John Goldingay closes chp 9 of Israel’s Gospel (OT Theology) with this statement, a summing up insight into how First Testament writers understood history and how we might understand our own:
“The church in Europe lives in exile; is may not yet have seen the release of Jehoiachin. The church in the United States lives in the time of Josiah, assimilated to the culture that surrounds it. The question is whether it will turn or whether it must follow the church in Europe into exile” (695).
The theme of the chp is “God Wrestled” and it explores how history worked in the First Testament and how the writers explained what was going on. The chp is worth the price of the book.
How, I kept asking myself, can we avoid speaking of politics in pulpits today when our Bible is filled with words about the political process? The other question I kept asking is “Sure we should, but how should we talk about politics?”
He has extensive sketches of where Yhwh is active (and the image of wrestling with his people drives the whole chp and this section) and what Yhwh expects — wholehearted reliance on Yhwh — and how Yhwh reacts to Israel’s non-reliance: anger, continuing commitment, rejection tempered by grace, pity, long-temperedness and mercy that eventually runs out.
It is this unpredictability that Goldingay both reveals and is unafraid of that stimulated me the most as I read this chp. And here is a breathtaking set of conclusions to how the story works:
“One cannot say that Yhwh’s will is always being done.
Nor can one say that Yhwh is not involved in events at all.
One cannot say that Yhwh’s work is always clear, or that it never so.
One cannot say that it is characteristically miraculous, or that it is never so.
One cannot say that Yhwh always sees that the wrongdoing gets punished, but neither does the narrative suggest insight on why mercy operates in some contexts and not others.
It thus recognizes the untidiness of history. … [the narratives do] rule out any inference that they offer formulas by means of which history can be infallibly explained or the outcome of events be predicted. The serendipity of human and divine freedom plays a role in events” (643).
What, then, of God’s sovereignty?
“A dominant image for God in Christian theology and piety is that God is Lord — sovereign, king, emperor, president” (646). The First Testament “is more guarded in the use of such terms.” “But earthly wills were defying God’s lordship by the second page of the story” (646). Our customary explanation that God gave humans the freedom to love God as they should simply isn’t the way the Bible says things — so Goldingay. “That may be true, though the Bible does not make the point and does not seem aware of an issue here” (647). “Most events take place because people such as Ephraimite or Judahite kings initiate them” (647).
“It has been the story of a wrestling match with one of the partners having absolute power to overwhelm the other, but fighting with one arm tied behind his back, refraining from exercising that absolute power” (648).
Sections then on how Yhwh works — all kinds of ways — how kings exercise leadership, and sections about prophets, closing with “Is there a future?”