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What’s Old about the Old Testament?

What’s Old about the Old Testament?

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.

My Terminology

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Reading Stories: Jonah, Ruth, and Esther

Reading Stories: Jonah, Ruth, and Esther

ruth-esther-jonahI just posted my interview with Bruce Epperly about his new book Jonah: When God Changes on the Energion Discussion Network. I’m going to embed it here as well. I want to call attention to it along with Bruce’s next most recent (!) book Ruth & Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure.

Sometimes we get different pictures of God from the narratives of scripture than we do from the affirmations. I don’t think the narrative should be neglected. We often geld the narrative in order to keep it from challenging our existing perceptions of God. But those perceptions frequently are desperately in need of a challenge.

What happens when the good guy finds himself on the wrong side of everything (Jonah)? What if two Jewish characters survive in a foreign court in completely different ways (Daniel and Esther)? What if there’s a woman in David’s genealogy (and in Jesus’s) that really shouldn’t be there? Can a perfect, sovereign God regret things? If not, what actually happens at the beginning of Genesis 6?

Here’s my interview with Bruce Epperly:

And here’s Louis Armstrong’s Jonah and the Whale, just for fun:

The Old Testament: Serious Illness, Strong Medicine

The Old Testament: Serious Illness, Strong Medicine

9781893729902I ran across this while looking for something else. Dr. Alden Thompson was the author of the first book sold by Energion Publications, though it was published before I bought and renamed the company. We’ve now published a 5th edition, and this is overall our best selling book.

In this presentation Alden using a number of Adventist specific references, but I think the message comes through. There are a variety of responses to the violence in the Old Testament. One of the keys to Alden’s approach is his insistence that it is all inspired, even the parts we don’t like very much, and he makes that claim in the video. Alden’s teaching at Walla Walla University was quite formative of my theology and I still enjoy working with him. We’ll be releasing a second edition of his book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers later this year, as the publisher of the first edition allowed it to go out of print.

Preaching from the Old Testament

Preaching from the Old Testament

violence and scripture booksNo, I’m not going to do it, but I’m going to ask Dr. Bob Cornwall some questions about it. He’s currently preaching a series in his church from 1st & 2nd Samuel. Bob is one of my Energion authors (see his book list here), and is editor of the two book series we publish in cooperation with the Academy of Parish Clergy, Conversations in Ministry and Guides to Practical Ministry. You can find more information about this event on its Google+ event page.

I’m going to ask Bob how he handles the authority of the text he is preaching from, and especially whether he will deal with some of the more violent passages and how he will preach from them. There are quite a number of passages in the books of Samuel that could be very troubling to a 21st century conversation.

This morning, I was reading one of those: 1 Samuel 15. You can read the whole thing if you want to get a general picture, but let me just summarize here. God tells Samuel to pass the order to Saul, King of Israel, that he should go and wipe out the Amalekites. He is supposed to designate them as herem, meaning that they are devoted to destruction, every person, every creature, every thing is to be destroyed. And lest we be tempted to soften the story, we are told that this included men, women, and even nursing babies.

Saul disobeys God and doesn’t kill everyone. The best of the animals are preserved, and the king is taken captive. Saul blames this on the people. God blames Saul and says he has cut Saul off (or at least Samuel says God says this) from being king over Israel. This story opens the cycle of stories about the conflict between David and Saul, which ends with Saul’s death in battle and David’s accession to the kingdom.

I have heard this story handled in a number of ways:

  1. Get a modern lesson from it, ignore the gory details, and hope nobody notices. I remember hearing it in my early years taught as a story about obedience. When God tells you to do something, you better do it. When I did ask about the killing, I was told that it was God, so it was OK.
  2. Emphasize the gory details. We’ve all become too cowardly to truly uphold God’s will in the world. (Yes, I’ve actually heard this.) We can just hope folks like this aren’t too serious.
  3. Some things in the Bible are less inspired than others, and this is one of the less inspired. Bloodthirsty people did bloodthirsty things and blamed God.
  4. When people lived in a violent world God worked within their context. So things that might be commanded then could be forbidden now, not because God has changed but because he is staying the same, and working with us where we are.
  5. The Old Testament God was violent. That’s why we stick with the New Testament. (If you take this approach, you should likely avoid texts like most of Revelation and Acts 5:1-11.)
  6. Let’s never read this in church and hope nobody notices.

