Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy


Many folks, if not most, start the game thinking that the question of Biblical authority is a zero-sum game, the sort that governs chess and baseball and boxing.  There are two sides, one which maintains the unity and the strength of Biblical authority, and one which picks apart that unity and thus the authority.  I don’t suppose there’s anything mentally defective about folks who hold on to that zero-sum model of things, but it’s not the way I imagine the game any more.  Instead, I see the practice of Biblical interpretation as something more akin to politics: the terms of the game are more complex, and it’s possible to play as if one “side’s” downfall is the only criterion for good or bad results, but better things are possible if other possibilities remain open.

Brueggemann’s signature emphasis, when doing theology, is plurality.  When he answers the question of the central message of the Old Testament, he insists that the real riches lie in the play between a plurality of distinct and sometimes competing messages.  When he writes about the politics of the Old Testament, he’s never zooming in on Daniel’s narratives or the Exodus or the Davidic monarchy but once again insisting that YHWH gave the faithful a range of stories, rather than one story, on purpose, and the most faithful thing to do is to read them as a plurality.  On just about any question, be it creation or kinship relations, national identity or messianic expectation, he listens to the Bible, hears more than one voice, and celebrates rather than laments the fact that our Holy Book is a choir rather than a solo.  (He shares a good deal of common ground with N.T. Wright on that score.)

The plurality that the Bible presents, though, is not a simplistic relativism, where one can simply note the abundance and then move on.  In any given moment in the life of the faithful, the reader bears responsibility to bear the proper witness:

Thus our current, postmodern situation of interpretation cannot easily appeal to any essentialist tradition in an attempt to articulate the faith of Israel.  Rather, the interpreter must be an at-risk participant in a rhetorical process in which being is regularly at stake in and through utterance.  The issues are exceedingly difficult, but we must at least recognize that what has passed for an essentialist or realist position has in fact been the attempt of hegemonic speech that sought to silence all alternative utterance.  In the adjudicating pluralism of the Old Testament, however, any would-be hegemonic speech that claims essentialist privilege is unable to silence other speech, and therefore is unable to establish hegemonic utterances as essence.  We are pressed back to the persuasive process of speech.  It is my judgment that while the Old Testament can make assumptions about and claims for what is real, it is unable and unwilling to do so by way of silencing countervoices. (65)

So the process of persuasion is always ongoing, but the Old Testament is a Holy Book that shows its work, leaving Eliphaz alongside Job, never effacing the false prophecies of Hannaniah against Jeremiah, reciting in horrifying detail the moments when the patriarchs let fear conquer faith, when the kings let appetite devour justice, when the people left the Lord who led them from Egypt and worshiped other images.

Such a way of reading the Bible, for my money, is appealing in its insistence on truth.  There’s little room in such a hermeneutic for dismissing this or that distasteful episode as mere “anthropomorphism” or letting “progressive revelation” be an excuse not to read every episode and proverb and bit of casuistic livestock regulation carefully.  It’s a mode of interpretation that allows for allegory (which, in its proper medieval mode, never pretends priority over the literal) and insists on eyes-open readings of even the most uncomfortable passages.  In such a scrum, “the Bible says” is almost always true and almost never the last word.  Instead of being a talisman, a charm for ending conversation, the text of the Bible remains (I say “remains” instead of “becomes” because I think this way of reading has been around for a while) the very network of narratives and symbols and wisdom-sayings and oracles inside of which conversation can and must happen.

So give me Leviticus, heap it high!

Tell the tale of Balaam’s Ass!

Sing the Lord who’s ever nigh!

And lay us all down on Psalmic grass.

It’s not a great poem, but it occurred to me as I thought of all the goodies that open up when forming a system isn’t priority one in one’s Bible reading.  Now those who insist that the Bible must have a solitary voice in order to be authoritative are probably still worried: after all, couldn’t one pick and choose whether today’s a 2 Chronicles day or a Song of Solomon day?  (Yes, I went there so that you could make whatever jokes you see fit.)  Sure.

I grant that.  I would maintain, though, that a systematic theology which minimizes some of the Old Testament’s voices so that others become the canon-within-a-canon are doing the same thing; they’re just trying to nail shut any windows through which a new reading might enter.  I prefer to leave those windows open, in the bold (even if foolish) hope that, if a new reading is really from God, no nails are going to stop it, and if they’re merely from somebody’s ego, they won’t last long anyway.

And now the Patristics folks are chiming in: that’s not how the first three centuries of Christians did it!

Sure.  I grant that.  I’d also suggest, though, that ours is a historical moment where shutting the door on bad readers, rather than inviting in for a rowdy exchange of competing readings, not only loses out on some of the fun but also plays right into the consumerism that is the air we breathe.  In our moment, I’ll contend, I’d prefer to keep dispute out in the open rather than drive it underground or, even more likely, into a congregation down the road where everyone already agrees with one another.  Let the cards fall where they may, and let the Spirit use my best efforts.  To stick around when disagreement lingers isn’t comfortable, but my hunch is that an excessive interest in comfort might just be one of our moment’s signature problems.  I realize that there are a hundred stories to tell about why this is a bad idea, and I know further that I’ve taken my own family “down the road,” so take this as a vision of possibility, not a boast of accomplishment.  My hunch is that, in many cases, good Bible readers could serve better if we stuck around rather than finding congregations with whom we already agree.

It’s a risky place to live, but the way I figure it, that’s one of the things that makes the Bible a great place to spend some time.

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