The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology

Read time: 6 minutes

I began reading [amazon:978-0830827480:inline], edited by C. Marvin Pate, on my flight from London to Los Angeles. The thesis of the book is that the Bible is held together by the “paradigmatic story of Israel” and that this story properly counts as a biblical theology. I like the thesis as stated—apart from the word “paradigmatic”—but there are three critical observations that I want to make here. First, the book puts forward its biblical theology as a literary rather than historical construct. Secondly, the narrative pattern it works with is incomplete. Thirdly, if the biblical theology is genuinely narrative in shape, then the “paradigmatic” element is self-defeating.

1. A theology of the community rather than of the texts

I think it is fair to say that the book defines “biblical theology” essentially as the theology of the biblical texts. This is apparent, for example, from the fact that it identifies the main obstacles to developing a biblical theology as literary ones—on the one hand, the “continual plight… of integrating both the unity and diversity of Scripture” and, on the other, the difficulty of relating the Old and New Testaments (13). How can you have a coherent biblical theology—as opposed to a systematic or dogmatic theology—when the texts are full of discrepancies and contradictions?

I would argue rather that a biblical theology should be understood as the fluid, responsive theology of the biblical community as it struggled to make sense of its historical experience in light of the tradition, and that it is this which grounds it in truthfulness and holds the whole thing together.

So the biblical theology that we find in deutero-Isaiah or Jeremiah is not the theology of the texts but the theology of the community that experienced exile. The distinction may make little difference to the substance of the theology since the texts are all we have. But it does affect how we assess its status and authority, and perhaps more importantly it suggests that the church today—as historical community—likewise constructs its own theology, under particular conditions, in faithful continuity with the narrated tradition.

2. The story doesn’t stop when it gets to salvation

In the Introduction Pate briefly sets out Steck’s argument that Second Temple Judaism was dominated by the Deuteronomistic view of Israel’s history:

Steck makes a compelling case that especially by the time of Antiochus IV and the Maccabean revolt (167 B.C.), the Deuteronomistic tradition, though capable of a certain fluidity of expression, had become a relatively fixed conceptual framework with five constituent elements. (18)

I assume this is basically right. The five constituent elements are:

  • The nation of Israel has always been “stiff-necked”, rebellious and disobedient. From Deuteronomy 32:5 through to Philippians 2:15 we have the complaint that the people of Israel are no longer sons or children of God because they are blemished, a crooked and perverse generation.
  • The prophets repeatedly call stiff-necked Israel to repentance.
  • Israel consistently rejects the prophets: “We did not listen to the voice of the Lord our God in all the words of the prophets whom he sent to us, but all of us followed the intent of our own wicked hearts by serving other gods and doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord our God” (Bar. 1:21-22).
  • Deuteronomy specifies the curses that will come upon persistently disobedient Israel, culminating in invasion and exile; and most Second Temple Jews believed that the “Deuteronomic curses and exile continued to abide on Israel” (20).
  • The hope is maintained, nevertheless, that Israel will finally be restored and will recover the Deuteronomic blessings. Generally speaking, this restoration was conceived in nomistic and particularistic terms: restoration will come about only when Israel sincerely obeys the Law, and the conviction remains in force that it is the destiny of national Israel to “one day rule the nations” (22).

Pate then argues that these five components can be “formulated in terms of the pattern of sin-exile-restoration” (22-23), but this seems to me to be another example of the narrative being brought up short in order to ensure that it still works within the evangelical salvationist paradigm. [pullquote]The rule-over-the-nations motif that Pate identifies as part of the particularist conviction of second temple Judaism has been dropped. Why?[/pullquote] Why does the pattern end with restoration and not with kingdom?

Yes, the fulfilment of Israel’s story will not be through keeping the Law. We know that because Paul had to make the case in his letters at great length, against both Jews and Jewish Christians. God had to find a way of completing the narrative apart from the Law (Rom. 3:21-22). But we do not find a comparable argument regarding the most extraordinary claim made in the Old Testament and in the texts of Second Temple Judaism—that YHWH would eventually rule not only over his own (restored) people but also over the nations.

