Walter Brueggemann: Snow as Testimony

We had our first snow on December 12; five inches. It came beautifully and of course silently. The slowdown and shutdown of Covid invited me to take the snow as an opportunity to reminisce, not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.

I remembered that snow is welcome for the sake of a snowman. I have a photo for my first grade. My dad was about 5 foot, 8 inches; the snowman is a big head taller than my dad. I remembered that snow is useful for snowballs. I remembered that snow is amenable to fast sleds and toboggans. I did that many times down Art Hill in St. Louis with my sons. The trek back up Art Hill to the Art Museum seemed as daunting as Mao’s “Long March.” I learned, by remembering snowmen, snowballs, and the sled, that snow is a wondrous multi-purposed gift from God; that remains true even if we take into account both the risks of slipping on icy walks or the snarl of bad traffic.

Long before us, however, writers in the Bible also learned that snow is a multi-purposed gift from God. I can identify three texts in which snow is received as testimony to the governance of YHWH. In the exultant poetry of Isaiah 40-55, it is asserted at the outset that:

The word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)

That “word of our God” that is the subject of the poetry concerns the emancipation and restoration of exiled Israel. In sum, that word is “Here is your God” (40:9). Or alternatively, “Your God reigns” (52:7). The “word” is the performative declaration that God’s governance and God’s emancipatory fidelity are under way, even in the face of Babylonian power and the claims of Babylonian gods (Isaiah 46:1-2, 47:5-7). The poetry of Isaiah includes doxologies of power (44:24-28), salvation oracles of assurance (41:9-10, 43:1-7), and assaults on Babylonian arrogance (47:1-15).

When the poet wants to add confirming evidence for the reliability of God’s emancipatory word, such evidence is not found in historical matters. Rather, the poet must go outside the historical process to appeal to the reliable regularities of creation that the creator guarantees. By the end of this poetry, in chapter 55, the poet finds verification of God’s reliable word concerning Israel by an analogue to the reliability of creation:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be… (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Rain sent by the creator will not quit until it has watered the earth. Snow dispatched by the creator will not quit until it has caused sprouts that will provide seed and bread. Snow is reliable and does its proper work. Snow is a part of the generative arrangement of creation from the outset:

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22)

For Isaiah the purpose of snow is to cause the earth to bring forth. Can you imagine that snow would not water the earth? No, snow is relentless in its purpose. It attests to the reliable order of life-giving processes as willed by the creator.

Thus Isaiah 55:10 voices the analogue. In 55:11 the poet draws the inference permitted by the snow. The analogue is that God’s word is as reliable as is snow. Snow has its proper purpose and will perform it. So also God’s word has it proper purpose and will perform it. The purpose of snow (after snowmen, snowballs, and sleds) is to water the earth with the intent of food production. The purpose of God’s word in which it will succeed is the restoration of Israel. The poet insists: Look at the snow! You can see there evidence of the reliability of God and God’s word. It is evidence from creation that pertains to history. It is evidence that exiled Israel can count on. It is evidence that every community in need and every desperate person can count on. God’s word will not fail until it does its purpose.

Savor every flake, because every flake bears witness, so claims the poet, to the life-giving reliability of God.

In a very different mode, the poet of the book of Job picks up the theme of snow. The reference to snow occurs in a torrent of questions that the creator God puts to Job. Job had imagined that he had reduced the operation of creation to a predictable calculus whereby his deeds would match with certain outcomes. The God hidden in the whirlwind refuses to be trapped in or contained by any such human calculation. For that reason, God is determined to show Job that the difference between human control through calculation and God’s freedom is not one of difference of degree, but a difference of kind.

In order to assert that vast distinction that is beyond every human capacity or arithmetic process, Job is addressed with questions that do not admit answer, but intend to show Job his penultimate place in the world governed by YHWH. The questions come at Job with pounding rapidity and without allowance for any response (38:4-37). The required answers are cast as humility:

Where were you? … nowhere (v. 4).
Have you commanded? … no (v. 2).
Have you entered? … no (v. 11).

So we come to our reference to snow:

“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war? (Job 38:22-23)

These verses that form a single strophe in the poetry include two questions. The first question in vv. 22-23 asks Job if he has been given access to the great reservoirs of snow and hail over which the creator presides. Of course, the required answer is “no.” Human persons have been given no access. And just to secure the point, God’s speech reminds Job that snow and hail are kept in reserve for times of trouble, battle, and war, because the surprise of snow at any time might tilt the outcome of a battle (the point might even allow an allusion to the hail that hit Pharaoh in Exodus 9:13-35). Job must know that even the military prowess of kings and armies are “at the mercy” of the elements and cannot control them.

The second question in verse 24 asks about source of light and the destiny of the east wind. Of course Job knows nothing more of light and wind than he does of snow and hail. He does not know. He cannot know. He does not know and cannot know because he, as a human knower, is in a world of mighty mystery that evokes wonder but not control.

