An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible by Walter Brueggemann

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Old Testament
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Walter Brueggemann asserts that the very character and nature of God recorded within Scripture is primarily and intrinsically dialogical.  God is one initiating dialogue, calling out, speaking.  This calling out and speaking enables and invites response from both the larger Creation and from humanity.  Another way of saying this is to affirm that God is relational.

Because God is Person and relational God cannot be rendered as some vague reality (i.e., New Age mysticism) or as a settled reality (i.e. as in much classical tradition, especially scholasticism).  Rather, God is “a fully articulated personal agent, with all the particularities of personhood and with a full repertoire of traits and actions that belong to a fully formed and actualized person” (2).  In other words, God is a particular and dynamic reality, not a vague or static reality.

Of great import is the notion that God is not merely transcendent but imminent within our world.  The “pathos” of God is intimately engaged in our world.  Not only does God act, but can be acted upon.  Brueggemann suggests several ways that this is true, least of which is prayer.  But, moreover, this is seen through the drama of the crucifixion in which both the Father and the Son both suffer.

As may be obvious, dialogue is not one-sided.  Rather, Israel, human persons, and the nations ultimately are invited into this divine dialogue.  “Praise-thanks and lament-complaint bespeaks of Israel as a fully engaged dialogic partner who plays a role vis-à-vis YHWH in which a profound drama of fidelity and infidelity is regularly performed” (13).

Israel, and by extension other persons, is called into genuine relatedness in which open and honest communication might occur.  This is primarily done through covenant.  First, God loves Israel.  God creates this nation as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” set apart for God’s purposes.  YHWH is committed to Israel.  Thus, YHWH chooses Israel, though not because of any particular strength, value, or individual quality that sets it apart from other nations.

In response to God loving, choosing, and setting God’s heart upon them, Israel is called and even commanded to love God alone and to live in obedient faithfulness to YHWH.  Both God’s wrath and grace must be understood in terms of its connection with covenant.  Israel is called to acknowledge God’s sovereignty, to hear and obey (do justice), and to see YHWH holiness and likewise be holy.  In other words, Israel is continuously called (whether from fidelity or infidelity on their part) to reflect God’s character and nature back in the world through sustained communion with the Lover.  Even in the midst of exile, death, and destruction, Israel dares to trust and hope in this God of covenant fidelity.

The second of God’s dialogical partners is humanity.  Humanity is entirely dependent upon God.  They are creatures and God is Creator and the creature must remember this connection.  Because God is sovereign, humanity is called to live obediently toward YHWH.  Yet, God allows freedom in the human person because God is not only powerful but faithful to covenant.  This allows a genuine response, even in the form of complaint, from the human agents.  Brueggemann says it thus, “What full humanness requires and expects in this tradition, moreover, is the courage to assert and the confidence to yield” (65).  As such, humanity is called to act in three ways: listening (obedience), discerning (“response to hidden generosity of God”), and trusting (in God’s faithfulness).  Likewise, humanity is enabled to bring complaint, petition, and thanksgiving before God.  This full confidence in YHWH leads to praise and hope.  Again, it is a life lived in “glad obedience, trustful freedom, and venturesome relatedness” (90).

The nations are also a dialogical partner with YHWH.  Four nations stand out in this partnership in Israel’s testimony: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.  A typical pattern emerges in these relationships.  First, it must be noted that God covenants with all creation and all nations through Noah.  As such, YHWH makes a claim on all nations, not simply Israel.  God commands the nations.  The nations respond but usually overstep their boundaries of power, lacking mercy.  Finally, God responds in wrath toward those nations that fail to live by the covenant.  However, it should be equally noted that God promises to deliver and restore them as well, if they turn from their evil.

Creation is the final dialogical partner with YHWH.  YHWH blesses creation to provide an abundance that provides and sustains life.  However, creation is “relinquished to the power of chaos and curse when human agents, charged with the well-being of creation, renege on their caretaking responsibility” (166).  Yet, as has been demonstrated in the realm of YHWH’s relationship with other partners, God does not allow death and destruction to be the last word.  Instead, God restores creation to blessing.


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