WashingtonPost.com: The Disappearance of God : A Divine Mystery (2024)

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The Disappearance of God
A Divine Mystery
By Richard Elliot Friedman

Chapter One: "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 scrutinized 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 multiple" (16:10). 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 destines over many generations are not ascribed to angels elsewhere in the Bible but rather are solely within the power of the deity. To confuse things further, in the next verse angel says, "for Yahweh has listened to your affliction." So the angel seems to be speaking God's words in the earlier verse and speaking its town words, referring to God in third person, in this latter verse. To confuse things still further, the text next reports that Hagar "called the name of Yahweh who was speaking to her...." So the narrator who thus far identified the angel as doing the speaking now informs us that it was in fact Yahweh who was speaking to Hagar.

The curios things is that several of the biblical stories involving angels contain confusions such as this, that is, confusions between when it is the deity and when it is the angle who is speaking or doing something. The two best known stories that display this are the story of the three visitors to Abraham and the story of Jacob's struggle with God. The story of Abraham and the visitors begins with the announcement, "And Yahweh appeared to him by the trees of Mamre" (18:1), thus informing us explicitly that this is to be a story of a divine appearance to Abraham. The form that the appearance takes is narrated beginning with the next verse:

And he lifted his eyes and saw, and here were three people [Hebrew: anasim](*) standing over him. And he saw and ran toward them from the tent entrance and prostrated himself on the ground and said, "My Lord, if I have found favor in thine [singular] eyes do not pass thy [singular] servant by."

Initially all three visitors are pictured as speaking (18:9). In the next verse, just an unnamed one of the three speaks (18:10). And then, a few verses later, Yahweh Himself speaks, and the words that He says identify Him with the unnamed one who spoke before (18:14). So God seems to be interchangeable with one of the three visitors. Second, the story reports further on that "the people turned from there and went to Sodom, and Abraham was still standing before Yahweh" (18:22). This would seem to contradict the idea that the three visitors were God and two angels, because the visitors have left for Sodom while Abraham is still standing with God. But the first verse of the next chapter, which tells the famous story of Sodom and Gomorrah, begins: "And the two angels came to Sodom." Only two of the three visitors travel to Sodom-and Abraham is still standing with God! On the basis of this set of evidence from the text it has been argued that the third visitor is God. This understanding of the text is troubling, of course, to many Jews and Christians; and there are numerous other suggested explanations of this text. I used to persuaded that this view was correct myself, but I now reject it. Before we try to reach any conclusions, though, we should look at the other story in which there is a confusion concerning divine and angelic identity, the story of Abraham's grandson Jacob and his struggle with a mysterious figure.

In the middle of the story of Jacob and his relations with his twin brother, Esau, there occurs an incident that seems almost unrelated to the rest of the story. On the night before Jacob is to confront his brother Esau, whom he wronged twenty years earlier and has not seen since, Jacob separates from his wives and children and spends the night by himself. There follows this enigmatic episode:

And Jacob was left alone. And a man struggled with him until the breaking of the day. And he saw that he could not prevail against him, and he struck him in the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was thrown out in his struggle with him. And he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking."

And he [Jacob] said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

And he said to him, "What is your name?"

And he said, "Jacob."

And he said, "Your name will not be called `Jacob' any more but rather `Israel' [Hebrew: yisra-el, understood here to mean `fight with God'] for you have fought with God and with people, and you have prevailed."

And Jacob asked and said, "Tell you name."

And he said, "Why is this that you ask my name?" And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place "Peniel" [literal meaning: "face of God"] because I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."

Now, on the face of it, this story appears to recount another appearance of God in human form. There is no mention of the word "angel." The being, called a "man," with whom Jacob has wrestled names Jacob "yisra-el," namely, one who fights with God. This being says explicitly that this is because Jacob has "fought with God" as well as with humans. And Jacob names the place "p-ni-el," i.e., face of God, and he too, says that this is because he has seen God face to face. Also, the being refuses to give his name in response to Jacob's request, and this is consistent with the tradition developed elsewhere in the Bible that God did not reveal His name to any human this early, but only did so later, in the generation of Moses (Exod 3:13-15; 6:2-3). The text would thus seem to indicate that it is God whom Jacob has encountered. Still, there is some uncertainty about who it is that Jacob fights. Even in another book of the Bible this being was understood to be an angel. In the book of Hosea, the prophet Hosea refers back to the story of Jacob, and mention this specific scene, and the prophet describes it like this:

And with his strength he fought with God And he fought with an angel and prevailed (Hos 12:4-5)

Here, in the second line, using the same specific term as in the Genesis story-he "prevailed"-the prophet perceives it to be an angel against whom Jacob prevailed. To confuse things further, the prophet still refers to Jacob's having fought with God in the first line. In a fairly well-known phenomenon of biblical Hebrew poetry, the two lines here are not separate but parallel. That is, they do not refer to two separate fights but rather create a poetic image of a single event through the two parallel lines of a bicolon. But how can this be? How can the poet say, literally in the same breath, that Jacob's fight was with God and with an angel?

