Chapter 1: Witness to a Living God: The Old Testament
TESTIMONY TO GOD’S POWER
High up on the slopes of Mount Carmel, the conflict is joined. Two factions are present: the numerous representatives of Baal, and a single proponent of Yahweh by the name of Elijah. The issue to be decided is a simple but far-reaching one: whose god has power—which means, of course, whose god is really God?
As the story is recounted (1 Kings 18:20–40), Elijah proposes a contest: prepare two sacrificial bulls as burnt offerings, but let God provide the fire. The challenge is accepted. But the intense and extensive efforts of the prophets of Baal prove to be of no avail. After half a day of the best they can muster, the result of their pleading is “no voice, no answer, and no response” (18:29).
Then Elijah takes center stage. Obstacles are piled on by the narrator—jars of water soaking the wood to the core, poured on not once but three times. At last, the time of resolution is at hand.
At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that  I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” (18:36–39)
This notion that the god who is truly God is the one who manifests power is hardly original to the Israelites. It is widespread, and ancient. As Wolfhart Pannenberg has observed, it is generally recognized that “the being of the gods is their power.”1 That is our point of departure for evaluating the biblical witness to God, but it is only that: a jumping-off point.
Immediately after this incident, the biblical record provides us with another and startlingly different divine/human encounter. God’s prophet has had to flee from the wrath of the king’s wife, his life now in jeopardy. At Mt. Horeb Elijah experiences the powerful and empowering presence of God in an unexpected manner.
[God] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (19:11–12)
The key phrase is also translatable as “the sound of a soft whisper” or, in the RSV, “a still, small voice.” The narrative provides stirring testimony that convictions about God’s power conveyed in the literature of the Old Testament move well beyond what the ancient Israelites inherited from their cultural surroundings. Let us begin with that inheritance before moving on to what is distinctive about the hebraic testimony.
VIEWS OF GOD’S POWER ADOPTED FROM ISRAEL’S NEIGHBORS
That the biblical witness to God’s power includes notions common to the religious environment of the day is widely recognized. In writing  specifically about creation accounts, Terence Fretheim takes notice of “a widespread fund of images and ideas upon which Israel drew.”2 I regard that as more broadly applicable in regard to other notions of God’s power as well.
The power to create. “Ah, Lord God!” Jeremiah proclaims, “It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm!” (Jer 32:17).3 What is narrated at the very beginning of the biblical record, God’s creating of all that is, also pervades the subsequent literature down through the prophets and the Wisdom tradition.4
I made the earth,
and created humankind upon it;
It was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. (Is 45:12)
So far, what we are encountering is a raw manifestation of God’s unilateral power, the absolute might to bring into being—and impose order on—an unresisting cosmos. The object of God’s activity, the “creation,” is purely passive and receptive. This is in common with creation myths present throughout the ancient Middle East. But as we shall see shortly, that only begins to scratch the surface of Israel’s own understanding of God as Creator.
Power over the forces of nature and over human and animal behavior. This is an explicit example of Pannenberg’s observation. God not only brings the cosmos into being but continues to exercise power, even control, over all that is within it. Isaiah proclaims that:
the Sovereign , the Lord of hosts,
will lop the boughs with terrifying power . . .
He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax. (Is. 10:33f.)
Second Isaiah’s God, who “formed the earth and made it,” and “did not create it a chaos” (Is. 45:18), uses Cyrus, king of Persia, as a tool to effect God’s goals (45:1, 13), generating weal as well as woe (45:7). The psalmist’s God:
covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
. . . gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry. (Ps. 147:8–9)
God asks Moses the rhetorical question, “Is the LORD’ power limited?” (Num. 11:23), with the very clear implication that it definitely is not. Even as they reflect the particularities of Israel’s covenantal relationship with Yahweh, these passages bear the clear imprint of borrowed notions about God’s unchallengeable sway over the whole of creation.
Power to dictate the outcome of struggles and warfare. This is a subset of the preceding theme. Understanding God as triumphant in battle was a fundamental conviction throughout the ancient Near East. God may seem opposable in the short term but not in regard to the eventual outcome. Israel is reminded by the chronicler that “God has power to help or to overthrow” in battle (2 Chr. 25:8). The psalmist reassures the faint of heart that God “will shatter kings on the day of his wrath” and “execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses” (Ps. 110:5–6). The narrative of Gideon bringing only three hundred warriors into battle against the combined might of the Midianites and Amalekites, blowing trumpets that resulted in God setting “every man’s sword against his fellow” among the enemies’ army (Judges 7:22), is a colorful expression of God’s capacity to shape the result of any human conflict.
