Thoughts on the First Testament

by Steve Kindle

IlliteracyOne of my “Pastoral Theology” professors remarked, “You can never underestimate the biblical illiteracy of a congregation.” This has proven true in all of the congregations I have served from Fundamentalist to Progressive. (Yes, I was once a Fundamentalist.) It is a continuing problem.
I just completed nearly a year leading a survey course of the Old Testament for the congregation I attend. We went from Genesis to Malachi, spending about one session on each book. The point was to familiarize the students with the overall content and meaning of each book, not to examine them in depth. In the Fall, we will do the same with the New Testament. The following represents some of the thoughts I took away from this.
In graduate school, I was exposed to the many attempts to organize the Old Testament around a unifying theme. For Walther Eichrodt the Sinai covenant was the lens through which to interpret the canon. For Gerhard von Rad it was what he called Heilsgeschichte, or “Salvation History.” Bernard Ramm saw in the Old Testament a “type/antitype” that connects it with the New Testament, and John Goldingay looks at the thread of grace that runs through the Testament. Walter Brueggemann, on the other hand, eschews any effort to organize the Testament by means of a unifying theme. For him, there is none, and in fact, the pluralism of the Testament is its greatest asset, allowing interpreters the freedom to imagine new possibilities in the text.
I think it is realistic to say that the search for a unifying theme is over. For Evangelicals unity of theme was based on the presumption of “one author,” that is, God. Therefore, it must have a single theme. However, the presence of different points of view, in fact, views that clash and jar against one another, make the notion of one author untenable. All one needs to confirm this is to look at how the Deuteronomic theology of “faithfulness to the covenant yields prosperity,” is undermined by Ecclesiastes and Job (among others). This lends credibility to the notion that the Old Testament is a compilation of attempts by Israel to make sense of their history, attempts that differ from one another in many respects.
The humanity of the contributors comes through in many places, especially when terrible things are attributed to God, such as the several genocides recorded as God’s command. The flip side of this are the texts which overturn Mosaic excesses. One such is his ban that Moabites are not allowed to worship with Israel “to the tenth generation,” meaning never. Along comes Ruth, a Moabite who is the great great grandmother of King David, who then gives Jesus the distinction of carrying Moabite blood. Another is Moses’ command that eunuchs would also be excluded from Israelite worship. Isaiah overturns this beautifully by prophesying that eunuchs will eventually be given something better than progeny, something that will never be “cut off,” a new name. Interestingly, the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity in the Book of Act was the Ethiopian eunuch!
If you are committed to the notion that everything in the Testament must conform to everything else, these not so subtle disagreements will escape you. Brueggemann’s pluralistic understanding of the texts opens up worlds of new possibilities of understanding if we have ears to hear.
One other insight is worth noting here. Some things taken literally actually hide a deeper and likely better meaning. When the discussion of Adam and Eve is taken literally, people want to know things like where was the Garden located, where did Cain get his wife, where did all those people come from to populate the first city, and how come we can’t find the angel guarding the Tree of Life. The Bible doesn’t seem interested in answering these questions, so we shouldn’t get too exercised about them, either. That’s because taking this story literally obscures the natural meaning of a story—to tell truths beyond the details. In this case, if you substitute “humanity” for Adam and Eve, you will read about yourself, not about two primordial characters.
I think the best thing about the time spent in this survey is getting acquainted with the flow of Israelite history. Once you get past 2 Kings, the rest of the Testament is hard to situate in a time-frame. Where do you locate Isaiah, for example, or Ruth? The Minor Prophets are jumbled among the pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic periods. It became clear that preaching from the Lectionary suffers because many people can’t put the text into a context, and sermons can’t take the time to do it, either. When we started, class members didn’t know the difference between primordial time and the Exile. They do now, and if anyone in addition to them is benefited, it will be the preacher.
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9 Responses

  • A great benefit I have gained from leading people through a study of any part of the scriptures is hearing the questions as we all struggle with the text. Bible studies connect us with one another. I learn as much about me and about others as I do about God. I guess I organize the OT around the question, “What did this do for its ancient audience and how does it work in the Church, today?”

    • I like Kirk’s writing, but unfortunately he has gone over to Patheos. I tried to find this link and got two 404s and then after reconstructing it, there was so much advertisement that I could not operate my 3.6 gigahertz machine. I had to shut down the page. I am dumbfounded at such emphasis on ads.

