“The task of a Jewish biblical theology cannot be the same as that of a Christian Old Testament theology or a Christian biblical theology. Fundamentally, Judaism is committed to a relationship with Gd as defined throug divine Torah whereas Christianity is committed to the notion that its relationship with G-d is defined through Jesus Christ. Because fo their differing characters, the Bible is formed and read differently within the respective contexts of Judaism and Christianity, and those differences must be taken into account when undertaking Jewish (or Christian) biblical theology” (20).
And concluding the first chapter:
“In sum, a Jewish biblical theology must engage the text fo the Bible firsthand, grappling with the interpretation of the Hebrew and Aramaic text; discerning the diachronic dimensions of its literary form, compositional history, generic and linguistic features, communicative features, socio-historical setting, and the potential intentions of its authors; and grappling with the synchronic dimensions again of its literary coherence, plot and character development, and its intertextual relationships. A Jewish biblical theology therefore points to the foundations for an ongoing dialog concerning the identity and character of G-d, the Jewish people, the world of creation, the nations at large, and their interrelations with each other. It is on the basis of this dialog begun in the Bible that Judaism is formed” (35-36).
While I don’t find the litany of modes and approaches Sweeney outlines that constitute Jewish biblical theology to be in any way distinctive of Jewish biblical theology (countless OT theologies do precisely these things), his insistence throughout this introductory chapter that Jewish biblical theology must engage post-biblical Jewish sources is an important and rich insight. (For a beautiful example of this in practice, see Benjamin Sommer, “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically” in Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation, ed. Perdue, Morgan, Sommer [Nashville: Abingdon, 2009]). Not incidentally, the idea of the dialogic reality of the Hebrew Bible is a vitally important observation, one in which several Christian Old Testament theologians have rightly picked up on, perhaps most notably Walter Brueggemann.
This is a question I have been thinking through quite a bit recently. And with books such as my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior, Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?, Eryl Davies’ The Immoral Bible, David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God flooding the market and receiving a wide readership, the question appears to be as timely as ever.
This morning I read an essay by John Barton entitled “The Dark Side of God in the Old Tesament” in another recent book, Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue. Barton had the following to say on the issue:
” . . . there is a strong awareness in the Old Testament . . . that God may be neither moral nor immoral but amoral. To the question posed y the present volume–‘ethical or unethical?’–the answer may sometimes be ‘neither; simply inscrutable.'” (132).
And later on the same page he writes:
“God is not susceptible to human judgment on his actions, and they cannot be classified as moral or immoral: they are simply God’s actions” (132).
In the same volume, Katharine Dell reflects upon the book of Job (“Does God Behave Unethically in the Book of Job?”) in similar fashion. She cites Miles’ biography of God, where he writes the following concerning God’s response to Job in chapters 38-40:
“The Lord presents himself, with withering sarcasm and towering bravado, as an amoral, irresistible force” (178, pg. 315 in Miles)
Dell seems to call this line of thinking into question, concluding that God does indeed act unethically in Job, but from the perspective of humans. She presents a related question near the end of her contribution:
“Perhaps the ultimate question is whether one can accept that God can behave unethically towards human beings and at the same time be exonerated” (185).
The issue does not appear to be easy to solve. Most would assume, I suspect, that God is moral because that is who God is. Such a view, however, I find difficult to reconcile with the biblical text (or at least the idea that God is moral all the time). Such a view, it seems to me, is far more indebted to the ideas of systematic theology than to a careful reading of the biblical text. But when God acts immorally, there are a litany of attendant questions that follow: immoral by whose standards? who are we as humans to judge God in such a way? what does it mean for the life of faith–indeed, life in general–if God has such proclivities? Or, is God amoral, above the fray, beyond such questions? The issues are complex and multifaceted, and press beyond the confines of this blog post, but here is my initial sense of a few salient points. Any attempt to answer this question . . .
must avoid being overly apologetic for God
must not take as its starting point the idea that God must, should, or can be exonnerated in various problematic instances
must take as much of the biblical text into account, not emphasizing more ‘positive’ aspects to the detriment of more problematic ones
must understand the highly contextual nature of the question, both for us contemporarily, but also for ancient Israel and what they may be seeking to communicate in and through them
must reckon with the intimate and deeply personal way the biblical text describes the God/human relationship (I am here thinking specifically of the work of Terry Fretheim in his The Suffering of God and God and World in the Old Testament.
must NOT appeal to Jesus as the answer to the problem of disturbing divine behavior, or use him as the barometer for adjudicating what is and is not authentic of God. Jesus is just as much of a complex, dynamic, and unsettling character, when read properly, as is God.