God as divine monarch. Although there are particular ways in which the notion of God as divine monarch takes on a distinctive character with Israel, its roots can readily be traced throughout the ancient Near East, from Egypt to Babylonia. In Egypt, the sun god Amun-Re was regularly conceived as the true heavenly lord and father of the reigning pharaoh.5 In Babylonia the human ruler was understood to be “the earth-bound bearer of the heavenly dignity, a mortal container of the immortal kingly essence.”6
The Gideon story culminates in a refusal of the Israelites’ offer of kingship: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). King David’s hymn of praise at the conclusion of 1 Chronicles echoes this theme.
Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might. (1 Chr. 29:11–12)
Isaiah’s call vision sees God as the heavenly king sitting on his throne (Is. 6:1,5). Psalms 93–100 have as their common theme YHWH malak, “the LORD reigns,” “the LORD is king.”7 God is the king everlasting, robed in majesty (Ps. 93:1–2), “a great King above all gods” (95:3).
Say among the nations, “The Lord is king!
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. (96:10)
The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad! (97:1)
Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob. (99:4)
God is king not only of all the earth but specifically “over the nations”; the “shields of the earth,” i.e., the means of defense of earthly realms, are none other than God’s very own property (Ps. 47:7-9).
Personal power. “To some degree or other,” Bernhard Anderson has observed, “anthropomorphism appears in all circles and periods of OT tradition.”8 God walks in the Garden in the cool of the evening (Gen. 3:8). God’s “voice” is “powerful . . . full of majesty” (Ps. 29:4).9 God’s mighty “hand” (yad) is typical language for expressing the exercise of God’s power, in examples far too numerous to bear mentioning. The Old Testament 
unhesitantly and consistently views Yahweh as a distinct person. . . . Anthropomorphism is indigenous to a faith which views God in terms of historical actions and relationships rather than in terms of natural power or impersonal being. . . . [To Yahweh] are ascribed the characteristics of personality: wisdom, will, purpose, love, anger, anguish, patience, hatred, jealousy, joy, etc.10
This is hardly unique to the biblical record. The anthropomorphizing of God and of God’s power was a common notion readily available for appropriating. But Israel separated this out from the equally common tendency to envision God in animal form, especially prevalent in ancient Egypt. And as we will see, the notion of divine personal power takes on a very particular character in the context of the Mosaic covenant.
VIEWS OF GOD’S POWER DISTINCTIVE TO ISRAEL
To observe what the people of the Old Testament shared with their varied religious environment in regard to the concept of divine power constitutes no more than a prelude to the full symphony of ideas yet to be encountered. In some respects, the biblical witness took existing notions and gave them a distinctive character all its own. In other respects, it brought entirely new understandings into focus. To both of these I now turn.
God’s power is exercised in the context of a divine/human covenant. “Constantly present behind all the testimonies to Yahweh’s marvelous power is one particular presupposition,” Walther Eichrodt insisted half a century ago. “This power is the power of the God of the covenant.”11 In God’s covenant with Moses and, through Moses, with the people of the exodus, the being of God acquired “an explicitly personal character”12 that countered anthropomorphizing tendencies “primarily through the experience of the infinite superiority of the divine nature to all merely human attributes and capacities—an experience which marks every encounter with the divine in the Old Testament.”13
The heart of this covenant is found in the promise, “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:7). Commitments are verbalized on both sides: God is “the faithful God who maintains  covenant loyalty with those who love him, and keep his commandments” (Deut. 7:9). So, obviously, human faithfulness and loyalty are fully expected in return. Deut. 28 details blessings that flow upon those who are obedient to God’s precepts as well as curses unleashed upon those who are not.
Walter Brueggemann’s perspective on Israel’s core testimony is “that it is Yahweh’s sovereign power and covenantal solidarity that mark the God to whom Israel bears witness. . . . What is important is the recognition that for Israel, power and solidarity are held together, and that both are crucial for Israel’s normative utterance about Yahweh.”14
God is a single center of power. The Old Testament is chock full of references to other gods, to Yahweh presiding over a council of gods.15 Explicit monotheism clearly arrived on the scene only belatedly. Whereas the Decalogue begins with the prohibition that “you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3, Deut. 5:7, emphasis mine), it remains for Second Isaiah to insist that there simply are no other gods, period. The gods to whom Israel’s neighbors (and enemies) pray are “a delusion,” their accomplishments “nothing,” their images “empty wind” (Is. 41:29). A typically recurring phrase in Isaiah is simply, “I am God, and there is no other” (46:9; 45:5, 6). It is this God and this God alone who is “mighty in power, great in strength” (Is. 40:26). So also does Jeremiah maintain that the gods of the other nations “are no gods” at all (Jer. 2:11), and Hezekiah prays to the God of Israel that “you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15).
