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Archive for January, 2011

The Prophets

Finally we come to the prophets, which form the last long section of the Christian Old Testament. In the Tanakh, the prophetic books below (except for Lamentations and Daniel) are grouped with the historical books (Joshua through Kings) because the prophets figure strongly during the historical period covered by those books. These are not the only prophets in Israel’s history: for instance, Moses himself, Miriam, Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and several others.

A Bible explorer interested in the historical background of the Bible can, with the aid of a Bible chronology and commentaries, see how many of the prophetic oracles and material fits with certain periods in the histories of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.  The story “arcs” of the Bible extend from the books of Samuel and Kings, over to the materials in the various prophets.  But a Bible explorer can also trace the “arcs” of prophecy from their 8th through 5th century origins to the 1st century AD, when the New Testament writers found fulfillments of prophecy in Jesus. 

Surveying my notes in my old Bible, plus the annotations published there, I can develop a very basic resume of the prophets, which a Bible explorer can supplement.

Isaiah: The first 39 chapters contain words of judgment about the Northern Kingdom, as well as other nations, and also words of promise. Chapters 40 and following seem to be another prophet, or possibly two (“2 Isaiah” and “3 Isaiah”), writing during 500s BC, as the Israelites are restored by God, acting through the Persians. Here we find wonderful poetry of assurance concerning God’s redemption.

Jeremiah: The prophet preaches judgment upon the Southern Kingdom, and also promises of a renewed covenant in the future. We find tremendous pathos in Jeremiah, as also reflected in the following book, Lamentations.

Ezekiel: A prophet (also a priest) of the time before and during the exile. Ezekiel has weird visions and prophet actions bordering on, and sometimes crossing over to, the perverse. But the book also has a loftiness in the prophet’s moral concern for problems such as human accountability.

Daniel: The book focuses on events in Daniel’s life and also apocalyptic visions of God’s kingdom, the “Son of Man,” and the last days, though many of the visions deal with the time of Antiochus IV, the evil Greek ruler who persecuted Jews. This book is included in the last section of the Jewish canon rather than among the prophets.

Hosea: A Northern Kingdom prophet of the 700s, Hosea used his own family crises to describe the unfaithfulness of Israel and, in addition to words of judgment, the heartache and tenderness of God.

Joel: Joel has aspects of both prophecy and apocalyptic, because he speaks of the Lord’s judgment against sin (in whatever time period he’s writing) as well as the last days. We get the wonderful prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit here (2:28-29).

Amos: A Southern prophet who spoke to the sins of the North; he speaks judgment against the kingdom of Israel: their apostasy, wealth, and oppression of the poor. His classic call for justice and righteousness is well known (5:21-24).

Obadiah: A short little book, by a prophet completely unknown besides this writing. The Edomites were descendants of Esau who were enemies of Judah, and Obadiah’s prophecies are directed at them.

Jonah: Unlike other prophetic books, this one is a story, almost like a parable. The fish is not the point of the story, but rather Jonah’s reluctant prophecy which was, surprisingly, highly successful, as well as God’s promise of patience.

Micah: A contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea, and a prophet during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. His two themes are doom and promise, and his statement about Bethlehem (5:2), his lovely depiction of God’s kingdom where swords will become plows (4:1-4), and his requirements of anyone who loves the Lord (6:8) are also well known

Nahum: A counterpart to Jonah, in a way; Nahum pronounces doom upon Nineveh.

Habakkuk: An interesting book in that the prophet “dialogues” with God about the classic question: why do wrongdoers prevail? God may use an evil nation like the Chaldeans to accomplish his purposes, but they, too, will suffer the consequences. Hab. 2:4 is a classic text; Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17 as a beginning of his argument about the primacy of faith.

Zephaniah: The last minor prophet prior to the exile, Zephaniah preaches judgment and wrath, but also hope for the future.

Haggai: His topic is the rebuilding of the Temple following the end of the exile. Not a lofty writer, he straightforwardly urges the Temple’s completion. Interestingly, he praises the promised king by name, Zerubbabel, who eventually disappears from the record.

Zechariah: He also discusses the rebuilding of the Temple, but he writes with visions, symbols, and images of the coming messianic age.

Malachi: The last Old Testament prophet, from the 400s, who (with his interesting question-answer format) also posed Habakkuk’s question, why do the wicked prosper and the good suffer? Malachi’s innovation: his announcement that a messenger will herald the last days.

