Exploring Empathy in the Old Testament
Its always interesting to ask new questions and to explore new ways of thinking about the Bible. This study should be regarded as a heuristic exploration of the subject of empathy in the Old Testament. To begin with, it is important to note that Aempathy@ is not a word that occurs in the Old Testament. Related words like Asympathy,@ Acompassion,@ and Atenderness@ do occur, however, and empathy incorporates concepts like these. Although a full study of empathy in the Old Testament would have to consider all such related words, this study will explore two other aspects of the subject. First, we will examine several examples of what might rightfully be considered empathy (even though it is not explicitly named as such), either between persons or between God and a specific person or group. Second, we will look at empathy in the Old Testament from the perspective of the reader.
1. Empathy Between God and Individuals
I want to begin our examination of empathy in the Old Testament with a story from the life of the very colourful prophet Ezekiel that illustrates empathy between God and one of God's servants.
God commands Ezekiel to bake bread in a most unconventional manner: AEat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people using human excrement for fuel.@ This unusual prophetic sign act, God says, is meant to show the people of Israel that they would eat defiled food in the coming exile (Ezek 4:12,13). But Ezekiel, trained as a priest and sensitive to issues of ritual cleanness, is horrified by the prospect of eating bread baked on human excrement. He protests: ANot so, sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by animals. No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth@ (Ezek 4:14). So God responds with a concession: AVery well. I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement@ (Ezek 4:15).
What is going on here? I would argue that God is being empathetic toward Ezekiel; indeed that God=s empathy motivates him to allow for a change in his program. For when Ezekiel protests against the method of baking the loaf, the Lord graciously empathizes with his feelings of revulsion and his desire to remain ritually pure. God allows Ezekiel to bake his bread on cow dung which, when mixed with straw, was commonly used as fuel for cooking in the ancient world. Of course, this concession means that something of the symbolic significance of Ezekiel's sign act is now lost. Instead of the sign act signifying that the exiles would eat ritually impure food in exile, the revised sign act stresses the shortage of food in exile.
From this little vignette in the life of Ezekiel, we gain an important insight into the character of God. God compassionately understands Ezekiel's problem, empathizes with his desire to remain ritually pure, and changes his program as a result.
At this point, Christian educators can ask the question of the continuing significance of this passage for today. And first of all we can talk about the character of God. For this passage reminds us that our God listens, our God feels our pain, our God understands, our God empathizes, and sometimes our God even changes the program. Second, we can talk about how this passage reminds us that God continues to call us into difficult places in ministry, and that sometimes God=s call involves doing very hard thingsCeven the equivalent of eating bread baked on human excrement. The life of obedience is often difficult. But when times are hard God listens to our prayers, to our cries of protest, to our anguish and to our pain. Although God does not always take the burdens of ministry away, Ezekiel reminds us that sometimes God does just that.
Many other examples of God=s empathetic nature could be cited. Often this empathetic nature is expressed in God=s response to crises experienced by his children. In the early chapters of Exodus, for example, we see God=s people suffering in captivity. They groan under their burdens, and cry out for deliverance. God sees their misery, and the way the Egyptians are oppressing his people (Exod 3:7, 9, 16). Their cry is heard. God remembers his covenant people and initiates a plan to rescue them; to bring them out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land (Exod 3:17). In this context and elsewhere, the verbs Ato know,@ Ato remember,@ Ato see,@ and Ato hear@ often suggest the empathetic nature of God. One might even argue that there are suggestions of God=s empathetic nature in the account of God=s call for Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Moses responds to God=s call with a series of excusesCso many, indeed, that God finally becomes angry (Exod 3:1-4:14). But even then God empathizes with Moses= deep insecurity, taking into account his feelings of inadequacy by allowing his brother Aaron to serve as a spokesman or mouthpiece in Moses= place.