God’s powerful creative activity is ongoing. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” God is heard to say by Second Isaiah. “I am about to do a new thing” (Is. 43:19). Terence Fretheim is by no means alone in maintaining that this is more than just the divine oversight of the created order. God’s ongoing work of creating involves “the emergence of genuinely new realities in an increasingly complex world.”16
This is already implicit in the opening text of the biblical witness. Creation is not simply the “making” of a cosmos and its contents. It is the bringing of design out of formlessness, order out of chaos (Gen.  1:2). And this process is hardly finished when the initiating acts of creating are over. Chaos threatens even the tranquility of the Garden in the disrupting antics of the serpent (Gen. 3:1). Chaos in the form of raging waters, originally contained and restrained (Gen. 1:6), is allowed to overwhelm the earth as prelude to a fresh start with Noah and his descendents (Gen. 6–8). The rainbow signifies a divine promise, but it does not negate the ongoing capacity of the forces of chaos to subvert the tenuous emergence of greater and more complex order. It is rather an assurance that God’s power cannot and will not be defeated by chaos. Psalm 104, which Brueggemann calls “perhaps the fullest rendition of creation faith in the Old Testament,”17 appropriates the Hebrew word for original creation, bara’, for the activity of continuing creation. According to Bernhard Anderson: “Creation is not just an event that occurred in the beginning, at the foundation of the earth, but is God’s continuing activity of sustaining creatures and holding everything in being.”18
This capacity to continue to create the genuinely new is a significant motif in the testimony of Second Isaiah (e.g., 41:17–20), culminating in his disciples’ envisioning of the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (65:17; cf. 66:22), holding within itself the promise of the eventual championing of divinely intended order over all that threatens to inhibit it.
Divine power is conjoined with righteousness. “I am the Lord” says God to Jeremiah in the prophet’s testimony; “I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth” (Jer. 9:24) The identity of Israel’s God is explicitly characterized here by qualities of absolute reliability. This is no god of arbitrary power and capricious action, as Israel’s neighbors repeatedly resorted to. The Psalms ring with assertions of God’s steadfast righteousness (7:9–11; 11:7; 116:5; 119:137), which, like God’s hesed,19 “endures forever” (111:3).
There is no question but that Israel’s understanding of the righteous power of God is distinctly developed within the context of the covenant God has established with God’s people. Zechariah makes that point with unmistakable clarity, in words that echo the covenant’s very foundation: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness” (Zech. 8:8).
God exercises power in a manner that invites participation by those whom God’s power has created. Terence Fretheim has dug deeper than anyone else in bringing this theme to light. The first divine words to human beings (Gen. 1:28, exercise “dominion,” radah), he has written, “constitute a sharing of the exercise of power (dominion). From the beginning God chooses not to be the only one who has or exercises creative power. . . . God establishes a power-sharing relationship with humans.”20
In this regard, then, Fretheim understands God’s power as portrayed in the Old Testament to be fundamentally interactive and essentially, not coincidentally, interrelational, a conviction that thoroughly pervades his God and World in the Old Testament.21 God so enters into relationships:
that God is not the only one who has something important to say . . .
that God is not the only one who has something important to do
and the power with which to do it . . .
that God is genuinely affected by what happens to the relationship . . .
that the human will can stand over against the will of God . . .
that the future is not all blocked out.22
That “God will take into consideration human thought and action in determining what God’s own action will be” is what Fretheim calls the “divine consultation.”23
The first creation story in Genesis dares to proclaim that human beings are created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). I regard this as critical for comprehending the scope of God’s sharing of power. As God is powerful, so are we—who bear God’s image—expected to exercise power. The language of Gen. 1:26–27, explicitly occurring only here in the Old Testament, is a fundamental shift of orientation, a “democratizing,” of the ancient Near East’s notion of the earthly ruler as being God’s image on earth.24 The history of attempts to embody this democratized notion shows how easy it is to get it wrong. If God’s power is perceived to be all controlling, dominating, impositional, so will humans aspire to be controlling and dominating over others in God’s name, imposing their own will on others on the understanding that they are only fulfilling their God-given destiny. The thesis undergirding this book is that this behavior actualizes a false notion of the power of the God in whose image we are created, with calamities both large and small the result.
