This interview is excellent, though in some ways frightening, and in all ways challenging.
I mentioned in my post about completing the study of Romans that our next book was Leviticus. This was by choice of the group, but it is surely driven somewhat by the number of references I have made to Leviticus.
While I experienced Leviticus as a child, going to a Christian school where we read—really read—the entire Bible, and memorized a great deal, it never really caught my attention.
Two factors combined to catch my attention:
- I changed my view of biblical inspiration
- I studied through Leviticus using the three volume commentary on it in the Anchor Bible series by Jacob Milgrom.
Studying with Milgrom
Here’s a key Milgrom quote, and this from a man who does not tend to speak in one-liners!
Theology is what Leviticus is all about. It pervades every chapter and almost every verse. It is not expressed in pronouncements but embedded in rituals.Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Vol. 1, Anchor Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 42. (Link is to my review.)
One of the key lessons I learned in that book is that ritual matters. The way we worship both reflects and creates theology. When we go to church and listen to one person from the front do all the talking, that has an impact on how we see the Christian life, learning, discipleship.
I recall that I was once asked to speak at a church where, unknown to me, people felt they could delegate that task of prayer to the prayer warriors. The pastor who invited me knew I’d say something different.
I would like to say something similar about study to the church as a whole: You can’t leave your study to pastors or scholars. You need to get involved.
Bottom line here is that our ritual matters in many ways.
I asked a question in a previous post:
If God showed up on Sunday morning, would God enjoy what was going on?Henry’s Threads, “A Morbid and Boring Christianity“
I think it’s a good question. In terms of Leviticus, would it be a “pleasing odor?”
Inspiration in the Production of Scripture
The other element is my change was my view of inspiration. There is a single element that is critical. I came to regard the process of inspiration and transmission of scripture as a critical element in our understanding. I see scripture as a compendium of the experience of people with God. It is important to recognize both the divine and human element.
Out of that divine-human story, I see God working with people through scripture. In Leviticus, we see God as educator. Yes, we see the human report of what happened. I’m not trying here to debate details on how human and how divine scripture is; in fact, I think that’s the wrong question. What we’re looking for is the process behind what we have. We want to see God in action.
Is that perhaps arrogant? I don’t believe so. I believe God has left God’s imprint all over creation, and very much in the way in which God’s chosen people were developed and prepared. Looking at this process is even more critical than connecting dots between specific scriptures.
Things I Won’t Be Doing
In focusing on the way ritual expresses theology and develops worshipers, there are two things I will not be emphasizing.
First, I will not be looking for the minor ties between specific scripture prophecies and New Testament events. While I accept predictive prophecy in principle, in practice I find that the detailed interpretation of a prediction/fulfillment is rarely necessary to learn the lessons expressed.
Second, I will not be doing a detailed symbolic connection between elements of the ritual. Those sorts of things (and the resulting debates) are available elsewhere.
I will be focusing on the expression of theology through ritual and the relationship of that ritual to forming God’s people. I hope to learn something about discipleship and instruction/nurture through this book.
(Featured image credit: Adobe Stock #158382143. Licensed, not public domain.)
Last night in our Tuesday night group we discussed this rather interesting chapter, one that I believe expresses the basics of the gospel message well.
Now I don’t mean by this that it mentions the name of Jesus or even directly predicts anything about his ministry. There is some material here that is used of John the Baptist and Jesus, but that is another subject. What I mean is the basic principles. I will express these as: We can’t, God can, God does.
There are those who find the whole depravity thing in Christian theology somewhat morbid. But there’s a really simple point, and one I think is obvious once you see it. We really can’t!
Once we accept the fundamental idea of God as creator at all, we accept total dependence and our inherent smallness. As Isaiah calls us, grasshoppers. God looks down from the circle of the earth and the inhabitants (that’s us) are as grasshoppers.
If we think about it for a moment, not only can we not do good without God, we can’t do anything at all. We can’t exist. We are, before our creator, nothing at all.
And yet, God is coming to God’s people. God cares, in great detail.
Here is the Lord GOD; he is coming in might,(Isaish 40:10-11, REB)
coming to rule with powerful arm.
His reward is with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he will tend his flock
and with his arm keep them together;
he will carry the lambs in his bosom
and lead the ewes to water.
God’s greatness is not something that should make us miserable. Face it, we have looked at the universe and it is incomprehensibly large. We are small. Yet we are significant. If God is the creator, as we believe, then God is incomprehensibly large, and we don’t really have anything to offer.
When I consider your heavensPsalm 8:4-7 (my translation)
the work of your fingers
the moon and the stars
which you have put in place,
What is a human being
that you take notice?
A mortal that you seek him out?
Yet you have made him a little lower than God,
with glory and honor you have crowned him.
You have made him rule over what your hands have made.