2. Empathy Between Persons
Another clear example of empathy in the Book of Exodus can be found in a series of laws directed to the care and protection of the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor. These laws are of special interest because they point to the importance of empathy in the shaping of social, moral, and ethical behaviour. Those who are familiar with recent literature on empathy and education will recognize the argument that empathy can influence social behaviour and decision making. That is exactly what is going on in this section of the Old Testament. One clear example of this type of law is Exodus 22:21: AYou shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.@ Similar concerns are frequently found elsewhere in the Old Testament:
$ Exod 23:9 AYou shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart (Hebrew nephesh, the soul) of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.A [Another translation of the phrase Ayou know the heart@ is Ayou yourselves know how it feels to be aliens.@]
$ Lev 19:33-34 AWhen an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. I am the Lord your God.@
$ Deut 10:17-19 AFor the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.@
$ Jer 7:5-7 AFor if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.@
$ Jer 22:1-3 AThus says the Lord: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: >Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of DavidCyou, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.=@
In each of these passages, God=s people are instructed not to mistreat or oppress Aaliens@ or Aresident aliens.@ When I was a graduate student at Yale, my visa conferred on me the status of Aresident alien@: I was a visitor, a newcomer; a person without family, an outsider with limited rights, dependent on the good will of those among whom I lived. So too in the Old Testament an Aalien@Calso known as a Asojourner,@ Astranger,@ or Anewcomer@Cwas a person who either alone or with their family had left home and tribe because of some adversityCwhether war, famine, epidemic, or even legal difficulties. This stranger looked for shelter among another people. Aliens were outsiders, often without family, profession, or the support of their own nation. Their rights were limited. They were dependent on the hospitality and good will of those with whom they lived. Aliens are often mentioned in the Old Testament in company with the poor, the orphan and the widow. As a group they were the defenceless and vulnerable of societyCthose most likely to be abused.
Old Testament law mandates that God=s people treat outsiders well, on the grounds that they themselves had been resident aliens in Egypt. Their sojourn in Egypt had begun when Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and ended when God heard the cries of his people being mistreated by their Egyptian slave owners and rescued them from their suffering (Exod 3:7-10). Thus Israel=s own experience of sojourning was to affect how they treated others in similar situations. God=s people were to not to mistreat the resident aliens because they knew how it felt to be a mistreated sojourner: they had been there; they could empathize.
Moreover, this attitude of empathy was to extend to subsequent generations of Israelites. Even though the generation who had been in Egypt had long since died, their ancestors were to remember the experience of sojourning and treat others differently. Israel=s collective memory was to lead to empathetic behaviour. As Deuteronomy 10:19Ca text directed to later generationsCstates, Ayou are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.@
At this point, we can ask the question of the continuing significance of this passage for today. All texts that concern the welfare of the alien suggest that God expects his people to feel with others, to be able to put themselves in another person=s place, to feel his or her feelings, and to respond accordingly. This ability to empathize should affect how we liveChow we treat those who are different, needy, or vulnerable. In fact, Old Testament laws which mandate treating the alien empathetically accord well with modern studies suggesting that when people acquire a measure of empathy for another person=s welfare, they are more likely to help that person when he or she is in trouble.
3. Teaching Empathy and Enhancing Empathetic Skills by Means of Old Testament Narratives
The question remains as to how we may teach empathy or enhance the empathetic skills we already possess. These are questions that Christian educators need to wrestle with. I suggest that Old Testament narratives in particular can have an important role in teaching such skills. The story of David and Bathsheba is one such story. This well known incident in the life of David illustrates empathy between persons and also between a person and a narrative figureCa fact that in itself suggests the importance of using stories as tools for teaching empathy. Moreover, the story of David and Bathsheba illustrates how empathy can lead to actionCin this case, to repentance.
The story of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11-12) concerns passion and power. One evening in spring, when he is supposed to be off at war, but is instead walking on the roof of his palace, David sees a beautiful woman bathing. He wants her for himselfCdespite the fact that she is the wife of one of his soldiers. David moves quickly to get his way. He sends for her, takes her, has sex with her. At this point in his life, David feels that he is entitled to have whatever he wants: Ano restraint, no second thoughts, no reservations, no justification. He takes simply because he can. He is at the culmination of his enormous power.@ But the woman's words, AI am pregnant,@ change everything (2 Sam 11:5). David moves quickly to cover up his deed. He plans to have the woman's own husband sleep with her. But all of his attempts to exercise power over the principled foreigner, Uriah, fail. So David=s next stratagem involves a malicious act of murder. A morally bankruptCor, at least, deeply cynicalCDavid says to his general, Joab, ADo not be distressed over the matter. The sword always takes its toll@ (JPS). What rationalization! What moral blindness!
Where is empathy in this story? Does David not have a moral conscience? Has he forgotten his commitment to the covenant of God? Has he no feelings toward the husband of the woman he loves or even toward the woman whose husband he has murdered? David is blinded by lust, power, and fear. But God sees all: AAnd God looked upon what David had done with displeasure@ (2 Sam 11:27).
