Therefore, impress these My words upon your heart and upon your very being: bind them as a sign ... teach them to your children ... and inscribe them on the doorposts ... to the end that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the Lord swore to your forefathers to give to them -- as the days of heaven are over the earth. (Deut 11:18-21)

The theme that God swore to give the land to the Jewish people is firmly entrenched in Deuteronomic theology (it occurs there more than twenty times[1]) as well as in the prophetic writings. Later it was incorporated into rabbinic Judaism where the passage quoted above was added to the Sh'ma and has been recited as part of rabbinic liturgy at least twice a day for centuries. Several questions arise: Where does God actually swear to do this? And, why would God swear, not just promise or give God's word? Also, how does God swear? And, is there anything else that God swears to do?

The latter two questions are easier to answer: There are three linguistic usages by which God swears: (1) hay 'ani / "by My life",[2] (2) nasa'ti 'et yadi / "I have lifted My hand,"[3] and (3) nishba` especially in the form, bi nishba`ti / "I swear by Myself."[4] In addition to swearing to give them the land, God swore to sustain the Jewish people, particularly with the blessings of seed (that is, continuous existence) and abundant sustenance.[5]

As to the roots of the theology of God swearing, a look at the sources shows that it is grounded in biblical consciousness well before Deuteronomy. The theme appears in Exodus and Numbers.[6] It is especially prominent in Numbers, chapter 14, where God takes a counter-oath not to let those who followed the advice of the spies enter the land which God had previously sworn to give to the Jewish people.[7]

Since the swearing-form[8] almost always invokes the forefathers, one would expect this motif to occur in Genesis, and so it does. Joseph, in ensuring that his family will return his bones to the land for burial, invokes the moment of God swearing: "I am going to die but God will surely recall you and bring you up from this land to the land which God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Gen 50:24). God, Godself, invokes this moment when speaking to Isaac: "Do not go down to Egypt ... I will be with you and I will bless you ... and I will fulfill the swearing which I swore to Abraham your father" (Gen 26:2-3). Abraham, too, invokes this moment of God swearing in his instructions to his faithful servant: "The Lord, God of heaven, Who took me from the house of my father and from the land of my birth and Who spoke to me and Who swore to me saying..." (Gen 24:7). Where does it all begin? Where does God first swear? and why?

All the references in the Torah to God having sworn to do something for the forefathers go back to one instance. Indeed, all subsequent references to God having sworn, whether in the prophets or in the rabbinic sources, go back to that same moment, forming thereby a mighty tradition.[9] The text is as follows:

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from the heavens a second time. He said: "The Lord has declared: `I swear by Myself that, because you have done this thing and have not held back your son, your only one, I shall surely bless you, and I shall surely multiply your seed like the stars in the heavens and like the grains of sand on the shore of the sea, and your seed will inherit the gates of their enemies. All the nations of the earth shall be blessed by your seed because you have hearkened unto My voice.'" (Gen 22:15-18)

This moment of God swearing contains the threefold blessing of seed, land, and blessedness. It is the blessing with which God and Abraham begin their journey together (Gen 12:1-3,7). Land is repeated to Abraham in the covenant of the pieces (Gen 15:18), seed and land are repeated before the covenant of circumcision (Gen 17:2,6-8), and land is recalled by Abraham in his instructions to his faithful servant (Gen 24:7). The actual moment of God swearing is recalled by God, Godself, and the threefold blessing is renewed, separately, to Isaac (Gen 26:2-5). In the complicated story of the "stolen" blessing, neither Jacob nor Esau gets the threefold sworn blessing from their father (Gen 27); it is only when he is leaving his father's home that Jacob gets the blessings of seed and land (Gen 28:3-4). Jacob finally receives the full threefold sworn blessing directly from God at Bethel (Gen 28:13-14).[10] On his deathbed, Jacob invokes the Bethel blessing and divides it among his sons, counting the first two of Joseph's sons as his own (Gen 48:3-6). With this, the threefold sworn blessing is given to the whole Jewish people, and it remains that way in biblical, rabbinic, and some Christian theology. In the foreshadowing and in each and every repetition, however, God speaks (vayomer / vayomar / le'mor ) but God does not swear (nishba` ). Only in Gen 22:16 does God swear. Why?