One final note remains to be offered. If the original but also continuing act of creating is one of bringing increasing order out of the swirl of chaos that threatens to engulf it, then it is surely clear by now that this is an ongoing creative process in which human beings are actively, and powerfully, invited by God to participate. We are not merely passive. We contribute, substantively.
God’s power is a liberating power that empowers the weak and the powerless. Heschel observed that according to the Roman historian Tacitus “The gods are on the side of the stronger.” To the contrary, Israel’s prophets “proclaimed that the heart of God is on the side of the weaker. God’s special concern is not for the mighty and the successful, but for the lowly and the downtrodden, for the stranger and the poor, for the widow and the orphan.”25
This is first encountered definitively in God’s leading of the descendents of Abraham out of bondage in Egypt. God’s covenant with Israel and God’s “surprising liberation of a poor and oppressed people”26 are intimately linked. Moses sings of God’s terrifying displays of power, hazaq, in destroying the Pharaoh’s military might (Ex. 15:1–18).
When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power. (Deut. 26:6–8)
Divine power undergirding the powerless is visible in tales as varied as the deliverance of the baby Moses in the waters of the Nile and the reversal of odds in David’s conquest of Goliath. It is particularly emphasized in the Old Testament passage that prefigures Mary’s Magnificat, the prayer of Hannah.
The bows of the mighty are broken
but the feeble gird on strength . . .
[The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts up the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Sam. 2:4, 8)27
God exercises power in a manner that leaves God at risk and vulnerable. A God who shares power with others is a God who relinquishes the illusion of control for the sake of an openness in regard to what transpires within the cosmos. This engenders, according to Fretheim, “a divine vulnerability, as God takes on all the risks that authentic relatedness entails.”28
This is clearly a controversial notion, but it appears to follow from what has previously been examined about the understanding of God’s power in the Old Testament. Fretheim states that “the future of the created order is made dependent in significant ways upon the creaturely use of power,” and how Israel responds to the divine lure contributes even also to “the future of God,” not just to its own future.29
But Fretheim is by no means the first or only biblical scholar to become cognizant of this motif. Heschel was aware that God is “moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. . . . This notion that God can be intimately affected, that he possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God,”30
Furthermore, in the divine encounter with Moses at the burning bush, God discloses God’s name: “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). In the traditions of Israel’s era, to have a name for someone is to have some degree of power over that individual. In that understanding, then, God’s revealing of God’s name to Moses represents God’s willing relinquishment of invulnerability. This correlation of naming and divine vulnerability has been widely recognized for some time.31
Human beings can challenge God’s exercise of divine power and accuse God of abusing that power. When the wanderers in the wilderness lose faith in their Deliverer and mold a golden calf to worship in God’s place, God’s wrath waxes hot against them and God expresses to Moses the intent to consume them utterly (Ex. 32:1–10). But Moses dares to intercede on the people’s behalf.
“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was  with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” (Ex. 32:11–12)
Job rails against the manner in which divine power has been directed explicitly against his wellbeing (Job 6–7, 16–17).
I will not restrain my mouth;
I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. (7:11)
The testimony of the Book of Job is a troubling one because there is in fact no satisfactory resolution of Job’s challenges at all. In the end, God simply overwhelms Job—in essence, shouts him down, reversing the text just quoted: “I lay my hand on my mouth” (40:4). But the challenge itself remained in the canon for all to read and take note of.
The most extreme instance of a challenge to God’s power in the Old Testament is no less than the charge of rape and defilement made by Jeremiah. The language in Jer. 20:7, “O LORD, you have enticed me . . . you have overpowered me,” utilizes the terminology (patah) of “manipulative or violent sexual exploitation.”32 The point of the testimony is not that God is a manipulative or deceiving deity; it is that it is not beyond the pale of possibility to accuse God of so behaving. That is but one more expression of the consequences of the power-sharing relationship between God and world.
God is capable of a change of mind. Fretheim has called attention to nearly forty references to “divine repentance” in the Old Testament.33 This is now more typically translated from the Hebrew as having a “change of mind” (e.g., Ex. 32:12 quoted above). The theme is a continuation of the preceding section: The consequence of a challenge to how God exercises power can indeed be a reversal of intent on God’s part.