Quite the opposite. The Jewish texts which assert the claim are among the most important for shaping the thought of the New Testament. The Song of Moses, which is such a significant text for the Deuteronomistic view of history, concludes with the assurance that YHWH “avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries” (Deut. 32:43). The Son who is today begotten will receive the nations as his inheritance and will break them with a rod of iron (Ps. 2). The God who will save the one whom he has forsaken will rule over the nations (Ps. 22). The king who is seated at the right hand of God will rule while YHWH executes judgment among the nations (Ps. 110). Every knee shall bow to YHWH and every tongue will swear allegiance (Is. 45). The Son of Man who suffers and is vindicated will be served by the nations (Dan. 7).

Even if we suppose that the coming kingdom of God is not historical but transcendent, it is this rule rather than salvation that constitutes the foreseen climax to Israel’s story. Simply put, The Story of Israel appears to lack an eschatology—a continuing narrative.

3. That bothersome word “paradigmatic”

There is an under-developed sub-thesis to the book, which is that the biblical story of Israel has universal relevance by way of analogy. As it says on the back cover:

The biblical story of Israel—in its sin, exile and restoration—is a sort of microcosmic drama of the plight and hope of the universal story of humanity and creation.

This is another indication, in my view, that the authors are too anxious to ensure that their narrative biblical theology serves the purposes of an evangelicalism centred on salvation rather than kingdom. A sin-exile-rebellion-kingdom pattern locks us into history because “kingdom” is an irreducibly political category, and political narratives are not inherently paradigmatic.

The Bible does not make the claim that Israel’s story is paradigmatic for humanity’s story—if anything, it is the other way round: humanity’s story is paradigmatic for Israel’s story. Nor does the Bible allow us to inhabit the New Testament narrative as though it were our own, or merely an allegory for our own. A narrative theology needs the stamina and determination to keep running when it gets to the restoration or salvation of Israel, not pass the baton over to theology. It must allow that the church at every moment constructs a theological understanding of its place in social and historical context, in faithful continuity with the narrated tradition. This is why New Testament eschatology is so important. It points forward into a real historical future. It keeps the story going.

I wonder if this universalism is the hardest aspect to get over for many evangelicals. I think many could embrace a narrative-historical perspective but view any attempts to undermine the universal applicability of scripture across time and place as dangerous postmodernism (ie relativism).

To remove straightforward universal application of the bible is a step too far.  Evangelicals in my experience are not comfortable with contingent and loosely held truths. Truth via narrative and history carries this element (hence the comfort with doctrine and theology first and then a history that illustrates and compliments these elements).

Your call to understand both the bible and the people of God from within a historical and communal perspective also cuts across the individualistic aspects of truth.  Universal, metaphysical, personal truth is lodged in the heart of modern evangelicalism, no?

@Kevin Holtsberry:

Kevin, I’m not sure the narrative-historical approach undermines the universal applicability of scripture entirely. I think it’s probably more of a question of how it’s constructed or understood—maybe that’s what you mean when you speak of the “straightforward universal application” of the Bible. I would still want to speak of the decisive or determinative theological significance of the existence of the family of Abraham and of the story which it tells about itself, including the ontologically decisive event of the resurrection—though as long as we speak from within history, rather than within the frame of an absolute rationality, such affirmations are unavoidably subject to critique and qualification. We make contingent, questionable statements of what is theologically decisive, if that makes sense.

@Andrew Perriman:

Fair enough, and I like phrase “decisive or determinative theological significance” but I stil think the modern church wants to speak from if not absolute rationality, near absolute rationality.

I also find it interesting that most evangelicals seems to see the incarnation as decisive and determinative rather than the ressurection.

I feel like I have deconstructed my prevous theological perspective and now I am trying to put it together again and I am wondering which parts are “extra” bits and which are neccesary. If that makes any sense.