Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

L. Juliana M. Claassens, The God who Provides: Biblical Images of Divine Nourishment (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004).  Pp. xxiii +145. Paper, US$20.00, UK₤14.99, CAN$28.00.  ISBN 0-687-03023-4.

In a world where the over-fed and starving co-exist, Claassens examines the problematic biblical metaphor of the God who provides nourishment. Using a model of biblical theology, she invites the contemporary reader into a conversation started by a series of biblical and rabbinic texts, and developed “in the space where the texts interact” (p. xxi). In this way, she preserves the ambiguities and tensions, claiming that the countervoices will “help one to discover the richness and fullness of the metaphor of the God who feeds” (p. xxii). At the same time, she deliberately connects this metaphor with the sparse biblical and postbiblical images of a female God who feeds her children, thereby hoping “to surprise” the reader to imagine “an honest and comprehensive depiction of the God who feeds” (pp. 99, 108).  In this way, she is also able to incorporate women’s experience into the theological conversation.

In chapter one, Claassens examines the metaphor of the God who provides in the wilderness (Exodus 16, Numbers 11) and, through extension, connects this metaphor with those texts that depict God as a nursing mother (Deut 32:13-16; b.Yoma 75a; Sifre Num 89).  In chapter two, she shows that God’s provision of food moves beyond the family, across boundaries of race, gender, and socioeconomic standing (Psalms 104, 147, Ruth). 

            In chapter three, however, she addresses those times when God does not feed.  On the one hand, famine may be understood as a form of punishment that leads to repentance and justice (e.g., Amos 8).  On the other hand, famine may be understood as a form of “radical suffering” that can only lead to lamentation and utter dependence on God (Joel 1:5-18; Lamentations 2, 4). Lamentations, in particular, refers to a mother who fails to provide and even eats her own child.  The image of God as abusive mother, then, is held in tension and balanced with the God who provides.

            In chapter four, Claassens describes the various restoration images of the God who provides food in abundance. First, there is hope for the immediate reversal of famine conditions (Amos 9:13-15, Joel 2:10-29), then, images of food are exaggerated in mythopoetic ways, such as mountains that drip with wine and milk (Amos 9:13) and a divine banquet (Isaiah 24-27). Claassens argues that these restoration images serve both to challenge the complacent to create a society in which all are fed, and to comfort the helpless who need to be fed.  Finally, she ties these images of restoration to a maternal God who nurses her children (Isaiah 66).

            In chapter five, Claassens connects the Wise Woman who creates and feeds in Proverbs 9 and the God who creates and feeds in Isaiah 55 (see also Sir 15:2-3; 24:12-31; Philo, Det. 115-118). In wisdom literature, however, feeding is often used as a metaphor for teaching, so that “learning, life, and communion with God is imaged as a lavish feast with rich foods and wine” (p. 98).

            In a final concluding chapter, Claassens very briefly traces the metaphor of a God who provides in the New Testament and beyond.  She points to Luke’s emphasis on the God who feeds the hungry, initiated by Jesus and carried out by the disciples (Luke 9:10-17).  The Gospel of John also emphasizes the God who provides through and in Jesus; Jesus provides wine (2:1-11), fish and bread (6:1-15; 21:1-14), but is also the Bread of Life (6:35).  The Christian practice of the Eucharist appropriates the metaphor of the God who feeds, and preserves the tension between suffering and joy. 

            Claassens rightly warns against romanticizing maternal imagery of God, and claims that it is problematic because of the positive and negative aspects of feeding.  She does suggest that maternal metaphors “exhibit a potential to change the way we speak about the mystery of God… in terms of mutuality, beneficence, and empowerment, instead of the strict, authoritarian view that constitutes many people’s picture for God” (p. 109), and urges the adoption of female imagery in liturgical settings, especially in the Eucharist, as a way to enrich a relationship with God.

            This book provides a new way to think about God that is based on biblical metaphors, and an attempt has been made to apply this theology to a liturgical context in order to affirm the presence of women serving at the “Lord’s table.” There is some reassurance for those who struggle with paternal images of God or male-dominated clergy, but perhaps not for those “Marthas” who are tired of serving meals.  As a textbook, it would be suitable for a course in biblical theology, or for an advanced home bible study, though the Hebrew is not transliterated.

Jane S. Webster
Barton College