The Suffering of God: Pain and the Drama of Israel

See previous post here

YHWH’s suffering is a theme that is present throughout the Old Testament narrative. From the beginning, YHWH willingly enters into the suffering of creation. Stated differently, God allows God’s self to be “affected by the world.”The narrative of Genesis 6:6-7 explains YHWH’s deep emotional turmoil over the creation of humanity,

6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Two things must be addressed in light of this passage. Firstly, the word “grieved” (עָצַב) in v.6 of the above passage connotes emotional pain and/or weakness.2 Thusly stated, YHWH is described here as undergoing a great deal of turbulence in the wake of human wickedness.3 Bluntly stated, in this passage, humanity affects YHWH’s emotional state.

It is here where the second point becomes apparent. In v.7, YHWH resolves to destroy all of creation because of humanity’s wickedness. Indeed Fretheim is right to point out that Israel does not hold an exclusive claim on grieving YHWH, as it is made clear in the text that YHWH grieves for the entire human race.4 Nonetheless, YHWH chooses to “bear with creation” and makes a promise to Noah to never again wreak such havoc on the earth (Gen. 9:8-17). This leads Fretheim to conclude that, “By deciding to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the heart to that world…God has decided to [continually] take personal suffering upon God’s own self.”5 Humanity, as a whole, continuously alienates itself from YHWH via their wickedness. While it was neither God’s fault nor God’s intention for this separation to transpire, YHWH determines that she will act decisively in history so that all people might be redeemed.

This redemption plan finds its locus in YHWH’s promise and election of Abraham. Abraham’s progeny will be a great nation (Gen. 12:2,5). Furthermore, YHWH gives Abraham’s offspring a vital vocational goal: they are to be a blessing among all the nations (Gen. 22:18). YHWH’s election of a people is what sets in motion both the drama of Israel and the redemption of the world. However, these things will prove to come at the expense of YHWH’s own self.

Nevertheless, like any good drama, Israel’s path en route to fulfilling its vocational mission contains numerous detours; these detours occur both voluntarily and involuntarily. A prime example of an involuntary detour surfaces in the Exodus narrative. It is here that Israel is taken into captivity by the Egyptians to serve as slaves (Ex. 1:11).6 Collectively, the Israelite’s must have been overwhelmed with despair, as they felt YHWH had reneged on promises once made to their ancestor Abraham. Seemingly, YHWH had abandoned them to toil and suffer the whip of their Egyptian taskmasters.

Yet it is here, in the mire of the Egyptian mud pits, that YHWH hears the cry of her people and remembers her covenant with Abraham (Ex. 2:23-25). It is this call (v. 23) that conjures a response from YHWH. Reflecting on the text at hand, Brueggemann makes it clear “that Israel can take an initiative, can break the silence and announce itself, and can evoke a response from the holy God.”7 It is critical to note that this lamentation by the Israelites is not directed towards YHWH but rather, the cry (זָעַק) itself takes on a life of its own and fuses itself to YHWH.8 “YHWH,” says Brueggemann, “is like a magnet that draws such cries, for it is YHWH who receives, is affected by, and responds to the cry of those uncredentialed nobodies that now begin their history.”9 The cries of the people move YHWH to perform a quintessential act of liberation.

Moreover, the theophany is made all the more poignant by YHWH’s “coming down” (יָרַד) to enter into the pain of the people.10 Commenting on the verb yā·rǎḏ (יָרַד) Brueggemann states, “This verb, in spatial imagery, remarkably traces the condescension of God into the pain of human history.”11 It is this pain that YHWH can no longer endure and, through the agency of Moses (Ex. 3-4:17), YHWH unhinges the manacles of Pharaoh’s oppressive regime (Ex. 6-12). It is out of these former slaves that YHWH will bring to fruition the redemption of the world.

The people and YHWH enter into a covenantal agreement that sets Israel apart as YHWH’s unique agent (Ex. 19:4-5). Or, as theologian James H. Cone suggests, Israel is given a “divine future” by YHWH.12 This divine future manifests itself in Israel’s relationship with YHWH. There is a possibility, analogous to all relationships, that pain will enter the mix. Nonetheless, least ways on YHWH’s part, faithfulness will be the overarching theme of this covenantal relationship—no matter the cost (Ex. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; cf. Isa. 48:18, 49:14-15)! Israel, for its part, must simply maintain the parameters of the agreement with YHWH (Ex. 20). This agreement, Cone notes, is predicated upon Israel’s treatment of the disenfranchised (Ex. 22:21-24, 23:9).13 Thus it is here, within the Exodus-Sinai tradition, that YHWH’s preferential option for the estranged “other” shines bright. Israel’s treatment of the orphan, the widow and the sojourner is indicative of their relationship with YHWH.14 It will be made evident later on that YHWH consistently and provokingly identifies with the pain of “uncredentialed nobodies” and expects Israel to do the same.

To be continued…

Marc Chagall The Exodus 1964


-Josiah R. Daniels


[1] Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 112.

[2] Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition, 6087a.

[3] Sheldon H. Blank, “‘Doest Thou Well to Be Angry’ : A Study in Self-Pity.” Hebrew Union College Annual 26 (January 1, 1955): 34.

[4] Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 112.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For thematic purposes, the author takes the historicity of the Exodus event for granted. For a discussion of the historical dimensions of the Exodus event, see Henry Jackson Flanders, Robert W. Crapps, and David A. Smith. People of the Covenant: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. 4th edition, 169-220.

[7] Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 25.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition, 3381.

[11] Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 28.

[12] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, 58.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] Ibid., 60-66.

Painting by Marc Chagall, 1964, The Exodus.

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