his wayward creation. The new creation is wrought with the same costly engagement and waiting as is the first creation.

. . . The narrative has held off as long as possible in permitting Noah entrance into the drama. When he appears, we know nothing about him. But God and the narrator know enough. Noah is righteous and blameless. He walks with God (vv. 6-9; 7:1; cf. 5:22). In this dismal story of pain, there is one who embodies a new possibility.

The narrator presents him against the main flow of the story. There is the announcement of the flood, destruction, and death. Then, J has it, “But Noah found favor . . .” (v.8); P has it, “But I will establish my covenant . . .” (v.18). The narrator wants the listening community to turn to Noah, to consider that in this troubled exchange between creator and creation there is the prospect of a fresh alternative. Something new is at work in creation. Noah is the new being (II Cor. 5:17) for whom none of the other data applies. He is the fully responsive man who accepts creatureliness and lets God be God. so the presentation of Noah is rather like a refrain:

He . . . did all that God commanded him (6:22).

Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him (7:5).

. . . as God had commanded Noah (7:9).

Noah regards God’s commands as promises of life (cf. John 12:50). He is a model of faith such as has not yet appeared in biblical narrative (except perhaps in the truncated reference to Enoch). It is ironic that at the moment of pathos and impending death, embodied faith first appears in the world. The narrative announces a minority view. Faithfulness is possible even in this world.

• Walter Brueggemann
Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching


  1. Eckhart Trolle says

    So “God’s creative power was not coercive and authoritarian”; rather, “the crisis comes because of the resistant character of the world which evokes hurt and grief in the heart of God.” This is a remarkably convoluted attempt to defend God from the charge that he is a tyrant who punishes disobedience with genocide.

    In the Greek and Sumerian versions of the myth, there are two different gods–one who is angerered by humanity (Zeus, Enlil) and one (Prometheus, Ea/Enki) who rescues the Noah character. There is no suggestion that gods should not behave thus, or that they have granted humanity free will. (For that matter, this element is missing from Genesis as well, and seems to reflect later Christian concerns.)

    • It’s very hard for me to read much of the Old Testament and see a god who is “not coercive and authoritarian”. Hurt and grief? Abusive parents feel hurt and grief, too; their abuse may be a reaction to that hurt and grief. But it’s an inappropriate, destructive reaction. You can try to explain it away by pointing to their grief and hurt, but that’s rationalization. Rationalization is an understandable reaction when one is at the receiving end of abuse that one has little control over, and requires some imagination, but it doesn’t really make sense of the behavior. It’s merely a kind of survival mechanism.

      I find myself agreeing with you again, ET.

      • Indeed. Tread lightly, Eckhart–you’re contributing helpfully again!

      • And so what do you do Robert ? Become a New Testament Christian only. if scripture is the history of Gods dealing with humans Then you can’t divorce one from the other. It seems to me that you have to look at it with the eyes of faith. Without that it’s all foolishness as Paul said. We will never know why God allows certain things to happen or why he acts in certain ways. But I am sure my vocation is not to give him a critique on how he accomplishes his work. Some things are just a mystery. For those that can’t live with that we get snarky responses calling us fundamental non thinking persons. Embrace the mystery !!!!!

        • Who’s name calling?

          The issue, as I read stories like this one and a great many others, isn’t about harmonizing everything together into one big pot of inerrant propositions, or whether we have any right to tell God how he’s permitted to behave. Of course we don’t. Of course there is mystery. I don’t feel any need to try to prove that drowning the whole world – infants, baby goats and all – is somehow “loving”.

          It’s not about whether we like it or not. The tension doesn’t come from not liking something and so finding a way to throw it out. For me, it’s the NT itself (and the OT actually) that gives me permission to engage this ethically. It’s the person of Jesus along with the way that the NT creatively engages and subverts parts of the OT (and not merely confirms all of it), and the nature of the OT itself as multi-vocal and reflecting a journey of change that makes the “who are you to ask questions” answer implausible, even harmful.

