Divine “With-ness”

By Hallvard Hagelia
Professor and author
Ansgar College and Theological Seminary
Kristiansand, Norway

“It is not good that the man should be alone,” Gen 1:18 declares (NRSV). The story of how the Lord God acted to provide man with “a helper as his partner” then follows. First, God created animals, but those creatures were not appropriate as man’s “helper” and “partner.” Next, God made the woman from man’s rib. Then the man said:

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.

In this way, the man confirmed that she was the appropriate “helper” and “partner.” The interlude with the animals could be read as a divine mistake in providing the man with an equalized partner. But it can also be read as a signal that man is no animal, so animals would not be any help to him. Another human creature was needed, made of the same stuff.

This story is presented to us in three parts: The Lord God, the man, and subsequently the woman. The woman filled the gap caused by the man’s loneliness. Now the man was no longer “alone.” The man and the woman were with each other and had a mutual relationship of equal conditions.

But the man’s and the woman’s togetherness was preconditioned by a divine “with-ness;” the Lord God was with both of them as their divine overseer. As the man and woman were with each other, their God was with both of them – on a higher level.

In this way, the creation account of the Eden narrative (Genesis 2:4-3:24) introduces a fundamental theme in the Old Testament, the divine “with-ness,” that Yahweh is “with” his people.

The two most important Hebrew prepositions to describe this “with-ness” are ‘im and ‘et. In some cases, these two prepositions are used interchangeably and synonymously, both in a non-religious and a religious context. For instance, we see this in the non-religious context of Judg 7:4b: “When I say, ‘This one shall go with (‘im) you,’ he shall go with (‘et) you; and when I say, ‘This one shall not go with (‘im) you,’ he shall not go,” and in 2 Sam 13:26: “Then Absalom said, ‘If not, please let my brother Amnon go with (‘et) us.’ The king responded to him, ‘Why should he go with (‘im) you?’” In Gen 26:24 and 28, the context is religious: God is “with” Isaac, expressed with respectively ‘et and ‘im. Below we will see another example connected to the establishment of a covenant (Isa 28:15.18).

The idea that Yahweh is “with” somebody is most evidently spoken in the Immanuel words in Isa 7:14 and 8:8.10 where Yahweh is claimed to be with his people through the symbolic name Immanuel, Hebrew immanu-el, “God (is) with (‘im) us.”

But this was not an idea particular to the ancient Israelites. Similar ideas are found in ancient texts from a series of Israel’s neighbors. Especially during war times, they trusted that their god was with them or would be with them in conquering their enemies. There is reason to believe that the belief in divine “with-ness” had its origin, its Sitz im Leben, in situations of war. This idea is also found among the ancient Israelites, especially in relation to the exodus event: “The LORD is a warrior, the LORD is his name” (Exod 15:3), cf. verse 21:

Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

Also narrative texts refer to Yahweh as a warrior: In Num 31:2, Yahweh commands Moses to go to war against the Midianites, and Deut 20:1 claims out rightly that “God is with you” during wars:

When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.

That is why priests could blow the trumpets to enforce the war cry (2 Chr 13:14-15) and prophets were consulted to confirm decisions for war (cf. 1 Kings 20:13-14: 22:5-28 and 2 Kings 3:10-20).

Like their neighbors, the Israelites also saw Yahweh as a warrior God, who could be called upon before war and lead the people’s warriors during war; Yahweh was “with” his people during war. This was pre-eminently demonstrated in how Yahweh led the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, but also in how Yahweh supported the people when they defended themselves against enemies.

Therefore problems arose when they could not withstand their enemies and lost wars. This situation is demonstrated in Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Kings 18:13-19:37 where the messenger of the Assyrian king challenges Yahweh (around the year 722 BC) by calling upon the Assyrian gods, which no other enemies allegedly could withstand. In that particular case, Jerusalem was saved. But at the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem (587 BC), the situation became acute. Could not Yahweh withstand the Babylonian gods? Was the Babylonian high god Marduk really superior to Yahweh? Had Yahweh, their warrior God, really abandoned his people in the middle of the war?

But the prophets’ harsh judgment also implied an explanation. The prophets, in particular Jeremiah, solved an existential problem with their reference to judgment. There was a reason for their predicament: The people were judged for their breaking of the covenant with Yahweh (cf. Jer 7:21-28) and their God had not completely forsaken them; after judgment there would come a new future (cf. Jer 29:10-11). There was a light at the other end of the tunnel. Yahweh would still be with his people.

The prime relationship concept in the Hebrew Bible is “covenant” (berith), a term occurring 289 times. The concept is used in different ways but is always relational. Its basic meaning is covenant, agreement, or obligation.1 It is used of inter-human relationships as well as the relationship between God and humans. A huge literature is written on the subject.

