Reading the Old Testament as a Christian

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I am preparing a piece for a theological forum in a couple of weeks on reading the Old Testament as a Christian. I will probably make two main points. The first is that the traditional approach needs to be reversed. We usually read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament: on the one hand, we go looking for Christ behind every tree—or better, every rock (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4); on the other, we resort to methods of obfuscation, decontextualization, excision, allegorization, and plain wishful thinking in order to make the theological content of the Old Testament fit whatever dogmatic grid we have constructed for reading the New Testament. I will suggest, to the contrary, that we currently need to read the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament. The New Testament is much less “Christian” and much more Jewish than we usually think.

Secondly, I will argue that it is the historical narrative of Israel, as it is interpreted by the Old Testament itself, that establishes the nature and extent of the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Any particular prophecy or typology that may be thought to point forward to Jesus—the prophecy regarding a child called “Immanuel”, for example—presupposes the overarching narrative-historical framework, the metanarrative. If the two parts of the Bible really constitute a coherent whole, we should be able to let the Old Testament tell its own story, in its own terms, for its own purposes, uncoloured by later “Christian” presuppositions, and find nevertheless that it connects quite naturally, like the two sides of a bridge, with the New Testament account of how the God of Israel became King through the faithful suffering of the Messiah and of the messianic community.

But how is this story to be told? There are several approaches that we could take, and I guess we have to accept that any attempt to outline the intrinsic narrative trajectory of the Old Testament is bound to appear either arbitrary or tendentious. With the best will in the world we cannot simply forget where we want the thing to land. But throwing such cautions to the wind, I suggest that the contours of the Old Testament story are determined primarily by Israel’s troubled relationship with the nations. It may not quite get at the heart of the matter, but it at least maps the valley along which the river of the story flows.

Here’s how I think it works….

Abram is called by God from the place of empire to be the father of a great nation following the dispersal of humanity into linguistically distinct people groups (Gen. 11:9). We know that these people groups or families will be blessed through him, but we should also note that from the start Israel’s relationship with other peoples is expected to be problematic: God will bless those who bless Abram and dishonour those who curse him (Gen. 12:1-3). The Exodus is a journey from oppression in Egypt to the displacement of the Canaanite nations in order that the family of Abraham might have its own land. Israel is to be YHWH’s “treasured possession among all the peoples” (Ex. 19:5). Punishment for disobedience will come ultimately in the form of invasion, military defeat, destruction, subjugation, and exile (cf. Deut. 28:36-68). The people demand a king “that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). David is assured that YHWH will defeat his enemies and establish his house and his throne for ever (2 Sam. 7:9-16). Exile and the prospect of domination by imperial powers provide the climactic developments for the Old Testament narrative. Much of Old Testament theology—not least ideas about justification and salvation—is forged in the furnace of these political conflicts.

The restoration of Israel following the catastrophe of divine judgment is clearly a central theme in the Prophets, but the clash with pagan empire has left its mark on the hope of “salvation” in some important ways.

1. Diaspora Judaism has become a significant factor. The experience of the people in exile becomes paradigmatic and formative for Jewish communities throughout the pagan world. The point is therefore made in concrete terms that the clash with pagan empire does not happen only in Judea, that it has become possible to witness to the eschatological sovereignty of Israel’s God from positions embedded deep within the oikoumenē.

2. Israel was always tempted to worship the gods of the nations, but following the exile the problem is experienced as one more of enforcement than of choice. The two circumstances are connected: if the people “go after other gods to serve”, they will be scattered among the nations and will “serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known” (Deut. 28:14, 64). The outstanding example is the violent attempt made by Antiochus Epiphanes to “compel the Judeans to forsake their ancestral laws and no longer to live by the laws of God” (2 Macc. 6:1; cf. Dan. 11:29-35).

3. The enforcement of idolatry has raised the prospect of persecution and martyrdom. Daniel was delivered, but when Antiochus Epiphanes made war against the saints of the Most High, he prevailed over them. Many of the wise among the people stumbled “by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder” (Dan. 7:21, 25; 11:33)—among them the old man Eleazar and the seven brothers and their mother, whose excruciating torments and irrepressible hope of vindication are described at great length in 4 Maccabees 6-15. Increasingly, righteousness—being in the right—is defined as a matter of resisting those pagan powers which threaten the integrity of God’s people.

4. The question of who rules Israel has become sharply focused. If Israel is in exile or under occupation, it cannot be complacently assumed that YHWH is still in control. The forceful affirmation of monotheism that emerges in Deutero-Isaiah serves a political need: Is the God of Israel powerful enough to defeat the Babylonians and lead his people back to Judah? The good news to Zion is that “Your God reigns” (Is. 52:7). He “tramples kings underfoot; he makes them like dust with his sword” (Is. 41:2).

5. The outcome of the clash between Israel and empire is not merely that God’s people will be rescued from the disastrous consequences of their sin. It is that the whole arrangement regarding Israel and the nations will be turned upside down. Israel will no longer be the tail but the head (cf. Deut. 28:13, 44). Through the salvation of Israel the supremacy of YHWH in the geo-political arena will be established when every knee bows and every tongue swears allegiance. The nations will bring tribute to Zion, they will serve the purposes of Israel’s God, they will seek wisdom and justice from him, they will bless themselves in him (Jer. 4:3). Israel’s king will be given authority to judge and rule over the nations (Ps. 2:7-9; 110:1-7). When the imperial oppressor is judged, persecuted Israel will be given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:14, 27).

So where does the story leave us? Perhaps we can put it something like this. Through the trauma of intense conflict with pagan empire Israel has learned that its God really is the only true God, sovereign over the nations. Israel has come to believe that its God will eventually be honoured by the nations, and that its king will rule over the nations from Zion. But it has also learned that this will be achieved through the agency of a righteous servant community that is prepared to suffer for the sake of the predicted victory over the nations. Peter Leithart makes the point in [amazon:978-1608998173:inline], 22:

Yahweh scattered citizens of His empire among the nations for a reason, not just to teach Israel a lesson but to begin forming a martyr-people whose faithful resistance would remake Gentile empire.

Roughly speaking this is where the span of the Old Testament story terminates, and it is where the span of the New Testament story begins.

Barney | Sat, 03/02/2013 - 02:59 | Permalink

This conclusion has affinities with the Catholic church.

Catechism, says:

“Christians therefore read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen. Such typological reading discloses the inexhaustible content of the Old Testament; but it must not make us forget that the Old Testament retains its own intrinsic value as Revelation reaffirmed by our Lord himself. Besides, the New Testament has to be read in the light of the Old. Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament.

Dang! I thought I was the first person to think of it. I would still question, though, whether Christians do actually have to read the Old Testament “in the light of Christ crucified and risen”. That’s not what Jesus does on the road to Emmaus, surely. His assumption is that the scriptures intrinsically bring Israel to a point from which the only way forward is through suffering and vindication. In other words, there should be no tension between a “Christian” reading of the Old Testament and an intrinsic reading. We have created the tension by a falsely “Christian” reading of the New Testament.

Anyway, it’s a shame you won’t be there, Barney.

peter wilkinson | Sun, 03/10/2013 - 19:42 | Permalink

on the one hand, we go looking for Christ behind every tree—or better, every rock (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4)

Perhaps not a bad approach in view of John 5:39 and Luke 24:27?