The nineteen-sentence story of the Akeda is one of the richest in all human literature. It is an endless source for interpretation in commentary, in literature, and in art.[11] One can look at this story from the point of view of Isaac: Was he an innocent or a full participant? Did he agree willingly ("Father, bind me well that I not tremble") or was he a victim, bound against his will ("Who will save me from the hand of my father")?[12] Was he, in fact, sacrificed ("O, do Thou regard the ashes of Father Isaac heaped up on top of the altar, and deal with Thy children in accordance with the Mercy Attribute"), or only bound?[13] One can, and should, also look at this story from the point of view of Sarah: Was she, too, tested?[14] Did she reject Abraham for this?[15] One can look at the story from the point of view of God: What did God achieve with this test? A proof of Abraham's total loyalty and faith; yes, but is that all?

It is, however, from the point of view of Abraham that the story of the Akeda is most perplexing. Why did he do it? To prove his own utter loyalty to, and faith in, God? Perhaps; but there may be more. Elie Wiesel, remarking that God does not like human beings to come before God in resignation, sees the Akeda as a double-edged test. God starts it, but Abraham understands the true opportunity. "As though Abraham had said: I defy You, Lord. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end, whether You shall remain passive and remain silent when the life of my son -- who is also Your son -- is at stake."[16] Wiesel then points to three victories Abraham achieves in this "brinkmanship with legitimated structure."[17 ]First, God changed God's mind and relented on the command to sacrifice Isaac. Second, God had to cancel the order Godself, as it says, "the Lord has declared."[18] And third, God had to agree that, whenever the children of Israel would be sinful, they need only retell the story to invoke God's mercy.[19 ]To this, I add: as it says, "I swear by Myself."

The Akeda, then, is a story of protest, of challenge to Authority. Abraham's goal is to prod God beyond God's own Word, to force God beyond God's own Promise.[20] The purpose of the story is to record that God swore, by God's very own Self, that God will always remember God's people for the threefold now-sworn blessing of seed, land, and blessedness. The Akeda is an act of "embracing of pain" -- the pain of Isaac, Sarah, and Abraham; indeed, the pain of all Jewish suffering. However, the Akeda is also an "assault on the throne of God which, once spoken, cannot be recalled." It is a "pushing of relationship to the boundary of the unacceptable, for the sake of a new kind of obedience rooted in faith."[21] The proof -- after this, there is nothing left to say. God and Abraham never speak again.


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Rabbi Simeon began by saying: There are two verses. It is written, "For the Lord your God is a devouring fire" (Deut 4:24) and it is also written, "And you that cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, to-day" (Deut4:4). We have reconciled these verses in several places, but the companions have a [deeper] understanding of them.... Whoever wishes to understand the wisdom of the holy unification, let him look at the flame that rises from a glowing coal, or from a burning lamp, for the flame rises only when it takes hold of some coarse matter.

Come and see. In the rising flame there are two lights: one is a radiant white light and one is a light that contains black or blue. The white light is above and it ascends in a direct line. Beneath it is the blue or black light and it is a throne for the white. The white light rests upon it and they are connected together, forming one whole. The black light, [that which has] blue color, is the throne of glory for the white. And this is the mystic significance of the blue.

This blue-black throne is joined to something else, below it, so that it can burn and this stimulates it to grasp the white light.... This [blue-black light] is connnected on two sides. It is connected above to the white light and it is connected below to what is beneath it, to what has been prepared for it so that it might illuminate and grasp [that which is above it].

This [blue-black light] devours continuously and consumes whatever is placed beneath it; for the blue light consumes and devours whatever is attached to it below, whatever it rests upon, since it is its habit to consume and devour. Indeed, the destruction of all, the death of all, depends upon it and therefore it devours whatever is attached to it below. [But] the white light which rests upon it does not devour or consume at all, and its light does not change. Concerning this, Moses said, "For the Lord your God is a devouring fire," really devouring, devouring and consuming whatever rests beneath it...