You have put everything under his authority.
Isaiah 40 tells us that while we can’t, God can, and God will.
I will now do on my blog what I did last night for my Tuesday night group. Contradict my previous post. Here’s the idea in a Monty Python sketch:
What I did was quote a scholar whom I respect, and in fact who has been my companion through much of my study of the book of Isaiah, Brevard Childs.
For my part, I am unconvinced that these explanations help in understanding the judgment [the exile-HN]. The very fact that the narrator of the chapter is unwilling to proceed in these directions should check the need for supplying reason. The writer’s emphasis rather falls on establishing a link from one event to another. The judgment that was shortly to occur was not by accident of even directly evoked by the king’s misdeed, but unfolded according to to a divine plan. This theme clearly emerges in the response of Hezekiah to the prophet. Ackroyd (“An Interpretation of the Babylonian Exile,” Studies, 157ff.) has mounted a persuasive case against interpreting it as a smug response that the judgment will not personally affect him. Rather, it is an acceptance of the divine will in which Isaiah’s form of the response (39:8) emphasizes the certainty of divine blessing at least in his lifetime.Brevard Childs, Isaiah, Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, 2001), p. 287.
For my part, I am unconvinced that the normal sparseness of Hebrew narrative is an indication of a lack of moral commentary. I admit that I may read this too much in the context of 2 Kings, but I think the Isaiah context supports this adequately. But Brevard Childs is a really excellent commentator.
We’ll be continuing our discussion of Isaiah 36-39 tonight in my Tuesday night group, hopefully finishing that section. Last week, we looked at Hezekiah’s prayer for healing.
For those who may not remember, it’s a short one:
“Remember now, O LORD, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Is 38:3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
No confession, no praise. Just “Look how good I am!”
I’m going to guess that most of us have prayed prayers just like this one. Why is this happening to me? I’m doing ____ and this is what I get?” It’s not unnatural. In fact, it’s very natural. Of the flesh, even!
So God hears Hezekiah’s prayer and sees his tears. God gives Hezekiah what he desires.
Is it a good thing or not?
We tend to see healing as always a good result. In this case, I think it’s worth thinking about the story. During that 15 years we have the visit of the messengers of Merodach-baladan from Babylon, to whom Hezekiah shows everything. Very little is explicitly said, but God clearly does not approve.
It is not unlikely that this meeting was a plan for alliance, presumably against Assyria, as Babylon was aiming to retake the lead position in Mesopotamia, something they didn’t accomplish until Nabopolassar accomplished it late in the 7th century BCE.
Did God see this as a denial of the protection God had just promised to Hezekiah and to Jerusalem?
Then in 2 Kings 21 we see Manasseh, generally considered the worst king of Judah, took the throne at 12 years of age on the death of his father. His birth would have occurred in those 15 years added to Hezekiah’s life.
I can’t help but contrast this to another answered prayer, as mentioned in Hebrews 5:7. In reference to Jesus’ prayer in the garden, we are told that he was heard because of his reverent submission. Yet the cup did not pass from the hands of Jesus. Jesus went on to the cross.
Sometimes the best answers to our prayers may not involve us getting what we asked for. Getting what we asked for might not be the best result.
(Theme Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)
Last night in my Tuesday night group we were discussing the story of Hezekiah in Isaiah 36 & 37, in which King Sennacherib of Assyria attacks Judah, and things get pretty dire. Following a sneering message from the Assyrian king, Hezekiah, at the beginning of chapter 37, tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and goes to the house of the Lord.
The first question we had was whether people liked this action. Here’s the king acting afraid, worried, and uncertain about this message. I found it pretty easy to discuss this from a sociological and political point of view. How is it that a king like Hezekiah, in a tiny kingdom such as Judah, manages to hold everything together when pretty much everything is in enemy hands except for three cities?
I’d suggest that part of the reasoning (ignoring God’s involvement for the moment) comes from the fact that unlike his father, King Ahaz (Isaiah 7), Hezekiah goes to the prophets. The prophets were a political force. We have more evidence for this from the northern kingdom than the southern one, but it seems a reasonable assumption to me.
Further, the priesthood of Jerusalem was another force in the nations politics, and Hezekiah was the one who centralized worship in Jerusalem. That would have endeared him to that group.
Thus I suspect Hezekiah had his political ducks in a row as far as powerful groups in the country were concerned. Which, of course, ignores the role of the God of Israel.
Someone in our group asked this: But was God pleased?
The background here is one of doubt. In a sense, both Hezekiah and his father Ahaz show doubt. Ahaz does this by ignoring the prophet, assuming that he has to do the necessary work to protect himself when Isaiah says God’s word is that the alliance against Ahaz will not prosper.