          • Preach it, Mike (why is everyone named Mike)!

          • Mike H. My comment to Robert was asked in my first sentence . The rest of it was not addressed to Robert. I appreciate most of his comments and have learned a lot from him. If you have any questions about a reply in the future all you need to do is ask.

        • Some things are just a mystery.

          But do they have to be?

          ‘Mystery’ shouldn’t be an excuse to not think about and discuss something.

          Nor should it be a rhetorical device used to shut somebody up.

        • David,

          Apologies if you feel like my comment was an interjection into a dialogue, or that I misunderstood what you were saying. Not my intent.

          I appreciated your comment and thought it was one relevant to this topic as a whole. I thought it hit on a few things that were worthy of a comment of my own, even if it was a response to Robert.

      • Robert, it seems to me that reacting like this says more about us and where we’ve come than it does about the Israelites and the flood story. How else do you think they might have written it?

        My view is that they were attempting to explain an event — a devastating flood that took large numbers of human lives — in a context where other religions had also developed stories to explain the event in theological terms. Given what they knew at the time, and given the context, it seems to me that they offered a view of God that is about as sympathetic as possible. Though we shudder in horror when we imagine the suffering and loss of life in the flood story, the story itself has little or no emphasis on that. The focus is entirely on God’s sadness at the state of the world, his relationship with Noah, the descriptions of the rain and flooding, and the new beginning. As written, it is not a horror story, but a dramatic explanation of a horrific event in personal, covenantal terms.

        • This is my thinking, too.

          Using the parent analogy again, when my daughter’s behavior ends up causing her pain (because my wife or I try to correct that behavior), invariably she holds that against us. “You’re making me feel bad! You’re the cause of my suffering!” No, we tell her; it’s your behavior which caused your suffering.

          Now, if she were to write this incident in her diary, I’m pretty sure she’d still write it as “My parents caused my suffering.” She’s writing it as she perceives it, which I’m pretty sure was the case in the OT, too. A lot of OT story is limited to human perspective and understanding, and thus limited in some sense.

          The other thing I see from some people these days that maybe happened back then, too, is an over-spritiualization of EVERYTHING. There are people who think God is the cause of EVERYTHING. “I made that light,” “I found a parking spot close to the stadium,” “It’s raining because God isn’t happy with me,” “I got cancer becaue God hates me.” Sometimes I wonder if some of the things the OT folks attribute to God was just an overspiritualization of something God had nothing to do with. Again, limited human perspective and understanding of how God works and of His character.

        • Well, that’s the dilemma CM. It’s about the nature of the biblical writings.

          I don’t think the violence can be so easily dismissed as being a non-issue, because it’s an area where our hermeneutical method takes form.

          Is this an ancient culture trying to explain things from their ancient perspective, as you’ve said? A model of a journey with God as Enns would say – complete with uncomfortable wrestling and changing views?

          Or is this an inerrant God’s eye view of events dictated to a human vessel?

          The latter requires harmonization gymnastics. The former does not need to be a FINAL word on God that needs to be harmonized or spiritualized away to make it about “God drowning the sin in our lives”.

          • Going with the people who emphasize the violent deaths due to the flood on this one. I get the counter perspective, but how can this be about God (or primarily about God) when what he supposedly do3s is no different to the genocide that is described in Joshua?

            The tects of the Tanakh can be an exceedingly bitter pill to swallow.

        • Thanks for this Chaplain Mike, I never looked at it this way before. I guess being raised as a fundamentalist made me see the Bible as a story to be believed at all costs and the story of the flood has bothered me for many years. It seems to contradict the God who forgives the worst of sinners. I think that if I were a person reading the Scriptures for the first time I would still be totally confused at this and see conflicting portaits of God. But it does seem highly anthropomorphic to say that God repented, changed his mind, made a mistake. Maybe much of the OT is this way: God being described by tiny human minds, putting Him into pictures that only touch the hem of His garment. Sometimes the pictures are horrible but that is the only way we could have grabbed the concept at the time. Still hard for me to reconcile though.