Above the white light rests a concealed light which encompasses it. Here is a supernal mystery and you will find all in the ascending flame. The wisdom of the upper realms is in it (Zohar 1:50b-51b).[22]

The Zohar, a medieval theosophical work, begins this passage in classical midrashic style by showing a contradiction between two verses, one of which speaks of God as a consuming fire while the other advocates cleaving to God. It, then, goes on to draw an analogy to the common flame which is attached to dark coal, which it must consume in order to burn. The flame itself is composed of two parts -- a blue-black center, which is attached to the wick or coal, and a white periphery which encompasses and rises above the blue-black center.

According to the Zohar, God Godself is made up of ten dimensions, called sefirot (sing., sefira ). These sefirot are not extradeical hypostases, nor are they intramental attributes. Rather, they are extramental, intradeical dimensions of God's very being; that is, they are real, external to our minds, but also that they are inside God's very being. Furthermore, the sefirot are not static; they interact with one another. Thus, God's Hesed (grace) interacts with God's Gevura (God's power to draw lines, set standards, and make judgements). Thus, too, God's Tiferet (compassion, mercy) draws on God's Hesed and God's Gevura. All three draw on God's Hokhma (knowability) and God's Bina (intuitive understanding), as well as upon God's Keter (ineffability). God's Malkhut (God's ruling ability) is God's Face to creation; it is the point of contact between God and creation; it is where the spiritual energy of humanity and of God interact.

In this passage, the Zohar depicts the central sefira which is Tiferet as the white part of the flame. It rests upon the sefira which is the point of contact with creation, Malkhut, here depicted as the blue-black part of the flame. At the end of this passage, the Zohar calls attention to the invisible part of the flame -- the zone of invisible heat which surrounds every flame -- and interprets it as Keter (God's ultimate ineffability).

Finally, the Zohar notes that the blue-black part of the flame, Malkhut (God's ruling ability), consumes the coal or wick to which it is attached. The coal and wick are material; they depict creation, particularly humanity.

Having decoded the symbolism of the passage, we can address the theology.[23] The Zohar teaches here that God's compassion is interactive with God's providence for, or governance of, creation; that there can be no flame without both a blue-black and a white light. Energy flows from compassion to governance and also from governance to compassion. God is in discussion with Godself, so to speak, on the issue of how best to act in creation. The Zohar also teaches here that God's very energy depends on creation; that, without the wick or coal, there can be no flame. This means that God's providence is fed by human action and, further, that that energy is passed on even unto God's compassion. To put it differently, spiritual energy generated in creation rises up into God's Self. This human-generated spiritual energy, according to the Zohar, actually sustains the dimensions of God's very being, God's providence and compassion, as the wick or coal sustains the blue-black, the white, and the invisible parts of the common flame.

Finally, the Zohar teaches that, for most of creation, this feeding of energy to the divine is consuming; that is, that it results in the death of created beings. This death-into-God is the purpose of most of creation and it fits well with the following midrash: The Torah says, "And God saw that it was very good" (Gen 1:31). The word "very" would seem superfluous -- how can the rest of God's own handiwork be anything less than "very good"?! The word "very," then, according to the rabbis, includes death and, indeed, death is good for creation. The Zohar extends this and teaches that death is not only part of the natural action of God's governance, but also that death adds energy to God.

Come and see. The only stimulus that causes the blue light to burn and to grasp the white light is that which comes from Israel, who cleave to it below.

Come and see. Although it is the way of the blue-black flame to consume whatever is attached to it beneath, Israel, who cleave to it beneath, survive as they are. This is the meaning of "And you that cleave to the Lord your God are alive" -- ... to the blue-black light that devours and consumes whatever is attached to it beneath and yet you who cleave to it survive as is written, "alive, all of you, to-day" (Ibid. ).

Here, the Zohar takes another theological step and identifies the stimulus that sustains the flame as being the Jewish people.[24] They, in their proper zoharic observance of the commandments, feed spiritual energy first to Malkhut and then to Tiferet. Performing the mitsvot with the proper zoharic intent allows the Jewish creature to consciously direct energy to God. It allows the Jew to interact directly with God, not just in dialogue but in inter-action, in a conscious directing of spiritual energy to God. This ability to feed spiritual energy back to God through the zoharic observance of God's commandments is the height of interactivity with God. It is the purpose of Jewish existence. It gives us life; hence, the verse from Deut 4:4 which contrasts with Deut 4:24 in which contact with the Godhead results in death.