Hezekiah, rather than putting on the perfect performance of piety and trust in God, which might have involved getting up and dramatically announcing that the God of Israel was greater than all the gods of Assyria, tears his clothes.
This is one of the interesting—perhaps the most interesting—questions we can ask in reading a Bible story. The Bible, particular in the Hebrew scriptures, tells stories in a fairly sparse fashion and doesn’t spend a great deal of time explaining the details to us. We have to read the stories carefully and ask ourselves what moral lessons may apply. Sometimes our perspective can change over time.
In this case, I think I can answer quite definitively. I think God was very pleased with Hezekiah. I have a few reasons for that:
- Hezekiah is honest. In the modern church we have a great deal of pretense, because we expect certain performance from our leaders. If the pastor expresses doubt, the foundations are shaken. This is an unrealistic expectation whether of a pastor or of a national leader. This is your Old Testament edition of 2 Corinthians 12:10 in two acts: Isaiah 7 has Ahaz strong, so God is, in effect, weak. In Isaiah 37 Hezekiah is weak, and God is strong!
- God gets the glory. Because of Hezekiah’s honest, God gets the resulting glory. I back this up with the story in Isaiah 38 & 39. When Hezekiah is healed by divine action, messengers come to see him. He shows them everything. Now the story doesn’t say it directly, but it appears he shows them how strong he, Hezekiah, is, and neglects God’s glory.
- Hezekiah seeks God immediately. While he is afraid, he nonetheless goes to God rather than seeking the answer himself.
These two stories in Isaiah 36-39 (I think some might make it three or even four stories, but I think of it as two parts, and effectively the acts completing what happened with Ahaz) open up a great deal of room for meditation and discussion on leadership, weakness, dependence on God, and action.
It’s said, however, that Hezekiah ends up on a very selfish note. In Isaiah 39:8 he tells himself everything is OK, because destruction and exile won’t come in his own lifetime.
Even the best of us, like Hezekiah, can fail!
(Featured image credit: Pixabay.)
A friend’s post on Facebook got me thinking about this verse:
I said to them, “If anyone has items made of gold, bring them. And they gave them to me, and I threw them in the fire, and out came this calf.”(Exodus 32:24, my translation from the LXX)
I can’t help but think that Aaron is hoping that a claim of miraculous activity will somehow justify his action. Moses wasn’t buying it, as his actions show.
We laugh, but how often to we make Aaron’s appeal?
Appeal to Blessings and Curses
In fact, I think we do this from both directions. If someone is blessed, we often say they must be following God’s will because look at all the blessings! On the other hand, if someone is suffering hardship, we say, “They must be doing God’s work, otherwise the devil wouldn’t be after them that way!”
Depending on how we feel about the people, we might just reverse those things. “Look at how their worldly behavior is resulting in increased worldly good! Must not be very spiritual with all that money!” Or, “If you were truly doing God’s will, you wouldn’t be having all those hardships.”
The Bible story presents many examples that stand in opposition, no matter which of these options you take. In preparing for my Sunday School lesson tomorrow, I read Isaiah 53, which is one of background passages:
He was despised, rejected by humanity,Isaiah 53:3 (my translation)
Beaten, experiencing disease.
We turned and looked away from him,
We despised him and accounted him nothing.
Whether you apply this to Israel as God’s servant, or to the remnant of exiled Israel whom God would restore, or to Jesus as the suffering servant, it still refers to someone who is suffering, even though they are in the process of carrying out God’s plan.
In Philippians (chapter 2 was the reading, but I refer back to chapter 1 as well), we find Paul in prison. He is suffering. There are those who proclaim the gospel in a way intended to give him pain. It’s possible these were people who thought their view and presentation of the gospel was superior to Paul’s, and were using his suffering as a basis for asserting that superiority. Surely God would free Paul if his teaching was so good!
Yet in the key reading for today’s lesson, we have the note that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or hung onto (Philippians 2:6), yet clearly it is not Paul’s intent to suggest Jesus, in giving up everything, was not following God’s plan.
The Case of Prophecy
In discussing prophecy, many make frequent reference to Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If a prophet makes a prediction and that word does not come true, God has not spoken. This test of a prophet is both simple and deadly.
Consider Jonah. He made a prediction, and that prediction did not come true. He was really annoyed, because he wanted Nineveh destroyed. I’m sure he was also annoyed, because now he was a false prophet.
Turn that around and think of the Ninevites. Suppose they have their version of Deuteronomy 18:21-22. They say, “Well, if he’s a true prophet, the city will be destroyed in 40 days and we can be certain.”
I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you’ve completed your test and made a determination, you’re likely dead. Not an optimum strategy, I would say. Of course, if you’re not dead, find that prophet and a pile of rocks.
Too bad for Jonah.