        • CM, I get that the Old Testament was not written to meet the sensibilities of our own 21st century moral expectations, and that if we read it with only the criteria of those expectations determining our appreciation of it, we lose much that is of inestimable human, spiritual and even moral value. There are passages in the OT that depict God as deeply, lovingly, and poignantly, concerned with the welfare of human beings, and as acting to secure their well-being.

          That these passages can appear adjacent to, and in the midst of, others that in our view depict God as brutal and mercilessly severe makes them all the more vividly powerful, and evocative of something universal and timeless in the human encounter with, and understanding of, God, something that we share with the writers of those texts. To blind ourselves to their revelatory power by reading them only through the lens of our parochial moral concerns would be foolish.

          At the same time, we have to be careful not to valorize what is morally deficient in the Old Testament, and in its depiction of God, in our efforts to hold onto and appreciate what’s good. We cannot merely jettison our own moral concerns in deference to the value that we know resides in the texts; instead, we should apply those concerns judiciously, and as fairly as we can manage. Just as we cannot expect the Old Testament texts to fit our moral sensibilities, neither can we cannot leave our sensibilities behind in order to read them; we approach the Old Testament as 21st century people, as ourselves.

          We can say that the Flood texts depicting God struggling with, and hurting from, the degraded condition of his creation and creatures haltingly reveal a dimension of God that is later expressed fully in the New Testament, in the life and death of Jesus Christ. We also have to say that, insofar as the writers of the OT could attribute the mass destruction of the human race, along with much of the non-human natural world, to God’s righteous judgment, they had a seriously deficient view of the character of God. Furthermore, this deficient view had a strong tendency to mar their depiction of the divine character throughout Bible, and we must be careful not to come under its spell; more correctly, we must do all we can to come out from under its spell.

    • It occurs to me that one of the reasons the Jewish people throughout history may have developed their immense body of extra-Biblical laws and traditions (which according to the New Testament Jesus harshly criticized) was to mitigate and soften the harsh, cruel and unyielding demands and depiction of God as he is frequently portrayed in the Old Testament.

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        Holy texts always need to be interpretated for and adapted to their changing audiences. The study of Torah is traditionally dialectical, and not infrequently competitive, so Jesus’s contests with the Pharisees should be seen in this light. In a very real sense, he WAS a Pharisee (albeit one suffused with apocalyptic influences via John). Neither stream perfectly matches the rabbinic Judaism of today, which had to adapt itself to the destruction of the Second Temple followed by various exile experiences. Anyway, the focus of Torah study is to identify, as precisely as possible, what Jewish law consists of. Since many laws in the Bible can no longer be followed (e.g. those concerning temple worship), or are hard to know how to apply (e.g. as they relate to modern technology), or involve punishments that are now reserved to the state, this is a lively and complex subculture. Not incidentally, it is also intimately connected with Jewish identity.

        The tradition of midrash sounds like what you are describing in terms of storytelling, but I don’t know enough about it to say whether it really does “soften” God’s judgement as you speculate. I can think of examples from Torah study, though.

        In the Noah story, notice that the antediluvians predate the first (Noachide) covenant, let alone the Mosaic, and so have not broken any agreement with God. It is not clear what “wickedness” God found so offensive–many commentators link this to the story of the “Sons of God” who slept with human women and fathered giants, but this is speculation.

        • How’s that saying go, “ask ten Jews a question, get eleven answers”?

        • My better half once remarked that, looking at the change in how God reacts to man as the Bible goes on, it sounds as if he was learning how to interact with us, like an arbitrary first-time parent at the start through to a mature adult who has a substantial relationship with his children at the end.

          Perhaps the antediluvians’ sin was not mentioned precisely because nobody knows what it really was. Since there was no actual covenant, it almost had to have been an unspoken rule whose violation precipitated this outpouring of wrath: teen-mom behavior at its MTV worst.