I could probably come up with some more given time. I’ll be interested to see how Bob Cornwall handles the text. He’s both a good preacher and accomplished scholar, so I expect his comments to be helpful.

In the meantime, two things. Following a challenge on a similar text, I wrote two blog posts. The first was a story/dialogue discussing the text, titled The God-Talk Club and the She Bears, on my Jevlir Caravansary fiction blog. (In the God-Talk Club series I write dialogue without any intention of expressing my own point of view. It’s sort of an exercise for me in trying to express several views on a topic.) The second was a homily on the same passage, titled Real Guy Interpretation.

Finally, I recently interviewed two authors, Allan Bevere, author of a book based on a series of Old Testament sermons he preached titled The Character of Our Discontent, and Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m embedding that video below.

Discussion Tonight: Violence in the Bible

Discussion Tonight: Violence in the Bible

violence banner

On the Energion Hangout tonight at 7:00 PM central time, we’ll be discussing the topic of violence in the Bible, with a particular emphasis on the Old Testament. But as participant Dr. Alden Thompson will doubtless remind us tonight, there’s violence in the New Testament as well. Alden Thompson is author of the very first title in the Energion catalog, now in its 5th edition, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. Joining Alden will be Dr. Allan Bevere, author of The Character of Our Discontent, a book that resulted from his decision to preach from the Old Testament more, even though he’s a New Testament scholar.

I’ve known Alden Thompson for a long time. He was my professor for two years of undergraduate Hebrew and for my first quarter of Aramaic. It is no accident that Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? was first in the Energion catalog. It was out of print and I ask to reissue it because I wanted to use it in my own teaching.

I would say, in fact, that Alden is one of the major reasons why, despite all the doubts I’ve had over the years, I’m still a Christian. No, he didn’t prevent me from leaving the church following seminary, and I’m no longer a member of the same denomination, but the kinds of approaches to the various problems in both biblical studies and theology have stuck with me. In addition, I use some of the approaches he teaches, both to inspiration and to dealing with diversity in the church, quite frequently.

Alden takes a kind and gentle approach to working with those who disagree, no matter what their perspective. He’s careful with questioners’ faith, while still being willing to take their questions seriously.

I met Allan Bevere more recently, through the medium of blogging and then of print publishing, but I’ve also developed a friendship with him. Allan takes orthodox Christian doctrine seriously and is a pastor first and foremost. He is also an adjunct professor, and helps prepare other pastors.

Tonight I intend to challenge both these scholars regarding difficult passages of scripture. Can we bypass the violence? Can we look at some aspects of scripture as just plain wrong? If not, how do we deal with such passages as Numbers 31?

I think this discussion will be lively and lots of fun!

If you prefer YouTube:

On Violence and Suffering

On Violence and Suffering

9781893729902fMy friend and Energion author Allan Bevere posted this morning on this topic, and I want to call attention to it for several reasons. First, this is a topic I find very interesting. Second, I think it’s appropriate to discuss the problems of violence and suffering together at some points. Third, I don’t think that emphasizing a distinction between the Old and New Testaments really solves the problem. It ditches some texts, so if your plan is to explain things away text by text you make your task easier. But the basic issues remain the same.

I also was reading my own book notes on Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem. Ehrman tends to set a lot of people off, but I don’t find him all that annoying. Do I disagree? Yes, in many ways. But that just makes life interesting. Recently, I published a book on this topic, Bruce Epperly’s Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job. It’s interesting to see what different results people get from reading the same material. Note that Epperly is a progressive Christian and his approach illustrates one of the problems in religious dialog: We dialog with one group and it is applied to a much broader group. I used Waltke in my notes (link above), and Waltke definitely takes a different approach from that of Ehrman. Yet so does Epperly, and it’s a different different approach.

Then there’s the book Allan is reading, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? As the publisher, I’m obviously very happy with that book, but I should add that Alden Thompson was my undergraduate advisor and taught me Hebrew (2nd & 3rd year). The fourth edition of the book was also the first title released by Energion Publications.