Another Example: 1 Kings 22
In 1 Kings 22 we have a lovely story in which Jehoshaphat of Judah, by all accounts a good king, is visiting the king of Israel. While there, they get the idea to go to war. Jehoshaphat, good king that he was, wanted to consult the LORD. The king of Israel gets 400 prophets who tell the two kings to do what they want to do.
Jehoshaphat is not satisfied and looks for one more prophet. Micaiah is brought in, and he prophesies something quite different. The day isn’t going to go well. (You can get out your Bible and read the details.)
So if you’re one of the two kings, how do you make a decision? If Micaiah is prophesying falsely, you can ignore him, but by the time you know that, you will also have lost the battle. Not so helpful!
The Other Test
Deuteronomy has another test, however, and it’s an important one.
If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (NRSV)
In this case your test is one that can be done immediately. Is this person telling us to worship other gods? I wonder if that was not the reason Jehoshaphat doubted the word of the 400 prophets. Unfortunately, even though he was wise enough to ask for one more prophet, he was apparently unwilling to go with the advice of the prophet he requested.
The Case of Gifts
I’ve seen this used in connection with spiritual gifts. People look for a manifestation of miraculous gifts, sometimes a specific gift, or one off of a list Paul provides. But Paul is never intending to provide exhaustive lists of the spiritual gifts. That’s why his lists don’t match. He’s just giving us examples. In each case, he’s providing a different test, not one that appeals to miraculous (or at least obviously miraculous) activity.
In 1 Corinthians 12, we are given a view of the real test in verses 4-7, as the example list is introduced. There are varieties of gifts, but one Spirit, one Lord, one God. It is by looking at the One in whose service the gifts are used that we can discern their nature.
No Simple Answer
Scripture doesn’t provide us with a single, simple answer. It leaves us with the task of discernment. Are your troubles due to the devil trying to stop your carrying out of God’s work, or are they God closing doors? Is your wealth God’s blessing in response to your following God’s will, or is it the devil rewarding a servant?
You find this out through prayer, thinking, discernment, study, and good counsel. The result may be miraculous!
(Theme image credit: Openclipart.org.)
I encountered a question recently that I’d like to explore a bit. The question comes in three parts, or perhaps with three perspectives.
- When God commanded the Israelites to look to the bronze serpent to be healed, was God commanding idolatry?
- Why would God give this command?
- Was this a good command?
It’s easy to dismiss the question by simply saying that it is God’s command, therefore good, and further cannot be a command to sin. But if we consider that, as Paul says, “these things are examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6), perhaps we might want to explore just why God would command such a thing.
Let me first note that idolatry is rather easy to fall into. We are very much idol-making people. I often use Paul Tillich’s vocabulary in this, that idolatry is making something that is not ultimate your ultimate concern. We can take a book, such as the Bible, from which we get God’s Word, and make the book, the thing, into the object of worship.
An example of this would be using the Bible as a sort of magical talisman. I have seen people who expect the possession and use of the physical book to accomplish miracles. Not so! The power of scripture is in revealing God who is the one who takes action. It is not minimizing or dismissing the book to realize that it is what conveys to us God’s will rather than being magical or an object of worship.
An unopened Bible sitting on the shelf in your home in a prominent place might well become your idol. You believe you are closer to God because of the object. A picture of Jesus might function in a similar way. It displays to others your faith. The question is, are you in Christ and Christ in you? That same picture on the wall might either be a reminder or it might be an idol.
I have three crosses over the door to my office. If I treat them as an object of worship, and forget what they symbolize, they could easily become an idol.
Some Objects and Commands
The ark of the covenant became a problem in this very way in scripture. It was commanded by God and built according to God’s instructions. It was supposed to be there in the temple. There was some critical symbolism involved in that under those cherubim, where there would have been an image of a god in a temple of another religion, there was empty space. Empty, at least, to human sight.
This was part of the ritual of Israel’s worship. It played a key role. But when the sons of Eli decided to take it from the tabernacle and to war, something else happened. Idolatry broke out! In 1 Samuel 4 we have the story, as Israel gives this triumphant shout, the Philistines hear it and decide that the gods have come into the camp of Israel.
Israel’s actions were idolatrous. They thought that God was confined to the thing. Now the thing was good. It was commanded by God, but it was being used in a way that was inappropriate. Idolatry is dangerous, because it disconnects us from God and connects us to, and limits us by, our own power.
As a public event, this idolatry also provided a false witness to the Philistines, who believed that God was again limited to the object.
So the question becomes, why did God want the ark built if it could be so misused?
In this case, we have considerable evidence to suggest why this should be. The ark provided an important symbol in Israel’s worship, and even an antidote to idolatry in what it symbolized.
At the same time we see one of the key sources of idolatry: We really like to have something to take hold of, something we can see, and a course of action that will let us take control. When Eli’s sons took the ark, they were trying to force God’s hand. If God wouldn’t save them from a distance, they’d bring God to where God could do what they wanted done.