Obviously there is a confusion that is common to all of these biblical passages, a confusion concerning a seeming overlap between the deity and angels. But it is confusing only so long we imagine angels as beings who are independent or separate from God. These texts indicate that angels are rather conceived of here as expression of God's presence. The consistent biblical conception of God is that God cannot possibly be seen by a human ("A human will not see me and live."-Exod 33:20) and cannot possibly be contained in any known space ("The heavens...will not contain you." - 1 Kgs 8:27). God, in this conception, can nonetheless make Himself known to humans by a sort of emanation from the Godhead that is visible to human eyes. It is a hypothesis, a concrete expression of the divine presence, which is otherwise unexpressible to human beings. What the human sees when such a hypothesis is in front of him or her looks like "people," like a "man." And the word for such a thing is "angel." Thus Jacob can encounter an angel and still say, "I have seen God face to face." And Abraham can face three angels and address "my Lord." And an angel can speak God's words in first person or can speak about God in third person. And Hosea can say in poetic parallel: "He fought with God...he fought with an angel." All this is so because in some ways an angel is an identifiable thing itself, and in some ways it is merely a representation of divine presence in human affairs. An analogy might be listening to an orchestra on electronic equipment in one's home. One cannot house the entire orchestra in one's den, but one can hear this thing that derives from the real orchestra, emanating from it via a radio signal, a tape, or a disc; and after listening to it one can say that he or she "heard the orchestra." If it is on television one can even say that he or she "saw the orchestra"-which, in a sense, is true and, in another sense, is false. What one saw and heard was not the orchestra but waves of sound and light that derived from the orchestra. Thus biblical persons see and angels and say afterward that they have seen and heard their God.

For the same reason, it is unclear what the nature of the fire that appears in the Abrahamic covenant story is. It may be another type of visible expression of the deity's otherwise invisible presence, or it may simply be a sign or symbol.


These apparent markers of divine presence on earth continue in the book of Exodus, which recounts the development of Abrahams's and Jacob's descendants, the Israelites, into a free people. The first revelation to Moses in Exodus, his famous encounter at a bush in the wilderness of Horeb, combines an angel and a miraculous fire: "And an angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire from inside a bush, and ... the bush was burning with fire, and the bush was not consumed' (Exod 3:2). Yahweh then makes Himself known in the world through a well-known series of miraculous events which result in the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. A stick turns into a snake in front of the Egyptian court. Ten plagues devastate the agriculture, livestock, property, and human lives of Egypt. The Red Sea divides to provide an escape route for the Israelites and then closes and drowns the pursuing Egyptian military force. The great burst of miracles that fills the first half of Exodus is depicted explicitly as "signs", evidences of Yahweh's involvement in the world; Yahweh declares that He causes a plague to happen in a particular way "in order you will know that I, Yahweh, am in the midst of the earth" (Exod 8:18;cf.7:17;8:6:9:14,29). In the last of the ten plagues, the deity is said to pass personally through Egypt, striking the Egyptian firstborn mortally. Not Moses, not an "angel of death" as later tradition claimed, but God Himself goes through Egypt on that nigh (11:4;12: 12,13,23,29). (There is no such thing as an "angel of death" in the Hebrew Bible.) The miracles are witnessed by entire nations (at least Egypt and Israel) and are heard of by other peoples as well (15:14-15; 18:11).

This is a world of upheavals of nature of immediate proofs of divine presence. It is not a world of belief in God but of knowledge of God. Indeed there is no word for "to believe" in biblical Hebrew. The word that is frequently translated as "to believe" means, in the original, something more like "to trust"; that is, it means that one can rely on this God to do what He has said He will do (Hebrew: h'myn; e.g.,Exod 14:31). It does not mean "to believe" in the sense of belief that God exists. God's existence is understood in these texts to be a matter of empirical knowledge, demonstrated by divine appearances and miraculous demonstrations. This, by the way, is what makes the stories of human rebellion in the Hebrew Bible so remarkable. It is not that the humans doubt the deity's existence. The impressive thing is rather that, knowing that this God exists, they consciously rebel against His authority.

For the generation of the exodus, more than any other in the Bible, this is so: the divine presence is depicted as a known, manifest fact. This generation of the Israelites is presented as having continuous miraculous evidence of the divine presence in full view at all times for forty years. A column of cloud stands in front of them by day, and it turns to a column of fire by night. It moves in front of them, leading them on their journey to a promised land. Also they are fed daily by the miraculous precipitation of food, "manna," on the ground each morning (Exod 16:2-35) as well as provision of birds, which miraculously fly over the camp and drop on the ground to be eaten (Num 11:31-32); and, in several instances, miraculous provision of water in the wilderness (Exod 15:23-25;17:1-7; Num 20:2-13).6 More powerful experiences of the divine presence occur when something that is identified only as the "glory of Yahweh" appears. The narrative never identifies what the "glory" is, only that it is visible to human eyes and that it generally is not seen directly but is veiled within a cloud (Exod 16:7, 10;24:16,17;40:34,35; Lev 9:6,23; Num 14:10;16:19;17:7). Whatever it is, the glory involves something that emanates from the deity and is associated with cases of immediate intervention in specific human situations. Overall, then, the generation of Israelites who journey through the wilderness for forty years is one that experiences direct divine closeness as a daily fact of life for that entire period. This culminates in what is presumably the ultimate experience of God by a large mass of people in the entire Bible, the revelation at Mount Sinai. Yahweh personally "comes down," descending on the mountain in fire (Exod 19:11, 18, 20), and speaks out loud from the sky over the mountain to the thousands of Israelites below (19:19; 20:1, 22). They see the divine fire and hear the divine voice, which terrifies them. The words that they hear Yahweh pronounce are the ten commandments, which are the text of the third of the divine covenants with humans (Exod 20:1-17). This is followed by an account of an exceptional experience of God by a smaller group, as seventy-four Israelites are privileged to have a shared vision of the deity and to partake of a sacred meal in the divine presence. It is described thus:

And Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel, and under His feet it was like a brickwork of sapphire and like the essence of the sky for clearness....And they envisioned God, and they ate and drank.

(Exod 24:9-11)

This in turn is followed by the account of the ultimate, exceptional experience of God by an individual in the Bible, Moses' seeing the actual form of God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34). It is arguably the culminating moment of human history since Adam and Eve in this narrative, and it is as mysterious as anything in the Bible. Moses sees God from behind. The sight that he is privileged to behold is not described, just as the vision of the seventy-four and the voice that the thousands hear are not described. These things are understood to belong solely to those who experienced them, and they are not to be repeated in any subsequent generation.


Thus, in the experiences of an individual, a group, and a community, the apparent of God reaches a high point here in the middle of the second book of the Bible. God speaks from the sky, descends into the earth in fire, is seen in a vision by a group, and is seen in His actual from by a man. But after this things change. After this the apparent presence of God in the Bible starts to diminish. Miracles continue to occur, but no other man or woman sees the form of God as Moses has. No other group has a vision of the sapphire-like, sky-like throne-dais beneath God's "feet" (!). No other generation of Israelites or any other people on earth ever hear the voice of God aloud from the sky. The period of visible, audible encounters with the divine gradually passes, and not subtly, but rather expressly in the text. The people's hearing of the divine voice is not to be repeated - and this is depicted as being the stated request of the people who experienced it themselves. Terrified, they tell Moses;

"You, speak with us, and we will listen; but let God not speak with us, lest we die."

(Exod 20:19)

In that moment prophecy as a defined institution is born. By prophecy here I mean mediated communication between the deity and human communities. After this scene in the Bible, Yahweh never again speaks directly to an entire community Himself. All communication from the deity is directed only to individuals, prophets, who then deliver the message to whomever they are told. Prophecy is mentioned in passing in the book of Genesis (20:7), but prophecy in this formal sense of divine messages mediated through individuals begins here in Exodus at Sinai.

Moses' personal experience is never to be repeated either, and this, too, is declared categorically in the text. In the curious story of Moses' Cush*te wife and "snow-white" Miriam (Numbers 12), the priest Aaron and his sister Miriam criticize or challenge Moses with the argument: "Has Yahweh spoken only just through Moses? Has he not also spoken through us?" Yahweh "comes down" in a column of cloud and reprimands Aaron and Miriam for this presumption, declaring that Moses' experience of the divine is indeed superior to that of any other prophet. He identifies the distinction like this:

If there will be prophet among you, I Yahweh, shall make myself known to him in a vision; in a dream I shall speak through him. Not so my servant Moses, most faithful in all my house. Mouth to mouth I shall speak through him, and vision and not in enigmas, and he will see the form of Yahweh. And why did you not fear to speak against my servant Moses?

(Num 12:6-8)

All subsequent prophecy in the Bible, in the light of this declaration, must be understood as being experiences through dreams and visions, explicitly inferior to that of Moses. All of the fifteen books of the Bible that bear the names of prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) either identify the form of those prophets' experiences as visions or else leave the form of the experience undescribed. They never ascribe to any of the prophets a revelation comparable to that of Moses (which I shall discuss more specifically in Chapter 3). Some people might say that a revelation that comes by way of a dream or a vision is no less valid than one that comes by empirical experience. Somehow though, I think, no matter how impressed any of us would be at having a dream or vision in which the deity spoke to him or her, we would be a good deal more impressed if the door of our room opened and God "Himself" stepped in.