Now, to add to the fun, we’re planning a discussion between Allan Bevere (The Character of Our Discontent), Alden Thompson, and myself. It’s scheduled for June 2, 2015. Watch for more information here or on any of my social media feeds.

 

Old Testament Violence Discussion

Old Testament Violence Discussion

Allan R. Bevere is hosting a response from L. Daniel Hawk to Adam Hamilton’s three part series on the violence of God in the Old Testament. It’s a topic I find fascinating. I’m going to wait for detailed comment until I’ve read all of Dr. Hawk’s response. But I can tell you what I’m looking for in two quotes.

In Adam Hamilton’s second part he states:

… If we understand the Bible as having been essentially dictated by God, then yes, we have no choice but to accept what is written as accurately describing God’s actions and God’s will. But if we recognize the Bible’s humanity—that it was written by human beings whose understanding and experience of God was shaped by their culture, their theological assumptions, and the time in which they lived—then we might be able to say, “In this case, the biblical authors were representing what they believed about God rather than what God actually inspired them to say.” …

Note that this is extracted from the middle of a paragraph which may contain pointers to how Hamilton would answer the question. I have not read his book. But the issue that this statement raises with me is this: Do we have an adequate hermeneutic that will allow us to discern God’s will and purpose from the human-divine mix? In my experience, very frequently those who say this do not. Note that I’m very definitely one who says that the Bible is a divine-human combination, using an incarnational model. But that combination (not mix), is all present by divine will. Why are those violent passages present? How do I learn from this?

Dr. Hawk, on the other hand says this:

Here’s the main flaw in this line of reasoning. Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis? This is a slippery business to say the least, and especially so when historically-oriented interpreters attempt to ground their decisions by discerning the intent of ancient authors and redactors. While we have learned a great deal about the historical and cultural environments of the ancient world, we cannot even today confidently locate the composition of most texts in a particular historical and social context. Furthermore, our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives.

This time I at least quoted a full paragraph. And what’s my problem with this? Well, in my experience both sides pick and choose and then accuse the other of doing so. There is not only choosing what we accept as relevant, but we need to choose just how some particular passage is relevant. I’m going to wait for the rest, but I doubt Dr. Hawk is suggesting otherwise. Nonetheless statements like ” … our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives” tend to get me on edge, because I am so frequently then told that either we must then accept the orthodox interpretation (also selected by the speaker), or that we must essentially give up on discerning the meaning. I have some confidence that Dr. Hawk isn’t headed that direction, yet paragraphs such as this raise an attention flag for me. I ask here again just how we will discern the message God intended, and discussing the obscurity of it can drive people away just as much as the attempt to discard the humanity.

I’ll say more when I’ve read the final post. I may have to read a couple of books as well, considering that what both of these men are saying comes from much more extended works on the topic.

Two Old Testament Books (or Preach More from the Old Testament)

Two Old Testament Books (or Preach More from the Old Testament)

My company is offering special prices on all our books related to the Old Testament. I decided to blog a bit about the books we’re offering. So if you don’t want to hear about books that are for sale, this one isn’t for you. On the other hand, I promise to be wordy, tell stories, and fail to get to the point for paragraphs at a time. As usual! And by the way, this got started because we’ve put Ecclesiastes: A Participatory Study Guide, the first in the series on an Old Testament book, on pre-order. Look for it in mid-November. I’ll talk about it later in the week.

This morning I was thinking about two books, because they relate so closely to my own Christian experience and to a weakness I see in the church and the way we teach the Bible. The first is by one of my college professors, Dr. Alden Thompson. He guided me through my second and third year of Hebrew as well as any number of questions that arose. I never did take an introduction to the Old Testament, though I took several Old Testament courses other than Hebrew, but I did dig into the theology enough to keep the discussion lively.

Alden is primarily concerned with getting Christians to study the Old Testament more, and with letting people know that you can find God’s story of grace there as well as in the New Testament. His book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, was released after I graduated, but I read it with great interest, and when I was invited to teach later in a Methodist church, I found it was no longer in print. I got some remaindered copies from him, and then later got permission to issue two different comb bound editions. These got me through a number of classes, but we referred to one of them as the “unfortunate edition.” This was also before Energion Publications had come into existence.

