The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal

W. Lee Humphreys Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville June 1, 2001
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Characters are a necessary ingredient in any story. Without them the stage is empty or the story lacks a plot. Since characters play such an essential role in any story, it is vital to analyze how an author depicts them. The interpreter of biblical stories is placed in an awkward position, for God Himself often appears in these stories, sometimes in a central role. Though it may seem sacrilegious to view God as a character in a story and to analyze Him as one would analyze the hero of a novel, readers need not shy away from such analysis. After all, by entering into human history and inscripturating stories in which He plays a prominent role, God invites readers to learn something about Himself from these literary presentations of His self-revelation in space and time.

In this volume Humphreys, professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, seeks to describe the character of God as it appears in the first book of the Bible. After some preliminary methodological observations about how character analysis should be done, Humphreys works through Genesis, inductively developing the text’s portrait of God. According to the author Genesis portrays God in a variety of roles, including sovereign designer, struggling “parent,” disciplining father, destroyer-sustainer, patron, judge, deliverer, and providential designer. Along the way Humphreys includes charts that show the distribution of these portraits (see especially chart seven, pp. 234–35, which gives an overview of the entire book).

Humphreys observes that Genesis does not, for the most part, characterize God directly. “It is through what God says and does that both we as readers and other characters in the story-world engage him. In this God is quite like most other central characters in the book of Genesis. Like them God is present in the Genesis narrative primarily through his speeches and actions.” Consequently “we must often infer God’s motives and desires, his intentions and designs, his hopes and concerns, from what he says and does” (p. 238). However, sometimes the narrator does “take us into the mind and heart of God and tell us what he thinks and feels” (ibid.). On other occasions we encounter “what other characters in the story-world of Genesis say about God” (p. 240). But when this occurs “we cannot forget that they are constructions by other characters” and as such “must be weighed and assessed” (ibid.).

After weighing the literary evidence Humphreys concludes that “the type of character God appears to be changes over the course of the narrative” (p. 241). In chapter 1 God is a type, “the very ideal of what God should be as creator of an ordered cosmos designed to sustain and generate life. He is powerful, commanding, authoritative, effective” (ibid.). “This changes dramatically” in chapter 2, where the portrait of God expands as He begins to relate to the human beings He has created. Slowly but surely God emerges as “a complex full-fledged character” who is “parent, patron, destroyer and sustainer, judge, deliverer; he is savage, jealous, and supportive” (p. 242). In the Joseph story God moves behind the scenes, becoming “a Super Agent” as He sees “that justice, the right, the good, and life triumph over the deceit and perversity and greedy intentions of certain humans” (ibid.). As Joseph asserted, God worked providentially for good (Gen. 50:20). “In the end,” Humphreys observes, “God sustains precisely those who, in fact, so construct God as Super Agent” (ibid.).

Readers of this work may be tempted to respond negatively, because Humphreys’ analysis could be viewed as undermining the portrait of God painted by classical, orthodox theology. But one must avoid knee-jerk reactions. In analyzing how God is characterized in Genesis or other narratives in the Bible, one must remember that these stories reflect God’s self-revelation in a form that is culturally contextualized and conditioned. And it must be remembered that the very first book contains stories, not a systematic theology. These stories are not so much concerned with making philosophical pronouncements about the divine character as they are with revealing a personal, dynamic God who longs to relate to His people and move them toward the goal He has for them.

Anyone who looks only for ontological truth about God in Genesis is likely to become frustrated with the diversity that is evident in the characterization of God. But if readers approach the text as it is and seek to discover what it says about how God relates to human beings, they will come away invigorated and encouraged by the portrait of an omnipotent, sovereign Creator who enters into His world in an intimate, personal manner, even stooping to wrestle with one particularly recalcitrant character! Genesis also shows God working behind the scenes through and in spite of human actions and choices as He providentially transforms the sinful, mean-spirited actions of a hate-filled band of brothers into the redemption of a family, in fulfillment of His promise to an obedient servant who once passed a difficult test of faith. In the end these elements complement each other; the poles of transcendence and immanence, as well as the intermediate dimension of providence, reflect God’s relationship to His world.

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

April 1, 2004
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2004 vol. 161 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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