          • OR…we don’t read the bible in sequence as literal history, and accept that there’s a lot of myths written by different people that cast their “God” in different lights.

          • Of course there are. Neither of us are of the “in sequence as literal history” camp. This being a story set in the before-time and the long-long-ago “when the world was young,” I simply thought it an apt comparison.

          • turns, yeah – makes sense to me!

          • “… looking at the change in how God reacts to man as the Bible goes on, it sounds as if he was learning how to interact with us, like an arbitrary first-time parent at the start through to a mature adult who has a substantial relationship with his children at the end.”

            Could this not be precisely the case, touching on one of the great unfolding mysteries? God, while omniscient, somehow has a blind spot. It’s not that He doesn’t know it is there but to deal with it He must love. That of course is His nature but He needed us in a similar way that Adam needed Eve. He needed a partner, in the scheme of the universal drama that is going on in and around us, that could and would be uncooperative at times. (Hence Christ is slain before the foundation of the earth, before anything ever gets started it is understood) Someone to love and sacrifice for. In this way the blind spot would be transformed into light and the great accuser would be silenced. Ultimately He created what we see in front us today because He needed it, like Adam needed Eve. That is the significance of the Genesis story. It is reflective of the bigger story as are all bible stories. I think your wife intuited something there that was introduced in substantial form by Carl Jung, especially in his book Answer to Job. This all sounds very heretical from some point of view and it may in fact be. I don’t know. Nonetheless it opens up to me a wildly significant role and purpose for humanity: to be intertwined in the process of nothing less than God becoming God with us being absorbed into the vast ocean of that love but never being lost in it. The whole idea explains a lot to me.i

        • Also good points, lol.

          Does it surprise you that we agree with you, ET? This isn’t your typical Christian blog, hence the post-evangelical moniker. Methinks you got a lot to contribute, and the trollery just got you in the door, lol.

        • E.T. bringing the word today.

          Midrash, yes. An important concept.

        • ET, good point on the Parisees and Jesus being one of them (also Paul, i think).

          Xtianity has done a great injustice to the Pharisees, by sterotyping them and making them synonymous with hypoctisy and worse. Amy-Jill Levine has a good deal to say about that in her book, The Misunderstood Jew (about Jesus, and the history of interpretation, and much more). She teaches NT studies at Vanderbilt and I think she is especially good at communicating with people from evsngelical backgrounds. (I think she’s heard it all…)

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            “””Xtianity has done a great injustice to the Pharisees, by sterotyping them and making them synonymous with hypoctisy and worse”””

            THIS! The critique of the Pharisees was on a relatively precise point – something that is nearly always disregarded when they are discussed.

          • I don’t think Jesus was speaking of or to all Pharisees, only the ones who were more extreme.

            Synagogues would not have existed during the era were it not for the Pharisees…

          • It’s also, imo, important to note that rabbinical Judaism comes from the Pharisees. We would be wise to be careful about sweeping statements.

          • Eckhart Trolle says

            Yes, Paul actually calls himself a Pharisee (as does Josephus). Beyond that, we know little about them. Yes, they probably had a lot in common with rabbinic Judaism, but that developed centuries later, under very different conditions.

          • A lot of contemporary Jewish scholars believe thwt the foundations of the Talmudic era come from the Pharisees. After all, the temple was gone, the diaspora ongoing. That’s a bit broad-brushed, but it makes sense to me. Much has been lost, I’m sure, per primary sources, so there is guesswork involved (as in all historical study, but in this case, more than usual).

            As for Paul, yes, he is quite vocal about his continuing allegiance to a certain kinf of Phariseeism.

        • David Cornwell says

          Eckhart Trolle, I have a personal question for you. I’m curious. You can ignore it, tell me it’s none of my business, or answer any other way you desire:

          Where did you pick up your biblical knowledge? University Dept of Religion, college, seminary, church, or your own study?

