This semester I am teaching a course, BIB 101 Old Testament History and Religion. Today I introduced a unit on the prophets. At the same time, students have a weekly assignment to read the book of Amos and write about what they’ve learned.
Today, while talking about the prophets, a student asked whether the prophets’ words were God’s words. It’s a perfect question to ask. Unfortunately, it’s not the right time in the course to give a good response–I want students to do more reading of the biblical text before we get to that student’s question. So, I gave a few vague, preliminary words, indicating that we would address this issue more fully in a few weeks.
So, what is the relation of God’s word to prophets’ words? What is the word of God? As I’ve been saying in these posts, the word of God is not information–it is not intellectual content. The truth is, we don’t need God to reveal truths such as are found in the Bible. The truths of the book of Proverbs, profound as they are (“Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people [Prov. 28:15]), do not require divine revelation. They are truths that everyone knows. Not even the prophets’ words–their denunciation of inequity and lack of justice and faithlessness to God–need divine revelation. Many in ancient Israel must have felt what the prophets declared. We thus don’t need God to give us information or even insight. The prophets could discern evil and denounce it without a special divine gift of information.
It is better to say that the word of God is God’s use of human words to effect God’s purpose. The word of God is an event in which we encounter God. As we hear or read the prophets’ words, which are genuinely their words, God confronts us with words of judgment and grace.
For instance, take the man (in Luke’s gospel, chapter 9) who wanted to follow Jesus, but who first wanted to bury his dead father. Jesus told him to let the dead bury the dead. In this confrontation with Jesus and his strange words, the word of God happened: this man and those who read and hear this story are confronted with the demand of the kingdom of God, a demand that differs from and takes precedence over the demands of conventional morality. In this confrontation, they are judged but also receive grace. It is similar with the ruler (Luke 18) who obeyed all of God’s commands, but is taken aback when Jesus tells him to give away all of his money. Jesus is here not presenting an addition to the law or commanding a new law. Like Paul (Philippians 3), the ruler was blameless according to the demands of the law. Jesus was not about increasing the burden of the law. Instead, in Jesus’ words the ruler experienced the challenging encounter with God. He was judged (he was the inadequacy of obeying the law) but also received grace (he was invited to follow Jesus). The word of God is the encounter, the disturbing confrontation with God that unsettles our conventions and assumptions about what it means to follow God.
It is important to emphasize the existential meaning of the word of God because doing so defines human beings as beings who are addressed by God. There are many ways of defining humans–biologically, psychologically, sociologically, and so on. But theologically considered, we are hearers–or potential hearers–of the word of God. Thus in Job 38, God confronts Job: “I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (38:3). In the world of the Bible, humans are responsible to God–we are called upon to respond to God’s address. Sometimes God commands; sometimes God questions. To be human is to receive the divine command or question and to respond.
This is why it is important not to equate the word of God with communications of information. The speech of God is not the imparting of information or truths of which we are ignorant. To think in this way is to reduce God to the status of divine encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are good, but they cannot judge and offer grace. They cannot save.