The period in which the Israelites live in the wilderness, which takes up the remainder of the book of Exodus and all of the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, thus has a curious quality to it. It is a period of incubation, nurturing, and unusual closeness to the divine, and at the same time a period of developing divine hiddenness and mystery. There are still stories of miracles, and Yahweh is still involved in human affairs, but not in the direct ways of the immediately preceding accounts. The omnipresent column of cloud and fire conveys God's presence, but at the same time a cloud "masks" the divine: the deity's glory can only be seen through that surrounding haze. Moses, the man who has seen God, moves among the people, but he is depicted as wearing a veil over his face for the rest of his life (except in moments of revelation); for some reason which remains unclear in the difficult wording of the text, Moses' face has been transformed so that he is now too fearful for the people to approach him (Exod 34:29-35). Yahweh (or Moses; 34:1, 27-28) has inscribed the text of the ten commandments on stone tablets, and these tangible markers of the covenant between Yahweh and the people are housed within a series of layers: first one enters a courtyard; from there one enters the Tabernacle; inside the Tabernacle there is first an outer room called "the Holy"; then there is an inner room called the "Holy of Holies" which is enclosed in a fabric pavilion; in the inner room is a box (the "ark"); and inside the box are the tablets. The Tabernacle itself, the place where God communicates through Moses, is a tent composed of another series of layers: a framework of wooden trellises, which is covered by an embroidered linen fabric, which is itself covered by a woolen fabric, which is then covered by a red leather outer covering. Only priests can enter the Tabernacle. Laypersons can go only as far as the courtyard. That is, there is a sequence of zones, which are less and less directly accessible.

This quality of hiddenness becomes explicit when Yahweh finally tells Moses, "I shall hide my face from them. I shall see what their end will be." This is followed by the account of Moses' death (Deuteronomy 34). The death of the one man who has seen the deity may be understood as yet a further step of distancing between the deity and the human world. And adding yet another shade of hiddenness and separation, the text there notes that "no man has known his gravesite to this day" (34:6). The narrative of the first five books of the Bible (known as the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, or the Pentateuch) thus has flowed from an era of creation, cosmic crisis, and extraordinary divine intervention in human affairs to a time in which the deity has begun to be hidden - and to a promise of increasing hiddenness in the future.


As the people settle in their promised land, which is narrated in the next two books of the Bible (Joshua and Judges), the remaining signs of divine presence and communication begin to diminish gradually. In the book of Joshua, the column of cloud and fire is no longer present, the glory of Yahweh no longer appears, and the text notes that the manna ceases on the day after the people first eat naturally grown food in the land (Josh 5:12). The disappearance of the signs of divine presence is gradual; some still remain at this stage of the story. In the book of Joshua there is an appearance by a mysterious being who is identified as the "captain of Yahweh's army" and who is perhaps comparable to an angel (5:14). There are also still major miracles. The Jordan River splits for Joshua and the people to enter the land, and the text notes, "That day Yahweh magnified Joshua in the people's eyes" (4:14); that is, the miracle is taken to be the confirmation that Yahweh is "with" Joshua (3:7). And two of the most famous miracles of the Bible occur in this era: the walls of Jericho miraculously fall so that the Israelites can capture the city (Joshua 6), and the sun stands still in the heavens to provide enough daylight for the Israelites to defeat a confederation of kings who oppose them (Joshua 10). In the next chapter, though, we shall see that the miracles of Joshua include an element which participates in the transition that is developing in the text.

The following book, Judges, includes an occasional miracle or angel as well. A line in Judges is arguably the clearest expression of the idea that miracles are conceived of as signs of the deity's presence. The judge Gideon says (to someone who turns out to be an angel), "If Yahweh is with us, then ... where are all His miracles that our fathers told us about ... ?" (Judg 6:13). This period is pictured as an age of fewer miraculous signs, and here a major figure in the story takes this absence of miracles as reason to be uncertain of the presence and involvement of God. Gideon in fact gets his miracle (fire comes from a rock; 6:21), but miracles are fewer and farther between after this. The one large group in Judges after this is in the stories of Samson, but in the transition toward divine hiddenness. There are then some miracles at the beginning of the book of 1 Samuel - a statue of the Philistines suffer plagues (specifically, hemorrhoids) until they return the ark, which they had captured from Israel (1 Samuel 5-6) - but for most of 1 Samuel there are few miracles, and in 2 Samuel there are almost none at all.

The diminishing apparent presence of God continues and even accelerates from this point. The last person to whom God is said to have been "revealed" is Samuel (1 Sam 3:21). The last person to whom God is said to have "appeared" is Solomon; this occurs early in the next biblical book, the book 1 Kings (3:5; 9:2; 11:9). From the beginning of the Bible to this point in the narrative, the deity has been said to have appeared to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Exod 6:3), Moses, Joshua (Deut 31:15), Aaron (Lev 16:2), Israel (Lev 9;4; Num 14:14), Samuel (1 Sam 3:21), David (2 Chr 3:1), and Solomon. But now, with about five centuries of the story still to be told in the Hebrew Bible, the deity has appeared to a human being for the last time. Yahweh speaks to David and to Solomon, who are Israel's second and third kings respectively; but the words "And Yahweh said to X," are never applied to any of the thirty-eight kings who come after them. (It is the less direct expression "And the word of Yahweh was to X" that serves all across the chronology of the biblical books.) The sole possible exception is a statement, concerning the Judean king Manasseh, that "Yahweh spoke to Manasseh and all his people" (2 Chr 33:10). But this verse is hardly meant literally. There is no suggestion that the deity somehow speaks out of the sky over the entire country for everyone to hear. And, in any case, most strikingly, the text notes at the end of the verse: "And they did not pay attention"!

