Suffering is part of the human predicament. Yet this predicament poses a problem for individuals who identify as theists. The age-old axiom has always been that God is both “impassible” and “omnipotent.”1 Thus, classical theism ultimately suggests that God is unable to sympathize with his creatures through their travails. The theodicy question is a familiar one: what sort of a God would permit humans to suffer while remaining aloof and unmoved by their agony? This question, in recent years, has taken on more of an accusatory tone as humanity finds itself wedged between tragedies such as the Holocaust and the Haitian earthquake. Thus, contemporaries have asserted that those who associate themselves with God, especially the God of the Judeo-Christian faith, reflect YHWH’s primary characteristics: sadomasochism and capriciousness.2 Yet, to make this sort of assertion in toto reveals how the predominant understanding of God is one that has been dictated by classical renderings of God. Indeed, this “God” deserves to be accused of all the above and more.
However, if one dares to look, the God of the Bible is no stranger to grief. This first post lays the groundwork for an investigation into the “passibility” of God. The passibility of God will be looked at from a thematic perspective while a forthcoming series (The Changeability of God) hones in on a particular passage (Ex. 32:7-14)3 in an effort to propose that YHWH is “a God of possibilities.” The ultimate goal of this two tiered project is to demonstrate, through use of the Old Testament, that passibility and possibility within the nature of YHWH are corollaries of one another. These first few posts will address the fact that YHWH has been and always will be the “most moved mover.”4
Before moving forward, a word or two must be offered concerning anthropomorphic and metaphoric language in relation to Israel’s God-talk. It has been a common temptation to adopt a posture of dismissiveness toward Old Testament passages that provocatively suggest the suffering of YHWH. This dismissiveness can be seen in how interpreters readily emphasize the anthropomorphic and metaphoric aspects of intimate scenes where YHWH is experiencing pain.5 That being said, great pains must be taken here to counteract this trend. The starting place can be found in ancient Israel’s testimony and imagination.
Israel maintains a multiplicity of metaphors for YHWH throughout their storied history. Israel does this to avoid the allure of creating a graven image (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 4:15-20). Indeed, YHWH, in Israel’s tradition, is beyond a single metaphor or a decisive image. Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann reflects on Israel’s use of metaphors to describe YHWH asserting, “The texts make clear that YHWH is hidden and inscrutable, beyond domestication into any of Israel’s categories.”6 Israel is fully aware of this reality. Rather than ascribing a single, absolutizing image to YHWH, Brueggemann insists that numerous metaphors for YHWH existed within early Israel’s imagination so as to communicate the diversity of the one true God.7
The metaphoric dynamism that Israel uses to describe their God is key to safeguarding YHWH’s elusiveness. Ensconced in Israel’s vibrant imagery lies a God that cannot and will not be tamed. To dilute the mystery of YHWH is to absolutize particular images. As Brueggemann retorts “Yahweh is hidden, free, surprising, and elusive, and refuses to be caught in any verbal formulation.”8 Concerning Israel’s God-talk, Brueggemann surmises that, “the rich range of metaphors often stand in tension with each other, so that one metaphor may say what is left unsaid by another, so that one may correct another, or so that one may deabsolutize another.”9 YHWH will not be domesticated!
Old Testament theologian Terence Fretheim shares Brueggemann’s adamancy for multivalent metaphors being linked to YHWH’s self. However, the common critique of metaphoric imagery when describing God as a “sufferer” largely relies on anthropomorphisms and is therefore inadequate.10 Russell Fuller, a proponent of classical theism, claims that anthropomorphisms, “simply communicate about God as anyone must, by using human language analogously to communicate divine and spiritual realities.”11 Fretheim acknowledges the ways that this is partially true but insists that metaphors, regardless of their frequency, do communicate something concrete about YHWH.12 As far as Fretheim is concerned, the term anthropomorphism is used as an escape for scholars who would rather avoid passages that portray a suffering God.13
Fretheim worries that, “there is a danger of positing no real or essential relationship between the metaphor and God as God really relates to the world.”14 Arguing against this style of interpretation, Fretheim asserts, “the metaphor does say some things about God that correspond to the reality which is God.”15 Fretheim suggests, that humans, created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27; cf. Ps. 8:5), partially reveal what God is actually like. “Thereby,” Fretheim asserts, “the essential metaphorical process is revealed to us.”16 Pushing further, Fretheim dares to suggest that, “‘The image of God’ gives us permission to reverse the process and, by looking at the human, learn what God is like.”17 It is this thesis that sets the backdrop to Fretheim’s insistence that, similar to her creatures, YHWH is a God who suffers. Attempting to disparage this reality by labeling it “anthropomorphic” or “peripheral” in Israel’s God-talk does a major disservice to Israel’s tradition as well as to the human predicament as a whole. Thus, a more robust investigation is needed concerning the suffering of YHWH…
 Warren McWilliams, “Divine Suffering in Contemporary Theology.” Scottish Journal of Theology 33 (1980): 35–54.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 31.
 Unless otherwise stated, all scriptures are taken from the NRSV.
 I borrow this phrase from the title of Clark H. Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness.
 See John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth’s eds. Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, 23-41, 149-199.
 Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, 89.
 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, 231.
 Ibid. For example, see Isaiah 40:10-11.
 Lester J. Kuyper, “The Suffering and the Repentance of God.” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969): 257-262.
 Russell Fuller, “Rabbis and the Claims of Openness Advocates,” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, 40.
 Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, 8-12.
 Ibid., 6-7.
 Ibid., 7.