What are some of the ways God appears to humans in the Old Testament? How do these appearances change between biblical books? What do they suggest about the themes and purposes of each book?
The various appearances of God in the Old Testament are ironic, for they frequently produce a reaction opposite to what we might expect. In Genesis, God appears in physical human form. He walks and talks with Abraham in the guise of three men, and he even wrestles with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok River. God never identifies himself; yet by some strange faith, Jacob asks the person who has just picked a fight with him to offer him a blessing, suggesting that he knows it is God. Elijah’s faith in God is similarly ironic. In the first Book of Kings, God ceases to appear to humankind because of the evil in Israel’s divided kingdom. When God finally appears to Elijah, Elijah hears God’s voice, not in thunder or earthquakes, but in the sound of silence—the same silence that has characterized God’s absence in Israel.
These understated appearances sharply contrast God’s stark appearances in the Book of Exodus. The theophany—or visual symbols of God—are not only supernatural but visually overwhelming. God appears as a pillar of fire, provides the Israelites with manna from heaven, and descends on Mount Sinai in a great cloud of thunder. Again, God’s appearances prove ironic, but only because they fail to satisfy the Israelites, who complain and wish to return to Egypt. The failure to see God in his most convincing form proves one of the Israelites’ greatest acts of disobedience. Clearly, the biblical writers tailor God’s appearances to imply that true faith in God consists not in fantastic or persuasive experiences but in seeing God in one’s immediate surroundings.
Discuss the role of geography in the development of the biblical story. What is the relationship between physical location and religious well-being in the Old Testament?
In one sense, Israel’s proximity to the promised land mirrors its religious health. God ties the land to his covenant with the Israelites, and wherever the Israelites are located in relation to that land reflects their religious commitment to God. Enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites remain without a religion just as they are far from the promised land. The Assyrian and Babylonian exiles equally represent the outcome of Israel’s persistent disobedience. Geographically, the land of Canaan falls in the middle of the ancient Near East. As such, the Old Testament describes Israel’s religious story as a physical journey to and away from this geographical center. The structure of the Israelite camp in the Book of Leviticus offers an apt analogy for the relationship between geography and religious wellbeing. Israelites who are religiously “clean” may remain in the camp; but those who are ceremonially “unclean” must remain outside the camp, distancing themselves from the Ark of the Covenant at the center and, by extension, from God’s blessings.
However, the Old Testament also suggests that wandering on the geographical margins is essential to religious development. Moses meets God in the form of a burning bush only after fleeing his homeland, and both Samson and David live amongst the Philistines before emerging as saviors of Israel. Wandering promotes humility, discipline, and moral probity. The Israelites learn the laws of their religion and prepare to enter the promised land by roaming the desert. Even the exile, at first emblematic of Israel’s religious demise, promotes Israel’s religious development. Both historically and in the Book of Esther, the exile marks the flowering of Judaism as we know it today.
Discuss the role of female characters in the Old Testament. To what extent do the biblical writers portray women in a positive or negative light?
The Old Testament narrative depicts a male-dominated society that was probably typical of the ancient Near East. Men are the rulers, the religious leaders, and the warriors in the nation of Israel. Women predominantly fulfill a secondary role, as the wives or the handmaidens of the male protagonists. The Book of Genesis defines this role for women from the outset. God curses Eve to a life of child-rearing and of service to her husband, Adam. Yet this curse represents a punishment—not a blessing. The story of Eve explains why women have a secondary role in society, but the biblical writers do not claim that this is the way life for women should or must remain.
Instead, the biblical writers portray women who show strength and independence despite their marginal status. The Book of Esther praises a young Jewish woman who, as queen of Persia, boldly breeches rules of propriety and persuades the king to remove his edict sanctioning the destruction of the Jews. Similarly, the Book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman, calling out her advice to wayward young men in the city streets. Proverbs identifies Wisdom as a part of God’s character, blurring the typical personification of God as male. Perhaps such biblical books offer a model for the way in which traditional hierarchies between men and women can be reconsidered.