What do you think? What issues are pertinent? What questions need to be raised? And how would you answer the question?
With my first book about to be available (see HERE), I have already begun thinking through my second book project. At present it will be related to the first, albeit loosely. Put most simply, I am curious about the problematic images of God in the Hebrew Bible and what one is to do with them.
This area within scholarship has been mushrooming recently, with several recent attempts at the question: my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior (see my RBL review HERE), Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster, Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God, Eryl Davies’ The Immoral Bible(a wonderful volume addressing the important question of method in tackling these texts), and most recently David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly. Each of these volumes get it, with varying degrees of success, important aspects of the conversation. None, however, has left me entirely satisfied that the problem has been adequately (or in some cases, even responsibly) addressed.
At bottom, what I think has been severely neglected in most treatments is honest wrestling with the theological implications and meaning communicated by these texts. As I have said regarding Seibert’s contribution, it is irresponsible and one is no better than Marcion (who himself is unfairly villified; he too was only wrestling with the problem, yet his solution, I hope we would all agree, is egregiously disconcerting) if one opts simply to ignore these texts or eliminate them from theological contention. Moreover, it does the texts a disservice to engage–as Copan and Lamb do on occasion–in what I would call “comparative genocide” discussions, insinuating that ancient Israel is practicing something shared within the larger ANE context but doing so in a more ‘humane’ way or not to the extreme of other more primitive (and by primitive is often meant unenlighted by God and/or Jesus) peoples. In short, too much is made to apologize for these texts and, worse in my view, for God. These texts do not, to my eye, show any hint of concern for divine apologetics. Nor do they seem terribly interested in easy or pat answers. So, for instance, when Lamb asks in the title of each of his chapters, is God “angry or loving?”, “sexist or affirming?”, “racist or hospitable?”, “violent or peaceful?”, “legalistic or gracious?”, “rigid or flexible?”, “distant or near?” I would answer with a simple–yet unsettling–YES. I also think such questions are at the heart of the problem. The very question does ont allow for an “either/or” choice. It is a both/and.
To me, the most fascinating question to pose is what is the theological payoff (which, for folk such as Copan, shifts the question from the realm of historical certainty–which puts Copan on a terribly tenuous track at the outset–to the world in the text itself) of these texts. What do they say about God? Or, to ask the question another way, why would ancient Israel include such texts in their understanding of who God is? Taking theology as its name says, literally a ‘word about God,’ what theological word do problematic texts convey?
I agree with the bulk of those mentioned above that such studies need to be at least in part contextual. Ancient Israel and its texts obviously arose in a culture much different than ours, with mores that may seem terribly problematic for present-day readers. This is fine to acknowledge (see Davies’ final chapter on reader-response for one attempt to articulate the nexus of historical anchorings of these texts with our contemporary setting), but first and foremost it means one must struggle all the more to give the text an honest hearing.
I am not an apologist, nor do I aspire to be one. What I find potentially most troublesome about this conversation is the emphasis on an either/or way of thinking, saying Go dis either all good/loving/kind or all bad/hateful/evil. I find Brueggemann’s idea of testimony/countertestimony, etc. to be a most helpful paradigm in beginning to address the question. It at the very least opens up the important realization that the biblical text speaks with a multiplicity of voices and witnesses, none of which has attained hegemony over the others. It highlights the tensive relationship between these various biblical witnesses and lets them stand, honoring that tension, not allowing one to obliterate the other. It is, in my view, this theological tension that makes these texts most fascinating, and it is this voice that I think is severely lacking in the current conversation.
I just received John W. Rogerson’s new volume A Theology of the Old Testament: Cultural Memory, Communication, and Being Human(Fortress 2010). I found the following lines especially insightful and worthwhile as one contemplates the seemingly innocuous (though it hardly is!) questions of how to do Old Testament theology. Discussing Qoheleth (though these remarks are applicable well beyond the confines of only that biblical book, speaking to the larger interpretive task of actually doing OT theology), he writes:
“The negative remarks about Qoheleth’s faith in God [ . . . ] imply that there is only one genuine type of experience or knowledge of God and that Qoheleth lacks this. It is a way of reading the Old Testament from the perspective of a type of orthodoxy that privileges certain strands of religious experience. This brings with it the danger that the theological witness of the Old Testament becomes restricted and diminished, because those who approach it in this way know in advance what it says, or ought to say, about God. The view taken in the present work is that the Old Testament speaks with many voices and that readers will do well to listen to them rather than decide in advance which are the most congenial” (54).