And so the culmination of Moses’ reminder of how much Yahweh has already invested in the children of Abraham is that “the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Ex. 32:14). In the Jonah narrative, it is not the prophet but the outsider, the king of Ninevah, who surmises, “Who knows? God  may relent and change his mind” about destroying the city, and, indeed, God does just that (Jonah 3:9–10). The writings of Jeremiah are replete with instances where God changes God’s mind about disasters God had intended to bring about (Jer. 18:8, 10; 26:3, 13,19).
The underlying conviction in this pair of themes is that the God of the Old Testament is a living, dynamic power who interacts with creation often in fresh and direction-reversing ways. This is not a static power “locked in stone,” a mindless supracosmic force grinding inevitably toward its intended ends. God’s power is one that is ever interactive specifically with what emerges day to day in response to what God has initially set into motion.
God’s interactive power is not defeated by human wrongdoing but finds unexpected ways to wring the good from out of the bad. In the extended Joseph story that brings Genesis to a close, a fascinating interpretation of events emerges. Joseph’s brothers have sold him into slavery in Egypt, intending great harm to befall him. When they meet again, Joseph is hardly a slave. He has become essentially the Pharaoh’s vice-regent. And he tells his brothers that he sees the hand of God in shaping the preceding course of events (Gen. 45:4–9).
A simple way of unpacking this would turn God into the divine puppet-master and Jacob’s children merely puppets unknowingly carrying out the divine intent. An alternative understanding that is more faithful to the biblical witness overall is that this is one poignant instance of God’s capacity to turn what humans intend for evil into something empowering. Gerhard von Rad considers this “the primary subject of the whole story: God’s will to turn all the chaos of human guilt to a gracious purpose.”34
God’s power can also be experienced as destructive, as a manifestation of God’s wrath. Brueggemann is one who has given extended attention to Israel’s “unsolicited” testimony that the God who creates is also a God who can and does wreak destruction.35 Beyond the wholesale destruction brought on by the Great Flood comes the devastating of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their inhabitants (Gen. 19:24–25) and the unleashing of a host of plagues against all of Egypt, guilty and  innocent alike (Ex. 7:14–12:32). One way of receiving this testimony is to observe Israel’s absolute resistance to the notion that any divine power other than Yahweh’s is ever at work in destructive events. But it is also an acknowledgment that Yahweh’s wrath is fierce and can have vivid consequences. The prophecies of Isaiah begin with this jolting reminder:
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me . . .
Therefore says the Sovereign,
the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:
Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
and avenge myself on my foes! (Is. 1:2, 24)
The prophets proclaim God’s wrath to be the consequence of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within the covenant. It is the flip side of God’s love, the result of the recipients of that love failing abysmally to live up to their part of the covenantal bargain. Even so, Patrick Miller observes the “priority of the Lord’s compassion” as the context in which divine wrath is presented. “The intercession of the prophet works precisely because it is grounded in the character of God who is bent toward mercy and compassion, not toward anger and punishment.”36 And Second Isaiah assures his readers that wrath does not have the last word; it shall eventually cease.
Thus says your Sovereign, the Lord,
your God who pleads the cause of his people:
See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
you shall drink no more
from the bowl of my wrath. (Is. 51:22)
God may elect to withhold power until it is to be exercised at some later time. Apocalyptic visions supplanted prophetic hearings toward the end of the Old Testament period and on into the Intertestamental era. They show up in Daniel and Ezekiel and elsewhere, and even put in an early appearance in the collection of oracles in Isaiah 24–27. The  collapse of prophetic voices interpreting God’s work among the people leads to the psalmist’s lament:
We do not see our emblems;
there is no longer any prophet,
and there is no one among us who knows how long.
How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand;
why do you keep your hand in your bosom? (Ps. 74:9–11)
The “holding back” of God’s “hand” clearly expresses a sense that somehow the mighty hand of God can no longer be discerned in the course of human events. Among the welter of specific and often conflicting details, this is an overarching theme of the apocalyptic point of view: God has withdrawn. God can no longer be counted on in making sense of what is happening.
But this is understood to be only a temporary lapse. There will eventually come the “day of the Lord” (Joel 1:15; 2:11, 31; Eze. 30:3; Zep 1:7) when the power of God is promised to return, to overtrump all earthly adversity. That understanding is a significant part of the background to the Gospel witness in the New Testament.
All of these individual subthemes are expressions of the power of a living God. The various aspects of Israel’s testimony to the power of God in the Old Testament can hardly be boiled down to one all-encompassing statement. But this much can be observed: They all witness to the understanding of a God who is dynamically alive. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” says the psalmist (Ps. 42:2); “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (84:2). “But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God,” Jeremiah proclaims (Jer. 10:10). It is this characteristic of God’s being that we must be wary of losing sight of as we continue our conceptual journey.
