I have noticed an irony in twentieth-century theories of history. The Marxists, who thought of history as the working out of social and economic processes, won out among even non-Marxists. Before Marx there had been a school of history that lifted up the impact of great men. But now, even for liberal historians, history became more impersonal. Historical energies pushed kings, generals and prophets along.
Yet those who defended Marxism downplayed the fact that Marxist regimes and movements murdered somewhere around 100 million people (The Black Book of Communism). They blamed Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others. It was not something in Marxism itself. It was these individuals. So it seems great men (great in the sense of influence, not excellence) may have had more to do with it than their own theory allowed.
Samuel Terrien in The Elusive Presence said that, although the great-men theory of history went too far, the twentieth-century depersonalizing of history also went too far. The Hebrew Bible sees God revealed through individuals like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and the prophets. The way we usually write history today just discounts this from the beginning.
So Terrien starts off by taking a look at the encounters of God with the patriarchs. He does not naively assume that these stories report precise history. What they do is correspond to the Hebrew experience of the presence of God, even if we can only pin-point that experience later on a time line. (His discussion of the patriarchal period is out-of-date now. He depended much on the William Albright school. But I don’t see that his idea depends on this.)
Terrien deals with four times that Genesis has God speaking to Abraham. First, God calls Abraham in 12:1-12. God blesses Abraham and calls him to “be a blessing.” This experience of Abraham is not visual at all. Abraham just hears God speaking.
Second, God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising him children and land in 15:1-21. Genesis says that “the word of YHWH came to Abraham in a vision.” We are so used to using “the word” as a synonym for the Bible, that we should note that this doesn’t mean the Bible came to Abraham. Rather, the vision is a setting where God and Abraham talk back and forth. Part of this encounter involves an act of worship (vs. 7ff.) Then Abraham hears God again in an awe-filled dream.
Third, in 18:1-16 God appears to Abraham in the form of three men and later in the form of two angels (messengers). Vs. 10 and 13 make it clear that it is God who speaks through this disguise. Again, God’s presence is such that Abraham can talk back. Sarah even overhears the promise of a son to be born late in life–and laughs. Abraham then argues with God about the fate of Sodom (vs. 22ff.)
This conversation happens without the intermediaries. “The two men turned and went toward Sodom, but Abraham was still standing before YHWH“ (vs. 22). The presence of God no longer needs to be refracted through the messengers. Terrien calls this story “exquisite artistry” and “a masterpiece of the folkloric art.”
Finally, there is the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19. Here God’s presence shows itself as mysterious and threatening. Abraham hears that he must destroy what God has given him and promised him, his son and heir, Isaac. God ultimately proved faithful to his previous promises. But for Abraham the way was dim and fraught with misunderstanding.
It would be the same always for Israel. God’s presence was often hidden from them. He was sometimes for them and sometimes against them. They couldn’t take him for granted. He sometimes threatened their destruction. But even at the end of a dark road that seemed to lead into the abyss, he would finally keep his promises to them.