Fretheim, in The Suffering of God, tries to bring order to the vast number of Hebrew Bible theophanies. Theophanies are times when God is said to appear or manifest concretely to humans. He appears as a divine warrior in the storm clouds and thunder. He appears as an angel, in the burning bush, in blinding glory, in visions and dreams, as a voice calling a prophet, and so on. Fretheim says that all these theophanies focus the presence of God in the most intense way.
In these diverse incidents Fretheim sees certain things that apply to them all. The appearances are always temporary. They are always initiated by God. They are effective in that they always make a difference in human life. They are always revelatory in that they bring about a new level of knowledge by revealing a new promise, or call, or judgement from God. They always open up human life to the possibility of redemption and change.
Theophanies are so prominence in the Bible that they require us to have a new insight into the Word of God. The word of God is seldom just verbal. It has an empirical, often visual element.
“Perhaps we need to broaden our understanding of the theology of the Word of God in Israel. The biblical understanding of the Word has both oral and visible components. From the symbolic acts of the Prophets to the liturgical acts of worship, the Word of God is not simply spoken, it is in some sense made visible or enacted; it takes on flesh and blood both literally and symbolically”(p. 86).
This undermines the idea that spirituality concerns only the mind and spirit. For Israel, the whole person and all the physical senses were involved. The whole person gets caught up in an encounter with God.
The authors of the Hebrew Bible and Fretheim too assume that these theophanies are real experiences. This applies even to experiences that come in dreams and visions. The modern pretty much automatically jumps to the conclusion that these altered state of consciousness experiences are fantasies or projections. The Bible recognizes the difference:
The Lord said, “Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known to him in a vision; I will speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not like this; he is faithful in all my house. With him I will speak face to face, openly, and not in riddles; and he will see the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:6-8 NET Bible).
The difference between wide awake experiences and dream theophanies looks like a difference in clarity, not a difference in kind. Both wakeful and visionary theophanies involve concrete images and an anthropomorphic (human like) presentation of God. They both speak to the whole person.
There are times when the form God takes in the theophanies comes from nature: storm, cloud, fire, smoke. But many times and most interestingly God takes human form. Sometimes he appears as an angel or messenger. Think of appearances to Abraham, Hagar, Jacob, Gideon, and Joshua where a human form appears, but it is clearly God who speaks. Sometimes a concealed messenger appears. Apparently the form is human, but light, fire, or smoke cover it. Exodus 3:2, for instance, says that the messenger appeared in (concealed by) the burning bush. In Ezekiel’s wheel-within-a-wheel vision there is a throne in the midst of fire, rainbow, and cloud; but on the throne there is one who has the appearance of a man (Ezekiel 1:26).
That God appears in human form in both early holy war traditions and late prophetic traditions shows that Israel never evolved beyond anthropomorphic understandings of God. Fretheim says these theophanies, where God relates to his people in the most intense way, show that the human form and divine vulnerability are intrinsic to how God relates to the world. There is nothing about taking human form that is foreign to God’s nature.
I am sure that many would want to argue with this. Worship entails seeing the vast difference between God and man. God is great. We are small. God is holy. We are unclean. God is creator. We are creatures. Fretheim, however, says that the contrast between man and God in the Bible is a contrast between the inexaustible power of God’s life over against the transitory nature of human life. The contrast does not involve God being wholly other or totally beyond the human and worldly.
I am still thinking about this. C.S. Lewis had an essay (really a Pentecost sermon) called Transposition. His idea of transposition was that God approaches us by focusing himself to a level we can understand. Examples of transposition include transferring a three-dimensional landscape to a two-dimensional canvass, or taking a concerto written for an orchestra and reducing it to something that you can play on just a piano or a violin. So Lewis thought that God, without violating his own nature, could make himself available and communicable to humans. A two-dimensional painting is not necessarily false to the three-dimensional landscape. And so God appears to us in ways that are less than what he fully is, but ways that we can understand yet are true to who God is.
I am thinking about how this might apply to what Fretheim is saying.