Absolutely spot on. While none of us are disinterested readers, it is one thing to be forthright and transparent about what one brings to the text as a reader, and quite another to impose a grid on the text that makes it conform to what you want it to say. A muzzled biblical text does no good for anyone.
This week’s installment comes from one of my former teachers at Duke, James Crenshaw (read my wonderful interview with him HERE). In his A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence, Crenshaw writes the following:
“The fundamental assumption lying behind divine testing is that God lacks a certain kind of knowledge, that is, precisely how men and women will act in trying circumstances. OF course, such ignorance arises from human freedom, which is itself a gift from the transcendent one. Therefore, the divine act of self-limitation has created the necessity for such testing. On the other hand, humans can use adversity as a crucible within which character is shaped. This is why the psalmist we have quoted above [Ps 26:2] openly invited God to pose a test, confident that he would emerge victorious. This devout believer actually welcomed the refining fire, for he was certain that the test would be fair. Not all instances of divine testing were of this order” (2-3).
This past Thursday I delivered the message during chapel at Dakota Wesleyan University (promo piece at the left). My topic (which I chose myself) was entitled “The Dance of Daring Prayer.” At three points I used video clips as an avenue into thinking about the biblical texts and message I was aiming to communicate; I have included those below at the relevant points. I welcome your thoughts on what I have done here.
What is prayer? What words first come to mind when you hear the word “prayer”? Perhaps you think of time in church, of Sunday mornings. Perhaps you think of the silence of the night before you go to sleep, or the dawning of the morning of a new day. Perhaps you think of the Lord’s Prayer, or a particular prayer you pray often. Whatever comes to your mind, we all have preconceptions about prayer. Prayer is, at its most basic, talking with God. It is a moment of introspection, of self-analysis, of deep personal reflection. Prayer invites us to probe the inner recesses of our minds, bodies, and spirits and to lift these up to God. It entails gathering one’s energies and imaginations and escaping for a brief while into a shared act of faithful focus. Prayer is unique in the Bible; throughout the Bible readers encounter God’s word to humanity; with moments of prayer, however, we are given a glimpse into the opposite: humanity’s word to God.
Let me ask another, less obvious and possibly more challenging question: what is prayer NOT? A bit harder, isn’t it? As one of my former teachers used to say often, prayer is not like a vending machine: you put in your money, pick what you want, and out it comes. If this were the case I’m certain I’d be writing an “A” on every paper and test I grade, simply because students have—as I admittedly also used to do with great diligence—prayed desperately that somehow, some way the professor would just . . . . be . . . able . . . to write . . . an “A.” But prayer is not mechanical like this. Unfortunately, God is not a genie who cannot help but grant every wish. Or Jim Carrey sitting at a computer so exhausted that answering “yes to all” seems the best strategy. If you are familiar with the movie ‘Bruce Almighty,’ you know well how this
scene turns out: everyone’s prayers are answered and the world descends into chaos. Some prayers, put most simply, go unanswered. A child battling cancer does not make it. The job you had been hoping would work out doesn’t come about. The radioactive crisis in Japan escalates. But prayer is not simply a time for asking God for things. It’s much, much more.
I think for many of us prayer has become too facile, tamed, and mechanical. The formulaic nature of most prayer—involving asking God, in our politest voice possible, and always with our best manners, and usually in the hope that our requests are not inconveniencing God in any way—often ends up ringing quite hollow, especially when compared with the boldness of the biblical portrait of prayer. In the biblical text characters often avoid pleasantries and niceities when it comes to prayer, audaciously and unflinchingly asking, for instance, in the words of
the prophet Habakkuk, HOW LONG God would allow suffering and destruction to dominate the chosen people, or in the example of Jacob, who fearlessly and brazenly demands God’s help with the looming and murderous threat of his brother Esau on the horizon, reminding God that it was he, and not Jacob, that had led him to this perilous situation. This bold and audacious language, though, is not meant to be corrected, corralled, or rendered impotent by claims that it is unfaithful to speak to God in such a way. No, quite the opposite; the biblical text creates for us a vocabulary of prayer . . . of daring prayer . . . from which we can learn a great deal.