          • Eckhart Trolle says

            Some from university, but it wasn’t my major or anything. Mostly just books.

          • David Cornwell says

            Thanks. Good job educating yourself.

          • Eckhart Trolle says

            You’re very kind. I can’t call myself self-educated, though–I am grateful to my teachers. Anyway, reading books is what one does in religion courses too. The main qualitative difference is language study.

    • This is a remarkably convoluted attempt to defend God from the charge that he is a tyrant who punishes disobedience with genocide.

      Just two cents, but I think the majority of us here at iMonk, if we listen to Pete Enns and the rest, actually don’t think God in the OT was a tyrant. He never ordered genocide, he didn’t punish disobedience with genocide, etc. There’s lots of politically charged stories that cast him in that light, however, but I know I don’t take the history literally anymore.

      • That’s kinda where I’m at, too. My response to CM further up talks about this, the idea that maybe the OT storytellers were attributing more to God and His wrath than was really the case (or cause). My thirteen year old (almost 14) daughter’s view of her parents (my wife and I) is a lot different these days than it was two or three years ago. Lots of emotions, hormones, rebellion, social crap, physical stuff that is leading her to believe we’re not the great people she once thought we were. She attributes a lot of her current condition to us.

        Seeing this play out in real human terms makes me wonder how much of that played out back then, too. We aren’t much different, me-thinks.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > My thirteen year old (almost 14) daughter’s view of her parents

          And my view of my parents – now I am in my 40s – is much different than it was in previous periods of my life. This is an important point. At different stages of ‘evolution’ we are capable / incapable of different understandings. This is true individually, historically, and culturally.

      • Yes! I do not believe God ever commanded genocide, let alone initiated it.

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        He orders the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt (technically not a genocide), but annihilates the antediluvians himself, directly, as far as we can tell.

        Look, these are stories. It’s not like they really happened, and now we have to be afraid of him. God is a character, not a real person (you know what I mean). He is defined by what the stories say about him, even if some people today claim to experience his presence in their lives. Of course there are other stories, not all of which perfectly agree, and it is possible, as a literary approach, to doubt the reliability of the narrator (especially if God is thought to be unfathomable).

        • I do not believe that God actually did/commsnded these things.

        • As to God being a character in the Tanakh, of course, when reading from a literary standpoint. But belief and interpretation of text is a whole ‘nother ballgame, as you know. For Jews and xtians, there is a bottom line (true for those who aren’t observant/practicing, because there’s so much more to religion and religious traditions than belief alone).

  2. I recently saw the image of the “hurt” God in the Book of Hosea, who is told by God to marry a prostitute. The book is written like a love letter, but in it God seems to portray himself as the one who is injured. Sin estranges God from his creation. The book goes on to explain how that sin also leads to the injury of the innocent and helpless. This injury of God is most pronounce in the image of the cross. The God who is injured or wronged seeks reconciliation rather than the vengeance to which he is entitled.

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      In most of the OT, God is mainly concerned about idolatry / worshipping “false” gods. This reflects the book’s origins (as an edited work–say, Genesis through Kings, plus some of the prophets) in the Yahweh cult, which believed Yahweh devotion to be the only acceptable religion for the Israelites / Judahites. Like Hosea, God had a contract, which the other party violated. The sins of the antediluvians also remind one of Judges 2:10 ff.

      • Sean Muldowney says

        Yes. And to take it a step further, for the Yahwists, the issue of idolatry consisted of not only the appropriate cultic practices, but of concern for neighbor (local and foreign) and abuses of power. Ritual without character proved to be just as idolatrous as the ‘wrong’ ritual.

        • That is a key point. Many will say the concept of idolatry is obsolete, because no one bows down to a piece of stone anymore; however, the effects of idolatry – the violence toward ones neighbor – is evidence that idolatry is alive and well.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > Many will say the concept of idolatry is obsolete

            Including me.