One of the basic literary units of the prophets is the proclamation: God announces judgment or salvation. These proclamations are addressed to God’s people but sometimes also to neighboring nations. The proclamations in turn made use of different kinds of discourse: indictment and verdict, hymns and songs, collections of sayings, and others. Later prophets also use longer kinds of writing like sermons and narratives. The prophets also record visions and descriptions of their own call.(1)

The prophets can be difficult reading.  The prophets express God’s anger at the Israelites, who have broken the covenant; in chapter after chapter, we find descriptions of wrongs, promises and descriptions of dreadful punishment, but also tender words and promises for the future. Our Sunday school class tackled Hosea’s thirteen chapters and were glad to move on to something cheerier (Lenten lectionary scriptures!). The prophets also use metaphors, allusions, and shifts of narration, which makes good commentaries essential for the modern Bible explorer. 

Because the prophets preached during the time of the historical books that I discussed above, we find familiar themes in the prophets: the covenant and the land, the threatened loss of the land, the failures of the monarchy, the role of the Temple (and, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, its loss), and others. The prophets connect back to God’s promises to Abraham and also Moses and the exodus, and also to the promise of David and of Jerusalem as they (the prophets) preached about God’s kingship and covenant.(2)

In these posts I’ve tried to trace interconnections among sections of the Bible.  In the previous section I touched upon the contrasts between the law and wisdom literature, and between prophecy and wisdom literature.  What about the contrast and connection between law and prophecy? 

Themes of covenant, land, faithfulness, and others thematically connect Torah and prophets (see my discussion of both Torah and the OT historical books).  We also find connections—notably in 2 Isaiah—between God’s covenant with Israel and God’s identity as Creator (Gen. 1-2, of course).  But other aspects of the relationship of the prophets and the law are complex and are debated by scholars. Some prophetic passages seem very “anti-law” (Ez. 20:25, Jer. 7:21-26, and Jer. 8:8).  The prophets, however, do not deny the law but sharply warn that religious ritual must go hand in hand with justice, mercy, righteousness, and the repudiation of idols. Even passages that seem “anti-law” do not abrogate the law and the covenant but call for a deeper faithfulness. Within Judaism, the view has prevailed that “the primary role of the prophet was to serve as a vital link in the transmission of the law from Moses down to the present.”(3) For instance, Deuteronomy defines the role of prophets (13:1-5, 18:15-22) and upholds Moses himself as the greatest of the prophets (34:10); many scholars consider the “Deuteronomic Code” (Deut. 12-26) as a product of the 600s BC and deeply influenced by Jeremiah’s preaching.(4)  For Jews, the prophetic criticism of faithlessness remains a call for contemporary faithfulness.

For Christians as for Jews, the prophets’ stress upon justice and suitable worship are as timely a Word of God today as in the ancient world.  But for Christians, the prophetic scriptures are also crucial for understanding who Jesus is and how his coming fits within and fulfills God’s plans of salvation.  The issue of the covenant becomes a key for Paul as he preaches about Jesus and the law; Paul understands faithlessness as a more basic flaw in both human nature and the law, and thus we need Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). A passage such as Jer. 7:21-26 points to the need for new beginnings (Jer. 3:31-34).  

We find many, many other connections of the prophets and the New Testament.  As Brevard Childs writes, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant),”(7) and these “chords” permeate the New Testament.  We also find many specific connections of prophecy and typology; a Bible explorer can spend months and years tracing and delving into the prophetic roots of Christian faith.  Here are just a few.(5)

* John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3-5, Mal. 4:5-6, Mk. 9:1, Lk. 1:17)

* Jesus’ birth (Isa. 7:14, 9:6-7, 11:1-5, Mic. 5:2, Mt. 2:6, Lk. 1:30-33)

* Jesus’ authority and teaching (Is. 6:9-12, 9:1-2, Mt. 4:14-16, 13:14-15)

* Jesus the shepherd (Ez. 34:11-16, John 10:7-11)

* Jesus’ ministry (Isa. 32:3-4, 35:5-6, 33:22, 42:1-4, 61:1-2, Mt. 9:32-35, 12:17-21, Lk. 4:17-21)

* Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Zech. 9:9, Mt. 21:4-5)

* Jesus’ sufferings, betrayal, and death (Isa. 52:13-53:12, Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, 13:7, in addition to Ps. 22, 69, and others)

* Jesus’ resurrection (Ez. 37:1-14, Jonah 1:17, Mt. 12:40, and among the psalms Ps. 16:10 and Ps. 110:1)