The last appearance of the cloud and glory, meanwhile, also occurs at the time of Solomon, on the day of the dedication of the Temple (1 Kgs 8:10-11;2 Chr 5:14;7:1-3). The coalescence of the two - the inauguration of the Temple and the last appearance of the cloud and glory - is notable itself. The glory, the supernatural sign of divine presence which has hitherto been associated with divine communications to humans, is now replaced by a natural, man-made structure which is associated with human communications to the divine. Solomon explains in his Temple dedication prayer that a building, of course, cannot contain God; but he asks Yahweh to "cause your name to dwell" in the Temple - so that Israelites may then direct prayers toward the Temple, invoking the name Yahweh, and the deity will hear (1 King 8). The Temple thus houses both the material signs of God's presence (the ark, tablets, Tabernacle, and other sacred objects) and the more abstract entity, the divine name by virtue of which the Temple becomes the established channel to the deity.

Other episodes involving miracles further mark the Temple as the divinely sanctioned channel. When the Israelite king Jeroboam I builds an alternative center of worship at Beth-El, a prophet denounces it, King Jeroboam's arm withers, and the Beth-El altar cracks (1 King 13). The Temples"s status thus is initially confirmed by divine word, glory, and miracle. And after that, as these divine signs recede, the Temple itself gradually will become the only visible channel to God.

The last public miracle in the Hebrew Bible comes just a few chapters after the Beth-El events. By "public" miracle I mean one that is witnessed by all of the people of Israel - or at least a substantial portion of the people -and which participates in some significant way in the history that is being narrated. I mean this as opposed to smaller, "personal" miracles, in which an individual is able to use supernatural powers for his or her own purpose or in service of a relatively small group. The plagues in Egypt would be examples of public miracles, witnessed by the Israelite and Egyptian populations and manifestly participating in the destiny of Israel. Many of the feats of strength in the Samson story would be examples of personal miracles, used by the hero as a result of his own experiences. Now, the last public miracle is in the story of the prophet Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). It takes place around a hundred years after Solomon's dedication of the Temple, in the reign of King Ahab and his Phoenician queen, Jezebel.

Ahab and Jezebel have sanctioned the worship of the god Baal in Israel, and Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a test of divine presence. They meet at Mount Carmel (the site of present-day Haifa) in front of the King and "all of Israel" (18:19,20,21,30,39). They set two sacrifices on two altars, one for Yahweh and one for Baal. The catch is that neither Elijah nor the prophets of Baal may use fire to ignite the sacrifice. Rather, the deity who really is God must provide his own fire. Since Baal is the god of wind and storm in the Phoenician and Canaanite pantheon, a bolt of lightning should be no problem for him; but no fire from Baal is forthcoming. Elijah openly ridicules the prophets of Baal ("Call out louder! For he's a god! And he could be having a chat or a pursuit, or he's indisposed. Maybe he's sleeping, and he'll wake up!" - 18-27). And then, "the fire of Yahweh fell and consumed the offering and the wood and the stones and the soil. And all the people saw and fell on their faces. And they said, `Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God!'" (18:38-39). The miracle thus involves fire once again, and it is presented as a resounding visible demonstrations of the presence of God. And that is the end of public miracles in the Hebrew Bible's narrative.


One of the most remarkable juxtapositions in the Bible is in the arrangement of the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 King 18), for it is immediately followed by the story of Elijah at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19). Despite Elijah's great victory at Carmel, he is forced to flee Israel because of Jezebel's fury at him. He runs (for forty days and nights!) to Mount Horeb. Horeb is another name for Sinai. Mount Sinai has not figured in the Bible's story at all since Moses and the Israelites were there several centuries earlier. Now, suddenly, we have an episode of a prophet on the mountain, alone, in communication with his God, a scene which cannot but recall to our minds the picture of Moses, the prophet, alone, who had the greatest revelation of all time on that site. But the similarity ends there. God's first words to Elijah are: "What are you doing here?" (Hebrew: mah leka po; meaning literally "What do you have here?" in the sense of "What business do you have here?"). Elijah responds by expressing his frustration and asks to die. The deity "passes," accompanied by three extraordinary phenomena: a crag-shattering wind, then an earthquake, and then a fire. Each of these phenomena has been associated with divine activity in other biblical episodes. God is associated with wind in the creation account (Gen 1:2; 2:7); with an earthquake in the story of the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram against Moses (Num 16:28-34); and with fire numerous times, as we have seen. But in the story of Elijah at Horeb the report of each of these phenomena is followed in the text by the notation: "Yahweh was not in it." Then all are followed by what has usually been translated as "a still small voice" (1 Kgs 19:12). That is a somewhat misleading translation. Grammatically, it should more properly be rendered as something like: "a sound of thin hush." That is, it is the sound of silence. Moses had seen the form of God (Exod 33:23; Num 12:8) and had heard nothing. The scene of the last great public miraculous confirmation of the divine presence at Mount Carmel has been followed by the scene of the divine refusal to appear at Mount Horeb/Sinai.