            The hebrews were obsessed with idolatry in large part because their national / civic identity was bound up with their religion; when they lost that cohesion they lost national and civic cohesion. In a political view their concern was justified.

            >he effects of idolatry – the violence toward ones neighbor

            ??? I do not accept that as the effects of “idolatry” or evidence that idolatry is alive and well. This merely redefines idolatry to mean “bad things” — – so just say “bad things”.

          • They’re not so disparate. A conversation about worship quickly leads to a conversation about ethics.

            I guess you can say the notion of idolatry is obsolete as a public conversation if you’re speaking in a purely nationalistic/civic silo. But if you’re engaging as a follower of Jesus, idolatry is always on the table… if for no other reason than the consideration that we’re all image-bearers of God.

  3. Christiane says

    The ‘God of the OT’ described in the verses we refer to as ‘The Ban’ cannot be literally interpreted.

  4. David Cornwell says

    I have been pleased to notice that you frequently use Walter Brueggemann as a springboard for discussion. I was basically introduced to him by my present pastor who frequently uses him as a source. Once after coming back from a synod where Brueggemann was the featured preacher, he switched to the Old Testament lectionary passage for a season. This was a different perspective, refreshing and powerful. Brueggemann encourages preachers to not avoid, but to wrestle with understanding these ancient passages, so that aspects of the story are not passed over.

  5. Christiane says

    “How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?”
    (from Psalm 137)

    A new song? I like how Brueggemann responds to this ancient question, with a thought for

    “those ill-schooled in explanation and understandings. It comes to those who will settle for amazements they can neither explain nor understand” 🙂

    The paradox of the deep things of God being hidden from the wise is emphasized and celebrated by Brueggemann.

    ““the song of Mary (the Magnificat; Luke 1:46–55) is about the unthinkable turn in human destinies when all seemed impossible: “For with God nothing will be impossible” (v. 37). The answering song of Zechariah (1:68–79) is a song of new possibilities given late, but not too late, possibilities of deliverance/forgiveness/mercy/light/peace. The old order had left nothing but enslavement/guilt/judgment/darkness and hostility, and no one could see how that could ever change. It will not be explained but only sung about, for the song penetrates royal reason. The song releases energy that the king can neither generate nor prevent. The transformation is unmistakable. Tongues long dumb in hopelessness could sing again.3 The newness wrought by Jesus will not be explained, for to explain is to force it into old royal categories. And in any case the energizing hope comes precisely to those ill-schooled in explanation and understandings. It comes to those who will settle for amazements they can neither explain nor understand.”
    (Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination)

    I am drawn to the beauty of this paradox.
    It strengthens my faith in the God who celebrates the simple faith of children above the convoluted mechanics in the many theological manipulations of sacred Scripture we are capable of, while closing ourselves off from ‘mystery’ and awe of ‘the Holy’.

    • Good quote.
      And I agree that we too often let intellectual pride prevent us from experiencing that deep humility that comes with genuine awe of our Creator. And I think we come close to idolatry when we insist that I Am Who I Am be who we want Him to be. Sure, a lot of the violent stuff in the OT disturbs my modern Western sensibilities. But somewhere in the universe right now an entire world has crossed over the event horizon into the death grip of a super massive black hole. Somewhere closer at hand — perhaps under my desk — a spider is carefully wrapping its victim in a silky death shroud. And all by His mighty hand.
      Like I said, OT stories of judgement and destruction disturb me, but I also see some valuable truths at the core of these stories. At the very least they remind me that being flippant about disobedience to God and forgetting that I am a created being can be very dangerous.

  6. Christiane says
  7. Sean Muldowney says


    Pertaining to your above comment to Robert, to this post, and to your approach to the OT as a whole, I’m ready for “Chaplaincy and Creation: Wrestling with God through the First Testament.” Or something. I’d pre-order!

    • You’re very kind, Sean. I doubt my Hebrew skills are up to it, but I sure do love the Tanakh. I defer to Pete Enns, who is really doing fine work.

