Thoughts on the First Testament

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by Steve Kindle

IlliteracyOne of my “Pastoral Theology” professors remarked, “You can never underestimate the biblical illiteracy of a congregation.” This has proven true in all of the congregations I have served from Fundamentalist to Progressive. (Yes, I was once a Fundamentalist.) It is a continuing problem.

I just completed nearly a year leading a survey course of the Old Testament for the congregation I attend. We went from Genesis to Malachi, spending about one session on each book. The point was to familiarize the students with the overall content and meaning of each book, not to examine them in depth. In the Fall, we will do the same with the New Testament. The following represents some of the thoughts I took away from this.

In graduate school, I was exposed to the many attempts to organize the Old Testament around a unifying theme. For Walther Eichrodt the Sinai covenant was the lens through which to interpret the canon. For Gerhard von Rad it was what he called Heilsgeschichte, or “Salvation History.” Bernard Ramm saw in the Old Testament a “type/antitype” that connects it with the New Testament, and John Goldingay looks at the thread of grace that runs through the Testament. Walter Brueggemann, on the other hand, eschews any effort to organize the Testament by means of a unifying theme. For him, there is none, and in fact, the pluralism of the Testament is its greatest asset, allowing interpreters the freedom to imagine new possibilities in the text.

I think it is realistic to say that the search for a unifying theme is over. For Evangelicals unity of theme was based on the presumption of “one author,” that is, God. Therefore, it must have a single theme. However, the presence of different points of view, in fact, views that clash and jar against one another, make the notion of one author untenable. All one needs to confirm this is to look at how the Deuteronomic theology of “faithfulness to the covenant yields prosperity,” is undermined by Ecclesiastes and Job (among others). This lends credibility to the notion that the Old Testament is a compilation of attempts by Israel to make sense of their history, attempts that differ from one another in many respects.

The humanity of the contributors comes through in many places, especially when terrible things are attributed to God, such as the several genocides recorded as God’s command. The flip side of this are the texts which overturn Mosaic excesses. One such is his ban that Moabites are not allowed to worship with Israel “to the tenth generation,” meaning never. Along comes Ruth, a Moabite who is the great great grandmother of King David, who then gives Jesus the distinction of carrying Moabite blood. Another is Moses’ command that eunuchs would also be excluded from Israelite worship. Isaiah overturns this beautifully by prophesying that eunuchs will eventually be given something better than progeny, something that will never be “cut off,” a new name. Interestingly, the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity in the Book of Act was the Ethiopian eunuch!

If you are committed to the notion that everything in the Testament must conform to everything else, these not so subtle disagreements will escape you. Brueggemann’s pluralistic understanding of the texts opens up worlds of new possibilities of understanding if we have ears to hear.

One other insight is worth noting here. Some things taken literally actually hide a deeper and likely better meaning. When the discussion of Adam and Eve is taken literally, people want to know things like where was the Garden located, where did Cain get his wife, where did all those people come from to populate the first city, and how come we can’t find the angel guarding the Tree of Life. The Bible doesn’t seem interested in answering these questions, so we shouldn’t get too exercised about them, either. That’s because taking this story literally obscures the natural meaning of a story—to tell truths beyond the details. In this case, if you substitute “humanity” for Adam and Eve, you will read about yourself, not about two primordial characters.

I think the best thing about the time spent in this survey is getting acquainted with the flow of Israelite history. Once you get past 2 Kings, the rest of the Testament is hard to situate in a time-frame. Where do you locate Isaiah, for example, or Ruth? The Minor Prophets are jumbled among the pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic periods. It became clear that preaching from the Lectionary suffers because many people can’t put the text into a context, and sermons can’t take the time to do it, either. When we started, class members didn’t know the difference between primordial time and the Exile. They do now, and if anyone in addition to them is benefited, it will be the preacher.

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