I am not the first scholar to identify of the presence of God in the Bible. My teacher, Frank Moore Cross, wrote:

The abrupt refusal of Yahweh to appear as in the traditional theophany at Sinai marked the beginning of a new era in his mode of self-disclosure.

And Samuel Terrien wrote about this scene:

The threefold repetition, "And Yahweh was not in the wind," "And Yahweh was not in the earthquake," "And Yahweh was not in the fire," constitutes a repudiation not only of the mode of divine intervention on Mt. Carmel but also of the possibility that history. The era of theophany is now closed....

What I want to emphasize here is that this scene is even more significant when we see it in the context that we are now encountering. It is just one dramatic stage in a series of stages, spanning the entire Hebrew Bible, through which God step-by-step removes the visible markers of His presence.

Following the sound of thin hush, the deity does speak again to Elijah. He says, "What are you doing here?" that is, the exact same thing He said before. Apparently the wind, earthquake, fire, and hush were supposed to make a point, but apparently the point is lost on Elijah, who in turn repeats his own words from before: he expresses his frustration and asks to die. God, seemingly dropping the matter of divine appearances, turns to other matters. Yahweh tells Elijah to appoint two new kings and a prophetic successor for himself, the prophet Elisha (19:15-16).

And that is the last time in the Hebrew Bible's narrative that the text says "And Yahweh said" anything to anyone.

The Elijah story also includes the last appearance of an angel in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kgs 1:3,15). In the few accounts of angels after this, the angels are not said to appear, and the stories do not suggest that they are seen by anyone (2 Kgs 1:3;19:35).

What we then see develop in the Elijah episodes and especially in the episodes of his successor Elisha is a transition in the depiction of miracles, with personal miracles replacing the great public miracles of the earlier stories. These personal miracles of Elijah and Elisha are witnessed by fewer people, and they server fewer people's interest. For example, in a story in which an Israelite king sends a troop of fifty soldiers to fetch Elijah, Elijah says to the officer of the troop, "If I am man of God, let fire come down from the sky and consume you and your fifty." And it does. The same thing happens to a second troop of fifty. (2 Kgs 1:9-15). No witnesses are mentioned, and there is no suggestion that these fires from the sky serve a purpose in the destiny of the world or of Israel comparable to the role of the fire in which God descended on Sinai or the fire that consumed the offering on Mount Carmel. The account of Elijah's ascent in a whirlwind is a similar case. It involves a wondrous scene: Elijah and Elisha walk together,a chariot and horses made of fire come between them, and Elijah goes up to the heavens in a whirlwind. Some take this to mean that Elijah never dies; alternatively this may in fact be the story of his death. Either way, there is only one witness in the story, and the event does not, on the face of it, serve a direct role in the destiny of humankind or of the people of Israel. (Later religious traditions, taking this to mean that Elijah never died, identified Elijah as the person who would one day return to announce the coming of a messiah; but this idea is not developed in the text of the Hebrew Bible itself.)

Eventually, personal miracles cease as well, In a story of the prophet Isaiah, which takes place about a century later, the Judean king Hezekiah asks for a sign to confirm that a prophecy of Isaiah's will come true (2 Kgs 20:8-11). Isaiah gives the king the choice of whether a shadow on the steps is to move forward or backward. Hezekiah asks for the unusual: let it back up. It does. And that is the last miracle in the narrative. All miracles in the books of Kings cease after the prophet Isaiah.

The account of the days of Isaiah and Hezekiah also includes the last report in the Hebrew Bible of an angel acting on earth - unseen, as I said above. The angel strikes the camp of the Assyrian army secretly by nights as they beseige Jerusalem (2 Kgs 19:35; Isa 37:36;2 Chr 32:21). The only angels to be mentioned after this will occur in dreams or visions.

The Hezekiah section also includes an episode in which another old sign of divine tending exits from the story. Back in the book of Numbers there is a brief story in which poisonous snakes bite and kill great numbers of the Israelites on their journey in the wilderness. At Yahweh's instruction, Moses makes a bronze snake and sets it on a pole. Then, whenever someone is bitten by a snake, if the victim looks at the bronze snake, he or she is miraculously cured (Num 21:4-9). The account of King Hezekiah reports that in that king's day, the people are burning incense before this bronze snake, which is called Nehushtan. Hezekiah smashes Nehushtan, and it is never mentioned again (2 Kgs 18:4).

With over two hundred years still left to the story, there are no more fires from the sky, no more miracles, public or personal, no more angels, seen or unseen, no more cloud and glory, no more "and Yahweh said to X." The only remaining visible channel to God is the Temple, housing the ark in Jerusalem, and it is destroyed by the Babylonians, in fire, at the end of the books of Kings and Chronicles (2 Kgs 25:9;2 Chr 36:19). It is interesting and ironic that the last reference to fire should be the burning of the last visible marker of the presence of the deity on earth. The text, further, express the destruction of the kingdom of Israel and Judah with the words: "Yahweh turned them out from before His face" (2 Kgs 17:23;23:27). The prediction in the deity's last words to Moses has come true.