Let’s work backwards through the texts for today, beginning with our New Testament text from Luke, because I think it provides a good snapshot of what I’m trying to get at. Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, and Jesus responds by teaching them the Lord’s prayer (or, one version of it, as we have a different, more well-known version in Matthew’s gospel). But Jesus doesn’t stop there; the parable that follows clarifies. Jesus is not telling his disciples to commit this prayer to memory and utter it and only it. No, Jesus is saying this is a
way of praying, and he seems to caution against getting too stuck on issues of form. The parable, rather, speaks of bold persistence in prayer. Where prayers are not answered, pray all the more! Where you have a genuine need, God will not give you more than you can handle. When the vending machine gives you Cheetos even though you clearly pressed B5, which was Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, do not lose faith. Be persistent in prayer, Jesus says. Meek and mild is not the way to go. Be bold, be daring.
We see such daring speech to God in evidence again at the end of Jesus’ life. In Matthew and Mark’s gospel Jesus’ final words are quite a bit unsettling: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words may seem a bit puzzling; why would Jesus be speaking in such a
way at the pivotal moment in his life: the crucifixion? Without getting too much into detail, these final words are a quotation from the Old Testament, from Psalm 22:1. A quick classroom ditty on the Psalms: there are different types of psalms – praise psalms, thanksgiving psalms, and complaint psalms among them. Ps 22 is an example of a complaint psalm, where the speaker uttering it is undergoing great suffering and asking where God is and why God has not intervened. Ok, class dismissed. But what does this mean then if Jesus, in his final words, voices a word of lament, a word of complaint? A question directed at God? Quite simple, really. If Jesus has taught us how to pray, and models for us a way of speaking to God that includes questions, that taps into the deepest and rawest of human emotions, are we not then encouraged to pray
with a similar boldness, diligence, and daring? Jesus teaches us how to pray daringly, and shows that asking questions is not beyond the bounds of true and deeply honest prayer.
Let’s turn to our first text, Gen 18:16-33, where we see Abraham putting into practice such persistent and doggedly bold prayer. This text creates a much different portrait of God than most are accustomed to seeing. The text begins by giving us a peak into God’s inner-monologue, as he muses over the question of whether he should hide his intention to destroy the wicked Sodom and Gomorroah from his covenant partner, Abraham. Ultimately, and interestingly, God decides against withholding this information. This simple decision on God’s part reveals a great deal: God is interested in what humanity has to say. God genuinely desires to hear humanity’s take on things. Or, put another way, God understands the relationship with creation and humanity to have integrity, and for that to be the case humanity must be allowed a voice. As the text ensues, this is precisely what we are given. Abraham essentially barters with God to save these two cities, asking first if there are 50 righteous people, then 40, then 30, all the way down to 10. The remarkable has happened. Abraham convinces God to change his mind! Abraham, perhaps sensing the daringness of his speech, prefaces his requests in a humble tone, but this tone does not lessen the gravity of what he is asking. Learning of God’s desire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, which the text acknowledges would result also in the unnecessary loss of innocent life, Abraham questions the justice of God’s decision, and through his daring speech is able to convince God—at least for the time being—to spare these wicked cities. God, seemingly bent on one purpose, hears Abraham’s words as a genuine and daring word of prayer, a word that ultimately leads to a change in the divine mind. Daring prayer has made a difference.
The Sodom and Gomorrah scene becomes even more powerful when juxtaposed with an equally troubling scene in Gen 22, where God has instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as part of a divine test. The glitch, however, is that neither Abraham nor Isaac know it is a test.
Whereas in Gen 18 Abraham was quick to speak up on behalf of an entire population, most of whom he did not even know, in Gen 22 Abraham hears the divine command to sacrifice Isaac and immediately begins making preparations. No questions are raised. No daring prayer here. What would happen if someone had asked questions, uttering daring words to God, in this instance? (I showed the first 1:40 of the following clip).
