Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy

Okay, so I left a bit of a gap between posts 5 and 6.  Sorry about that.  For the sake of those who want to refresh themselves on the series, here are the episodes, both those written and those not-yet-written, with hyperlinks where relevant:

The more one studies the Old Testament, the more continuity one sees with the New Testament.  Also, the more one studies the Hebrew Bible, the more distinctions one finds between it and the Christian Bible.  My hunch is that such a paradox would not have come as much of a surprise to those early generations of Christians.  After all, the new Way of Jesus no doubt would have shaken up the old alignments of synagogue and Temple, Law and Prophets, in ways that they must have regarded as new.  On the other hand, the narrative universe into which Jew and Greek alike entered was without a doubt a network of prophecy, proclamation, and worship of the God of the Exodus that makes no sense without the Scriptures.

Of course, Saul of Tarsus was hardly the first of the house of Abraham (and of course that phrase is itself a disputed datum in the New Testament and beyond) to regard the nations as part of YHWH’s horizon.  Abraham himself received that first blessing, in Genesis 12, as a calling to be a blessing to the nations (goyim/ethnai).  Ruth of Moab is directly in King David’s line of ancestors, and the entire book of Jonah involves a Hebrew prophet warning the great empire of the day that YHWH’s wrath is coming.  (The hilarity of the story is that the goyim, unlike the prophet, immediately obey the voice of YHWH.)

Brueggemann spends a fair bit of time on the nations in general, but those orders he calls “superpowers” of the Old Testament (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia) get special attention.  What staggers a reader when surveying the Old Testament’s treatment of those powers is plurality.  The narrative of YHWH vs. Pharaoh in Exodus stands in stark contrast to the conversion story of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel, and the mysterious strike against the armies of Tiglath-Pileser in Isaiah could scarcely differ more from the court intrigues of Esther.

Neither the neoconservative nor the post-colonialist is going to find the whole of the Old Testament comfortable reading; the great empires, like any nation or for that matter any human being, fall into the narrative of YHWH’s life with the world, living out the stories of gathering, scattering, and re-gathering and neither accumulating sufficient might to stand immune nor falling so far from good fortune that no re-gathering is possible.  So there is no uniform “right way” to stand in relation to the great political powers of one’s moment: instead the Bible teaches the faithful to be mindful, to see how things are moving and to respond faithfully both in the moments when YHWH manifests most clearly and in the long stretches of silence and darkness.

However, movement is only the large picture: in any given moment, the faithful, in order to live faithfully, must respond in this way and not that, and the narratives of Hannaniah and Ahab always stand as reminders that anyone can get things horribly wrong.  But taking that risk into account, Brueggemann calls American Christians to mind the status of those superpowers in the Old Testament and ponder carefully what sort of story we find ourselves in:

Over the long haul of the Enlightenment, Western Christianity has been progressively privatized in terms of individuals, families, and domestic communities.  By and large, out of bewilderment and embarrassment, the ecclesial communities have forgotten how to speak about national and international matters, except in times of war to mobilize God for “the war effort.”  The inevitable outcome outcome of this privatization is to relinquish geopolitics to practical, technical analysis, as in Joseph Stalin’s cynical question, “How many divisions has the Pope?”  That is, if the theological dimension drops out of international purview, and with it any credible, critical moral dimension, then the world becomes one in which might makes right. (525, italics original)

Seventeen years after the publication of Theology of the Old Testament, this statement might seem naive.  After all, who can forget George W. Bush’s “city on a hill” speech in 2003’s leadup to the Iraq invasion?  Or the rise of the Obama evangelicals in 2008?  Or the Facebook post that accused one faction or the other of being of the devil’s party seventeen seconds ago?  Nonetheless, I think the argument still holds.  After all, in public discourse, relatively seldom do those appeals to God (and devils) stay in the forefront when those who actually pull the levers make their arguments.  If anything, the more common move that I’ve seen in the last twenty years or so, after the religious rhetoric settles, does something more like “We can talk ideology later; right now, the crisis at hand is too important to let un-realistic ideals cloud our judgment.”

But even as I write that, I can sense the long narratives of the Bible tugging at me.  Brueggemann is right: an imagination shaped by the Bible will not allow for permanent states of surrender.  Every lament has inherent in it the celebration what will happen when YHWH turns things around.  That’s not to pretend that the evil is not real, much less that the evil is itself good because YHWH might make good of it.  And it does not mean that we can forsake the responsibility of taking this stand or that in favor of a historical relativism.  But it does mean that things are always on the move.


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