We combine that with liking to repeat the action. If it works once, let’s do it again.
The Command to Worship
We have many rituals commanded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet the prophets tend to downplay these to some extent. I think a good place to look at this is Psalm 51. Here we have a prayer of repentance, which says that God doesn’t want sacrifice (v. 16), but then says that burnt offerings will be acceptable (v. 19). What’s the difference? Repentance!
The point of the sacrifice is a ritual that works with, reminds us of, and reinforces the actions that we need to take. It is a good ritual in that sense. But if we replace repentance with a ritual of repentance, the action itself becomes idolatry. It suggests that some action I take can box God in. “Oh well,” it says to God, “I may have sinned, but I offered a sacrifice so now you’re stuck with forgiving me.”
We have an idolatry of action, by placing the action in place of God. Only God forgives. Leviticus and Numbers are worded carefully to not suggest that forgiveness is accomplished by the sacrifice. Rather, forgiveness comes from God. The sacrifice is God’s command, and becomes a means of bringing us to repentance and keeping us there.
So here’s another command of God that can be abused, and in much the same way as the ark of the covenant was abused by Eli’s sons.
A Means of Healing
When Naaman comes to Elisha for healing he’s told to dip himself in the Jordan river seven times (2 Kings 5). Is there something particularly efficacious about the water of the Jordan river? Not at all! This is something God is commanding Naaman to do. The action doesn’t heal. God heals. God asks for that act of obedience before God heals.
Now we could make a cult out of Jordan river water, saying that it has special healing powers. Come to think of it, we do make quite a thing out of Jordan river water, being baptized in it, bringing back bottles of it from trips to Israel.
Now don’t get me wrong. Enjoying an experience isn’t idolatry. But if you for one moment think that being baptized in the Jordan river is better than being baptized elsewhere, that the water of that particular river has more power to cleanse from sin, you have fallen into idolatry.
The Idolatry of Places
When Jesus is transfigured, Peter wants to set up camp. It’s a sacred place. It’s a natural response (Matthew 17, see especially verse 4 for Peter’s response).
That response was also natural in both Jews and Samaritans. It’s better to worship on Mt. Gerizim. It’s better to worship in Jerusalem. All of which depends on what God has commanded. It is not the place that does it, though a place can help us. I like to pray in the church sanctuary. Is this idolatry? Only if I believe that it’s the only place God can reach me.
Jesus said that those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth, and not based on place (John 4:23).
Again, it’s easy to see how the command works. Gathering in a place is part of the human process of building community, so God commands a place. Making the place more sacred than God is our desire to bring things under our own control. A good command becomes an idolatry of the particular place.
About that Snake!
In the case of the snake on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). Here we have a simple command of God that the Israelites are to look to the serpent and they will be healed.
Before I go to our three related questions, let’s look at two other scriptural points of reference. The first is 2 Kings 18:4. Hezekiah is reforming the land and destroying idols. He destroys the very serpent referenced in Numbers 21:4-9 at the time. Why? Because people were burning incense to the serpent and had even named it. This is idolatry. What God had once commanded and used for God has been turned to another purpose.
This is one of the best illustrations of the process of idolatry. We find something good, something that God commands or approves, and there are good results. Instead of realizing that it is God’s power in action, we make that set of actions, circumstances, things, or the very location the means of our receiving good. We are then worshiping the creature, rather than the creator (Romans 1:25).
In this case we have another scriptural reference point:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him can have eternal life.John 3:14-15 (my translation)
Here we have a symbol by analogy, so again the serpent, destroyed by Hezekiah, serves God’s purpose. Never underestimate God’s power to redeem, whether that redemption is of a symbol or of a person!
A key here, as back in Numbers, is that the person looks up to the serpent but is healed by God, and there’s a fulfillment in a person looking up to Jesus and seeing God. The lesser symbol points to the greater/greatest.
Is God commanding idolatry? No. God’s command is to look at, not to worship the snake. The healing comes from God. Idolatry would be to assume that the snake healed. But the text doesn’t say that.
Why does God command people to look at the snake? This one is harder. I don’t really know. By analogy, I assume it has something to do with teaching them other lessons. I can also look forward to the lifting up of Jesus. But how this act connected for the people I don’t know. I understand, however, that making a place of worship, providing an ark, and providing sacrifices each had an impact on the people, and I assume this did as well.
Was it a good command? God’s word doesn’t return empty. Just because I don’t know the reasoning, which is lost in history, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know. My guess is that Moses and the people understood this in a way I can’t, that it made sense in the situation. I have heard numerous explanations, and I can’t claim any one as definite. The fact that someone turned it into idolatry down the road doesn’t indicate that the command itself was bad. We are idol making machines. We make idols.