Whew, thank God that Jack Black showed up! Can I get an “AMEN” on that one, anybody? What this clip shows—the daringness to ask a question—is not what happens in the biblical text, and while many interpretations, in my view, whitewash this scene by emphasizing that in the end Isaac is spared and Abraham passes the test, I can’t help, as a father myself, to read the story another way. Yes, Isaac’s life
is spared, but at what cost? Careful reading of the biblical text reveals that he will, throughout the remainder of Genesis, be quite ineffectual and unimportant, simply acting as the object for his wife Rebekah and son Jacob’s deception to gain the blessing. Moreover, it is not without meaning that as Abraham and Isaac come down the mountain together they do not say a single word to one another; in fact, they are never seen together, nor speaking to one another, again. Isaac walks away from this scene seemingly scarred for the rest of his life. At Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham uttered a daring prayer of questions to save an entire population, most of whom were strangers to him; later,
however, he would fail to daringly question the divine command to sacrifice his son, seemingly at great cost to his son.
The (Daring) Prayerbook of the Bible
If you ever need guidance for how to pray, turn to the Psalms. They are the prayerbook of the Bible; these are what ancient Israel prayed during their worship, and the Psalms continue to serve as timeless prayers for many yet today. The Psalms teach us how to pray. But
the Psalms are also raw, gutsy, and daring in their language. Throughout the Psalms one encounters numerous examples of what scholars call lament or complaint psalms. Psalm 13 from our reading today is one such example. This text raises a single, powerful question to God over and over again: “HOW LONG?!” How long will God hide his face from me? How long will I bear pain? How long will my enemy prevail over me? This amazingly blunt candor sometimes shocks readers, but it is an honest part of the dialogue of faith. How many of you have experienced a situation that has genuinely led you to question God. Don’t worry, be honest, God’s watching but I hear he’s a pretty forgiving guy. We all have, haven’t we? What we find in the Psalms, Ps 13 among them, is an example of a brutally honest prayer from the depths of life and experience. Honest faith acknowledges life’s reality, warts and all. And within the Psalms, no part of life is ever beyond the dialogue with God. To raise such questions, to be honest to one’s own experiences, is, from the biblical perspective, an act of faith. Questions are not beyond the scope of prayer if that is what you are feeling. Such honest spirituality, such daring prayer does not ignore the pain of life but puts it in the larger context of faith in God.
Asking Questions of God, About God
If you still remain a bit skeptical about the possibility of praying in such a way, let us pick up where Brandon left off last week, with the book of Job. You may recall the basic story of the book: Job is an exemplary righteous man who, despite the death of his family, loss of all his possessions, and grave illness, stands firm in his faith. His friends continually try to convince him that he must have sinned in some way to deserve such unimaginable suffering; for 38 chapters Job professes his innocence before God, and his bold affirmations of innocence ultimately begin to take the form of questions to God: why is this happening to me? What have I done to deserve this? Brandon read last week part of God’s response to Job, which begins with the well-known phrase “who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” God goes on for four chapters to interrogate Job, a response that many understand as ‘putting Job in his place’; indeed, God’s response to Job amounts ultimately to the equivalent of saying ‘I’m God, you’re not; you cannot understand my ways, so buck up and deal with it.’ Many interpreters have taken this as a sort of victory for God: God 1, Job 0. But last week we did not hear about the end of the story, the most important part of the story to interpreting the book in my view. Let’s look at Job 42:1-9.
(Job 42:1-9 on screen)
Job, humbled by God’s response, seems a bit shaken—rightfully so! But it is God’s word that follows that stands out. Notice what God says; God is not angry at Job, but at Job’s friends who have attempted to convince him he was guilty. Here’s the kicker: God says explicitly it is not the three friends, OR EVEN GOD HIMSELF, who has spoken rightly; Job alone, God says, is the only one who has said what is right. He’s the only one whose language, whose speech has been accurate, correct, and true to reality. What’s more, notice what God instructs Job to do: pray for his friends, and God will accept Job’s prayer and forgive them. For nearly 40 chapters Job has been professing his innocence (and implicitly, then, God’s guilt); Job’s daring speech, daring prayer throughout the book is met with approval from God. God approves not of the three friends’ pious attempts to defend or apologize for God but rather of Job’s confident and daring affirmations of innocence and his prayers of questions. The book of Job gives us a unique perspective on daring prayer because we get not just the prayer but God’s assessment of it; and God’s assessment? Quite simple: God prefers, welcomes, and encourages the daring prayer of Job—even if he is speaking of things he does not truly understand—rather than those who mechanically rehash familiar credos without thinking.