We issued a fourth edition, properly printed and bound, though the printer did not produce the best quality work. I purchased several thousand of those books from another organization I’d been working with and used that as the starting point for Energion Publications. So Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (now in its fifth edition) is a key part of the history of the company.

Alden’s focus can be found in two stories, I think. When I first contacted him about his book, some 20 years after we had last talked, his first question, before he wanted to talk about books, was this: “How are things with your soul?” Authors tend to care about their books, especially if there’s an opportunity to get them reprinted. But that was his first thought. Later, when he came to teach at Pine Forest United Methodist Church here in Pensacola, he told the group that the measure of his success as a teacher would be whether he left them loving God and one another more than when he came. I like that.

The book itself can be mildly (or more than mildly) controversial, as one would expect of a book that has chapters covering Judges 19-21 (read it if you don’t understand why), and another on the Messianic prophecies. It’s easy to generate an argument on those topics. But I’ve seen a lot of people spending more time with their Old Testaments after hearing Alden speak about it. If nothing else, his enthusiasm for the topic draws people in.

The second book is related, though it comes more from my present than my past. It’s written by Methodist pastor and seminary professor Allan R. Bevere. It’s based on sermons he preached from the Old Testament. Now there are those who are turned off by collections of sermons. I like them, provided they are good sermons that serve a purpose, and that they apply to a broad audience. The book is The Character of Our Discontent, I think this book has not gotten the attention it deserves. The vast majority of times that I hear sermons from the lectionary, the text is from the gospel lesson. Now I don’t have any problem preaching from the gospels. But I don’t think people will understand the whole story if they don’t get the background to the gospels by learning from the Bible Jesus used.

So I’d see two purposes to this book. First, it can be read for devotional reading. I’d take an essay at a time. You’ll find your spiritual life growing when your devotionals don’t just come from the Sermon on the Mount, but also take in characters like Samson and texts from books such as Leviticus or Ezekiel. But second, if you’re a pastor, consider looking at this pattern of presenting material from the Old Testament.

And unlike Alden Thompson, Allan Bevere is a New Testament scholar. Just because you specialize in the New Testament doesn’t mean you can’t include preaching from the Old. You may even have some special perspective.

 

 

On Character, Discontent, and the Old Testament

On Character, Discontent, and the Old Testament

I have somewhat of a tradition of reflecting somewhere on my blogs about books I am about to publish. So today I want to look at Allan R. Bevere’s new book The Character of Our Discontent.

Allan is a primarily New Testament trained preacher who has decided to take on some major passages in the Old Testament in preaching to his congregation. In turn, he has collected them to share with others.

My friend Alden Thompson, who is author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, also from my company, generally leads off weekends of discussion of the Old Testament with a litany of the reasons that people don’t like the Old Testament. He then takes a look at the Old Testament in the New, and especially in the teachings of Jesus and then he’ll say something like: “So you may not like the Old Testament, but Jesus did!” Now he says it so nicely that nobody is offended, but he certainly catches people’s attention.

I specialized in Hebrew and ancient near eastern literature, so I tend to lean toward the Old Testament in my own study and teaching. But amongst those who teach outside the seminary, that is all too rare.

I had a conversation just days before I accepted this manuscript for publication. A pastor with many years of experience lamented the lack of collections of good sermons, sermons that could provide an example to new preachers. I had to agree with him. In my experience, many people end up as pastors with much too limited knowledge and experience in some of the basics. I think preaching is better taught in most seminaries than subjects such as prayer, spiritual gifts, or even church management, but nonetheless there is a great value in having more material that covers some of the basics. So I found this combination irresistible, even though sermon collections often have poor track records for sales.

There are two values in this collection that I want to emphasize. First, these sermons introduce some Old Testament characters and situations in a way that is easy to understand. They are worth reading on their own. This book isn’t heavy reading. You could read one of these sermons for a quite reasonable devotional. Second, they provide examples for people who may be afraid to start preaching from the Old Testament because they didn’t specialize in it. Now these are not sermons that come from hasty or light preparation. What they are is solid sermons that come from a non-specialist who put in the time to produce a good sermon on each topic.

