A reservation I have about Terence Fretheim’s method in The Suffering of God is that he does not make as much of the different voices in the Bible as I would. He recognizes that there are different voices. But I wonder what difference it makes to him. For instance, the Priestly sources have a doctrine of God that tends to avoid likening God to man. Fretheim tends to minimize this stance. It doesn’t fit his overall thesis. I am not particularly drawn to the priestly theologies myself, but they are there and make up a major component of the biblical tradition.
Fretheim emphasizes the contributions of the prophets. Is this because he has an evolutionary view that the prophets constitute the flowering of the Hebrew tradition? This is a tempting stance for Christian interpreters. But it worries me. Some of the German before World War II saw the prophets as on a trajectory that left the barbarism of Judaism behind. In other words, they used this idea of the development or evolution of ideas to justify anti-Semitism. Of course, Fretheim isn’t in that school. But sometimes he seems to say that the Hebrew Bible is on a trajectory that leads naturally to the Incarnation. I just note that Jews certainly would not interpret their Bible that way.
Fretheim argues that in the prophets the distinction between man and God tends to collapse. In the period up until Samuel, the word of God often comes to men through an angelic being. But the prophets take on that role in later times. The prophets become human metaphors for what God is like. Hosea, for instance, was utterly humiliated as a cuckold in his marriage. This humiliation represents the humiliation that God suffers in relation to his people. Jeremiah feels rejected and lonely in his role. This represents the rejection and loneliness God feels in relation to his people.
God puts his words directly into Jeremiah’s mouth (Jeremiah 1:9). Ezekiel eats the word of God (Ezekiel 3:1-3). So these prophets come to embody the word of God. Fretheim speaks of this embodiment as sacramental. All of this is leading up to the idea that emerges in Isaiah 40 ff.: God suffers in his servant.
All these metaphors are in the Bible. I think Fretheim makes some very good points. However, the difference between God and man does not collapse in the prophets. Isaiah saw the YHWH high and lifted up. He saw himself as a man of unclean lips. While it is true that Jeremiah and Ezekiel eat the word, Isaiah’s lips must feel the cleansing fire of a red-hot coal before his speaks God’s word (see Isaiah 6). The prophets themselves all seem to have felt unworthy of their roles. So if someone saw them as stand-ins for God, it was probably their followers and later interpreters, not the prophets themselves.
But the interpretation of the prophets–particularly their suffering–as Godlike is a profound one.