The theology of the spiritual inter-action of humanity and the dimensions of God's very being is repeated and extended in another passage.

Rabbi Judah said: When the righteous increase in the world, the Assembly of Israel exudes a sweet perfume, and she is blessed by the Holy King and her face shines. But, when the wicked increase in the world, the Assembly of Israel does not exude sweet perfumes, so to speak, but she tastes of the bitter "other side." Then is it written, "He has cast down earth from heaven" (Lam 2:1) and, then, her face is darkened (Zohar 3:74a).[25]

To decode this passage, one must know that "Assembly of Israel" is not the Jewish people; rather, it is Malkhut (God's face to creation). Similarly, the "Holy King" is not God but is Tiferet (God's compassion).[26] To "exude sweet perfume" is to radiate positive spiritual energy. To have a "face shine" is to experience joy, bliss. Finally, "earth" is Malkhut and "heaven" is Tiferet.

The theology of this passage is deceptively clear. It teaches that the righteous, by their righteousness -- i.e., by their zoharic observance of the commandments, especially prayer -- consciously return energy to God and, then, God (that is, Malkhut, the dimension of God that governs creation) radiates positive spiritual energy and God Godself experiences bliss (!). The new idea, here, is that, the wicked, by their wickedness -- which includes, but is not limited to, their non-zoharic observance of the commandments -- return negative energy to God. This, in turn, means that God (that is, Malkhut ) then does not radiate positive spiritual energy and does not experience bliss. Rather, when the wicked prosper, God is drawn toward the "other side," the dark side, of God's own being and, then, God Godself experiences darkness, which is absence-of-bliss, anger, and dangerous power. When the wicked prosper, God Godself is fragmented; as the passage says, "earth" is separated from "heaven," that is, Malkhut is severed from Tiferet. To put it succinctly: When the righteous prosper, God's governance and compassion act together and God is in bliss. But, when the wicked are ascendant, God's ability to govern is severed from God's compassion, and God is subject to the dark side of God's nature and is depressed and dangerous. This is a remarkable theological statement: that God is influenced by the actions of humans, for better but also for worse; that the human capacity to consciously direct energy to God can have bad, as well as good, consequences not just in this world but also inside God.[27] As Walter Brueggemann has noted: "Thus, we need to consider not only mutations in the social processes, or mutations in the articulations of God which serve the social processes, but mutations that are said to be going on in the very person of God." [28]

Philosophical theology in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions effected a major change in the way we think. Philosophic theology introduced the God of "omni-" adjectives, of conceptuality, and of consistency.[29] In doing so, however, philosophic theology abandoned the anthropopathic language of Scripture, of midrash, of liturgy, and of the Zohar. Heschel fought this tendency with his emphasis on the "divine pathos"; so did Kadushin with his "normal mysticism."[30] Muffs has also taken the anthropopathic position: "By mirroring back to God His underlying love at the hour of His anger, the prophet paradoxically restores the divine balance of emotion."[31] I follow these sources and thinkers, firmly believing that the anthropopathic language of the non-philosophic tradition is closer to the language of the sacred texts, as well as far more imaginative, truer to the full range of human experience, theologically more flexible, and liturgically more powerful.[32]


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A text and a question generated Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. The text was Psalm 44. It is one of the most angry moments in biblical literature, so angry that the rabbis repressed its liturgical recitation.[33] The prevailing emotion is one of rage. One can only understand this if one reads the psalm out loud -- in rage and not in good pulpit, responsive-reading style. The question was the theological nightmare of the twentieth century: Where was God during the holocaust. There have been many answers to that question but most of them are echoes of the friends of Job -- not an approved (or a good) response.

One day, while teaching Psalm 44, I asked a student to read it. After several attempts, she understood that it needed to be read with power. I asked her to read it once more, setting it in winter 1945, Auschwitz (just before the liberation). The young woman, who later became a minister, prayed it so powerfully that I could not talk when she finished. I still find it difficult to resume speech when I recall that moment. The act of praying this psalm in the context of the holocaust is an act of "embracing pain,"[34] almost infinite pain. Praying is praxis in theology.

