Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 20 (2020) - Review
Michael Widmer’s Standing in the Breach is an engaging and substantial study of the prophetic tradition of intercession in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. The book is grounded in Widmer’s PhD thesis with Walter Moberly (published as Moses, God, and the Dynamics of Intercessory Prayer: A Study of Exodus 32–34 and Numbers 13–14, FAT 2.8 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004]), which addressed Moses’s bold confrontation with YHWH after the golden calf, where he gets God to relent of destroying Israel, and Moses subsequent intercession for the people after they refuse to enter the land at Kadesh. Standing in the Breach summarizes the fruits of that study in a single chapter on Moses (“Israel’s Archetypal Intercessor”) and includes case studies of Abraham, Samuel, David (2 Sam 24), Solomon (1 Kgs 8), the Suffering Servant, Jeremiah, Joel, and Amos.
In his first chapter on “Hermeneutical Reflections,” Widmer describes his intended focus on intercessory prayer, namely, appealing to God on behalf of others, which is closely associated with the paradigmatic prophet Moses, especially with his intercession to avert the judgment of God at the golden calf. Since this form of prayer is practiced by some who are not technically prophets, Widmer includes chapters on Abraham, David, and Solomon as non-prophetic examples. Widmer further specifies that he will focus on the final, canonical form of the biblical text (including the narratives in which these prayers are embedded), guided by the Christian rule of faith, with an interest in what is revealed about God and the God-human relationship, including making appropriate connections to the New Testament witness to the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.
In his chapters on Abraham and Moses, Widmer lays out the basic pattern of prophetic intercession, adumbrated in the case of Abraham’s prayer on behalf of Sodom (Gen 18) and coming into full flower in the case of Moses at the golden calf (Gen 32–34). Widmer correctly sees that in both cases it is YHWH who invites the intercession, by telling Abraham that he is going to investigate whether judgment on Sodom is warranted and by telling Moses to leave him alone so that his anger may grow to the point where God will bring judgment on Israel. In each case, God’s chosen one (Abraham, Moses) steps into the breach (a phrase taken from Ps 106:23) and appeals to God for mercy.
Widmer insightfully applies the Mosaic paradigm to the prophetic figures of the Suffering Servant, Jeremiah, Joel, and Amos. Here I will illustrate Widmer’s approach by reference to the first two figures.
In his chapter on the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13–53:12), Widmer addresses the issue of the servant’s identity and mission in the context of Isa 40–55, then compares the portrayal of the Servant with Moses’s intercession at the golden calf. This leads to a detailed exploration of the intercessory ministry of the Servant (Isa 53:12), which included his extreme self-giving on behalf of the people, which parallels “Moses’ determination to share the same fate that YHWH intended for Israel” in Exod 32:32 (305). Through a careful analysis of the relationship of Isa 53 to Isa 54, Widmer argues that the Servant’s intercession, which bordered on substitution, is key to the salvific vision that follows, in Isa 54–55. And he concludes by examining the relationship of the Servant to Jesus in the Gospels.
Widmer’s chapter on Jeremiah constitutes an insightful canonical reading of prayer in that prophetic book. Noting that “The language of prayer is found on the lips of Jeremiah more frequently than anywhere else in Scripture” (333), Widmer addresses both Jeremiah’s intercessory prayers intended to protect the people from God’s judgment and his imprecatory prayers against his opponents (which could be considered a negative form of intercession). He also, helpfully, explores the complex relationship between Jeremiah’s prayers and God telling Jeremiah not to intercede for the people (Jer 7:6; 11:14; 14:11; cf. 15:1). Working in canonical order, Widmer takes the first such prohibition (7:6) as similar to God telling Moses to leave him alone so that his wrath may grow sufficiently to execute judgment (Exod 32:10; Deut 9:14), which is followed in the case of both Moses and Jeremiah by the prophet’s disobedience (as God’s “loyal opposition”).
However, YHWH’s prohibitions of Jeremiah’s intercession continue, since the people have not repented and continue to trust in lies. But these continuing prohibitions of prayer (in response to Jeremiah’s continuing intercessions, with intensifying emotional intensity) are not simply a statement of God’s firmness or wrath; rather, they testify to the power of prophetic intercession (which appeals to YHWH’s predisposition to show mercy), and they are intertwined with expressions of God’s own grief and pathos over the coming judgment (hinted at in 11:15–17; more clearly in 14:17–18). Widmer concludes the chapter with a fascinating exploration of the continuing relevance of imprecatory prayers for Christian spirituality.
I judge that Widmer’s exploration of the theme of intercession in Moses and the prophetic tradition is extremely insightful. However, between his initial study of Abraham and Moses and his later chapters on various prophetic figures we find three less than adequate chapters on Samuel, David, and Solomon. These chapters suffer from a lack of textual attentiveness.
To illustrate this, I will focus on Widmer’s chapter on Samuel (entitled “Israel’s Second Legendary Intercessor”). Given that Widmer’s approach to Samuel is typical of many other interpreters, it is perhaps inappropriate to single him out for criticism (especially because Standing in the Breach is a profound book). Yet, precisely because of my respect for Widmer, and my agreement with much of his analysis of prophetic intercession, I will interact with his portrayal of Samuel in 1 Sam 7, 12, and 15, noting the evident deviations of Samuel from the Mosaic paradigm.