From the next scene, we learn that Nathan the prophet also understands David=s situation: his selfishness, his lusting after power, his moral and spiritual blindness. He must also have known that David had not always been so hard-hearted and callous. Then God sends his prophet to the king, and Nathan tells David a simple parable about two men, one rich and one poor. The rich man, says Nathan, had large flocks and herds, but the poor man only one female lamb . She was a like a daughter to him. She grew up with his children, shared his food, slept in his arms. But one day, when the rich man had to feed a guest, he was loath to sacrifice one of his own animals, and so took the poor man's lamb instead. Notice that the same verb, Ahe took@ (2 Sam 12:4) refers to David's taking of Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:4). AThe rich man raped the daughter-like treasure of the poor man,@ says Walter Brueggemann, and concludes, AThis is a tale of cynicism, selfishness, destruction, and greed.@
David responds to Nathan's story with indignation: AAs surely as the Lord lives,@ he declares, Athe man who did this serves to die! He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity@ (2 Sam 12:5). Ironically, David recognizes that the rich man lacks any feelings of pity or compassion. It is clear to him that selfishness has blocked the rich man=s ability to see the consequences of his selfish act, leaving him unable to empathize with the poor man.
But whereas David understands the point of the parable, he fails to recognize its relevance to his own situation. Nonetheless, Nathan=s bold, prophetic wordCAYou are the man!@Cand the long speech of judgment that follows, enable David to see himself as equally selfish, destructive, and greedy. David himself is the rich man in question.
The king=s response is repentance: he confesses that he has sinned, and places himself into the hands of the God he knows from experience to be merciful (2 Sam 12:13). As he laments on a later occasion, AI am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.@ (2 Sam 24:14). The consequences of David=s sin are great. Although he himself is allowed to live, his life is never the same again. The price he and his family pay for what Brueggemann calls being Aseduced by [his] imagined moral and ethical autonomy,@ is very high. David had coveted, committed adultery and murder, and in so doing despised his covenant Lord. The price was the sword which would never again depart from David=s house (2 Sam 12:10).
Nonetheless, it is possible to see empathy at work in this story. Initially, of course, David is without any such feelings. He is totally wrapped up in himself. But through Nathan=s parable, David begins to feel again. First, he recognizes the injustice and sin of the rich man in the parable, even while still blinded to his own. Then, second, it takes the prophetic word, AYou are the man,@ to bring David out of his world of power and self-absorption; to recognize himself in the parable. His delusion of power and moral autonomy is over, at least for the moment. One definition of empathy is putting oneself in the place of another person, in order to experience his or her feelings. This is precisely what David does as he feels the pain of the poor man, ultimately recognizing and acknowledging that he himself is the guilty party.
This story illustrates how God=s prophetic word can bring change. Nathan=s parable enabled an empathetic moment to take place that in turn brought recognition of sin and repentance. Indeed, such empathetic moments continue to take place whenever we read Scripture. It may happen when we, like David, come to see ourselves in a parable, a Psalm, the law, or a wisdom text. Although Nathan himself may not be present to utter the convicting words, the Holy Spirit who inspired him certainly is. Because God=s Spirit is at work when we read Scripture, we too, like David, can experience empathetic moments or encounters that transform our lives.
Although empathy plays a part in many Old Testament narratives, many more illustrate what happens when empathy is absent. If empathy involves the ability to relate and respond to the feelings and perspectives of others, then lack of empathy is exactly what Eli, the priest, demonstrates when he interprets Hannah=s prayers and weeping as drunkenness in 1 Sam 1:2-20. For Hannah is not drunk. Rather, she is pouring her heart out to God about her bitterness of soul: the great anguish of her barrenness and the grief of being taunted by Peninnah, the rival wife with many children. Eli=s inability to comprehend Hannah=s posture of pain is symptomatic of the spiritual blindness that is overtaking both the priest and his family. Indeed, the description in 1 Samuel 3 of Eli=s eyes becoming so weak that he could hardly see is to be read at both a literal and a symbolic level. Eli lacks empathy and insight: his physical and spiritual eyes alike have become weak.
Another story that opens up various aspects of empathy is the rape of Tamar by her half brother Amnon in 2 Sam 13:1-22. Amnon, David=s son, falls in love with Tamar, his beautiful half-sister. Amnon=s friend, JonadabCdescribed as a very shrewd manCpicks up on Amnon=s feelings of sexual frustration, and concocts an evil plan that will enable Amnon to be alone with the woman he so desperately desires. Does this make Jonadab an empathetic friend?
