Presence and Absence of the Lord by Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

Much of the Hebrew Bible struggles with the question: where is God to be found? For some, YHWH is found in the sanctuary (Ps 27). For others, praising YHWH in communal worship was the way to find YHWH (Ps 42). The Deuteronomists suggest that the Temple contains YHWH’s name though the deity resides in a heavenly realm. The Priestly School, as well as the book of Ezekiel, suggests that YHWH is to be found within, though not confined to, the Temple, wrapped in divine kabod (“honor,” “glory,” or “weightiness”). The prophet Amos makes the claim that YHWH came to him in a most unlikely place, in the pastures among the shepherds of Tekoa, while he was tending the flock. In all these, various figures raise the issue of how to experience and interpret God’s presence. 

God’s presence was felt to be protective, healing, even awe-inspiring, as we hear in Num 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Even when YHWH was perceived as invisible, divine presence was manifest in manifold ways (see, for example, Exod 19:18, Hab 3:4-15, and 1Kgs 19:11-12).

For some, YHWH’S enormity and exclusivity meant that the deity could be present anywhere but, also, strangely, that it was simultaneously elusive, since it was not constrained by graven images or limited to the Temple. Isaiah of Jerusalem’s call narrative grapples with these complexities. Standing within the Temple, Isaiah sees YHWH “high and lifted up”; he can see only the bottom edge of the deity’s robe, suggesting the high holiness of YHWH’s regal being, above and out of reach (Isaiah 6). YHWH was both of this world, and also not of this world—both in the Temple, and also beyond the Temple.

While God’s presence was often terrifying to witness, it was more terrible to grapple with the possibility of God’s absence—that God had turned away in anger, or that God had forgotten the plight of the people. The Bible preserves a painful record of this experience, as when the Psalmist cries out, “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps 88:14). Or, as we hear in the anguished lament of Ps 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v.1). 

The book of Job wrestles with these anxieties about God’s absence, even as it reckons with the terrifying implications of God’s presence. In the opening chapters, YHWH meets with the divine council in the heavenly abode, and unbeknownst to humankind, resolves to deliver a devastating blow against righteous Job. Job and his friends, not knowing this, debate God’s presence, absence, thoughts, actions with no input from the divine realm. Job feels both bereft when God does not intervene on his behalf and also plagued—pursued with a vengeance, even—by God. Finally, God shows up to deliver powerful but enigmatic words from a whirlwind (Job 38-41), which perhaps show most of all that God’s presence and absence do not conform to the human imagination.

As we might expect from a collection of literature that comprises a broad time period and a diversity of thinkers, the Hebrew Bible encompasses rich and varied perspectives on divine presence and absence. It would be a mistake, in other words, to think that the Bible has one position on God’s presence—or that the Bible alone tells the whole story of ancient Israel’s experience. The enduring richness of the Bible’s reflections on YHWH’S presence may indeed come from the broad array of voices that comprise the Hebrew Bible and engage this question in their own time and place, on their own particular terms.

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor, "Presence and Absence of the Lord (HB)", n.p. [cited 21 Nov 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/presence-and-absence-of-the-lord

Contributors

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor
Associate Professor, University of Virginia

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor is an associate professor and an award-winning teacher at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, 2011) and is currently working on a book on the Song of Songs.

The Hebrew Bible encompasses rich and varied perspectives on the question of where God is to be found and the meaning of God’s presence and absence.

any of the writers or editors of a Deuteronomic body of source material often distinguished in the earlier books of the Old Testament

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

a group of deities led by a high deity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

separate from the ordinary or profane.

a Major Prophet of the 8th century b.c.

A formal poetic category (see Psalms, Lamentations, prophets).

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

the ancient community thought to have written many sections of the Torah/Pentateuch concerned with religious practices, genealogies, and universal origins

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Ps 27

Triumphant Song of Confidence
Of David.
1The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afr ... View more

Ps 42

BOOK II
(Psalms 42-72)
Longing for God and His Help in Distress
To the leader. A Maskil of the Korahites.
1As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs ... View more

Num 6:24-26

24The Lord bless you and keep you;25the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;26the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you p ... View more

Exod 19:18

18Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain sho ... View more

Hab 3:4-15

4The brightness was like the sun;
rays came forth from his hand,
where his power lay hidden.5Before him went pestilence,
and plague followed close behind.6He st ... View more

1Kgs 19:11-12

Elijah Meets God at Horeb
11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong ... View more

Isaiah 6

A Vision of God in the Temple
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. ... View more

Ps 88:14

14O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?

Ps 22

Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? ... View more

Job 38-41

The Lord Answers Job
1Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?3Gird up your loins like a m ... View more

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