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Presence and Absence of the Lord

Colin McCahon

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

    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.