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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.
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.
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bible: The Old Testament!