Was This a Good Question?
Perhaps I could word that differently. Should we ask this kind of question of God’s actions? Should we not just assume that God’s command is good?
I would suggest that this is an excellent question. If you don’t ask this kind of question of a story in scripture, you can’t really learn from it. Simply appending a moral that says, “God said it, so it’s good,” doesn’t involve much learning.
There are commands in scripture that are much more troubling, I think, and we need to be prepared to examine and see what we can learn.
I’ve appreciated the work of Brevard Childs since I first encountered him via his Isaiah volume in the Old Testament Library series.I just finished with the first section in his Exodus volume (see below), and I have to say that I find it even better. Childs takes note of source and redactional issues, but subordinates them to hearing the text as a part of the canon.
Sections view the text in its Old Testament/Hebrew Bible context, its New Testament use, history of exegesis and finally theological reflections.
Admittedly, many pastors would find it difficult to follow all the material, but the time taken to think both broadly and deeply about a passage will produce a reward in understanding and the ability to share one’s reflections with others.
I may review this book when I have read it through, but the start was so rewarding that I wanted to comment immediately.
Many years ago, more years than I will admit to, I went into a Jewish book and supply store and requested a copy of the “Hebrew Old Testament.” I recall vividly the look on the store clerk’s face, and I apologized, but it’s not an error that you can recover from easily. To a Jew, of course, it’s the Bible, not the first part of it that must be finished with another text in another language.
Many Christians are unaware, or only vaguely aware of how their faith relates to the Hebrew scriptures, and thus it is very easy to be offensive in one’s language without intending to. Unfortunately, there are those who will be intentionally offensive.
Over the years I changed my terminology. I didn’t actually abandon the term “old testament,” but I took up a somewhat complicated usage, one I have to explain regularly. That doesn’t bother me, as I believe that in explaining it, I invite my Christian audiences to think about things they may not have considered before.
That’s what I’m going to do here. First, the terms.
- Old Testament – I use this when, and only when, I’m referring to these books as part of Christian scripture. For reasons I will expand on below, I believe that a sacred text differs according to the way it is used, and only fully functions as part of a faith community.
- Jewish Bible – I use this term less frequently, and largely when I’m going to quote actual Jewish scholars expressing their views. I have found that studying the Jewish Bible using commentaries and other tools produced by Jewish scholars of various branches of Judaism is powerful and very helpful to me, but I prefer not to have people think I am expressing the Jewish point of view in other than a limited sense.
- Hebrew Scriptures – Though I didn’t know it, this was what I set out to study when I chose to major in biblical languages. By Hebrew scriptures I refer to these same books as Ancient Near Eastern literature and look to read them as such literature, looking for their historical setting and meaning. Some assume that one can simply read ancient texts and move directly to their applicability to a modern setting, but that is precisely what requires a community of faith and a hermeneutic process. A hermeneutic process cannot be validated, in my view, apart from a community of faith. I use this term when I do not intend application to the present but rather to discuss how the text was used and understood at a time in history.
Some would suggest either that Jewish or Christian interpreters have the right process of interpretation and application, while the other fails. Now it’s likely that various of us are wrong about some things and right about things, and I believe in objective truth, but it is difficult to call things right or wrong without also considering the community of faith that’s involved. We would have to talk about whether a whole community was right or wrong, and that’s even more difficult!
Some Christians may be wondering at this point whether I believe in evangelism and disciple making. I do. I just don’t believe that those things are about intellectual persuasion. Rather, conversion is an act of God, not an act of persuasion. Saul on the road to Damascus did not encounter an intellectual argument. He had a powerful encounter with the one he would call Lord and Savior. Other experiences may take more time and be more subtle, but I think no less an act of God.
A key note here: Christian witness must come from Christian community. This is a major problem for the church today. In fact, the community of faith is central to interpretation, application, and therefore to witness.
Reading as Ancient Near Eastern Literature
When I started my studies in biblical languages and literature, it was my expectation that I would learn the history, determine the historical context of any verse or story, and the intended lesson, which would allow me to correctly and objectively apply that lesson to my time and situation. The reality? Not so much!
As an example, I often use two texts from Leviticus in teaching about hermeneutics to lay audiences. The are:
- “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)
- “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you, you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV)
The results are often interesting with current American audiences. I’ve been using these two verses for years and I have seen no real change, other than differences based on the demographics of the audience I use it on. There will be people who are willing to accept both, but there are only a few of those. There are many who want Leviticus 18:22 to be applicable but not Leviticus 19:33-34, and those who want 19:33-34 to be applicable but not 18:22. Those who have thought through that application and provided a hermeneutic that can be consistently applied to texts are few and far between.