The presentation is easy to follow. The illustrations are good and to the point. You’ll find yourself directed to some good resources as you read. Allan doesn’t try to solve all the problems of Old Testament interpretation. What he does is apply some of the principles and lessons of these passages to the people found in the pews today.

I’ve mentioned some books that I agonized over before publishing. I’ve even had some I expected would offend some folks. I didn’t have to agonize over this one. I was certain almost from the start that I was going to publish it. Oh, it might offend you in some places, though if so I’d take it as conviction. Some of those Old Testament characters provide quite a challenge to our very un-heavenly way of life here in the American church.

So if you’ve been neglecting the Old Testament, here’s a chance to remedy that situation. My wife tells me that she feels that before she started getting involved in reading and studying the Old Testament she feels she was missing out on half the power God had for her in his Word.

Or, as Dave Black said in commenting on the release of The Character of Our Discontent:

An Old Testament-neglecting Christian is a contradiction in terms.

Book Notes: Theology of the Old Testament (Brueggemann)

Book Notes: Theology of the Old Testament (Brueggemann)

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-8006-3087-4.

As is usual, note that I’m calling this book notes, and to some extent a response, rather than a review. That is more necessary in this case than most because the book is not aimed at a popular audience, and I am not a theologian, much less a specialist in Old Testament theology, and thus not qualified to write a formal review. I’d also be rather late, given publication in 1997!

That’s one of the key things that struck me while reading this book–the rather substantial difference between Biblical exegesis and even hermeneutics used in its broadest sense and theology. To many, the term “theology” simply refers to any kind of religious studies, but as a technical term it is much more specific than that.

For example, I can study Isaiah or Ezekiel, look at their historical situation, inquire as to the meaning of particular texts and passages, view them sociologically as a phenomenon of their time(s), and yet not get down to their theology, what they said or tried to say about God. In fact, it’s not even quite that simple, in that one can dispute whether theology is primarily a study about God, or more a study of what certain people said about God.

In the case of Old Testament theology the question gets thornier, as one asks whether one is studying about God, what individual authors had to say about God, or an overall Old Testament view of God. To divide this further, is one studying the “Old Testament”, which has a name indicating its an element of Christian scripture, or is one studying the Hebrew Bible, in which case one’s study lenses might be quite different. One can even differentiate, I think, between studying the Hebrew Bible as Israelite theology as opposed to Jewish theology, modern Rabbinic Judaism being different from Israelite religion.

Several elements of my immediate past reading came into play as I read this volume. First, through an accident of how interlibrary loan books arrive, I read Brueggemann’s work shortly after that of Bruce Waltke. It is nearly impossible to compare the two books, though I will try. First, Waltke writes at a more basic level. Neither work is popular, but Waltke’s would more suitably address beginning students in theology than would Brueggemann.

Waltke is more conservative and traditional. In fact, despite his conservative credentials, Waltke gives more credit to historical-critical methologies than does Brueggemann, though it would be hard to nail that down. Both give some credit to the methodologies, and both criticize them. Despite statements regarding such methodologies, however, I think Brueggemann was more dependent on the results. The division of Isaiah into at least First (1-35[36-39]) and Second (40-55 or 40-66) Isaiah, and possibly Third Isaiah (56-66) is a critical element of Brueggemann’s theology, which he places at the time of the exile. Situating those texts elsewhere, for example in the traditional dating, would make a hash of his theological plan which assumes formation of the canon around the experience of the exile. That is, of course, one of the more obvious results of critical scholarship, but I think it demonstrates that no matter how much we may want to escape the historical questions, it is impossible to do so. More minor examples abound throughout the book.

In addition, Waltke’s form, which includes individual theologies of the various books, as well as basic introductory material, would work well for a textbook for those without a strong background in Old Testament. Brueggemann, on the other hand, would not be suitable for students who had not worked through a good Old Testament introduction first.