Jonabab=s evil ruse is carried out. But when Amnon grabs Tamar and entreats her, ACome to bed with me, my sister,@ Tamar responds with incredible passion and wisdom. ADon't, my brother! . . . Don't force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don't do this wicked thing.@ Tamar goes on to explain the horrific consequences that this act of rape will have upon her. She pleads, AWhat about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace?@
Even in her own moment of agony, Tamar thinks also of her brother=s future. AAnd what about you?@ she asks, AYou would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.@ Tamar reaches out for understanding, for compassion, for empathy. But Amnon=s burning passion and selfishness rules. As the narrator tells us, AHe refused to listen to her and since he was stronger than she, he raped her@ (2 Sam 13:14).
Following the rape, Amnon=s passion changes to hatred. In fact, he hates her more than he had formerly loved her. AGet up and get out!@ he orders (2 Sam 13:15). Once again Tamar attempts to elicit understanding from her brother, imploring him not to send her away. ASending me away,@ she says, AWould be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me@ (2 Sam 13:16). But again, Amnon refuses: Tamar is put out of his room by a servant, the door bolted after her (2 Sam 13:18). Tamar puts ashes on her head and tears her royal robes. But this is not the end of the story. Tamar=s brother, Absalom, hates Amnon for the disgrace he had brought her, and two years later has him killed (2 Sam 13:22-33)..
Amongst other things, this story demonstrates why empathy is so important . Had Amnon been able to feel with his sister, had he been able to see what the heinous act would mean for TamarCnot to mention his own futureChe would not have raped her. At the very least, this story demonstrates that lack of empathy can lead to acts of violence. Moreover, it suggests that the human capacity for empathy and the capacity to understand the impact of our actions and words on others can be blocked by stronger passions, lust not least among them.
4. Empathy in the Old Testament and the Relationship Between Reader and Text
Like that of David=s encounter with Nathan, the story of the rape of Tamar allows us to explore yet another dimension of empathy in the Old Testament, namely, the process of reading, and the relationship between the reader and the text. For it can be argued that as we enter into the world of the Old Testament, we as readers empathize with particular characters and situations both within the text and beyond it. First, we feel Tamar=s pain as she pleads with her brother not to rape her. We cry out with her when she pleads with Amnon not to send her away (2 Sam 13:12-14). Yet our experience of the story through the victim=s own eyes may also allow us to empathize with others who have experienced such abuse. To the extent that this is true, it suggests the importance of the Old Testament narratives as resources for the Church to teach about empathy, and for us to develop or enhance our own ability to empathize. By reading texts like these, which open up the world for us in new ways, I think that we can learn to be more empathetic people. Our ability to understand others, to feel with others, even to minister to others, can be greatly enhanced.
Similarly, as we read the stories of Esau and Jacob, we empathize with Esau. We feel Esau's rage when he discovers that his duplicitous brother has duped him of his birthright, and cries out, ABless meCme too, my father!@ (Gen 27:34 ). Because we have felt with Esau, we may be in a better position to empathize with the downtrodden. On the other hand, we may also see ourselves in Jacob, as we recognize moments in our lives when we have taken advantage of others, perhaps even siblings. These moments of recognition can lead us to repentance and healing.
As people of faith who view the Scriptures as God=s word, we may also identify ourselves directly with those to whom the text is addressed. The psalmists= prayers may become our prayers, as the psalmist cries out for help, for mercy, for deliverance, for protection, for healingCperhaps even for vengeance. By the same token, we may hear the moral and ethical charges given to Israel as charges that address us and our situation. An excellent example is the enduring authority of the Ten Commandments. I would argue that the mandate to care for the alien should also be heard as a directive to us in our own day.
As we read, we typically empathize with the persons or situations with which we are expected to empathize. But sometimes our own experiences or ideologies impel us to read against the text, so that we empathize (contrary to the expectation of the narrative) with an individual or situation for which we feel a personal affinity. Perhaps, for example, when we read the Book of Esther, Vashti becomes our hero, a pagan queen who stands up to the demands of her husband that she parade her body before a party of drunken men, and thus a model of someone with the courage to say no when asked to compromise. Such empathy may be legitimate at one level, but in terms of the story of Esther, Vashti is really a minor figure, a character who must retire in order for the main narrative of Esther and Mordecai to unfold. Or perhaps we perceive Vashti's replacement, the lovely Queen Esther who risks her own life to defend her people, as the one with whom we empathize, the model we would emulate, the person who impels us to be courageous, to stand up for God=s people and risk all for the kingdom. Attractive as these suggestions may be, however, they go against the final, canonical shape of the book, which puts forth Mordecai as the hero. For, notwithstanding its title, the ABook of Esther@ concludes with a tribute to Mordecai's greatness: AMordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews@ (Esther 10:3).
