Healtheland, writing at Jesus Christology, asked a very interesting question: “Do We Wait On God? Or Does God Wait On Us?” The question comes out of the writer’s discussion of the problem of prosperity preachers on the radio talking about people who have been tithing and giving their offerings to God but who have not received their blessing yet.
What is worse? What is more dangerous? The coercive idolatry of the conservative movement or the false doctrine of the prosperity teachers? Whatever the answer, it just so happened that my mood at that particular time was more conducive to suffering the latter than the former. And as it happens, the false teacher DID raise a sort of a theological dilemma for me. Does a sovereign omniscient timeless (meaning transcending and existing outside of time) God wait on man? And does man wait on God?
In answer to those two questions, Healtheland said: “I say that the answer to the former is unknowable.”
From an Old Testament perspective, it seems to me that it is possible to know the answer to Healtheland’s question. The Old Testament seems to point to the fact that, at times, God waits on us. We can learn this truth from the story of Abraham.
In the book of Genesis, Yahweh and his two companions come to pay a visit to Abraham to announce that Sarah would conceive a child and to tell him the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). In the story, Yahweh’s two companions depart to go to Sodom and Yahweh and Abraham remain alone, with Abraham standing before the Lord, as a servant before his master and as man before his God (Deuteronomy 4:10; Jeremiah 35:19; 2 Chronicles 9:7).
The text says: “The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord” (Genesis 18:22).
The footnote of the NIV has an important note. The note says: “Masoretic Text; an ancient Hebrew scribal tradition but the LORD remained standing before Abraham.” The New Jerusalem Bible accepts this ancient Hebrew scribal tradition and translates Genesis 18:22 as follows: “While the men left there and went to Sodom, Yahweh remained in Abraham’s presence.”
According to the Masoretes, the text originally read, “And the Lord stood before Abraham,” but the scribes changed the text because, in their eyes, it was not proper to speak of God standing in the presence of a creature. This emendation of the scribes is called a tiqqune sopherim.
According to Masoretic tradition, there are eighteen passages in the Old Testament that have been emended by scribes for theological reasons. These changes were made by the scribes early in the transmission of the text to remove irreverent expressions concerning God. One of these emendations is Genesis 18:22 where the text was emended in order to remove the idea that Yahweh waited on Abraham.
Some scholars accept the text as it appears in the Old Testament and reject the idea that Genesis 18:22 is a tiqqune sopherim, that is, that the text contains a scribal emendation. However, as Walter Brueggemann (Genesis. Interpretation [Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1982], p. 168) wrote:
The relation of Abraham and Yahweh in this passage is worth noting in detail. We may observe a remarkable textual problem which illuminates the matter. As it stands, the text in 18:22 now says, “Abraham stood before the Lord,” suggesting the subordination of Abraham to Yahweh. This is what we should expect. But a very early text note (not to be doubted in its authority and authenticity) shows that the text before any translation originally said, “Yahweh stood before Abraham.” The picture is one which agrees with our comments about Abraham as Yahweh’s theological instructor. It is as though Abraham were presiding over the meeting. But that bold image of Yahweh being accountable to Abraham for this theological idea was judged by the early scribes as irreverent and unacceptable. Therefore, the text was changed to read as we have it. But the early version suggests with remarkable candor what a bold posture Abraham assumes and how presumptuous is the issue he raises. Whether the textual change is accepted or not, this text reports that Yahweh must think a quite different theological thought. God is pressed by Abraham to consider an alternative.
Brueggemann’s statement may be too radical for some people, but it clearly expresses the true character of the God of Israel as revealed in the Old Testament. This view of God may be foreign to modern readers of the Bible, but it was very familiar to Israelites who depended on the patience of a patient God.
So, the answer to Healtheland’s question is not “unknowable” after all. At times, the God of the Bible chooses to wait on us. Although many times we try the patience of God (Isaiah 7:13), the Lord is patient for our sake (2 Peter 3:9 NLT).
We should be glad that the Lord waits on us. As Peter wrote: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2 Peter 3:15).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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