Old Testament Theology Thursday (von Rad Edition)

In Gerhard von Rad’s magisterial two volume Old Testament Theology, he writes the following concerning the patriarchs:

“All who read the stories of the patriarchs with an eye to their theology will soon see that it is not easy to give an answer to the question so self-evident to us, what is their meaning, their theological content? How are we to approach this question? For in these stories we are not confronted with an account of the history which furnishes the reader with explicit theological judgments, or which constantly allows him to participate in extensive theological reflexion upon the history, as the Deuteronomistic account does. In the stories of the patriarchs the reader will look in vain for any formulation of the narrator’s own theological judgment. . . . Is then the question perhaps wrongly put? Can we say that these story-tellers ever had a theological interpretation which really took in the whole body of the stories of the patriarchs? Was their intention to offer such a thing at all?” (165).

I have learned a great deal from von Rad’s volumes, and despite their age they continue to inform me in rich and diverse ways about the task and nature of Old Testament theology. What von Rad here points out about the difficulty in isolating theological content from the ancestral narratives is correct–very few scholarly treatments have sought to do just that–yet I must confess my dissatisfaction with von Rad on this point. Yes, it has been difficult to glean items of theological profundity from the ancestral narratives, yet I suggest this reveals much more about our own contemporary values and mores being imported into the text than it does about what the text is actually trying to communicate. My forthcoming book with Eisenbrauns (!!!!) will attempt to give potent theological voice to the ancestral narratives, the Jacob cycle more specifically. While the text does not provide clear theological judgments (or, put another way, the narrator does not intrude and tell us what to think and where, as in Deuteronomy, which von Rad notes), I disagree with von Rad that it does not invite the reader to “participate in deep theological reflexion.” The very absence of such expected guideposts in the narrative impels the reader to do just that. In response to von Rad’s question–was the intent ever to offer theological content in and through the ancestral narratives–I must answer with a bold and unequivocal YES!

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