Establishing a covenant is most often described with the Hebrew phrase karat berith (literally “cut a covenant,” cf. the ceremony in Gen 15:10-18 and Jer 34:10-20).2 In Isa 28:15.18, karat berith is paralleled with ‘asah chozeh (verse 15), respectively ‘asah chazut (verse 18), (“make agreement”),3 and connected to their objects respectively with ‘et and ‘im, “agreement with (‘et and ‘im) Sheol” (verses 15 and 18) and “covenant with (‘im) death” (verses 15 and 18).4

Rolf Rendtorff distinguishes between three basically different variants of covenant formulas, all with God as the speaking subject:5 A) “I will be God for you,”6 B) “You shall be a people for me,”7 and C) a bilateral combination of A and B into a single formula: “I will be God for you, and you shall be a people for me.”8 These three basic formulas are varied upon in a series of different ways. In formula A, attention is on God himself. In formula B, attention is on humans. In formula C, attention is on both God and humans and God’s relationship with humans: Yahweh is with his people. ‘Yhwh is Israel’s God – that is and remains the decisive content of the covenant. Everything else takes its significance from that and points to that. … his being God for Israel [is] the real substance of the covenant (Rendtorff 1998:60).

In addition, a series of covenant texts of different character follows. This refers to individuals or the people of Israel, underlining that Yahweh is somehow “with” those individuals or the people of Israel.

Another important “with-ness” aspect is the election motif. Yahweh has elected Abraham, his descendants, the people of Israel, Moses, David and “the chosen place,” most commonly identified as the sanctuary, either the Tabernacle or the Temple of Jerusalem.9 Yahweh is “with” his people through the election of those persons.

The Tabernacle and the Temple are regarded as the divine dwelling place, the actual site where Yahweh in a more concrete way is present and “with” his people, where the people through the cult can meet their God, Yahweh. That is were “the LORD of hosts” was “enthroned on the cherubim” (1 Sam 4:4).10 Whether in the Tabernacle or the Temple, this was the concrete site were Yahweh resided or “dwelled” with his people on earth.

Yahweh was not seen as a chthonic god; he was not seen as earth bound. Through the portable Tabernacle Yahweh “walked” along with his people (Exod 29:45-46). In contrast, the Aramean general Naaman imagined he had to bring earth from Israelite soil if he should worship Yahweh (2 Kings 5:17). The Patriarchs built altars at different places, but the God of the Fathers was not bound to particular places. Jacob discovered on his journey that “Luz” was a “house of God” (Bethel). But at the same time he was promised (Gen 28:15):

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

In summary, Yahweh was understood as a relational God. The Israelites were not interested in God per se, God as and for himself, as an objective entity, they did not systematize any theology proper. To the ancient Israelites, Yahweh was a relational God, their God, who in a particular way was “with” them – even though he was also seen as the only One, the supreme God, the creator of heaven and earth.


1 Cf. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, Volume II, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield 2009, p. 264 B.

2 Cf. H Hagelia, Numbering the Stars, A Phraseological Analysis of Genesis 15, Coniectanea Biblica, Old Testament Series, Almqvist & Wiksell International, Stockholm 1994, pp. 154-164 (doctoral dissertation).

3 These are the only occurrences of chozeh and chazut, both are based on vChZHII (agreement).

4 Cf. the interchange of the prepositions ‘et and ‘im referred to above.

5 R Rendtorff, The Covenant Formula, An Exegetical and Theological Investigation, T & T Clark, Edinburgh 1998. Cf. K Baltzer, The Covenant Formula in Old Testament, Jewish, and Early Christian Writings, Fortress, Philadelphia 1971.

6 See Gen 17:7; Exod 29:45; Lev 11:45; 22:33; 25:38; 26:45; Deut 4:20;7:6; 14:2; 26:17.18 and Ezek 34:24.

7 See Deut 4:8; 7:6; 14:2; 26:17.18; 27:9; 28:9; 2 Kings 11:17; Jer 13:11.

8 See Exod 6:7; 19:5-6; 29:45-46; Lev 26:9; Deut 26:17-18; 29:11-12/12-13; 2 Sam 7:24; Jer 7:23; 11:4b-5; 24:7; 30:23-24; 31:33; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 37:23 and Zech 8:8.

9 For a recent study of “the chosen place,” cf. Rannfrid I Thelle, Approaches to the “Chosen Place,” Accessing a Biblical Concept, T & T Clark, London 2012.

10 Cf. 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kings 19:5; 1 Chr 13:6; Pss 80:2; 99:1 and Isa 37:16.

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