Sunday, September 16, 2012

God's Speakings 2: the Old Testament

On Saturdays I've been critiquing Grudem's Systematic Theology.  On Sundays I've been giving my own biblical theology.  So far I've blogged:

Chapter 1
Introduction to Biblical Theology

Chapter 2: Revelation

2a From Text to Scripture
2b NT Understanding of Scripture
2c God's Speakings before Scripture

Now this post: God's Speakings in the Old Testament
... At each point, God seems to refine the understanding. God reveals himself as YHWH, as the "I AM," at the burning bush to Moses.  God gave the Law to Israel with Moses.  How extensive that Law was in relation to the current contents of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is debated. Certainly the Historical Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings do not indicate that much of the Pentateuch was followed (or mentioned) until almost the end of the monarchy under Josiah--some seven hundred years after Moses. Most think that the Book of the Law discovered in the temple at that time was some form of Deuteronomy.

Until the time of Josiah, YHWH seemed to be worshiped everywhere.  Gideon, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha--they all make altars to YHWH all over Israel.  Not until the time of Hezekiah and Josiah is there a real concerted effort to make sure that sacrifices are only offered to YHWH in the temple, as Deuteronomy implies. Elijah's zeal was that Israel not worship the other gods, but we have no record of him ever visiting Jerusalem. That emphasis came with Hezekiah and Josiah.

What was God's speaking in the Law?  Yes, it codified certain basic moral expectations such as not murdering or stealing.  The most important was to love YHWH and not other gods, as well as to love our neighbors.  All the ethical rules of the Law boil down to these two, according to Jesus.

Of course there were many laws that had to do with God's unique relationship with Israel. As Christians, we believe that God did a special "case study" with Israel, that he piloted a relationship with it that embodied on a racial scale his desire to have a universal and individual relationship with humanity in general.  Much of the Law was thus God meeting this particular people where they were at. Circumcision, a practice Israel did not invent, became symbolic of participation in the special relationship.

In those days everyone offered sacrifices. Perhaps there was some universal trace in that practice of humanity's sense of needing to address the disorder of the world and humanity's frequent "sinfulness" in before God, its tendency to do things that it knows aren't right. But perhaps laws such as those in Leviticus are even more so God meeting Israel where it was at.  Hebrews in the New Testament will see all the sacrifices of the Old Testament as symbolic pointers toward the ultimate reordering of the universe in Christ.

Some of the laws--particularly the food laws--were reflections of Israel's sense of the order God had placed in the world.  There were certain types of things in the sea and the air that reflected that order and were "clean."  Others didn't fit the categories and were unclean. The prohibition not to eat pork probably, like circumcision, set Israel apart from the surrounding peoples who herded pigs. In the New Testament, when God was now more explicitly seeking a relationship with the whole world, these "works of Law" became obsolete, never having been able to make an Israelite truly right with God in the first place.

The evidence of the Historical Books leads us to believe that the Law as we know it was not fully known or much used until the time of Ezra in the 400s after the exile. At that point, what may have largely been oral tradition among the people and only known in some written form to certain elite becomes a real standard for the Jews of the south. Even then, perhaps it would not be until the rise of the synagogue and the democratization of Judaism in the Greek period that the Law would really trickle down to the people.

However, in the time of the kings God raised up the prophets of the Old Testament to make it clear to Israel what it meant to love YHWH and love one's neighbor.  God's favor on the disempowered, the poor, widows, orphans--social justice--is a consistent theme.  The tendency to think that sacrifices in themselves take care of things--with no necessary change of heart--is also indicted.

These "oracles" were delivered orally, but perhaps also written down (Isaiah 8:1, 16).  At some point, perhaps even after the prophet was gone, they were collected and arranged.  Many think that those who preserved these prophecies sometimes also continued the legacies of a prophet by extending his message to situations during and after the exile.  It is often suggested that Isaiah 40-66, which never mention Isaiah or say he is their author, are an extension of Isaiah's legacy to the time just before and after the end of the exile.

By the time of Christ, the "Law and the Prophets" could be mentioned as a shorthand for what we think of as the Old Testament Scriptures.  The precise content of the "Writings," the third section of the Jewish Bible, was not fixed at the time.  The Writings begin with the Psalms (cf. Luke 24:44), which probably reached something like its current form in the worship of the second temple after the exile.  Chronicles repeats much of the ground of Samuel and Kings but now from the perspective of a time well into the post-exilic period when the temple is the center of power and people.

We see certain developments in Israel's understanding of God in this phase of Israel's history. One of the most noticeable is a sense of "the Satan," one of the servants of God whose job is to test the loyalty of the earth. We see him behind the scenes in Job, given permission to test Job by bringing trials. If you compare 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 you'll see that the second attributes the temptation of David to Satan, while the first attributes the temptation to God.

Even more significant is the rise of resurrection understanding in Daniel 12:2-3, the only undisputed reference to a meaningful afterlife in the Old Testament.  While the dating of Daniel's prophecy is debated, the predicted context of Daniel 11 is the Maccabean crisis of 167-64BC.  It was this crisis and the things that ensued in Israel that created the New Testament context of Jesus perhaps even more than the Old Testament books themselves.

So we see in the pages of the Old Testament a piloted relationship of God with a whole people that took many, many centuries.  Although we now have the witness to that relationship at our fingertips in the books of the Old Testament, the relationship was experienced as much more slow moving and oral in nature. Much of the Old Testament reflects God meeting Israel where it was at.  Some of it reflects Israel relating back to God in song and poetry. Meanwhile the prophets more than anyone served as reminders of God's core values, getting us ready for Christ...

1 comment:

John C. Gardner said...

This is one of the most interesting commentaries on the OT I have recently read. It requires some reflection on my part. What works on revelation and the OT do you recommend? What about revelation and the entire Bible or the NT?
Great post.