Doubtless among my readers there are those who have thought these verses through and can explain their use of one, both, or neither in determining modern theology. If you have done so, you are engaging in hermeneutics, and you most certainly have been influenced by your faith community.
For example, many Christians will claim that Jesus or other New Testament authors have reaffirmed one text or the other. Others may feel that one fits with Christian values better. Others may try to discuss cultural applicability.
Yet others will say, “The Bible says it, and I believe it.” That, of course, is problematic in Leviticus, especially for Christians. We don’t do most of what Leviticus tells us to do. If you doubt me on that, read Leviticus 11 & 13. There are many more examples, but that one will do. In this case, though different filters are used, Jews don’t expect gentiles to keep all of those rules. They have a very limited set that come from outside this portion of the Torah that would apply to us. Christians have a different filter. The key here is that we both have a filter.
Thus my goal was not realistic. The process of study was, however, quite useful. There is a value in historical study. It just doesn’t convert without difficulty into application.
Reading as the Jewish Bible
So working in reverse, I look at the term Jewish Bible.
The key element here is Judaism as a community of faith. I don’t mean that we try to tell just what is correct Judaism. I have found great value in works from quite different branches of Judaism. I continue now, many years after I did the study, to consider studying Leviticus with Jacob Milgrom’s commentary in the Anchor Bible Series as the most profound spiritual experience of my life. But I have benefited from discussions with Reform and Orthodox scholars and from reading their books. Nahum Sarna’s works, and particularly the JPS Torah commentary series which he edited is another extremely valuable source. (You can find many of these titles and others in the Energion retail store page on Torah.)
We need to read the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish book because …
- It is a book given to Israel and preserved by them. Paul makes the Christian affirmation of this in Romans 3:1-2 and elsewhere.
- We might learn to understand the text better. Because the books of Hebrew scripture have been borrowed and reused we have the benefit of seeing it from different perspectives. This is an advantage no matter what one is trying to do. One of the great features of Jacob Milgrom’s Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus is that he looks at the history of interpretation including Christian and secular looks at the text.
- If we are to affirm the Jews as God’s chosen people, then at a minimum we should have some idea who they are and what they believe.
- It’s a great joy to do it!
Reading as Christian Scripture
There are a couple of fundamental points we need to keep in mind in studying the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament of Christian scripture. First, we need the other views. It is impossible to understand where people were in the first century as Christianity came into being without looking at how those people would have seen it. Second, because our scripture is so seriously rooted in Hebrew scripture—even the term “New Testament” comes from the Old—we need to understand these roots.
Regarding the first point, I am often annoyed by Christians who make remarks such as, “Jesus is so clearly taught in the Old Testament! How can the Jews not see this?” And yes, the Apostle Paul can get on my nerves. He should remember that he had to be pretty much struck by lightning to change his mind. He shows the zeal of a convert on this point. But those of us who have not been struck by lightning should be aware of the interpretive problems, and also of what Jewish interpretations are. Besides the Jewish commentaries I use, I keep a copy of the Jewish Study Bible from Oxford University Press at hand for quick reference.
Those who use Paul’s writings in an antisemitic sense should both be aware of his own attitude at the time and also of the difference between our time and his. That is also hermeneutics. “Paul did it, so I can,” is not a safe statement in a world that has changed. Paul spoke to a group that had not truly separated from Judaism at the time. We speak to a world in which persecution of the Jews has been rampant and vicious. What might he say regarding his “brothers and sisters, his fellow countrymen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3)? Or how might Jesus address descendants of the Pharisees in the light of what his self-proclaimed followers have done in the meantime?
At the same time, I read the whole Christian Bible, including both testaments as Christian scripture and as the core of my faith. As one of my Energion authors, Edward Vick noted, (see Creation: The Christian Doctrine), the key to something being a Christian doctrine is that it centers in Christ. He makes that statement even clearer in his book Seventh-day Adventists and the Bible when he said:
God’s decisive revelation is in the events the Bible records and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All Christian revelation has Jesus Christ as its point of reference, since God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is the event from which Christians interpret all history and all experience. The problem for the Seventh-day Adventist church is to make Jesus Christ central and primary in this way in its doctrine. The problem for the theologian and for the framers of church doctrine is to interpret the Bible, life, practice, doctrine, so that the centrality and primacy of Jesus Christ comes decisively and clearly to view…. (p. 5)
He is addressing his own denomination, but the point applies to any Christian group, I believe.
Thus I read the Bible unabashedly Christocentrically as a Christian. My doctrine forms around the person, mission, and teachings of Jesus. At the same time, I have no need to deride other approaches, nor should I be unable to discuss those other elements from a compatible point of view. Someone who does not accept Christ, as I do, is unlikely to be interested in the “centrality and primacy of Jesus Christ.” Yet we can discuss the text.
Failure to recognize differences in our approach to hermeneutics is at the root of many of our most fierce and least constructive discussions.