TESTIMONY TO GOD’S LOVE
Hosea is outraged. The covenant people of the northern kingdom have proven unfaithful. The monarchy is in chaos. The powers that be, such as  they are, continually attempt alliances with foreign nations, be it Egypt or Assyria. Into such a morass steps the earliest of the “writing prophets” of the Old Testament with a trio of extended metaphors that warn of God’s visitation of wrath but culminate with an incredible and wholly unexpected reassurance: God’s love will triumph!
The first two metaphoric narratives in chapters 1–3 are probably parallel versions of the same symbolic event. Hosea understands himself to be called to take as wife a woman of ill repute—a whore, an adulteress—by whom he fathers three children with symbolic names: the Punished One (Jezreel), No Mercy (Lo Ruuhamah), and Not My People (Lo Ammi) (1:6–9). The allusions are obvious ones: So have God’s liberated covenant-partners behaved. They have gone whoring after other gods (1:2; 9:1). The covenant has been violated to the degree that the relationship seems forever severed: “for you are not my people and I am not your God” (1:9, emphasis added; also 1:10).
The terms of the metaphor in chapter 11 shift from faithful husband and faithless wife to dismayed father and rebellious child.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me . . .
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I went down to them and fed them. (11:1–2, 4)
The intimacy of these verses is striking. God’s tender love in the exodus and the wilderness years is akin to the actions of a nurturing, nursing mother. But God’s people have now turned away, and the consequences in terms of the execution of God’s terrifying wrath are sure to be catastrophic.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all. (11:5–7)37
However, Hosea’s understanding of God is far too complex simply to let divine anger and wrath have the final say. On the way to a resolution, there is, as it were, a pause, to ponder the scope of God’s vexation. It is as though, for Hosea, God is wrestling with Godself, is almost agonizing over how to find the right way forward.
Shall I ransom them from the power of She’ol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O She’ol, where is your destruction?
Compassion is hid from my eyes. (13:14)
It does not stay hidden. Hosea’s witness in the midst of all this turmoil is the bold affirmation that the hesed of God is finally going to prevail above all else.
How can I give you up, E’phra·im?
How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . .
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy E’phra·im;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. (11:8–9; cf. 14:4–9)
Hosea contrasts God’s steadfast hesed with human love, which is variable and unreliable, saying to the people, “Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early” (6:4), whereas the first story of Israel as faithless wife culminates with the husband-God expressing the intent to “take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (2:19).
The most important Hebrew word for love, hesed, is typically translated into English with the qualifier “steadfast.” But that adjective alone hardly exhausts the scope of its meaning. This is particularly an understanding of God’s love that is rooted in the covenant, so that it may also be identified as “covenant love.” In the very ancient Song of Moses, this is quite clear. “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed” (Ex. 15:15). God’s loving relationship with God’s people in the covenant is so vital that this aspect of God alone is offered up as a resolution to the mystery of “why.” Why this people? Why the children of Abraham? The Deuteronomist’s answer is that Israel was chosen simply “because the LORD loved you” (Deut. 7:8; see also 10:15).38
And so we see that, from God’s side, hesed is love that endures through all adversity. It is the overarching context within which the merely temporary consequences of God’s righteous wrath are experienced.39 In contrast to the behavior of the covenant people, it is love that is not fickle or transient. And it is surely a love that is not dependent upon the lovability, or lack of it, of the one who is loved.
Hesed is also understandable as the fundamental motive in the act of creation itself. The unflagging endurance of hesed becomes the staccato refrain punctuating the recital of God’s creating and liberating activity in Psalm 136. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann is the one to whom I’m indebted for using the phrase creatio ex amore, “creation out of love.”40 I regard this as an avenue of thought well worth pursuing, and I consider it a far more biblical notion than the traditional creatio ex nihilo, which misinterprets Gen. 1:1–2. It is not at all inappropriate to see God’s hesed as underlying the very act of initial as well as continuing creation. And so God’s hesed is also “creative love.”
It is no doubt within that context that we can appreciate the testimony of the psalmists that “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD” (Ps. 33:5)41 The psalmists and others speak of the “abundance” of God’s hesed throughout the lands (Ps. 106:45; Neh. 9:17; Lam. 3:32). Although rooted for Israel in the experience of covenant, God’s love flows out from there into the whole of God’s cosmic realm. It is boundless.
THE CONJOINING OF GOD’S POWER AND GOD’S LOVE
The Psalms abound with intentional juxtapositions of divine power and love.
Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O LORD. (Ps. 62:11–12)
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you. (63:2–3)42
Psalms 98 and 100 particularly integrate the kingly power of God with God’s hesed. The hymns to God’s mighty deeds are not limited to past and present actions: “with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Ps. 130:7). Edwin Good went so far as to conclude, concerning such passages as these, that for the Old Testament witness and for the psalmists in particular, “love is the character of God’s judgment and is the mode in which he exercises his power.”43
Walther Eichrodt went further than any other recent Old Testament scholar in focusing on this important interrelationship of power and love. He saw that Hosea lifts up admirably “the quite irrational power of love as the ultimate basis of the covenant relationship.”44 For Hosea, “love is part of the perfection of Yahweh’s nature and a basic element in holiness. . . . in the end, it is the incomprehensible creative power of love which marks Yahweh as the wholly ‘other’, the one whose nature is in complete contrast to that of the created cosmos.”45 Eichrodt utilized provocative but undeveloped phrasing to identify this union, writing of Hosea’s “vision of love as the ultimate and decisive power”46 and insisting that “Love is the effective power in the saving stipulations of the covenant.”47 Eichrodt never unpacked this coupling to characterize any understanding of how God’s love itself is also power. But I am indebted to him for daring to articulate the notion as part of his analysis of the Old Testament witness.
More recently, Walter Brueggemann has pushed the conceptual envelope with his commentary on two parallel formulae that assert Yahweh’s “incomparability”: “Who is like you?” (e.g., Ex. 15:11), a rhetorical question addressed to Yahweh, and the echoing answer, “There is none like you” (Ps. 86:8).48 Bruegggemann considers the divine incomparability to be a fundamental uniting of power and solidarity, and maintains not that it is expressed throughout the Old Testament but “only that it is Israel’s most extreme witness about God,” assumed though not verbalized everywhere in Israel’s testimony.49
I would maintain that the formula is equally expressible as a union of power and hesed. Consider the wording of the first text Brueggemann puts forth in support of his analysis, a portion of the Song of Moses:
“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them.
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.” (Ex. 15:11–13)
The explicit terminology of God’s love does not appear in the next two texts he identifies (Ps. 35:10, 113:5–8), though that is implied in the delivering of the weak and needy, the raising of the poor from the dust. It does return, however, in the final text, Micah 7:18–20, where God is promised to “again have compassion on us” (Mic. 7:19).
The conjoined language of power and love occurs once again in two of the three texts Brueggemann discusses in regard to the second formulaic expression, “There is none like you,” absent only from Jer. 10:1–16 (specifically, 10:6). Power is the prevailing theme in this hymn of praise; solidarity with Israel is mentioned only at the end (10:16). But it is explicit in Solomon’s prayer of dedication: “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart” (1 Kings 8:23). And the conjunction is strong also in Psalm 86:
There is none like you among the gods, O LORD,
nor are there any works like yours . . .
For you are great and do wondrous things,
you alone are God . . .
For great is your steadfast love toward me. (Ps. 86:8, 10,13)
In my estimation, Brueggemann’s work on the paired formulae provides a vital key to understanding the Old Testament’s witness to God’s power and love. Power is not divine power unless it is characterized by hesed. Love is not divine love unless it is potent, efficacious. The two are essentially inseparable.
One very important consideration yet remains. The multiple meanings of hesed have not yet been exhausted. The still unexplored one could only surface after hesed’s vital conjunction with God’s power has been presented. The God of covenanting, creating, enduring love is the God who “gives power and strength to his people” (Ps. 68:35). Micah is “filled with power” to proclaim God’s justice (Mic. 3:8). Second Isaiah expresses this in soaring poetry:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not fait or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Is. 40:28–31, ital. mine)
Such passages as these lead me to the inescapable conclusion that the hesed of God in the Old Testament is understandable as no less than empowering love.50 We do not have to await the life and message of Jesus  of Nazareth to encounter this fundamental theme. The New Testament, and Jesus in particular, do not strike out in a radically new direction in regard to the juxtaposition of God’s power and love, but bring a number of Old Testament tendencies to integrated completion. The seeds have already been sown.
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), 55.
- Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 65 (hence, GWOT).
- See also Jer 10:12, 27:5, 51:15. The Hebrew language did have words for the abstract concept we name “power,” namely, koch; hazaq, generally translated as “be strong”; and me’od, “strength.” But anthopomorphized language is more prevalent, such as “God’s outstretched arm” and “God’s mighty hand” (Jer 21:5.) I am indebted to Jon Berquist for this information.
