The Suffering of God: Divine Pathos and Prophetic Embodiment

Emil Nolde, Prophet, 1912
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When Israel ceases to understand the Exodus narrative as normative they forfeit their God-given destiny and mission. In turn, they pervert the covenantal relationship that once took center stage as the inceptum of their existence. It is the breaking of this relationship that pains YHWH most. Israel’s rejection of this covenantal relationship is tantamount to their rejecting the “divine future” YHWH had once promised them. Despite Israel’s infidelity, YHWH, in typical fashion, concocts a way for Israel to get back on track. It is here where YHWH’s divine pathos makes its presence felt.

In his magisterial text, The Kingdom of God, John Bright chronicles Israel’s infidelity and YHWH’s passionate pursuit. Similar to Cone, Bright understands YHWH’s election of Israel to serve a divine purpose.1 However, this purpose almost immediately becomes obsolete as Israel eschews total fidelity to YHWH (Ex. 32:4). Israel’s centralized government only intensified this infidelity as the monarchy repeatedly positioned itself in opposition to YHWH’s complete sovereignty (I Sam. 8:5-20; cf. II Kings 17:35-41, 24:1-25:30). Israel has played the harlot and YHWH is left pining for what could have been (Hosea 11:1-4).

It is here that the prophetic witness must be taken into account. Indeed, as Bright points out, the prophets of Israel enter the drama to beckon Israel back to its covenantal relationship with YHWH. Imbued in the prophetic message is a demand for ethical treatment of the disinherited (Amos 5:7, 10-12, cf. 2:6-16, 8:4-10).2 However, Israel chooses to ignore this prophetic memorandum. Inevitably, the result is a perpetuation of exploitative practices by a people who were once delivered out of Egypt. The covenant and Israel’s mission have been stymied by Israel’s disobedience! YHWH is left to lament the betrayal of her recalcitrant people (Amos 2:10-11, 5:1-2; cf. Is. 48:18).

A key element to Israel’s faith tradition makes itself clear here; the prophet’s lament is indistinguishable from YHWH’s divine pathos. However, some remain unconvinced that YHWH, in a real, concrete way, experiences agony.3 Fretheim demonstrates the fallacy of such claims through his analysis of the prophet’s connection to YHWH. For Fretheim, the prophet and YHWH are inextricably linked (Amos 3:7). Therefore, when Jeremiah passionately laments that Israel is “backslidden” and “deceitful,” the reader can be sure that Jeremiah and YHWH’s sufferings are enmeshed (8:4-7).4 It is as Fretheim suggests, “The prophet’s suffering mirrors the suffering of God before the people.”5

Commenting on this prophetic embodiment, theologian Jürgen Moltmann proposes that the prophets are not “looking forward into the future to see what is appointed in unalterable destiny or a predestined divine plan of salvation.”6 Rather the prophets, Moltmann contends, are concerned with “the present pathos of God, his suffering caused by Israel’s disobedience and his passion for his right and his honour in the world.”7 Moltmann submits that God’s divine pathos is, in reality, the ultimate indicator that God is God and not some “demon.”8 For a “God” that is indifferent to the suffering of his creatures is in fact no God at all.9

To be continued…


-Josiah R. Daniels


[1] John Bright, The Kingdom Of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning for the Church, 29.

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] See the aforementioned publication Beyond the Bounds for examples. A major lacuna exists in this work as it fails to interact with Fretheim on any serious level. Fretheim is only mentioned in the final selected bibliography in support of Open Theism (p. 394). More surprisingly, Abraham J. Heschel, Jewish scholar and proponent of YHWH’s divine pathos, is curiously absent from the text as a whole. For Heschel’s invaluable insights on divine pathos, see his The Prophets. (1st Perennial classics ed. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics), 2001, passim. In his doctoral dissertation, Rob Lister avoids committing the same oversight. Lister’s dissertation has since been published by Crossway. For more, see Lister’s, God Is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion, 130-147, 44n6, 48n29, 131n36.

[4] Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 116-117, 149-166.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, 271.

[7] Ibid., 271.

[8] Ibid., 273.

[9] Ibid., 222, 273.

Painting by Emil Nolde, 1912, Prophet.

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