I want to close today by sharing one final modern day example of daring prayer and how it may be used. Elie Wiesel is a Nobel Prize Winner and prolific author. He is also a survivor of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of his parents and little sister, not to mention 6 million other Jews. I don’t have time to dive into every aspect of his story, but I would encourage you all to read his brief memoir Night; if you’re in my class we’ll be reading it next week. But needless to say in and through the flames of Auschwitz, the camp where Wiesel was stationed most of his stay, Wiesel’s faith and trust in God underwent drastic change. He writes that he never came to doubt God’s existence, only God’s justice. Throughout Night he refuses to pray as an act of protest, of defiance to God. Since that event Wiesel, perhaps realizing the powerful model of daring prayer contained in the Bible’s pages, does now pray. He says that he prays to God now, but only with questions. Familiar questions, I’m certain: how long? Where are you, God? Why have you forsaken me . . . why have you forsaken us, the Jewish people? I
cannot hope to capture the incredible power of Wiesel’s words; his voice, his eyes, his words tell it better.
And so I invite you all to be daring in your prayers when necessary. If you have questions, address them to God. If you have joy, address it to God. If you have anger, address it to God. Break away from what my friend and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “routinized repetition” in prayer. There are no preconceived rules in prayer. There are no required set rubrics, checklists, or formulas that guarantee one’s prayer is heard. I’m reminded of this nightly when my wife and I say our prayers with my 3 yr old son, Evan. We have a short prayer that he has memorized, but we also break out of this routinizing of prayer by inviting him to pray for whatever he would like as well, which has
ranged from taking care of his baby cousin who was sick to us being able to sell our house in Texas and move home to Mitchell to praying that Scooby Doo doesn’t get hurt by the monsters or that nobody steals his toys while he’s sleeping. But we are trying to encourage in him daring prayer. The very remarkable act of prayer itself violates our conventional understanding of submissiveness and docility before God. The Bible gives us a vocabulary with which to pray, and to pray daringly and boldly from the depths of one’s soul, to give voice to all situations, realities, and struggles in life. “It is an awesome matter to voice one’s life before God, and our lives, therefore, should be awesomely uttered.”
I want to close with a prayer from Elie Wiesel, to show us the power of daring prayer in the face of the greatest adversity and questions:
I no longer ask you for either happiness or paradise; all I ask of You is to listen and let me be aware of Your listening.
I no longer ask You to resolve my questions, only to receive them and make them part of You.
I no longer ask You for either rest or wisdom, I only ask You not to close me to gratitude, be it of the most trivial kind, or to surprise and friendship. Love? Love is not Yours to give.
As for my enemies, I do not ask You to punish them or even to enlighten them; I only ask You not to lend them Your mask and Your powers. If You must relinquish one or the other, give them Your powers. But not Your countenance.
They are modest, my requests, and humble. I ask You what I might ask a stranger met by chance at twilight in a barren land.
I ask you, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to enable me to pronounce these words without betraying the child that transmitted them to me: God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, enable me to forgive You and enable the child I once was to forgive me too.
I no longer ask You for the life of that child, nor even for his faith. I only beg You to listen to him and act in such a way that You and I can listen to him together.
The preeminent Old Testament journal Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft has officially published my article on Habakkuk 3 in its most recent issue. Here is the abstract for the article:
This study looks at the growth and development of the text of Hab 3, arguing that three specific stages of editorial activity are in evidence. At each stage one may discern a reinterpretation fitting its context. First, the theophanic core (vv. 3–15) is comprised of an ancient theophanic tradition (vv. 3–7) and an equally ancient Chaoskampf motif (vv. 8–15). This unit is dated prior to the exile. Second, a psalmic redaction sees the addition of various superscriptive elements in v. 1, a frame for the core theophany (vv. 2.16a.18–19), and the three occurrences of sælah (vv. 3.9.13). This text belongs to the early Persian period and sees the transformation of the theophanic core into a complaint psalm imploring YHWH’s assistance. Third, its incorporation into the growing corpus of the Twelve sees the inclusion of the name »Habakkuk« (v. 1) and Joel-related language in vv. 16b–17. At this final stage one may detect a final reinterpretation of the earlier complaint, couched now in terms of divine assurance that Babylon would not go unpunished. Hab 3 thus serves as a sort of microcosm for the way in which Judah experienced, struggled with, and ultimately made sense of the experience of exile.
