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Last month I had the opportunity to spend a week up at Calvin Seminary where the distance education class I teach was meeting for a week of in-person instruction. The class is about the Old Testament Narrative books. We’d done five weeks of the class online, so by the time we met we were scheduled to talk about the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.
What is God like? This basic question is one that puzzled us as we made our way through Joshua and the enactment of God’s commands to purge the promised land of its inhabitants: men, women, children, even animals at some points.
We wondered this alongside the provocative Native American scholar, Robert Allen Warrior, who says that of all the people in the Bible, his heritage most closely identifies him with the Canaanites who were driven out from their indigenous land at the hands of people claiming to do the will of God. Warrior is not a Christian because he claims that the God of the book of Joshua is not a god anyone should worship.
What is God like? We continued to scratch our heads over this question as the class moved from the wars of Joshua to the moral decay of Judges. We wondered, “what is God like?” as we read about that minor character Jephthah who makes a promise to God that if he would win the battle against the Ammonites he would sacrifice whatever came out of the door of his house first when he returned home. He defeated the Ammonites and returned home to be greeted by his only child, his daughter. We wondered “what is God like?” to receive this child sacrifice from a man who made a vow that God had not asked him to make.
The question seemed to haunt our class discussion that whole week: What is God like? Or more to the point: Is God good?
Finally, in our last session together we turned the page from Judges to Samuel (we’re saving Ruth for later, following the order of the Hebrew Bible). What is God like? “The LORD closed Hannah’s womb,” says 1 Samuel 1:5. That’s repeated again in 1:6, just in case we missed it the first time. But why?
Is it because God is like Peninnah who is antagonistic and hostile toward Hannah? Is it because God is like Elkanah who, despite his great love for her, ultimately wants to make Hannah’s pain about himself? “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” is at best a misguided attempt to soothe her and at worst a not-so-subtle guilt trip that centers himself. Or is God like Eli who assumes some moral fault in her when he accuses her of being a drunk?
It seems to me that these are all ways that people have attempted to account for human suffering, with Peninnah’s representing those who see the God of the Old Testament as capricious and unworthy of worship (if, in fact such a deity exists at all). Elkanah and Eli sound a little closer to Christian attempts I have heard: suffering is sent to make us grow closer to God, or suffering is, in the end, what we all deserve for our moral failings.
The “why” of Hannah’s suffering is not answered in this passage. But we do get to see what God is like. God is the one who sees Hannah, who remembers her, and who does not forget her and her vulnerable state as a childless woman.
After our class made our way through Joshua and Judges, we were tired. I was tired and a little sad because of what we had been studying. It’s really heavy stuff. So as we read Hannah’s song that final morning it was hard to not get choked up as we read,
“He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.”
It’s a song of praise that points toward the kingship of David, and ultimately to the reign of Christ (see 1 Samuel 2:10). But that morning it felt more like a prayer of longing or a statement of faith rather than a song of praise.
We don’t see the fullness of Hannah’s song realized in our lives or world. The arrogant still speak, there is still hunger, infertility, and poverty. There are still religious wars (actual and metaphorical) being fought like in Joshua, and God knows that the violence displayed against women did not come to an end after the time of the judges.
So we read and sing Hannah’s song as a prayer of longing, or a statement of faith that God will do for the world what God did for Hannah. That may be unsatisfying for some, but on that heavy morning in our Old Testament Narratives class it was just enough.
Yes, good thoughts. In Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous essay, “What’s the Matter with Preaching?” he claims rhetorically, on Exodus 3: No one cares about the Hittites! Well, guess what. Maybe not upper class white males in Manhattan, but certainly others, like Robert Allen Warrior, and with good cause. I’m much assisted by the dialectical vision of K. H. Miskotte’s When the Gods Are Silent, on preaching the Old Testament today. But I experience you as right, to move it to Hannah’s song, and our souls have to go there.
Great point about Fosdick, thank you!
Thank you again, Betsy, for your always provocative writing, and here on an extremely difficult piece of Biblical history. I am so grateful that you and Daniel are providing a healthy diet from the Word at Bethany, a community so dear to my heart.
Thank you for the encouragement, Al, and for the years of your life poured into this community!
I like to think that the question was one the biblical authors were wrestling with too, and we are doing it along with them. Such a generous God, to entrust us with these questions, and not wrap up the answers with a bow that wouldn’t satisfy the realities we face. God faces them with us, and so Hannah’s song endures. Thank you for your work, Betsy.
I love this framing of God’s generosity. Beautiful!
I recommend Derek Flood’s 2014 book, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did. In short, he looks at how Jesus and Paul read the Old Testament (and edited out much of the violence when quoting it) and shows why it is OK to ask questions as an essential part of a healthy faith. What is God like? God is like Jesus, not like Joshua.
Great resource – thank you!
Oh, and that’s right, you’re right, “What is God like?” is one of the most important jobs of a preacher, and is asked by 4-year olds no less than scholars. As soon as I saw your title I knew I was with you.
You’re so right! After writing I remembered a children’s book on my son’s bookshelf by Rachel Held Evans called “What Is God Like?” It has a lot of rich imagery from Scripture – I think it’s really beautiful.