There was only one negative for me about this book, so I’m going to mention it first. A great deal of the post-modern vocabulary simply gets on my nerves. This may be a personal problem, as I was generally agreeing with the major points made, but I found the vocabulary a bit heavy in comparison to the freight it was carrying. Frequently, I would find that a passage that was quite convoluted in form, and mega-multi-syllabic in vocabulary, produced a fairly straightforward point. (Note to self: Do I do this unto others???) This included the double metaphor of testimony and grammar around which the book is woven. On the other hand, while many of the points were simple and straightforward, they were simultaneously quite profound.

The organizing metaphor of the book is stated in the subtitle: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Brueggemann reads the Old Testament as Israel’s testimony regarding Yahweh. That oversimplifies it a bit, so let me expand. He sees Israel testifying in various voices, and he places this specifically as courtroom testimony. (Please leave all atonement theories out of this; the purpose is different!) In a courtroom an attorney weaves a case out of the testimony of many people, no one of which knows the whole case, but each of which has some piece to add. They may not all meet smoothly at the edges, but the attorney making the case pulls them together.

Well, not so much with the pulling it together part. Though he uses the metaphor, Brueggemann does not pretend to pull Old Testament theology into a coherent whole in the sense of making a unified case about God. Thus he avoids my usual criticism of Biblical theology, which is to say that the more systematic the theology, the less Biblical. The Bible is simply not systematic in its theology. He uses the term “thematization” as opposed to “systematization” in what may be one of the most profound suggestions of the book.

He does this by first looking at Israel’s core testimony. I would note again, in passing, that in locating Israel’s core testimony, Brueggemann is most dependent on historical criticism. He then responds with Israel’s countertestimony. This is a very helpful approach, because there is a tension in scripture between the testimony of who God is and how God is experienced. We talk about loving heavenly parent, and at the same time experience the times of God’s silence and even abandonment.

Israel’s experience in the exile testifies against their core testimony that God is eternally faithful and will not abandon them. It’s profoundly important in understanding Israelite theology, I think, to recognize that many of the strongest proclamations of the faithfulness of Yahweh to Israel were made in the face of actual experience. Some of the strongest statements come from Second Isaiah, for example, and are made from exile in Babylon. This countertestimony is discussed in the second section, from page 317-403.

Part III discusses Israel’s unsolicited testimony, following the same courtroom metaphor, in which a witness adds things that he things are important, but which were not requested in order to make the original case. The key theme here is partnership, along with the suggestion that Israel comes to demand of God the faithfulness reflected in the core testimony. Brueggeman sees Israel in exile essentially waking God up to his obligations.

I think this latter point, which is intricately woven into the book through the testimony metaphor, is quite important. Theologians, especially of the more systematic type, often subjugate the actual statements in the text to the demands of the theological system. For example, God can’t possibly change is mind (Genesis 6:6 / repent) or forget something and then remember it (Genesis 8:1). People can’t really be righteous, as was Job. So we try to make the text mean something else. Brueggemann let’s it say what it says, even in some cases where that grates.

In a final section, Brueggemann discusses how the testimony is embodied, looking at worship, the canon, kings, priests, and so forth. This is probably the most straightforward section of the book, but is a necessary effort to tie things together.

One point Brueggemann attempts to avoid is reading the Old Testament through supercessionist eyes. He does not see Christianity as a necessary result of Israelite religion as would Eichrodt, for example. He also resists the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament that is espoused by Brevard Childs, with his canonical approach. I would have to say, however, that Childs does have a very strong point to make, in that if one’s canon includes the New Testament, there is no way to conduct canonical criticism without seeing Old Testament passages as part of that canon.

My own solution here is to use two terms. I use “Hebrew Bible” when looking at it as a document of the historical Israelite religion, and “Old Testament” only when reading it as an element of Christian canon. I believe one’s reading in those two cases is sufficiently different that one must practically regard the source as two different books. Though they contain the same words, those words take on a sufficiently different meaning that dangerous confusion results from pretending they are the same.

I still regard both uses as legitimate, however, because I see canon as a product of community, rather than the reverse. Each book had its own place in history, but when they are made into a canon, they change roles. This applies even to smaller sections. Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah, read as part of the canon, make very different points from what they would read as individual texts from their own historical time.

In general, I found this book useful, but it also made me quite glad that I specialize more in exegesis than in theology. At the same time it reminds me of how much my role as a popularizer forces me to do theology on a daily basis no matter how I feel.