The book of Daniel comes as something of a surprise in this development, because it includes a few miracles, which we would not expect at this late date in the story. The book involves some events in the years following the destruction of Jerusalem, when the nation is exiled in the Babylonian and then the Persian empires. The miracles of the book of Daniel are of the smaller, personal type; they certainly are not witnessed by the people of Judah. It is in fact not clear if they are witnessed by large numbers of people at all. They do not affect the destiny of Israel or of the world. Daniel survives a night in a den of lions (Daniel 6), and his three friends survive a stay in a burning furnace (along with a mysterious fourth figure; Daniel 3). (Daniel himself refers to an angel's having shut the lion's mouths, but it is unclear whether this is meant literally or figuratively; and the narrator's voice does not comment on the nature of Daniel's survival in the den). The famous story of the appearance of fingers writing a message of doom for the Babylonians on a wall is not clear as to whether anyone other than the Babylonian king sees the mysterious hand, and that king dies later that night (Dan 5:5). The strange book of Daniel, written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, containing chapters of curious visions, is therefore something of an enigma. Perhaps it serves to convey the notion that a few miracles are called for in this age in which the Jews, recently exiled from their land, are encountering life in foreign lands. The miracles may thus function as indicators that their God's presence extends beyond the borders of their land and pervades the entire world, still relating ultimately to all the families of the earth.

The remaining books of biblical narrative, which tell the last chapters in the story, have a decidedly different feeling to them. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah contain the story of the return of the Jews to rebuild their country, their capital city, and their Temple after decades of domination by the Babylonians. The Persians have conquered the Babylonians and have allowed the Jews to rebuild their homeland. The story in these two books contains no miracles, no angels, no divine appearances. God is never said to have spoken to anyone. The Temple is rebuilt, but this second Temple contains no Tabernacle, no ark, no tablets, no Nehushtan. No glory or cloud appears on its dedication day.

The book of Esther also pictures the fate of the people in this period of Persian sovereignty. And in the book of Esther, God is not mentioned.

The closest we come to even a veiled reference to the deity in Esther is in an enigmatic remark by the book's hero, Mordecai, to its heroine, Esther. Esther, a Jew, is the wife of the Persian emperor, and Mordecai tells her that she must go to her husband to implore him to save her people in a time of a threat of annihilation. Esther fears to step forward on her people's behalf, but Mordecai tells her:

If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, and you and your father's house will perish; and who knows whether you have attained royalty for just such a time as this?

(Esth 4:14)

"Who knows"? "From another place"?! This ambiguity and uncertainty are a far cry from the world of the earlier biblical narratives. Compare the story of Joseph back in Genesis, in which the Israelite Joseph has, like Esther, risen to high station in the monarchy, of Egypt in his case. Joseph's brothers, who wronged him years earlier, now fear the power that he has attained since then. But Joseph assures them that their wrong was part of a divine plan to a enable him to be in a position one day to save them all. So different from Mordecai's ambiguous words, Joseph's response is:

Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? You meant evil against me; God meant it for good, in order to accomplish as it is this day, to keep many people alive.

(Gen 50:19-20)

In the Genesis story there have been miraculous signs (accurate predictive interpretations of dreams) that participated in Joseph's rise, and so he speaks with certainty of divine involvement. Esther has risen to the palace by rather more worldly means. Specifically: after Esther and women from all over the empire have each spent a night with emperor, Esther is the one he loves most (Esth 2:1-17). The narrator does not suggest that this is a divine plan, and Mordecai's words convey that Mordecai's is depicted as truly not knowing for sure.

These last books not only lack actual depictions of appearances, revelations, and miracles. They lack any of the kind of language that conveys divine presence in the earlier books: "the spirit of God," "God appeared," "God said," etc. It is not that these terms have been replaced by others of equal force. It is not a matter of terminology or metaphor or style. These latter books are simply different. They feel different. They do not convey the sense of awe, of wonder, of power, and of mystery that the earlier books of the Bible do. Leon Wieseltier, in a remarkably insightful essay, refers to the scene of the book of Esther as "a postrevelation world." The initial biblical depiction of a world in which the deity is intimately involved has gradually transformed into a picture of a reality not so different from the one we know at the time that I am writing this. In the latter books of the story, no snakes talk, no seas split, no one wrestles with the creator - not literally, anyway. The presence of God that is apparent, that is a matter of knowledge, at the beginning, has become, at the end, a hidden thing, a matter of belief, or of hope. The text never says that the deity ceases to exist, to care, or to affect the world. It only conveys that these things are no longer publicly visible at the end of the story in the way that they are at the beginning. One might still conceive of the deity as being present and involved in undetected ways. One might speak of the natural wonders of nature as conveying, for some people, the divine presence. But regarding the apparent, manifest presence of God, as conveyed in the particular terms and descriptions of the earlier biblical episodes: that ceases by this point in the story.

The books of the Bible that I have mentioned so far were composed by a great many authors, according to both traditional religious views and modern critical scholarship. The phenomenon of the diminishing apparent presence of God across so many stories, through so many books, by so many authors, spread over so many centuries, is consistent enough to be striking, impressive, and ultimately mysterious.

