Few people today truly know the God of the Old Testament. Most Christians focus their study of Scriptures almost exclusively on the New Testament. For many, the God of the Old Testament is a violent God, a God of wrath, and an evil deity. Consequently, the view of a God who suffers with and because of his people is foreign to many Christians.
One book that has changed the way I perceive the God of the Old Testament is Terence Fretheim’s book, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). Fretheim’s book shows how much Christians have been influenced by Greek philosophy, a philosophy that led the leaders of the early church to adopt the doctrine of the impassibility of God.
The doctrine of the impassibility of God teaches that the God of the Bible is a perfect being and as such he cannot suffer. Since God is a perfect being, he cannot be affected by outside events and thus cannot suffer, for suffering is a sign of imperfection. In today’s post I will summarize some of the issues Fretheim raises in his book. Those who have read The Suffering of God will notice how much Fretheim’s views have affected my own views.
The God of the Old Testament is a God who chooses to identify himself with his people in their suffering. There are several passages in the Bible that reveal the pain of God for the sins and disobedience of his people.
The God who in the New Testament suffered in the person of Christ is the same God who in the Old Testament suffered because of the sins of his people. Several Old Testament texts give strong evidence that God experiences suffering. The suffering of God is portrayed in his words and actions. God’s suffering for his people is consistent with his nature as a God who chooses to enter into the history of Israel and establish a genuine relationship with his people.
The God of the Old Testament is known primarily by his role as creator and redeemer. In these two roles, God voluntarily limits himself to a gradual process of creation from the chaos of nothingness to the world in which we live. He is also the God who chooses to be patient with people who are arrogant, stubborn, and disobedient.
The stubbornness and rebellion of Israel are summarized in the words of the Levite prayer: “You warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your ordinances, by the observance of which a person shall live. They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey” (Nehemiah 9:29).
It is this voluntary limiting of God that sets the framework for the concept of God’s suffering. Since the God of the Bible reveals himself to his people in human form (Genesis 18:1-2) and communicates directly with human beings, the people of Israel assumed that God had thought and will, and that he was capable of emotions, anger, and love.
Throughout the Old Testament one can see that the moral evil of the world, the rebellion of human beings, and the disobedience of his people provoke God to anger (Deuteronomy 4:25; Judges 2:12) in the same way his love for them also moves him toward costly sacrifice (Joel 2:13; Hosea 11:1-9). The God of the Bible is a God who carries the burden of his people, who knows the failure of his purpose for them, who sorrows over them with a love that prevails over wrath, and who suffers because of their affliction.
The suffering of God in the Old Testament anticipates the pain and the agony of the Suffering Servant of the New Testament: “It is as if there were a cross unseen, standing on its undiscovered hill, far back in the ages, out of which were sounding always, just the same deep voice of suffering love and patience, that was heard by mortal ears from the sacred hill of Calvary” (H. Wheeler Robinson, Suffering: Human and Divine [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939] 145).
These words express the nature of the God believers find in the Old Testament, the very same loving, caring, hurting God who reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
Israel believed that God was present with the people in their suffering, that their God was a God who understood what the people were going through. Although Israel believed that God was the cause of their suffering, they also believed that God understood their suffering. Divine understanding for them presupposes suffering with them. The God who revealed himself to Israel could not be the personal God of his people without experiencing suffering. Those who do not experience suffering cannot sympathize with the pain and suffering of others (Hebrews 4:15; 5:8). God is a loving and compassionate God and it pains him to see humanity suffer.
According to Fretheim (p. 35), there are two poles for understanding God in the Old Testament. One is that God is a radically transcendent Lord who stands outside the world without acting in the world. This is what he calls the traditional view of God.
The second is the organismic view, a view in which a greater continuity, that is, a greater intimacy between God and the world is discerned. In the organismic view there is a relationship of reciprocity. In other words, the world is not only affected by God, God is also affected by the world, both positively and negatively. God has chosen to be involved in the history of the world and to be limited by it. Therefore, although God is unchangeable in his steadfast love and his salvific will for all creation, God does change in response to the interaction between himself and his creation.
For Israel to have understood God in any other light would have been incompatible with the revelation of God’s character in their history. The people of Israel could not have understood a God who had complete freedom to act in the realm of history but who refused to do so because of a lack of compassion or desire. After all, they had experienced just the opposite in the Exodus.
The belief in the genuine love of God for Israel necessitated, for them, a God who sympathized with his people, not merely superficially recognizing their condition, but actually participating with them in their sufferings. This is how Israel experienced God in Egypt: “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2:24-25).
For God to have seen the affliction of his people, to have heard their cry, and to have known their suffering (Exodus 3:7) required God taking their sorrows into his very being and allowing those sorrows to arouse feelings of compassion and to affect his being in his interactions with them.
Thus, the suffering of God is basic for the proper understanding of the concept of relatedness or relationship which in the Old Testament derives from the concept of the covenant and the understanding of Israel as the chosen people of God. As Israel understood God, the idea of the suffering of God to some extent limited the concept of God’s power. For the relationship between God and Israel to have integrity required God giving up some of his own power and freedom for the sake of the relationship.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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