Saturday, July 07, 2012

3.3 Reading the OT in Context

I've been giving my hermeneutical autobiography on the weekend these last few months.  The first group of posts were on Learning to read in context and the second on Determining the original text.  This group is on the NT's use of the OT, with two posts last weekend:

1. Crisis reading Matthew and
2. About how the NT reads the OT spiritually

This weekend finishes the third group of posts.
In seminary I would learn how to try to listen to the OT books on their own terms.  To me, it transformed the Old Testament into three dimensions.  Before, I had generally read the OT for proof-texts of what I believed as a Christian. I knew a verse to use against women wearing pants. I knew a verse against having a nicely trimmed beard or getting a tattoo. I knew you shouldn't work on Sunday (equated with the Sabbath).

I knew Genesis 1 to discount evolution and the verses in Leviticus 18 about all the ways you shouldn't have sex. I knew you didn't cuss from the 3rd commandment and didn't lie from the 9th.  We didn't have to follow the food laws but I knew some people who thought we'd be healthier if we did. And of course I knew all the great stories of the Old Testament.  If I'd have been born more recently, who knows, maybe I would have used Joshua's conquest of the land to support attacking Muslim countries.

My way of reading the OT back then is fascinating to me now. It was a way of reading that made them all directly applicable to me thousands of years later. They spoke very much to the issues of my subculture, such as the rise of women wearing pants instead of dresses. Amid the cubits and unfamiliar foreign place names were these nugget verses I could completely rip from the text and use as needed.

Among my sense of the original meanings of the OT now, some understandings are more debatable than others.  Some of the easier ones are the fact that the Sabbath was a Saturday not a Sunday and that the NT never equates Sunday with the OT Sabbath. There is no command in the NT to keep the Sabbath command even though it was one of the Ten Commandments. In fact, Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16 explicitly forbid insisting any Christian keep the Sabbath.

The New Testament never instructs a Gentile Christian to tithe. Paul says to give in proportion to how God has blessed you. The 3rd commandment was about oath-taking in YHWH's name, not cussing, although there are other verses in the NT about flippant speech. The 9th commandment was not about lying in general but about lying as a witness in a "trial."  I don't consider much in the last two paragraphs to be very debatable.

When Matthew 5 talks about the Law not passing away, Jesus goes on to shake the Law up a bit, so fulfilling the Law does not exactly mean adding stuff to it.  Fulfilling the Law with regard to divorce reverses the trajectory of divorce for any reason.  Fulfilling the Law with regard to oath-taking leads to not taking oaths at all. And fulfilling the Law with regard to any OT passage that seems to endorse hatred of one's enemies--a temptation one might get from reading any number of psalms or prophets--is trumped. You must now love your enemies. Jesus, Matthew, Paul, John, and James thus give the final answer on applying all OT ethics.

But the flip side of being able to see the NT as the key to my application of the OT to myself today is that I can read the OT for what God was saying to his people at that time.  I can read the tithe in the light of an agricultural world where the priests needed to eat somehow. The food laws are especially fascinating.  Even from ancient times there were attempts to make sense of what seemed arbitrary rules. Some argued that the prohibitions of various foods demonstrated philosophic truths (Letter of Aristeas). The idea that health might be involved is also ancient.

However, I have come to think, following others, that the food laws much more likely had to do with Israel's view of the world and their distinction from other peoples. The prohibition of pork, for example, set Israel apart from Philistines and other surrounding peoples. Israel's worshipped YHWH, were shepherds, and ate lamb. The Philistines, with their other gods, herded pigs. The food prohibition was thus similar in kind to the prohibition of marrying foreigners.

The prohibitions of foods, as Mary Douglas once argued, embody the picture of the world expressed in Genesis where God creates everything "according to its kind." The kind we call fish have fins and scales. Anything else is unclean. It doesn't belong. The kind we call birds should fly, have wings, etc. Things that don't fit are unclean. These things set Israel apart, which one might argue was their ultimate purpose, rather than their inner logic, a logic that was long forgotten by the time of the NT.

The prohibitions on blood, on mixed threads, and others presumably all reflect the "boxes" into which Israel--or at least its priests--put the things in the world. By the time of the NT, these boxes no longer made sense and God declared all foods clean in the understanding of the early Christians.

I have inevitably come to the conclusion that evangelicals can only maintain the inerrancy of the OT, and read the OT in context, if we adopt a sense of progressive revelation...


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Hmmm, Ken, "progressive revelation" is how the Muslim to their "new revelation"...isn't it? Isn't there a problem with revelation altogether?

John C. Gardner said...

Revelation has been a part of Christian thought and belief for 2000 years. It is also part of Judaism and Islam. Christians contend that revelation is progressive(this is a truth claim) within a Christian worldview(See the work of theologians John Polkinghorne and Alister McGrath who hold advanced degrees in theology and science). Secularism and naturalism have contested revelation for centuries but have not scored any knockout punches. My question for Ken is when we read the OT from a Christian perspective or in its original context, how do we keep from being de facto supporters of Marcion?

Ken Schenck said...

Marcion denied the legitimacy of the OT and even chopped up the NT. I am not denying the legitimacy of the OT on its own terms (let alone arguing that the Creator of the world is not the Father of our Lord!) The key is legitimate for its own time.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I suppose one can "save" knowledge through affirming it as revelational...I mean the disciplines, not spiritualized knowledge...and assume that the Creator was/is over the creation, as the Deists believed.

There are many theories "out there" that clamor for to religion, and science....some have suggested "nature" as "God", which is a form of naturalism and some have separated the "sacred" altogether from nature and the disciplines.

John C. Gardner said...

I did not imply that Marcionism was the necessary result but simply how we could avoid that problem. I did not think that you were taking such a position but I believe that there are de facto Marcionists throughout many congregations.