- The exposition of these texts forms the structure of Fretheim’s GWOT.
- Martin Buber, Kingship of God, tr. Richard Scheimann (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 87f.
- Buber, 89.
- See James Luther Mays, “The God Who Reigns,” in The Forgotten God, ed. A. Andrew Das and Frank J. Matera (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 31f.
- Bernhard Anderson, “God, OT Views of,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. E-J:417–30 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 423 (hence, IDB).
- Cf. the creation story in Gen. 1, where “God said . . . and it was so.”
- Anderson, 423.
- Walther Eichrodt,Theology of the Old Testament, tr. J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 231.
- Eichrodt, 206.
- Eichrodt, 213, ital. orig.
- Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 143, ital. orig. The conjoining of power and solidarity will be addressed further, below.
- This is seen particularly in Gen. 1:26 where God addresses the divine council, saying “Let us” create humans in “our image, according to our likeness,” though the language shifts to the singular in the following verse.
- Fretheim, GWOT, 7.
- Brueggemann, 155.
- Bernhard W. Anderson, From Creation to New Creation: Old Testament Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 89.
- See below.
- Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. I) (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 345f. See also GWOT, 49.
- See esp. 13-22 for crucial summary statements. Abraham Heschel, in his trailblazing work on the prophetic literature, already lifted up this theme in Old Testament analysis half a century ago in his The Prophets, 2 vol. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962). “What the prophets proclaim is God’s intimate relatedness to man” (1:219). God does not reveal godself to the prophet “in an absolute abstractness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world” (2:3). God is “moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. . . . This notion that God can be intimately affected, that he possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God” (2:4).
- Fretheim, GWOT, 22f. The numerous biblical texts that undergird these statements are provided there.
- Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 49.
- Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” 345.
- Heschel, The Prophets, 1:167. See, e.g., Is. 40:29: “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”
- Daniel L. Migliore, The Power of God and the Gods of Power (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008), 43. The original is italicized.
- Similarly Psalm 35 proclaims: “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them” (35:10). See Hans-Ruedi Weber’s helpful analysis of these texts in his Power: Focus for a Biblical Theology (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1989), 125-31.
- Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 76.
- Ibid., 74, 47. See also 55, 75.
- Heschel, The Prophets, 2:4.
- See, e.g., Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 207; Walther Zimmerli, Old Testament Theology in Outline, tr. David E. Green (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 18: “Those who are named are vulnerable.”
- Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 360.
- Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 17.
- Gerhard von Rad, God at Work in Israel, tr. John H. Marks (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1980), 32. See the culminating statement in Gen. 50:20: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” See also Fretheim’s helpful discussion of this theme in “The Book of Genesis,” 646.
- Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 534–51.
- Patrick Miller, “’Slow to Anger’: The God of the Prophets,” in A. Andrew Das and Frank J. Matera, eds., The Forgotten God: Perspectives in Biblical Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 43f. Heschel emphasized that same point: God’s wrath is an aspect of God’s continual care: “God’s heart is not of stone.” God’s intent (so Isaiah 27:3) is to have no wrath. (The Prophets, 2:73f.)
- See also Hosea 2:9–13; 4:5–10; 5:1–15; 8:7–14; 10:13–15.
- See Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 414–17, on God’s “originary love for Israel.”
- See Ex. 34:6–7, where God is “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,” whereas God’s anger over iniquity and sin is held only through four generations.
- Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Gifford Lectures, 1984-85), tr. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 75f., where he quotes Dante: “From the Creator’s love came forth in glory the world” (Inferno, I:39f.).  Thomas Oord proposes his own modified version in The Nature of Love: a Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2010), 133–38.
- See also Ps. 36:5; 119:64; 145:9.
- See also Ps. 89:1–14; 106:7–8.
- Edwin M. Good, “Love in the OT,” IDB, vol. K-Q:167, ital. mine.
- Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 251, ital. orig. See also 253.
- Eichrodt, 281, ital. orig.
- Eichrodt, 253.
- Eichrodt, 256. He continued there: “As distinct from the prophetic conception, in which the love of God is pressing forward to a completely new world order, that love is here understood as the power which upholds the present order, and which maintains the covenant in the character of a restauratio, not a renovatio omnium. . . . Such love shines forth unalterably like the sun in heaven and constitutes the inner strength of the eternal divine order.” (ital. orig.)
- Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 140–44.
- Brueggemann, 143.
- Fretheim takes note of the theme of “divine empowerment” in The Suffering of God, 75.