The full bibliographic reference, if you are interested in checking it out, is as follows (and please, if you read it, do share your comments):
John E. Anderson, “Awaiting an Answered Prayer: The Development and Reinterpretation of Habakkuk 3 in its Contexts” ZAW 123 (2011): 57-71.
In his brief yet insightful volume What Does the Old Testament Say About God, Claus Westermann writes the following:
“What does the Old Testament say about God? The answer to this question has to be given from the Old Testament in its entirety. It is the task of a theology of the Old Testament to describe and view together what the Old Testament as a whole, in all its sections, says about God. The task is not correctly understood if one takes one part of the Old Testament to be the most important and gives it prominence over the others; or if one regards the whole as determined by one concept such as covenant or election or salvation; or if one asks, to begin with, what the theological center of the Old Testament is. The New Testament obviously has its center in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, to which the Gospels are directed and which the Epistles take as their starting point. The Old Testament, however, has no similarity at all to this structure. It is therefore not possible to translate the problem of the theological center from the New to the Old Testament” (11)
This week’s installment of OT Theology Thursday is an oldie but a goodie (though I don’t agree with him on much): Walther Eichrodt, arguably the key figure to put OT theology back on the map in the early part of the twentieth century.
“The concept in which Israelite thought gave definitive expresion to the binding of the pepole to God and by means of which they established firmly from the start the particularity of their knowledge of him was the covenant. That the basis of the relationship with God can be regarded as embodied in a covenant from mosaic times has of course been sharply contested. Nevertheless, it can be demonstrated that the covenant-union between [YHWH] and Israel is an original element in all sources, despite their being in part in very fragmentary form. Indeed this is still true even of those passages where the word berit has disappeared altogether. The whole course of early Israelite history, in which the religious sense of solidarity is bound up with the Sinai tradition, affords further evidence of this” (36).
For Eichrodt, the center (die Mitte) of the Old Testament is the (Mosaic) covenant. In his view, this theme is so pervasive that one can take a cross-section of Israelite faith and belief at any time in its history and discern therein the importance of covenant. While I am at heart a covenant theologian (though my recent reading of Fretheim–see HERE–is tempering that a bit), I register serious disagreement with Eichrodt on this matter. First, the assumption that Israelite faith is consistent over time, and thus that it along with the covenant concept does not evolve, is problematic. Recent forays into the history of Israelite religion testify to its dynamic character. Second, to assert that anything, including covenant, is the center of the OT presumes too much unity. More recently scholars such as Erhard Gerstenberger (Theologies of the Old Testament), Walter Brueggemann, and others have noted the diversity of theologies (plural) in the Old Testament. No one concept rules the day. Regarding covenant specifically, it is hardly in evidence in the Wisdom Literature, thus straining Eichrodt’s argument that it is the consistent center of the entire OT. Relatedly, Eichrodt’s concept of the covenant is univocal. What about the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants? (Eichrodt understands the Abrahamic covenant as a later retrojection of the Mosaic covenant, meant to ground the covenant concept in the earliest period of Israel’s history). But why the exclusive focus on the Mosaic covenant to the detriment of these other covenants?
Eichrodt’s contribution to Old Testament theology is an important one, though one that has not stood the test of time it seems. Much of his writing bears troubling witness and hints to the time and place of his writing: Germany in the 1930s. But despite these significant issues, he remains an important voice in the conversation history, and story of Old Testament theology.
I’ve just begun reading my friend Terry Fretheim’s volume God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Abingdon 2005). I’ve just finished the introduction (that’s still pages numbered with Roman numerals!) and I confess I find myself in entire agreement with Fretheim’s sentiments about the centrality of creation in the OT. I am, admittedly, a covenantal theologian; whereas Eichrodt emphasized the Mosaic covenant, I see the Ancestral covenant (Gen 12:1-3 and parallels in 26:2-5 and 28:13-15) as central. Or, to put it another way, I operate with a latent sense of salvation history (Heilsgeschichte) as the organizing principle for the canon. While I wouldn’t say I have a conventional understanding of what that entails in comparison with others (at its most basic, I see Gen 12:1-3 as a blessing for Israel that ultimately has cosmic implications; see Moberly, Theology of the Book of Genesis and Gruneberg, Abraham, Blessing and the Nations on this point most recently, as well as a brief diddy in my forthcoming book), that is often the lens through which I read the biblical text. I have always understood creation as a part of this process . . . creation as a part of Heilsgeschichte. Those familiar with von Rad’s theology will see well where I am influenced by him. Yet upon reading just these first 10 pages in Fretheim’s volume, I have realized the need to refine my position. Or, to put it another way . . . Fretheim is spot on.