When lecturing on the psalms of anger before publication of the book, I used only to teach and read the text. One day, in the discussion, a psychiatrist asked, "Rabbi, are you trying to tell us God is an Abuser? If so, it will be easier on you, and on us, if you just say it outright." So, I did. Abuse is the use of force which is disproportionate to whatever it is that the other is reputed to have done wrong. Parents who overreact to a child's error, men who physically or sexually abuse women, and police who brutalize criminals practice abuse. So do many others in our society. The essence of abuse is that the victim is innocent of the intensity of the force used against her or him; perhaps not totally innocent, but certainly blameless of the degree of violence utilized. If the holocaust is excessive force, that is, violence against a people innocent of that degree of punishment -- which the holocaust was; and, if God is our God and is active in our history, not just a cosmic impersonal force -- which God is; then, how did God permit the holocaust to happen? So, I said it: The holocaust was abuse and, in a theology of divine providence, God is an Abuser. I trembled from head to toe to say it -- I still do -- knowing that "the unthinkable has now been thought."[35] "Truth is the seal of God."[36] Speaking truth is praxis in theology.

Part One of Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest is a theological prolegomenon, with many interesting insights, but not dangerous. Part Two is a series of texts, among them Psalm 44. This part is really very subversive but, because it is the biblical texts which speak, it "passes." Part Three is a response to the texts. It is also subversive but, because it contains some very tough criticism of the central motif of the book, it too seems less dangerous than it really Isa But Part Four sets out the theology of the abusing God and the proper response to that. It is terrifying. I admit that, before I sat down to write this "assault on the throne of God," I was physically ill for two days. I knew what I had to do, and did not want to do it. Even now, when I pick up the text of this section, I wonder: Did I write this? How did I have the nerve to think, write, and then publish such thoughts? Writing truth is praxis in theology.

I did write Part Four, including the inserts into the Jewish penitential liturgy. I have had orthodox friends tell me that the book is "bad," but not really "bad" until I reach the liturgical inserts. They are right. Praying the liturgy is terrifying, each and every time I use it. "Playing brinkmanship with legitimated s[S]tructure"[37] is not for the weak-hearted. Can you imagine bringing yourself into the Presence of God Almighty and then telling God that God must ask forgiveness from us for what God has done?[38] Confronting God in thought and prayer is praxis in theology.

The book went to Westminster / John Knox, the press of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. After careful consideration, they decided to "embrace this pain" and they, courageously, published the book, knowing that the conservative segment of the Church would not be happy and having no idea of who would buy and read such a book.[39] Publishing truth is also praxis in theology.

The book has been reviewed almost twenty times but not often by Jews. Jewish colleagues who usually review almost everything I write have told me, "I'll get to it." Friends in the rabbinate and academy who usually follow my work have not reviewed it, or have read it and can't finish it, or know what it is about but don't invite me to talk about it in their respective settings. Of course, there are exceptions: Some Jewish colleagues gathered at a professional meeting to discuss the book and did so with great care, even love. One local rabbi, with quite some courage, invited me to lecture on it. Several have indeed reviewed it, always favorably even though critical. Christian colleagues have received the book very favorably, reviewing it frequently. They have even organized several conferences on it. Somehow, Christians have had an easier time of it. Is this, perhaps, because the Jew is expected to confront God in a way the Christian is not; a vicarious theology of rage? The psychotherapeutic community, which greeted my initial presentations with enthusiasm because they legitimated rage even against God, has also fallen silent since publication of the book, at least to the best of my knowledge. I admit to being puzzled by the reaction of this group of colleagues more than the others.[40] There seems to be a general need among readers and colleagues in all areas to distance themselves from this theology. As Brueggemann has put it: "A theology of contractual coherence must excommunicate all the pained and pain-bearers as having violated the `common theology'.... Visible pain-bearers assert that the legitimated s[S]tructures are not properly functioning."[41] I like to hope that those who listen do so because, like the prophets of old, this theology "pushes the relationship to the boundaries of unacceptability"[42] while still remaining within fidelity to the covenant. Reading truth is praxis in theology.

Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest is really about healing. I did say that. In fact, I devoted one of the four texts and a good part of the concluding theology to this motif.[43] But no one has seen it; or at least, no one has commented on it. Naming the Abuser has captured the center when, for me, it was only a step. For me, the rectilinear image of getting "beyond" rage did not seem realistic or even morally proper. Rather, the image of tacking with the wind in order to advance, as one sails a boat into the the wind, was the better paradigm. One rages and protests vigorously and honestly. Then one tacks to a liturgy of joy and blessing. One turns yet again to a theology of courageous challenge. And then one tacks again to a theology of belonging and empowerment.[44] To put it differently: A sculpture must be seen from all sides and this cannot be done simultaneously but seriatim; one must walk around a sculpture again and again to see it fully. Like sailing, then, seeing a sculpture is a better image of what life is, and ought to be. Healing and protest alternate in sculpting one's life, not once but repeatedly. I did write this but I should have been clearer about it, highlighted it, cited more sources, perhaps devoted a whole section to naming the Abuser as only one step toward healing.

In the rush to name the Abuser, readers have also thought that I meant to shelter humans from responsibility. Nothing could have been further from my mind, and I did state that explicitly.[45] I now use the following analogy: When I give the keys to the car to my teenage son and he injures someone, both he and I are responsible -- in different ways, but both responsible. So it is with human affairs. Humans act and are fully responsible, even while God is ultimately also responsible. Neither party's obligations exempt the other. Again, the shock of embracing the pain overwhelmed the sense for the proper distribution of responsibility. I should have been more forceful about this, too.

The impulse to name the Abuser, or rather not to name the Abuser, led to two other objections to the book. First, many object to the anthropopathic language in general. The use of passions to describe God seems inappropriate. I made my position on this, too, clear -- that I follow scriptural, liturgical, and midrashic usage as do Heschel, Kadushin, and others[46] -- but I was not strong enough in stating my views. Second, very many people prefer the abstract, omnibenevolent God Who cannot, and does not, do evil. Here, too, I stated my views -- that such a God is, as Freud says, a projection of the human psyche, an "illusion" which we create to help us deal with a hostile universe. In its place, I suggested, together with the classic sources, a God Who is capable of error, Who is interactive with us, Who can address us and to Whom we can speak. Instead of an "illusion," I proposed, together with the tradition, a mature understanding of our F/father (P/parent) and a mature understanding of ourselves.[47] This, too, however, required more argumentation.

There is one recurrent criticism of Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest which I accept though I did, and do, respond to it as thoughtfully as I can: The analogy of the human and divine abuser implies that we should separate ourselves firmly from God as we do from human abusers; that we should not pray to an abusing God but reject such a God fully and justifiedly.[48] Some people do precisely this and, in survivors at least, such a move is understandable. Still, I have argued that, the nature of covenant allows us to continue facing God, but only in protest which alternates with acceptance. Indeed, covenant requires us not to reject God but to protest as strongly as our courage will admit, as our ancestors did, and yet to remain faithful to the basic relatedness. I use the analogy of one's human parents who remain parents even if they are abusing or even if they are dead.[49] In retrospect, I understand better the objection though I still do not accept it.

Writing as praxis in theology sometimes produces very uneven results and correcting one's errors is also praxis in theology.

"At the end, when everything has been heard, fear God and observe God's commands, for this is the whole of human existence" (Eccl 12:13). Thinking the unthinkable, saying the unsayable, and praying the unprayable had a curious effect on me. It strengthened my faith. Truth really is the seal of God and living this truth was good -- for God, for the Jewish people, for the covenant, and for me. It cleared the air of a terror that arose in the aftermath of the holocaust, even though speaking that truth was itself terrifying, especially in prayer. Faith grows from being in God's presence, from being afraid to speak to God and nonetheless speaking directly and clearly the great pain we feel, always rooting ourselves within the relationship that binds us together. Covenantal love includes confrontation with God, indeed requires it. Not for oneself but for God, for God's people, indeed for all of God's creation.[50] Brueggemann saw clearly that this is part of serious biblical piety:

