Sunday, August 10, 2014

Traveling Mercies

I met the Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann the other day. I was working on a new writing project at our nearby coffee shop, and he came in for coffee because he was in town for a local event. I was a little starstruck as I introduced myself and told him I used his books in some of my classes.

A few days later, my project took me into his commentary on Exodus (1), and I was intrigued by his thoughts about the tabernacle. As always on this blog, my thoughts here aren't "mine" at all but are notes about the Bible from books I like.

Here is the concluding paragraph (NRSV) of Exodus:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.

Brueggemann contrasts the presence of the Lord in the tabernable, with the fact that the tabernable by its nature is portable for the Israelite’s journey. Sometimes it is the Ark of the Covenant that “contains” the presence (as in Numbers 10:33-36). In this Exodus text, the presence is contained in the cloud and the fire. “One can see that, in the collage of ark-cloud-fire-glory, Israel struggles to articulate presence that is powerfully known and confidentally trusted but that has not been made directly available for administration” (p. 979).

This articulation of presence has its dangers, as in priestly elitism, and overstatement concerning presence. Nevertheless, the presence of God in the tabernacle shows “God’s own resolve and commitment” to the community, to limit God’s freedom as it were to accompany the community journeying “in a world of emptied, one-dimensional profanation” (p. 979).

The dual themes of “abiding presence” and “traveling fidelity” continues in the New Tetament, with Jesus abiding with his people (e.g., John 14:23) and journeying “on the way” with the disciples---and authorizing them to journey and travel, too, as he is promises to be “with you always” (Matt. 28:19-20) (p. 980). It isn't just a matter of God's omnipresence, but also God's pledge to accompany us.

In this passage there is also the powerful theology of “traveling mercies.” Brueggemann points out that the promises of God’s presence has already been seen in Gen. 28;15 and 46:4), and see see it here, as well as the psalms. (p. 980).

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil (Ps. 23:4a).

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place, 

no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent. 

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways. 

On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. 

You will tread on the lion and the adder,
he young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot (Ps. 91:9-13).

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 

The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night. 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life (Ps. 121:5-7).

Our dearest theological ideas have to come from somewhere, and the promise that God accompanies the faithful is rooted here in Torah.


1. Walter Brueggemann, "The Book of Exodus," in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Journeys Home to God: Hosea

Researching the Bible for a new writing project, I was intrigued by Gale Yee’s commentary on the book of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. VII, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996). Our Sunday school class in Ohio had studied Hosea for a time, became downhearted by the many prophetic warnings, and switched to something more cheerful: Lenten scriptures! But I enjoy reading about how the seemingly random and difficult texts of the Prophets fit together, in ways that you're likely to miss unless you have a good commentary in hand. In this case I also enjoyed learning that there are “journeys home” motifs in Hosea.

1. The book has three sections chapters 1-3, 4-11, and 12-14. Chapters 1-3 concern Hosea’s relationship with his adulterous wife, Gomer, and their three children. But the people of Israel worship false Gods, which is “adultery” to God. God wants to reconcile with his “wife,” as Hosea does so with Gomer (ch. 3) (p. 198). As Gomer loves many men, the Israelites love the Canaanite fertility gods, the baals (p. 200).

2. Chapters 4-11 change the metaphor of God and Israel to parent and child; here, the child is rebellious. As with an adulterous wife, a rebellious child could be punished (p. with death but God does not want that, as summarized in the well known chapter 11 (p. 198). In 12-14, the two metaphors are interwoven, again with a good ending as land is restored to beauty and bounty (p. 198).

3. Within each section are important structures, as illustrated by the way chapters 3, 11, and 14 conclude the sections. The sections tell part of a story: of Hosea and Gomer, of God the husband and Israel the wife, of God the parent and Israel the child. Each section also has a “journey motif”: of the wife/son making a journey back to the huband/parent, and of the people journeying from exile back to the land (p. 198). For instance, as the earlier israelites journeyed from Egyptian exile to the land, so will the “son” (the people of Hosea’s time) journey back to and enjoy the good land, if they repent (11:10-11) (p. 235).

4. With these journey’s of repentance to faith and of exile to home, there are also journeys from barrenness to bounty, with the fertility of the wife (a theme elsewhere in scripture) symbolizing the fertility of the land (p. 198). “Hope” passages (5:15-6:3, 10:12, 11:10-11) are included in order to help motivate readers, too, to repent (p. 234). In chapters 4-11, the journey from barrenness to fertility begins at 6:1-3 (p. 250). Needless to say, Hosea believes that fertility does not come from the baals who are gods of the rain, but from the true God who is creator and lord of all creation (p. 200).

5. Interestingly, too, the worship of baals was an intrinsic part of worship of the Lord, as reflected in Hosea (3:4, 4:11-19, 10:1-2, 5, 8, 9:1-3, 13:2, 14:8). The baal worship was itself a “journey” of barrenness and death toward newness of life, and although the exact nature of this combination of Israelite and Canaanite worship is now difficult to reconstruct, the Israelites would not have thought such practices inappropriate. Hosea, of course, strongly condemned Baal worship as adulterous and rebellious (pp. 202-203).

6. Also interesting is the relationship of the 8th century Hosea and 6th century deuteronomistic history. The condemnation of idolatry is a strong theme of both, and Yee discusses the possible influence of Hosea upon the later history as well as redaction and editing of the Hosea material (pp. 204-206).

7. Memory is a component of the journey. Hosea connects the people of his time back to the earlier Israelites who journeyed from Egypt to the land (9:10, 11:1, 11:3-4). Of course, the faithfulness and provision of the Lord is the key thing to remember and reclaim (p. 279).

8. Unfortunately, the people of Hosea’s time were, indeed, cast into exile when they were defeated by the Assyrians. As Yee writes, "the Hosean text challenges us to reckon seriously with the religious and political choices before us… Hosea warns us that we, too, can ‘return to Egypt,’ if we turn a blind eye to racial/ethnic tensions and hostilities in our midst” (p. 279).

Themes of marriage and parent/child continue in the New Testament. God's Son Jesus Christ is, of course, one of God's people the Jews. Seeking a non-supersessionist way to think about this, I would say that rabbinic Judaism continued to strive to be faithful to God's Torah as Christians look to Christ who redeems the church as the in-grafted branch. Paul uses the marriage imagery to speak of the relationship of Christ and the church as analogous to God toward Israel and to the husband-wife relationship.