For Fretheim, creation is typically put in the service of salvation history; creation is subservient to it. Fretheim writes:
“Yet, the question remains as to the point at which this experience and Israel’s reflections upon it drew creation into its most basic confession of faith or was integrated with other key dimensions of the faith. It has probably been most common to suggest that Israel’s experience of redemption in the exodus events constituted the initial core of its faith, into which various other dimensions of the faith were grafted over time (such as creation.) To put it too baldly: [YHWH] is redeemer, therefore [YHWH] must be creator. An inference is then often drawn; namely, creation was theologically dependent upon redemption, or even subordinated to redemption, in Israel’s reflection and witness” (xv).
Fretheim challenges this conviction within scholarship in this way:
“That the Bible begins with Genesis, not Exodus, with creation, not redemption, is of immeasurable importance for understanding all that follows. At least from the perspective of the present shape of the biblical witness, creation is as basic and integral to Israelite faith and its confession as is the first article of the creed to Christians” (xiv).
He also cites two other seminal scholars on creation in the OT who, in my estimation, are precisely right. First, Rolf Knierim:
“[YHWH] is not the God of creation because he is the God of the humans or of human history. He is the God of the humans and of human history because He is the God of creation. . . . The most universal aspect of [YHWH’s] dominion i snot human history. It is the creation and sustenance of the world. This aspect is at the same time the most fundamental because creation does not depend on history or existence, but history and existence depond on and are measured against creation.”
and second Rolf Rendtorff:
“The Hebrew Bible begins with creation. Old Testament Theologies usually do not. How is that? The answer is obvious: because of the theology of the respective authors of Old Testament theologies.”
Let me be clear . . . Fretheim is not proposing to replace one proposed center–salvation history–with another, that being creation. He is seeking to show the primacy and centrality and undergirding nature of creation in the Old Testament’s theological vision of world and God. Creation provides the why of God’s engagement with and concern for creation, a concern that will pervade the entire OT. Again, this is how I have most often understood the issue: God’s purposes in and through Abraham and his family (Gen 12:1-3 and parallels) are a part of the divine desire to reclaim creation and all of its components, human and non-human. After the constant starts, restarts, and false starts in Gen 1-11, God chooses another mechanism, a covenant with Abraham, to bring about this same task. And while I have thought about it this way, Fretheim has already sharpened my thinking on the topic . . . and for that I am grateful. If the next 300 pages are as good as the first 10, then this will be a truly incredible and transforming book.
UPDATE: I’ve now read chapter 1, “Theological Perspectives.” Being well-acquainted with Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, I was aware of the basic content of this chapter. But again, Fretheim is exactly spot on! He isolates three points of reference for creation: 1. originating creation (the beginning); 2. continuing creation (the task of creation is an ongoing one, both preserving and innovative); 3. completing creation (new creation). His statement that Genesis and Revelation form a creation inclusio around the entire Bible is a major and worthwhile point.
But most worthwhile in this chapter is the section on ‘Creation, Redemption, and Salvation.’ Redemption/salvation he sees is not an end but rather the means toward which God continues to work toward new creation.
He closes out the chapter by discussing–quite familiar to those who have read The Suffering of God–his idea of the God/creation relationship as one of relatedness. His discussion here, however, put an even sharper edge on the topic than his treatment in The Suffering of God. As I said above, I am at bottom a covenant theologian (though Fretheim is pressing me to rethink a more appropriate label, given that I do take into account the place and role of creation alongside covenant; neither one obliterates the other), but Fretheim’s notice that God’s relatedness precedes covenant in the flow of the biblical text is, while seemingly innocuous enough, a major point with some significant impact. I continue to think through the implications of this. It does not decimate the notion of covenant as a vital interpretive category in comprehending the biblical text, but it does force one to nuance how that label is employed.
Terry Fretheim is one of only two biblical scholars (the other, of course, being Walter Brueggemann) who are, in my view, ‘just so dang right about everything’!