It requires deep faith, but not only deep -- it requires faith of a new kind. It takes not only nerve but a fresh hunch about this God. The hunch is that God does not want to be an unchallenged structure, but one who can be frontally addressed.... The outcome of such challenge is not known in advance, until the risk is run to test the hunch.... this bold speech of assault is in fact received at the throne not as disobedience, but as a new kind of obedience.... that this ultimately legitimated structure is indeed open to the embrace of pain, open both for Israel and for God. That can never be known theoretically. It can only be known concretely.[51]

I would agree. Confronting the character of God requires not only text, but praxis of many types; otherwise, theology is only fun and games.

I agree, too, that praxis creates a new form of obedience which is protest. As I wrote:[52]

The usual response [to the holocaust] has been to blame the victim (ourselves), to exonerate the perpetrator (God), and to affirm the love of the abuser even when it is contrary to the evidence. There is [however] also a long and noble tradition of protest which does none of the above; rather, it names the event for what it is -- abuse, though that word was not in the vocabulary of the liturgists and poets ... and the tradition is, as Laytner has clearly displayed,[53] long and recklessly clear in its naming of abuse and its holding God reponsible for the evil that has befallen us.

Openness to suffering, embracing the pain of the other, and responding in protest and healing constitute the charge we are given from God; they are the focus of meaning in our lives.

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* God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, ed. T. Linafelt and T. Beal (Minneapolis, Fortress Press: 1998) 38-51.

[1] Deut 1:35; 6:10, 18, 23; 7:13; 8:1; 9:5; 10:11; 11:9, 21(cited here); 19:8; 26:3,15; 28:11; 30:20; 31:7,20,21,23; 34:4; etc.

[2] Num 14:21,28 and twenty times in the prophets, especially in Ezekiel.

[3] Exod 6:8 and Num 14:30 and four times in Ezekiel.

[4] Gen 22:16 and later in Isa 45:23 and Jer 22:5; 49:13.

[5] Exod 6:8; 13:5;11; 32:13 (seed); 33:1; Num 11:12; 14:17,23; 32:11; Deut 4:31; 7:8-9,12; 8:18; 13:18 (seed); 28:9; 29:12. The reference in Isa. 54:9 is poetic and does not correspond to the language in Genesis.

[6] Exod 6:8; 13:5,11; 32:13; 33:1; Num 11:12; 32:11. I note, but do not know why, this motif does not occur in Leviticus.

[7] Num 14:17,23 for God's oath to give the land and Num 14:21,28,30 for God's counter-oath. See also Num 32:10-12 and Deut 2:14 and 1:35.

[8] In English, one "swears an oath." In Hebrew, there is a difference between an "oath" (neder / nedava ) and a "swearing" (shevu`a, drawn from the verb, nishba` ). In almost all the passages cited, the Hebrew uses forms of nishba` and I have chosen, therefore, to avoid "oath" and to use forms of "swear."

[9] There is a parallel tradition of God swearing to punish evildoers which goes back to Numbers, chapter 14, and which is developed and extended by the prophets. That is not our concern here. It does not have the same theological power precisely because it is within, and is a reflection of, what Walter Brueggemann calls "contractual theology."

[10] On the "stolen" and "true" blessings, see Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers.

[11] See the very thorough study of Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press: 1993) who mentions God swearing (141) but who missed the centrality of this swearing in the Akeda story. On art and the Akeda, see J. Milgrom, The Akedah (Berkeley, CA, Bibal Press: 1988).

[12] Midrash cited in D. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1993) 181. See also Levenson, ch. 12.

[13] Midrash cited in S. Spiegel's classic study of the Akeda, The Last Trial (reprinted Woodstock, VT, Jewish Lights: 1993) 38ff. On the liturgical appeal to the merit of the binding, see Facing, 290-91. See also Levenson, ch. 14.

[14] C. Thompson, "Imagining Sarah," Kerem (Winter 1994) 81-85; H. Gotkowitz, "A Midrash on Genesis, Chapter 22," Taking The Fruit, ed. J. Zones (La Jolla, CA, Woman's Institute for Continuing Jewish Education: 1981) 51-58.