A Note about Certainty
At this point, I need to make a note regarding thinking people are wrong. Any time one thinks one is right, one necessarily thinks those who disagree are wrong. We get into problems because we then look down on those who disagree with us, holding positions contrary to our obvious truth. I think this sort of behavior is both unnecessary and does not indicate confidence, but uncertainty.
In all areas of life, I think there are two goals: 1) We must seek truth in some sense, and 2) We must be able to maintain community (faith, local, national, and world) while still disagreeing. I think it is unfortunate when we feel we have to smooth over our differences in order to get along. We should instead celebrate our differences and dialogue about them so that we can improve.
I consider efforts to force change to be counterproductive. The best way of constructively changing anyone’s view on anything is respectful dialogue. Being respectful doesn’t mean abandoning your principles. It means listening attentively and courteously and clearly explaining your viewpoint. Contrary to popular option, it is not the noisiest who are firmest in their convictions. Only one who is confident in what he or she believes, including sufficient confidence to recognize and admit the unknown, can get the most out of dialogue.
So How Old Is It?
The problem with the word “old” is that we tend to see it in negative terms such as out of date, obsolete, and requiring replacement. That is whenever we’re not fantasizing about a golden age that never actually existed. In the case of the Old Testament, Christian theology works against making it a golden age. Why would we have a new testament if the old one was a golden age?
I’ve discussed this extensively with reference to the book of Hebrews, which has the statement, rather unfortunate when taken out of context (as it usually is), that “what is becoming old is soon to disappear” (8:13) is sometimes used to suggest that the Old Testament is no longer applicable and in some cases hardly worth studying. If it’s obsolete, why red it?
I’m not going to go into a study of Hebrews, but let me simply say that if the author of Hebrews thinks the Old Testament (as a collections of books) is obsolete, he has cut the limb off behind him, as he bases all his arguments on texts from that same Old Testament. He has other concerns.
And that is my first problem with the term “Old Testament.” The books of the Hebrew scriptures do not constitute a covenant or testament. They contain more than one such covenant. So if Hebrews, or any other passage of the New Testament refers to the passing of the “old covenant,” they aren’t referring to all the books of Hebrew scripture.
The division of the Christian Bible into Old and New Testaments tends to create some errors. I should note that it also presents an important division. What did we borrow from someone else and what did we add? That’s a good distinction. It might be more accurately presented in other ways.
It would help if Christians recognized the Jewish divisions, Torah, Prophets, and Writings. The covenant with Israel is stated in the Torah, and a great deal of the rest is dedicated to discussing how to keep that covenant, or proposing God’s new covenant (yes, I mean new). “New covenant” (or testament) is not a New Testament idea. Jeremiah 31:31-34. This proposed new covenant differs from the old one largely in the enabling grace given to people to keep it. The main problem with the old one, a problem that might be seen to make it obsolete, is the failure of Israel to keep it.
Which leads to another Christian problem. We often look at the experience of Israel with disdain. How could they be so unfaithful? Why didn’t they just keep the covenant God had given them? Why turn to other gods? We do all of this while we turn away from God and ignore what God has commanded ourselves. We would be well advised to heed Paul’s command in Romans 11:20, “put away your pride and be on your guard,” which he gives precisely in reference to this attitude of superiority.
My next problem is simply with the view of “old” that we often hold, as though God’s later acts are better than his former acts. People and circumstances change, but I believe that God’s aims stay pretty much the same. The covenant with Israel expresses accurately God’s desire for his chosen people, Israel. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, but we should remember who it was addressed to. I would suggest that one of the key elements of that covenant was to establish an identity for Israel, an identity that was necessary to allow them to carry out their mission. I would suggest that goal was carried out with great success. More than 3000 years later we hear the echo of this in Tevye’s remark in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” The Jews have a very strong identity.
While we may not be subject to the same regulations, we still need an identity as God’s people. There is a history here that we need to learn. The covenant is, in a sense, as old as the hills and as new as tomorrow, because God is still looking for ways to get his message out to the world.
So the Old Testament needs to be seen not as a single entity that has become obsolete or been replaced, but as the witness to God’s activity which has been continued in other ways. If we pay attention to this, we may be able to better understand some of the goals of the New Testament.
But even further, the New Testament itself doesn’t come in a single package. It is also a collection of books that looks at the witness of Jesus, the witness to Jesus, and the vision of the future of God’s world. Without understanding this background, we are unlikely to understand what New Testament writers were up to, because we don’t know where they are coming from.
Despite my wordiness, I have left much untouched.
How old is the Old Testament? As old as the hills and as new as tomorrow.
How old is the New Testament? As old as the hills and as new as tomorrow.
Both are rooted in and lead to eternity.
We ought not to discard either.