A more difficult example of reading against the text emerges from prophetic passages in which the metaphor of husband and wife is used to depict the relationship between God and God=s people. Israel is portrayed as the harlot. We are expected to empathize with God as the betrayed husband. But in some particularly graphic prophetic texts, such as Ezekiel 16 and 23, in which the husband punishes his unfaithful wife in particularly violent ways, our own sensibilities as modernsCperhaps especially as womenCmay block our ability to empathize with God. Can we feel God=s anger towards his unfaithful wife that allows him to order that she be turned over to her lovers, who will strip her of her clothes, take her fine jewellry, and leave her naked and bare, or who will bring a mob against her to stone her and hack her to pieces with their swords (Ezek 16:35-42)? Or do we cry out, AStop! No woman should be treated that way, not even an unfaithful woman@?
When we respond in this way, it is important to go back to the text and make sure that we are reading it appropriately. Certainly a fuller understanding of the nature of metaphor and of extended metaphors such as Ezekiel 16 and 23 will help the modern reader to understand Ezekiel=s message as one intended to shock his listeners into recognizing their own sin. A metaphor is a finger which points to something. But it is not the finger itself. So it is important to read Ezekiel 16 and 23 as extended metaphors. In these texts God is indeed likened to the angry husbandCbut God is neither a husband nor even male. Moreover, an understanding of the ancient world, and more especially of the status of women and adulteresses in that world, is essential. For according to Ezekiel=s story, God gives the unfaithful wife a second chance, a highly unusual outcome in light of ancient laws which mandated that harlots and adulteresses be put to death. But this does not deny the fact that there are times when being an empathetic reader raises challenging issues which must be faced.
It seems to me that the Old Testament is an important resource for deliberation about empathy. On the one hand, we learn that God is empathetic. The Psalms in particular testify to the faith of those who have experienced Israel=s God as One who feels their pain, hears their cries, and understands their grief. Sometimes they wonder why God seems so far away, even absent, but their prayer is always that he would be present with them again. On the other hand, we also learn that God expects his people to express empathy for others: how they are to treat the Aalien@ or Aforeigner@ is an excellent example.
The Old Testament is also an important resource for stories that illustrate either the presenceCor perhaps more frequentlyCthe absence of empathy in human relationships. Many of the individuals and families whom we know from the Old Testament are quite dysfunctional. Some of their stories illustrate what occurs when empathy is either absent or else overshadowed by competing impulses such as lust, power, greed, or fear. Our own response to reading such accounts from the Old Testament can be to discuss what motivates these characters to behave in the ways they do. This allows us to talk about such issues as the seduction of power or passion; the risks and responsibilities of human autonomy; and the reality of sin. We can speak of hindrances to empathy. We can discuss the emotions that we as readers feel in response to these storiesCanger, pity, and jealousy. As we come to recognize and communicate our own feelings, we learn to respond to the feelings of others more effectively. Reading about the lives of others enables us to visualize both the beneficial and the harmful consequences of our own behaviour. In this sense, reading the Old Testament can enhance our moral imagination. Moreover, in reading the Old Testament as God=s word, we allow God through his Holy Spirit to speak to us, to convict us of sin, to show us areas for growth, and to assist us in growing. Thus we undoubtedly become more empathetic as we read and listen to the stories of othersCand draw closer to the God who reveals himself to be supremely empathetic.
Let me close with an incident told to me by a grade one teacher who had been teaching her students the story of Jesus and the little children in Luke 18:15-17. In that story, parents had been bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked the parents. But Jesus= response was very different. He said, ALet the little children come to me, and do not hinder them: for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.@
Children listening to the story who were accustomed to their own parents being too busyCparents saying Anot now, maybe later@Ccould empathize with the disciples= view that Jesus was too busy for children. But when they found out that Jesus wanted them to come to him and that Jesus even touched children, they were very moved by his love and compassion. At the end of the story, one little girl said, AI felt like I was there with Jesus.@ She understood very well that adults are too busy for kids, and was surprised by Jesus= response. She was able to put herself at the feet of Jesus, and to be touched by him as well. Simply through hearing the story, this little girl could feel with the children within the story who were touched by their Lord.
Responses like this convince me of the importance of the Scriptures as a resource by which Christian educators can teach empathetic attitudes and behaviour, indeed, by which we can introduce people to the person of Christ.
 P. C. Craigie, Ezekiel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 35.
 Ibid., 35-36. Compare J. B. Taylor, Ezekiel (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1969), 83-84.
 I am indebted to Walter Brueggemann=s insightful analysis of the life of David in his commentary, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), 271-86.
 Ibid., 273-74.
 Ibid., 278.
 Ibid., 280.
 Ibid., 283.