Thus snow attests to the mighty hidden mystery of God that defies human control. The snow is witness to sovereignty. This claim is of course pre-scientific; or better, it is non-scientific or we may say post-scientific, because after our best reasoning we are left in wonder of a doxological kind (see William P. Brown, The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder and Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Creation and Crisis in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature.) Thus the proverb asserts the scale of difference between the creator who questions and Job who cannot answer:

It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings to search things out. (Proverbs 25:2)

It is the proper business of science (by kings and therefore government sponsorship) to find out; it is the way of God to conceal. The work of Prometheus goes on; but at least in biblical scope, God’s way is not a problem to be solved, but rather a mystery to ponder in awe.

The snow testifies to the awesome wonder of God before whom kings may pause, along with Job, to take notice of our penultimate place in God’s world.

The aggressive questioning of Job by God is echoed with more restraint by Elihu whose words precede those from the whirlwind. Elihu reports on the stunning wonder he experiences as he witnesses creation:

“At this also my heart trembles,
and leaps out of its place.” ( Job 37:1)

Then follows an inventory of the wonders of creation:

Under the whole heaven he lets it [thunder] loose,
and his lightening to the corners of the earth.
After it his voice roars;
he thunders with his majestic voice
and he does not restrain the lightenings when his voice is heard.
God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend.
For to the snow he says “’Fall on the earth”:
and the shower of rain, his heavy shower of rain.” (vv. 3-6)

The list includes thunder and lightning, snow and rain, all wonders that bespeak God’s governance and evoke goose bumps for Elihu. Elihu can only conclude:

He causes it to happen. (v. 13)

It is not a surprise that the poetry of II Isaiah and Job is echoed (or perhaps anticipated) in the doxological tradition of the Psalms. In the third doxological unit of Psalm 147 (after vv. 1-6 and vv. 7-11), the center of the hymn concerns exactly the wonder of creation:

He fills you with the finest of wheat.
He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down hail like crumbs—
who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow. (Psalm 147:14b-18)

By now these are the usual subjects that attest to God’s majestic sovereignty: snow, hail, wind, water.
These are all evocations of Israel’s praise. Israel at worship does not explain; it praises; it exults; it celebrates a world that is beyond human management. Such doxology is ready acknowledgement in Israel concerning the penultimate place of human capacity in creation, a lesson Job was slow to learn.

Indeed, it is a lesson that we have been slow to learn as we, in our promethean posturing, imagine that human agency, human freedom, and human technology together constitute the last truth of the world we inhabit. Israel’s doxology is a ready affirmation that calls us to recognize our penultimate role in creation.

This doxology does one other remarkable thing. The lines concerning creation in 14b-17 are sandwiched between verses that bespeak Israel’s special status in God’s attentiveness. In these verses “the Lord” is “Your God, O Zion” (v. 1):

For he strengthens the bars of your gates;
he blesses your children within you.
He grants peace within your borders …

He declares his word to Jacob,
his statues and ordinances to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his ordinances.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 147:1-14a, 19-20)

At its best, Israel’s doxology is always with a double focus. Such praise readily affirms the chosenness of Israel. This other accent on creation, however, precludes any thought that Israel itself can be the single focus of the creator. The snow attests both YHWH’s sovereign generative goodness and Israel’s special but qualified place in creation.

Finally we can notice in the next Psalm that even snow is reckoned among God’s doxological creatures:

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
he fixed their bounds which cannot be passed.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds! (Psalm 148:5-10)

It should not surprise us that snow is alongside both creeping things and kings and princes in praise (see verse 11), because all creatures are in awe, wonder, and gratitude before the creator. Thus we can imagine snow doing its testimony to God’s reliability (Isaiah 55:10-11) and God’s unanswerable sovereignty (Job 38), and then gladly returning to the never-ending creaturely doxology in praise alongside many other creaturely companions.

Two things occur to me about this poetry in II Isaiah and Job. First, these two great poets are both most plausibly dated to the sixth century exile of Israel. If that may for now be assumed, thus the locus for the poetry suggests that when these poets wanted to witness to God’s reliability (Isaiah 55) and God’s sovereignty (Job), they could not find adequate reference points in history, so failed was their history in the moment. For that reason, they had to go outside of history to find persuasive evidence of
God’s reliability and sovereignty. They appealed to creation to provide resources from which to affirm some truth about history as well, even when history itself is seemingly unreliable and out of control. These two great poets of course had no fear of “natural theology,” because they took all of “nature” as a sphere of God’s good rule. We ourselves, in our most vexed times, might also appeal to such reliability and sovereignty that live beyond the rush of our control or explanation.

One other matter occurs to me about these poetic offers. Who could have looked at snow and been led to see it as witness to divine reality? Who could have looked at snow and let it evoke confidence in God’s ultimacy and awareness of human penultimacy?

The ones who could look and see this were the ones who had been steeped in liturgical tradition and schooled in a God-awareness that instructs us in how to see and notice differently. Such God-awareness is worth the effort. Otherwise we may look at snow, and see it only for snowmen, snowballs, and fast sleds. These poets know better. We may let their stunning imagination reshape our own capacity to notice differently. We may, with great confidence, trust in their words, gladly saying or singing, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” And for those of you, dear readers, who live in warmer climates where it does not snow, someday go visit the land of cold, beautiful testimony.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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