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The Hidden Face of God
"I Shall Hide My Face From Them. I Shall See What Their End Will Be"
God disappears in the Bible. Both religious and nonreligious readers should find this impressive and intriguing, each for his or her own reasons. Speaking for myself, I find it astounding. The Bible begins, as nearly everybody knows, with a world in which God is actively and visibly involved, but it does not end that way. Gradually through the course of the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament, Holy Scriptures, or tanak), the deity appears less and less to humans, speaks less and less. Miracles, angels, and all other signs of divine presence become rarer and finally cease. In the last portions of the Hebrew Bible, God is not present in the well-known apparent ways of the earlier books. Among God's last words to Moses, the deity says, "I shall hide my face from them. I shall see what their end will be." (Deut 31: 17, 18; 32: 20). By the end of the story God does just that. The consequences and development of this phenomenon in the New Testament and in post-biblical Judaism are extraordinary as well.
Individual points within this development have been observed by other scholars and writers before me. To my knowledge, though, no one has ever observed the whole process in all of its stages before. On occasions when I have described this phenomenon to fellow scholars, to students, and to laypersons, there has frequently been surprise that this has not been pointed out before.
Here is the phenomenon:
In the first few chapters of the Bible God is utterly involved in the affairs of thefirst humans. The text pictures God and humans in a state of intimacy that is unmatched in subsequent biblical narrative. God personally breathes life into the first man, personally forms the first woman, personally plants the garden of Eden and fashions the animals (Gen 2: 7 -- 8, 19 -- 2 3). God personally walks in the garden, and the humans hear the sound (3:8). And God speaks familiarly to the humans in conversation (3:9-19).
In the flood story that follows, there is not the same degree of intimacy as in the story of the garden of Eden, where both God and humans walk. Still, the deity, Yahweh, speaks to Noah and personally brings the flood: not just rain, as it is often pictured, but a cosmic crisis in which windows in the sky are opened and the waters above the firmament and the waters beneath gush into the secure, habitable world (Gen 7: 12; 8: 2). God also personally closes the ark (7: 16). The creator's activity in the universe thus is depicted as being observable to the inhabitants of earth at both the cosmic and the personal level. Afterward God enters into a covenant with all creatures (9: 8 17). The covenant is a contract composed according to the form and technical terminology of known legal documents of the ancient Near East.' That is, God is pictured in Genesis as binding Himself to all humans in the same concrete way that humans actually bound themselves legally to one another in their earthly affairs in the ancient world. In the subsequent story of the tower of "Babel" (babel in the original, which is Hebrew for Babylon), likewise, the creator is manifestly present and involved in the affairs of the entire human population of the world. Yahweh personally "goes down" to see the city and tower (I 1: 5) . In these stories of the primeval history, the creator of the universe is pictured as being involved in life on this planet in ways that are visible and audible to the humans.
As the human population grows, the divine presence is never again made visible to all of humankind. The deity rather makes a second covenant with an individual man, Abraham, with the explicit aim that this relationship should ultimately benefit every family on the earth (12: 3; 18: 18; 28: 14). God speaks to Abraham, as to Adam and Noah. Also a new expression to convey visible divine presence is added as God now, for the first time, is said to "appear" to Abraham. The word for "appear" is a Hebrew passive (Niphal) form of the root r'h; literally: the deity "was seen." In the account of the covenant, the divine appearance is via fire (15: 17). It is unclear in the wording of the text whether this fire is an expression, a symbol, or a herald of God's presence--or even the actual form that the theophany itself takes, i.e., that God's appearance looks to Abraham like a flame of fire; (more on fire below). In other cases, the form of the divine appearance is left unspecified (12: 7; 17: I). In a few dramatic cases, the appearances involve the introduction of angels into the Bible's story. As it turns out, the biblical depiction of angels is related to the matter of God's appearances to humans in a more direct way than one might suspect.
"He Fought With God...He Fought With An Angel"
Most readers' concepts of angels are influenced by Renaissance art: wings, halos, tranquil faces. To know what is pictured in the biblical texts themselves, we have to scrutinize the specific stories in which angels appear. The first explicit mention of an angel in the Bible is in the story of Abraham's runaway concubine, Hagar (Genesis 16). Hagar is pregnant and alone, in flight from Abraham's wife, Sarah. "And the angel of Yahweh found her at the water well in the wilderness." The text does not say whether the angel is visible to Hagar or what it looks like. The angel only speaks, but what it says is strange: "I shall multiply your seed, that it will not be counted because of its multitude" (16: 1 10). What is strange is that these sound more like the words of God than of some angel; they are a promise to make Hagar's descendants, the Ishmaelites, uncountable at some future time. Such huge controls of national destinies over many generations are not ascribed to angels elsewhere in the Bible but rather are solely within the power of the deity...The Hidden Face of God. Copyright © by Richard E. Friedman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.