[15] E. Umansky, "Re-visioning Sarah," E. Umansky, Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality (Boston, Beacon Press: 1992) 235.

[16 ]E. Wiesel, Messengers of God (New York, Summit Books: 1976) 91.

[17] W. Brueggemann, "A Shape for Old Testament Theology," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47:404.

[18] On the interchangeability of God and God's angels, though not required in this passage, see Levenson, 46.

[19] Wiesel, 91-93.

[20] Levenson, reading with the midrash, understands that God's previous promises are rooted in God's grace while this one is rooted in Abraham's act (138-39). I think this is not quite the meaning; rather, the text conceives the transition as being from promise to swearing, from grace to obligation. Further, though this transition is indeed rooted in the act of the Akeda, I think it is Abraham's courage in challenging God, not his obedient loyalty, that is the key act, as Moses and others challenged God at crucial moments. Note that Num 30:3 makes it a sin to reneg on something one has sworn.

[21] Brueggemann, 399-401.

[22] Modified from F. Lachower and I. Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar, transl. D. Goldstein (Oxford, The Littman Library and Oxford University Press: 1989) 1:319-20. The Zohar, although it exists in translation, is not comprehensible without an explication. Tishby's three volumes do that. For a shorter presentation of Tishby's method, see D. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism (New York, Ktav Publishing: 1978) 1:101-91.

[23] For a good explication of the difference between symbol decoding and theological interpretation, see Understanding Jewish Mysticism.

[24] The Zohar did not envision non-Jews (and Jewish women) as participating in this process.

[25] Tishby, 1:364.

[26] Part of the great art of the Zohar is that most of its passages can be read on a simple midrashic level referring to God and the Jewish people. Texting by double-entendre is an art lost to contemporary theological writing.

[27] This passage does not spell it out but other passages draw a further conclusion -- that, when the wicked prosper, God actually radiates negative spiritual energy to creation, with disastrous consequences.

[28] Brueggemann, 35, italics original.

[29] See J. C. Murray, The Problem of God (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1964) for a concise and very positive view of this step.

[30] See Facing, 12 with the notes to Heschel and Kadushin.

[31] Y. Muffs, "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition: A Study in Prophetic Intercession," Conservative Judaism 33:3 (1980) 35.

[32] See Facing, 252, 301.

[33] b. Sota 48a cited in Facing, 106.

[34] Brueggemann, 395ff.

[35] Brueggemann, 410.

[36] b. Sabb. 59a, dealt with in Facing, 237-39.

[37] Bruggemann, 404.

[38] "Our Father, our King, You have sinned before us.... Our Father, our King, ask forgiveness and forbearance for all Your purposeful sins...." (Facing, 291-93) and the Christian version to be inserted into the Lord's Prayer at the proper place: "Ask forgiveness of us, as we ask forgiveness of those whom we have wronged" (Facing, 297, n. 21 where, by a Freudian slip, the wrong text is given).

[39] When they asked me who the audience was, I responded "God." To which someone at the press demurred, "But God won't buy very many copies."

[40] The most vigorous response has been from the lunatic fringe, particularly those who say that God is not abusing; He is just punishing the Jews for rejecting Jesus. I keep a file of this material.

[41] Brueggemann, 44.

[42] Brueggemann, 400.

[43] See Facing, at Index, "healing."

[44] See Facing, at Index, "seriatim."

[45] Facing, 261-62.

[46] See above.

[47] Facing, 201, 257-58.

[48] Facing, 198-99.

[49] See Facing, at Index, "God, not reject."

[50] See "My Faith is Deeper Now," Jewish Spectator (Spring 1995) 40-43.

[51] Brueggemann, 401.

[52] "My Faith is Deeper Now," 40.

[53] A. Laytner, Arguing With God: A Jewish Tradition (Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson: 1990), reviewed by me in Modern Judaism 12:2 (February 1992) 105-10.

This article first appeared in God in the Fray: Divine Ambivalence in the Hebrew Bible, ed. T. Beal and T. Linafelt (Philadelphia, PA, Fortress Press: 1997). In this web version, the relevant footnote is at the top of the screen.

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