Divine Presence and Absence in Exilic and Post-Exilic Judaism

Written by Nathan MacDonald and Izaak J. De Hulster, eds. Reviewed By Michael S. Heiser

This volume is a collection of twelve studies presented at a 2011 colloquium held at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Germany). The essays by Johannes Zachhuber, Claus Ambos, Michael Emmendörffer are in German, and the remaining essays are in English. The studies explore Israelite theologies of divine presence and absence oriented by, and in response to, the fall of Jerusalem and the ensuing exile of Judah. This historical context forced the scribal-priestly elite of Judah to articulate how Yahweh was still present among his people in the wake of the loss of the Temple and their homeland.

The first two essays focus on hermeneutical questions, particularly with respect to the limitations of language for expressing how God may be or not be anywhere and everywhere in any temporal or spatial sense. Trevor Hart approaches these questions within a Trinitarian Christian framework. He deftly raises the important interpretive considerations to the reader for parsing divine presence and absence in our experience: God’s relation to time, space, and creation. Zachhuber surveys important philosophical and theological works of the 19th and 20th centuries on the way toward deconstructing the notion that transcendence and immanence are in binary opposition.

The next two essays take the reader into the wider ancient Near Eastern context of conceptions of divine presence. The chapter by Ambos deals with how the destruction of sacred sites meant the cessation of a deity’s cult (i.e., divine absence). He focuses on Mesopotamian material where kings claim credit for restoring abandoned or destroyed cult sites. Gods whose cultic presence requires human industry (i.e., making idols) would naturally require human help in once again being present among a people or at a cult site. The study is relevant to post-exilic Judah in that a destroyed Jerusalem required an explanation as to how Yahweh of Israel was still present in the absence of cultic practices. Similarly, the study by Angelika Berlejung focuses on the use of amulets in the Canaan of the first millennium BC. Her discussion brings to mind correspondences between sentiments expressed by imagery and inscriptions found on amulets with modern religious practices (e.g., displaying pictures of Jesus or Bible verses, wearing crosses). Just as believers today utilize such items to be reminded of divine presence, so antiquity has produced abundant evidence for the same beliefs and concerns.

The remaining eight essays focus on the Hebrew Bible. The writers presuppose the dominant critical perspective that the book of Deuteronomy was in no part the product of Mosaic authorship, but was instead entirely composed by an anonymous author or authors after the monarchy split, at the same time the historical books of Joshua through 2 Kings were produced. These biblical books are collectively referred to as the “Deuteronomistic History” (DtrH) while their writer(s) and editor(s) take the general label of the “Deuteronomist” (Dtr).

In his contribution, Nathan MacDonald asserts that the spirit of Yahweh has undeservingly taken a back seat in discussions of divine presence compared to the emphasis on the shem (“name”) theology of the Deuteronomist and the kabod (“glory”) theology of the Priestly material. It’s unclear to this reviewer what MacDonald means by characterizing the shem and kabod theologies as not being associated with “persons” (p. 96) since the divine Name and the Glory are each anthropomorphized in Exod 23:20–23 and 34:1–9 (cf. Exod 33:21–22), respectively. Nevertheless, he persuasively argues that the spirit of Yahweh accomplishes the same goals as these theologies for articulating the divine presence in the Persian period. Next, Stephen Cook disputes and rebuts the common notion, dating to Gerhard von Rad, that the name (shem) theology of this material is a means of removing the divine presence from Israel. Cook shows that the name theology involves anthropomorphism and thus constitutes an effort to make the presence of Yahweh tangible to Israel.

The next two essays are oriented to the OT prophetic books. William Tooman focuses on the redaction history of Ezekiel with the goal of postulating how the book’s final redactors strategically employed references to the spirit to convey the simultaneous restoration of God’s covenant and presence for Israel’s future. The essay samples the powerful theological messaging behind editorial strategies of the biblical books. Jill Middlemas’s contribution deals with religious iconography in Israel and the prophets. Since this material is late in Israel’s history (i.e., after the split of the monarchy), the prophetic diatribes against idols and any representation of Yahweh meant an alteration in how Israelites (whether Yahwists or not) conceived of divine presence and absence. For the biblical prophets, iconography drove Yahweh away (divine absence) rather than making him present.

A focus on the Psalter follows. Joel Burnett looks to West Semitic inscriptions for deciphering the language of divine presence in the Elohistic Psalter (Pss 42–83). Burnett finds comparable elements in the inscriptions and Elohistic psalms (e.g., appeals to the deity to overturn a national reproach and a return of the divine presence). Emmendörffer follows similar themes, though his focus is psalmists’ complaints about God’s distance from his people in the wake of national disaster. The item of interest here is that these psalms do not presume Yahweh had withdrawn from his people. Rather, he was present as national judge.

The final two essays have Ezra-Nehemiah in view. Bob Becking draws attention to ancient Near Eastern texts that correlate cultic vessels with divine presence. This observation is noteworthy in light of the return of holy vessels to Judah described in the returns from exile—did the Jews returning to Jerusalem identify Yahweh with these vessels? Becking opts for a “symbolic presence” perspective (pp. 276–78) in view of Judah’s committed aniconism, particularly in the wake of exile. The final essay by Lisbeth Fried asks an obvious question—did the returning Jews think the divine presence inhabited the rebuilt Temple? She answers negatively for two reasons: (1) Yahweh’s people had adopted the Greek belief that the gods lived in the heavens; and (2) the Torah was perceived as the physical manifestation of the divine presence. Earlier biblical literature has Yahweh in the heavens, so the former is hardly an innovation (e.g., Gen. 19:24; Psa 2:4; 8:1). Fried’s close examination of the ritual acts in Ezra-Nehemiah that link the Torah with the Temple makes the second option more persuasive.

This reviewer has no hesitation in recommending this collection of essays to those interested in the biblical theology of divine presence and absence. Though the collection presumes the critical consensus about DtrH and Dtr, the literary artistry and theological message of the text as we have it are in no way compromised. When contextualized in the wider ancient Near Eastern world and the providential unfolding of history, as this book does, these textual features are in fact more pronounced.

Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser
Logos Bible Software
Bellingham, Washington, USA

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