Review of William S. Morrow, Protest against God
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

William S. Morrow, Protest against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition (Hebrew Bible Monographs, 4; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).  Pp. xii + 250.  Hardcover, 50/US$85.00/ €75.00.    ISBN 1-905048-20-3.


The eclipse of the Bible’s lament tradition and its characteristic feature, the protest against God, has drawn the attention of researchers into biblical prayer for more than half a century now. Their interest has been inspired not only by academic curiosity but also by a sense of loss and so by the desire to recover for the believing and worshiping community something of value in their relationship with God. William Morrow’s fine book examines in detail how and why the tradition was eclipsed, but beyond that, why biblical scholars have become so intent on finding a place for it in contemporary worship.

On the first point he writes of his study: “It will show that, when protest against God was permitted as a part of the worshiping experience of Israel, the lament tradition was strong. But as theological constructs shifted and became increasingly uncomfortable with protest against God, the argumentative prayer tradition was eclipsed by other forms of supplication” (p. 3). Those shifts he places in the “Axial Age” when prophetic promotion of belief in the transcendence of the one God was coupled with denunciation of sin and announcement of suffering as its punishment. Protest in prayer against suffering as unwarranted began to take second place to confession of sin and justification of God’s actions–if God did it, he had a very good reason–and finally was eclipsed in both individual and community laments.

The careful and thorough history of lament that leads to these conclusions stretches from the oldest biblical laments to the latest and beyond, into the prayers of the Second Temple and New Testament periods. After reviewing the history of biblical lament in contemporary scholarship and clarifying the terms of analysis, Morrow devotes chapters to informal lament, protest against God in psalms of individual and community lament, exilic critique of protest against God, protest against God in the Axial Age, community complaint in Second Temple literature, and prayers for individuals in extra-biblical Second Temple literature. The final chapter reflects on the why of the eclipse of protest prayer and the contemporary concern to recover it. A bibliography and indexes of Scripture and ancient literature and of authors are appended.

Although all the parts of the argument are necessary to its coherence, its heart is the discussion of the exilic critique of protest against God and the shifts that take place in the Axial Age. Taking as its prologue the discussion of the psalms of protest against national defeat after Jerusalem and its Temple had been destroyed, the argument concentrates on Lamentations, Isaiah 40-55, and the Deuteronomistic History and the contribution of each in reshaping lament and its relation to protest.

Morrow borrows from Karl Jaspers the epithet “Axial” to describe the age between 800 and 200 BCE, with its center about 500 when revolutionary social, religious and intellectual changes took place simultaneously in ancient Israel, Greece, Iran, India and China.  The book of Job reflects the shifts affecting lament and protest in Israel. Interpreted as a whole it illustrates that protest, if not culpable, is at the very least based on ignorance when directed against a God so far above human comprehension.

After that time, although the possibility of protest against God in national defeat still exists in extreme circumstances, it is no longer permitted in the liturgical use of individual laments. Morrow does not agree with Claus Westermann that lament takes on an entirely separate existence from prayer in this period, but for all practical purposes it is eclipsed in that context. New Testament prayer simply reflects this inner Jewish development with its emphasis on redemptive suffering, sin and its forgiveness and resignation to the will of God.

The final chapter addresses the question of contemporary interest in recapturing protest against God for the believing community and attributes it to the reaction to the onset of the post-Axial Age and the shaking up of settled strategies for coping with evil that depend upon the notion of a transcendent God and an overarching providence.

There is a completeness and broad perspective to Morrow’s work that ties together many different strands of a difficult and complex subject. His scholarly neutrality is impressive. Where the interest of other scholars becomes “pastoral” in its desire to restore to the lament its earlier protest element, he subjects even this pastoral concern to scrutiny and interpretation. Such neutrality has its drawbacks, however, since it requires that explanations be couched in either psychological or sociological terms, de rigueur nowadays. Morrow favors the psychological. Guilt is treated as pathology and protest as therapy. Both are reasonable if a trifle thin, particularly the cross-cultural analogy of the sorrowful woman’s grief in Lamentations to that of abused children and battered women. It reminded me of Gerhard von Rad’s remark now many years ago about the History of Religion school’s biblical theology: “Because Old Testament theology took as its task the construction of a history of piety and of the contents of consciousness, and because, above all, it thereby kept to that which has its growth from nature and history, it dismissed what the Old Testament itself had to say, and, leaving this aside, chose its own subject of interest for itself” (Old Testament Theology, vol. I, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, New York: Harper & Row, 1962, 114).

Yet despite these restrictions laid on Morrow by the academy, he has produced an excellent study that sheds considerable light not only on the history of lament but also on the tendencies of contemporary scholarship. Whether recovering protest against God will turn out to be a pastoral plus today must wait upon a more positive reevaluation of the changes that eclipsed it from perspectives that go beyond the psychological and sociological.

William Irwin
University of St. Michael’s College