  • Hi Steve, As always I appreciate the stimulus your post gives me to think about this somewhat impenetrable collection of texts.
    I read (scanned) recently a couple of books on the history of OT Theology (Hayes and Prussner, 1984, and Clements, A Century of OT Study 1976) that came to me from the library of a scholar friend who died last year. One thesis in this survey from Augustine to the 1980s was that theologians had a great deal of difficulty integrating the ‘Wisdom’ literature into their theories. (Theoretical theology – is there any other?)
    Wisdom – I guess that includes some Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. It is curious that three of these are the Books of Truth – so called because their initial letters spell ‘truth’ in Hebrew, אמת. How, I thought, could you have trouble integrating truth (or wisdom) into theology? The Proverbs I know not much of past the first 8 chapters and chapter 31. One day I will get to translating more of them – maybe I should do it a verse at a time every day – perhaps I will. I did a couple yesterday. The book of Job is a massive and important poem, which is explicitly called a parable. The narrator repeatedly refers to Job’s speech as parable, as does Job himself in his wrap-up (30:19). He has instructed me in clay and I am parabled as dust and ashes. And the Psalms are a comprehensive commentary on the Hebrew Bible. They are far and away the most popular of the books of the Old Testament. Their purpose is to form and preserve a people that learns and administers mercy. Parable (Psalm 49) and metaphor (Psalm 75) permeate them. As for Ecclesiastes, it stands alone, like the Song, it has no parallel.
    So does this give us a theme? Not one of course but many. My summary is in the shape of a W – up – down – up – down – up. It reminds me of the conversation in John 3:12-13. It’s an up-down-up movement. Of course the ground of this entire chapter is in the First Testament. So I think of the OT as Creation, Escape, Home, Exile, and Restoration. Yet each broad element has detailed sub-elements of the W movement (sans serif). So Escape in the confrontation in Egypt begins with the burning bush and the revelation of the Name – “by which I will be remembered for ever”, says YHWH. There is Memory, making present the past, and Hope, the presence of God with us, just to note two key elements of our traditions. All these elements have their groundin the First Testament. Christians concentrating on Jesus to the exclusion of Moses cannot know what they think they are talking about. Their hope is not sufficiently grounded. Yes – they may have known the power of his resurrection, but if they hear him for sure, they will do what hearing requires, and obey his instruction which is fully grounded in the OT. Through this they will become as he is. And such obeying is not like flicking on a switch. It is real work. Of course it is filled with joy, as that Ethiopian knew, but also as the Psalmist of Psalm 16 knew.
    This morning, as I meditated on your question of theme, I thought – ‘God is Love’ is the theme of the First Testament. Or ‘God is with us’. But what do we, of all traditions, do to unpack such words? How do we ‘obey’? By what means do we mature without destroying those others in whom the same hope resides? To obey (from the Latin audire to hear) means to hear and to do.
    We quickly come to another theme – the praise of all the nations. It is not enough that we think of this as if everyone suddenly ‘gets it’ and shares ‘My’ point of view so I no longer have to exploit, or hate, or kill them, or build a wall to keep them out. No.
    Praise for all the clans, tribes, nations, and peoples of the whole world (Psalm 117) will take the same thing that we see in Jesus, the giving of our life for the life of the world. If we, as Christian, are to imitate him, then the cost to us is our own life, given up, that others (like for instance, the current crop of refugees) can live. Did Jesus give us such a way? Giving our lives for the other is not suicide, but it is not cheap either. If we wrench into this context the cult practice of sacrifice, it is that we lay our hand on the head of the Lamb, and let that one substitute for our actual death, so that we are free to do what is right for the Holy God whom we worship. We must wrench this image out of its religious frameworks and action it in our governance as monarchs of all we survey. A monarch who is not solely concerned for its own self and its own economy. It’s not an easy task. If we do this, I think we will find the character of God (Psalm 146 again) at work in our modern world. If we fail, we will find the judgment of the same God in our own lives. For he does not allow his name to be used in vain.
    keep up your own ongoing good work, …

    • Much to think about here, Bob. Actually, my head is spinning! Without getting Supersessionist here (I loathe that), I wonder if the purpose of Israel’s recorded interactions with their God was for eventuating someone like Jesus who caught the import of the God of Love and lived his life in such a way that God’s purposes for Israel (which failed) could be realized in Jesus and his followers. It’s probably too soon to tell, but we might ask ourselves how we are doing. In what way are Christians a successful “light to the nations?” In my mind, it’s not too far from failure, as well.
      BTW, I agree with you about Patheos (as you know, it shares its etymology with pathetic), but persevering through the ads to the end of the post is very rewarding. (I keep forgetting to log out of my Editor’s role and reply as Steve Kindle. But, it is me.)

      • Sorry to make your head spin! I agree with you that Christendom has spread the word. So has Islam. But each tends to ignore the First Testament. And the spread is not always ‘peanut butter and jam’ everywhere. What are we spreading with our effort? Something more than free-market capitalism, I hope! (Though this has some pragmatic value. Money gives us lessons in love.)
        For myself, having lived through childhood with a quite thorough Anglican school exposure to the authorized version, daily NT and OT readings, then a spate of what sort of line have you been feeding me with all the contradictions of school life (appalling violence and abuse), the post war recognition of the Holocaust, a conversion that leaves wondering how God trains the tender plant. Am I such a rough gardener? Then the growing up that comes with the gift of children. And then some utterly provoking scholarship that sent me delving into Hebrew as my final fling in the reel with my Lord. Yes, we have something here. As you know, I have been working with the accents in the OT that give us a musical score – utterly marvelous in its ability to let us hear the old words, making each section into a well constructed song.
        Perhaps the I-thou in the Scripture will come through more clearly. I-thou (via Martin Buber) is even simpler than W. (And I don’t mean George W.)

        • Hmm – I dare say that most Christians would say that Islam had not spread anything but falsehood. While I think it is only peanut butter (no jam) because Islam has no redeemer (It is the one aspect of Jesus that Islam ignores), and Islam did speak against idolatry and in some measure is more careful with money and usury than Christendom is. But this is way beyond my pay grade. So I regret that these words slipped in to this conversation. Sure they will cause offence somewhere. But perhaps my Lord intended to cause offence here. Because we are so prejudiced against what is not like us.

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