But the hiding of the divine face is only half of the story. There is another development, also extending across the course of the entire narrative of the Hebrew Bible, which we must see before we can appreciate the full force of this phenomenon, and before we can pose a solution to the mystery of how this happened.

&copy 1995 Richard Friedman

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WashingtonPost.com: The Disappearance of God : A Divine Mystery (4)
WashingtonPost.com: The Disappearance of God : A Divine Mystery (2024)


Who was the last person God talked to? ›

The last person to whom God is said to have been "revealed" is Samuel (1 Sam 3:21). The last person to whom God is said to have "appeared" is Solomon; this occurs early in the next biblical book, the book 1 Kings (3:5; 9:2; 11:9).

Can you believe in angels but not God? ›

“They're very malleable,” Garrett said of angels. “You can have any one of a number of quite different worldviews in terms of your understanding of how the cosmos is arranged, whether there's spirit beings, whether there's life after death, whether there's a God … and still find a place for angels in that worldview.”

What is the hidden mystery of God? ›

God as mystery

Paul VI defined mystery as 'a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God'. Because God is totally other than we are, totally of the spiritual order, we cannot know God directly. Our experience of God is always mediated.

What are the holy mysteries of God? ›

Orthodox instructional materials may list seven sacred mysteries, the same as the Western seven sacraments (Western names in parentheses): Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation), Confession (Penance, Reconciliation), Holy Communion (Eucharist), Marriage (Holy Matrimony), Ordination (Holy Orders), and Unction (Anointing of ...

Who was the first man that God took to heaven without seeing death? ›

The Christian Old Testament, which is based primarily upon the Hebrew Bible, follows the Jewish narrative and mentions that Enoch was "taken" by God, and that Elijah was bodily assumed into Heaven on a chariot of fire.

Who is known as the final messenger of God? ›

It is generally regarded to mean that Muhammad is the last of the prophets sent by God.

What is the US #1 religion? ›

Christianity. The most popular religion in the U.S. is Christianity, comprising the majority of the population (73.7% of adults in 2016), with the majority of American Christians belonging to a Protestant denomination or a Protestant offshoot (such as Mormonism or the Jehovah's Witnesses).

Does God say not to pray to angels? ›

But the Bible also clearly teaches that we aren't to worship angels or pray to them.

What percentage of the world believes in God? ›

On average across 26 countries surveyed, 40% say they believe in God as described in holy scriptures, 20% believe in a higher spirit but not as described in holy scriptures, another 21% believe in neither God nor any higher spirit, while 19% are not sure or will not say.

How can we know that God exists? ›

We look at the physical universe, human nature and culture and we observe things which may be clues to the existence or nature of the supernatural. Second, God may have entered the Universe and told us true things about himself, morality, meaning and how to have a relationship with him. This is called Revelation.

What is the secret of the kingdom of heaven? ›

What secrets are these? They are the identity of Jesus—truly and completely God, truly and completely human, and the world's only Savior and Redeemer—and the mission of Jesus—to live a sinless life in the place of his people, and to offer that life as a sacrifice to redeem his people.

What is the secret of the God? ›

“The secret of the LORD is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant” (Psalm 25:14). Did you catch that? The secret of the Lord is “His covenant.” That's the thing He's so eager to “show” us.

What are the mysteries of God in 1 Corinthians 4? ›

When in 4:1 Paul refers to the mysteries of God, he means Christ as the mystery of God and the church as the mystery of Christ. Paul and the other apostles were stewards of these mysteries.

What is the great mystery in the Bible? ›

The universe, man, God, Christ, and the church are the five great mysteries shown to us in the Bible. We are humans standing on the earth with the heaven above us, we have God, we are Christians, and we are in the church. We have a share in heaven and earth, in humanity, in God, in Christ, and in the church.

What are the 3 mysteries of faith? ›

The three mysteries are: the virginity of Mary, the birth of Christ, and His death. What is intriguing is how St. Ignatius describes them. He calls them 'mysteries of the cry.

Who was the last person Jesus spoke to before he died? ›

In Matthew and Mark, Jesus cries out to God. In Luke, he forgives his killers, reassures the penitent thief, and commends his spirit to the Father. In John, he speaks to his mother, says he thirsts, and declares the end of his earthly life.

Who all did God speak directly to in the Bible? ›

Scripture teaches us that God also speaks through the circ*mstances we encounter: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” Scripture describes how God spoke directly with Abraham, Moses, Elijah and others.

Who did God speak to face to face in the Bible? ›

Ex 33:11 informs a reader that God would speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks with his friend. A few verses later, in 33:14-15, God promises Moses that His face will go with him.

Who was the man that saw God face to? ›

Some Important Principles, Doctrines, and Events. Moses saw God face-to-face upon an unknown mountain sometime after he spoke to the Lord in the burning bush but before he went to free the children of Israel from Egypt (see Moses 1:1–2, 17, 25–26, 42; see also Exodus 3:1–10).

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