Old Testament Theology Thursday! (Sweeney/Jewish Biblical Theology Edition)

From Marvin Sweeney’s recent Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible:

“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.

Old Testament Theology Thursday (Crenshaw Edition)

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).

Old Testament Theology Thursday (Westermann Edition)

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)

Spot on, Westermann. Spot on.

Old Testament Theology Thursday (Eichrodt Edition)

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.

Old Testament Theology Thursday (Genesis Edition!)

Yes, I know it isn’t Thursday (mea culpa, it’s been one of those weeks!), but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to offer a very special Genesis edition of OT Theology Thursday–special in light of SBL’s acceptance of a new program unit devoted to the book of Genesis (see HERE). And so I offer, from one of our scheduled presenters at the 2012 Annual Meeting, R.W.L. Moberly (from his Theology of the Book of Genesis, Cambridge 2009, some thoughts on the theology of the book of Genesis:

“. . . the Book of Genesis comes to us, not as an interesting papyrological or epigraphic discovery from exploration of the Middle East that can enlarge our knowledge of ancient religion, but in the context of the canonical scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. In this context, Genesis has a seemingly inexhaustible history of interpretation and appropriation, which gives rise to continuing expectations and assumptions as one comes to the text. Whatever the complexities and ramifications of the debates about the relationship between scripture and tradition that have characterized both Jews and Christians down the ages, and however much it may become necessary periodically to reassert a certain kind of scriptural primacy over the forumlations of continuing traditions of interpretation, the fact remains that Genesis is received within the context of continuing traditions of faith, life, and thought, however variously these may be conceived” (12)

This approach described here by Moberly, in my estimation at least, speaks quite accurately to what we see and hope to continue to see being done in the book of Genesis, hopefully on display in the Genesis unit.

And I can’t resist another, from Moberly, the same volume:

“It is perhaps unusual for a book within the Old Testament to have one particular text that can be regarded as a possible interpretive key to the book as a whole, and even to the Old Testament as a whole. Yet such a case has been made in relation to God’s call of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. . . . The intrinsic significance of this passage is not in doubt. For its context makes it a bridge between God’s dealings with the world in general in Genesis 1-11 and his dealings with the patriarchs in particular in Genesis 12-50. These are also works on the lips of God, which clearly introduce and frame the story of Abraham that follows” (141).

I am in firm agreement with Moberly that Gen 12:1-3 is the interpretive lens needed for much of the biblical text, Old and New Testaments alike.

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!

Old Testament Theology Thursday! (Childs Edition)

Today is a goodie from the late Brevard Childs in his little book Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Fortress Press, 1985):

The initial point to be made is that the canonical approach to Old Testament thoelogy is unequivocal in asserting that the object of theological reflection is the canonical writing of the Old Testament, that is, the Hebrew scriptures which are the received traditions of Israel. The materials for theological reflection are not the events or experiences behind the text, or apart fro mthe construal in scripture by a communty of faith and practice. however, because the biblical text continually bears witness to events and reactions in the life of Israel, the literature cannot be isolated from its ostensive reference (6).

I am appreciative for what Childs says here: the emphasis is most fruitfully placed on the canonical text. Where I disagree with Childs–and where I continue to be unsatisfied with his canonical methodology–is in his confidence that the larger canon intentionally serves as the hermeneutical lens through which one must interpret various texts. For instance, elsewhere in this tiny volume he argues about a topic near and dear to my heart–the ethically problematic tales of the patriarchs–suggesting that in the biblical canon the emphasis is not on their ethical infelicities but instead on the grace of God in choosing such figures and remaining steadfast to them. While I don’t disagree with the idea that God’s grace is in evidence (abundance!) in the ancestral narratives, I am quite hesitant to suggest with any sort of confidence that these later texts (for instance, Psalm 105, among others) are intentionally reinterpreting the Genesis texts. Why could the opposite trajectory not be equally, if not more, authoritative? Could the Genesis texts be offering a comment on Psalm 105 et. al.? I have never been convinced that the way one adjudicates the direction of interpretation and influence is anything but arbitrary. But in the end, I am deeply appreciative for Childs’ emphasis on the importance of the final form of the text as the locus of Israel’s theological reflection and thus the necessary starting point for the interpreter’s theological reflection as well.

Thoughts?