Widmer begins by affirming a typological similarity between Samuel and Moses, showing numerous general parallels (173). However, he too easily reads Samuel in terms of the typical pattern of prophetic intercession that he construes from the broader tradition, without noticing ways in which Samuel does not fit that tradition. Although Widmer admits that “it is striking that, in contrast to Moses, none of Samuel’s actual prayers are recorded in the canon” (174), this does not prevent him from mining 1 Sam 7, 12, and 15 for putative insights into intercessory prayer.
Yet Samuel’s developing character zone throughout 1 Sam 7–15 suggests, rather, that he is an atypical prophet, who is not on the side of the people (thus not predisposed to intercede on their behalf). He is also not on the same page as God regarding the monarchy. This is seen in his persistent resistance to YHWH’s acceding to the people’s request for a king, resulting in his initially refusing to appoint a king in response to YHWH’s explicit command (1 Sam 8) and then in his dragging out the appointment of Saul (1 Sam 9–10), beginning with a secret anointing (so no one knows who is king), followed by a set of convoluted, even contradictory instructions (which would have the effect of keeping the new king off balance, and amenable to the prophet’s authority), and then the casting of lots to find out who the king is (after he has been both chosen by YHWH and anointed). Samuel’s animosity towards the monarchy continues in his speech condemning the people for having asked for a king even after the king has been installed (1 Sam 12), in his perplexing condemnation of the new king’s actions (1 Sam 13), and finally (1 Sam 15) in the irrational command (supposedly on behalf of YHWH) for Saul to eradicate the Amalekites (an impossible task, given that they are a nomadic people, and something David is never commanded to do). This raises the important narrative question of whether Samuel is a trustworthy prophetic intercessor.
Despite Widmer’s claims that Samuel prays for the people twice in chapter 7 (vv. 5–6 and 8–9), verse 5 mentions only Samuel’s stated intent to pray, with no narration of him following this up with action. Widmer is, however, right that Samuel does intercede for the people in vv. 8–9 in the face of the Philistine threat. Indeed, this is the only explicit reference to Samuel’s intercession in the entire book.
When he comes to ch. 12, Widmer takes Samuel’s solemn oath not to cease praying for the people, and presumably the king (12:23), as proof that he often prayed for them and that he would continue to do so (202, 204). But this is simply a non sequitur. At this point Widmer notes (for the second time) that “none of Samuel’s actual intercessory prayers are recorded in the Bible” (203), yet he proceeds to unproblematically take Samuel’s words at face value. Admittedly, Samuel does pray in ch. 12; however, this prayer is not on behalf of the people, but actually against them. Samuel’s prayer to YHWH for the storm (12:16–18), which would have destroyed the crops that were ready for harvest, was not intercession on their behalf, but rather an attempt to bolster Samuel’s authority; and it worked, since the people then speak of YHWH as Samuel’s God (12:19).
Finally, in his discussion of ch. 15, Widmer simply assumes (without argument) that Samuel’s anger and his crying out to YHWH all night (15:11) constitute his intercession for Saul after YHWH tells him he has repented of making Saul king. This interpretation is actually quite typical of commentators. However, it is more likely that Samuel’s anger results from the fact that he will now need to deal with a new king, who is not yet under the prophetic thumb. Indeed, when Saul pleads for forgiveness and asks that Samuel would return with him so he could worship YHWH (15:25), Samuel refuses (15:26). The prophet thus reneged on his oath not to cease praying for the people (which included the king, by implication—unless Samuel intended to exclude Saul even back in 12:23). Either way, we have an atypical prophet who does not “stand in the breach” between the people and God.
Despite my hesitations about Widmer’s chapter on Samuel, Standing in the Breach is a valuable exploration of intercessory prayer in the Old Testament as an important theological resource. Widmer has admirably displayed the compassionate heart of God via this exploration, and for that I am grateful.
I myself used this term to describe prophetic intercession in Middleton, “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Paradigm for Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible,” Canadian-American Theological Review 5.1 (2016): 51–65. Indeed, this essay was greatly stimulated by Widmer’s work.
My analysis of Samuel’s resistance to the monarchy and to YHWH, below, is based on the more detailed exploration in Middleton, “Samuel Agonistes: A Conflicted Prophet’s Resistance to God and Contribution to the Failure of Israel’s First King,” in Prophets, Prophecy, and Ancient Israelite Historiography, ed. Mark J. Boda and Lissa M. Wray Beal (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 69–91.
The above summary is based on my fuller analysis of 1 Sam 12 in Middleton, “Orthodox Theology, Ulterior Motives in Samuel’s Farewell Speech? The Characterization of the Prophet in 1 Samuel 12,” in Characters and Characterization in the Book of Samuel, ed. Keith Bodner and Benjamin J. M. Johnson, LHBOTS 669 (London: T&T Clark, 2020), 76–100.
Saul’s threefold reference to YHWH as Samuel’s God (15:15, 21, 30) suggests that Samuel has so manipulated the king that he can relate to YHWH only through the prophet. He will have no such control over David.