      • The angle though… you’re someone who has spent a good portion of life walking with people through their darkest moments, as they are struggling with rationalizing the pain and finding hope.

        The Israelites had lots of those moments. We have lots of those moments. But because we are not always in touch with the ancient culture/milieu that the OT was written in, it becomes a stumbling block for people who are already hurting and struggling to find God.

        So yes, I’d love to read a pastoral theology of the OT, especially from someone who has (1.) walked through real life valleys of shadows and (2.) knows how to access and use the best of modern scholarship, yet without becoming a slave to it.

        • I’d be all over that too.

          I wonder if Enns new book this spring will cover some of that pastoral side of things. His scholarship and writing style strikes me as very sensitive to pastoral considerations.

        • You know, that is an interesting angle, especially since the Tanakh was written to a grieving people in the context of great loss. Brueggemann has done some wonderful work on this, especially in the Psalms and Lamentations.

      • In the meantime, I’ll co-sign on Pete Enns with you. In seminary “Inspiration & Incarnation” opened the door to the world of hermeneutics to me, which, along with some mystics spiritual formation writers, helped thwart me from a life of biblicism and wretched urgency.

  8. Marcus Johnson says

    Can I come in tangentially to this subject, while hopefully arriving at the same point?

    I’m reading a book about olive oil, Extra Virginity, which has been a surprisingly interesting look into the olive oil industry, especially in the Mediterranean. In discussing the history of the industry, the author makes reference to both the story of Noah. Olive trees take 7-35 years to fully grow, which is odd, considering that the story of Noah makes it clear that the entire surface of the earth was covered by water. Destroyed, desolate, and submerged by water, and yet a bird was able to locate a tree that produced olives? Or perhaps, even though Noah was left wandering the earth for five months, there was still a place in the earth for them, and they just hadn’t made it there yet? Maybe the olive branch was a sign that, in the midst of calamity, God still had plans for them?

    This is why I don’t think the story of Noah needs to be factual in order for it to be true, or that there really needs to be an explanation for why God wiped out humanity in a flood; I think it misses the point. The first people to receive this narrative were already living through a real-life flood narrative: their homeland destroyed, spiritually, culturally and physically adrift in a place that was not their own, a civilization without a place to call their own. Perhaps this story was created and recorded for a people stranded from home, in slavery and exile, their home in ruins. Maybe this was the story folks told each other to remind themselves that God still had a place for them. The motive for the inciting incident is not really as relevant as much as the way that the story resolves itself.

    That brings me to Brueggemann’s final paragraph in the provided excerpt:

    Noah regards God’s commands as promises of life (cf. John 12:50). He is a model of faith such as has not yet appeared in biblical narrative (except perhaps in the truncated reference to Enoch). It is ironic that at the moment of pathos and impending death, embodied faith first appears in the world. The narrative announces a minority view. Faithfulness is possible even in this world.

    This statement, to me, seems to turn things from “how do we justify what God did” to “how do we live in a world in the wake of tragedy and violence? The answer seems to be, “Just be faithful; God hasn’t forgotten about us yet.”

    • Christiane says

      ‘this world’ demands a response . . . but I think we get stuck in negativity ‘as response’ to the darkness

    • This is a really good comment, Marcus. Thanks for your insight.

    • Marcus and Christiane – thanks.

      I do like Brueggemann, generally speaking, though in this case, must differ with him on parts of his interpretation…

    • The problem, Marcus, with the texts about the Flood is that that their writers present a morally deficient view of God when they depict him as righteously judging the world by annihilating its human inhabitants, along with much of the non-human natural world. That’s because they had a morally deficient view of God’s character, and it’s expressed by what they say God did in the Flood (along with other things). This morally deficient view of God’s character mars many parts of the Biblical text, though by no means all of it; we ourselves have partly inherited this deficiency from those parts of the text, and have been shaped by it. When we read the Bible, we have a moral responsibility not to valorize that deficiency, and to do all we can to come out from under its spell.