* The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34, Mt. 26:26-29, Rom. 11:26-36, Heb. 8:8-12)

* The Temple in relationship to Jesus (Isa. 56:7, Jer. 7;1, Mk. 11:15-18, John 2:13-23, Acts 7:47-51)

* “The righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 1:17)

* The Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:16-21)

* The redemption of all nations (Isa. 2:1-4, 1 Peter 2:10)

* Related to the redemption of the nations: the metaphor of marriage between God and his people (e.g., Hos. 1-3, Rom. 9:25-26, 1 Pet. 2:10, Eph. 5:25, 32, Rev. 19:7, 21:2, 9)(6)

* The end times (Daniel 7:1-12:13, much of the book of Zechariah, Ez. 38-39). In fact, no other New Testament book quotes or alludes to the Old Testament as often as Revelation: nearly 200 references in all, especially Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, but also Exodus, the Psalms, and other books.

* The prophet’s concerns for the poor and for justice continue in the New Testament. The Greek word dikaiosunê, corresponding to tzedakah, means “righteousness” and “justice.” God takes the side of the poor, downtrodden, and powerless. Luke’s gospel, and passages like Matthew 25:31-46, very much echo God’s care for the needy. You could also think this way: As God demands justice for the poor, outcast, and powerless of society, God also takes the side of the spiritually powerless, bringing them into the circle of salvation and righteousness.

* Although I’ve known Christians (including me) who were quick to stress that Jesus is “more than a prophet,” he was frequently understood to be a prophet (Mt. 21:11, Mark 6:15, 8:28, Luke 7:16, 24:19, John 4:19, 6:14, et al.) and possessed the Spirit in a way that people considered prophetic (Mt. 12:28, Mark 3:28-29, Luke 4:18-20, et al).

The End and the Beginning

How does the Bible end?  The Tanakh ends with books that, in the Christian Old Testament, are positioned earlier: Ezra-Nehemiah, which provides history of the return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple (the 500s and 400s BC); and 1 and 2 Chronicles, which recapitulate Israelite history and emphasizes the Jewish worship and temple. In this way, the Tanakh opens to the future of Jewish life and worship.

The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi and the prophecy of Elijah’s arrival prior to the Messiah. And so, moving from Old to New (and leaping over 400 years), we proceed to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which connects Jesus to his Hebrew history.  Of course, the New Testament ends with visions of the end times and Christ’s final redemption. 

As I wrote earlier, although the whole Bible is inspired by God and witnesses truly to our salvation, we should not read the Bible with the idea that each verse and book carry equal weight and value. To quote Brevard Childs again, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant). Conversely, other notes grew in intensity on which rabbinic Judaism sought to construct its faith (temple, cult, priesthood, law).”(7)  We can appreciate the Bible more deeply when we discern these chords and understand the scripture’s overarching themes and purposes.

We should be humbled by the way the Bible witnesses to the imperfection of human efforts, including (perhaps especially) religious efforts. The Israelites, in their centuries of life with God, provide example after example of doubt, complaint, loss of faith, and judgment. Because the New Testament reflects a much shorter time period than the Old Testament (fewer than a hundred years, depending on the conjectural dating of some of the epistles, compared to 1600 years between Abraham and Nehemiah), we don’t see the same kind of lengthy and obvious patterns of sin-judgment-repentance in the New compared to the Old. But we do witness to sin and wavering faith among the first Christians: divergence from sound teachings (2 Tim. 4:1-5), the threat of apostasy (Heb, 6:1-8), factions (1 Cor. 1:10-17), unchastity (1 Cor. 6:12-20, 1 Thess. 4:1-8), incest (1 Cor. 5:1-5), lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:1-7), disrespect of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and others. All seven of the churches of Revelation received a scold or a warning or both (the notable one being the soon-to-be-spit-out Laodicean church). The sad history of Christian smugness and persecution toward Jews is one of the worst examples of our failure to remember that we are as reliant upon God’s providential care and mercy as God’s people Israel (Rom. 11:21-24).

But the daily news alone verifies for us the sinfulness, pathos, and folly of human beings. The Bible gives us more: contrasted with human sin, we see the faithfulness of God’s love, care and mercy, the victory of God over Satan, sin, and death. The Bible has many dark places, but it is filled with hope and grace; it is a “bright” book, beginning middle and end.

Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light (Gen. 1:3)

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you

(Ps. 139:11-12)

And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever (Rev. 22:5). 

When we read the Bible, we’re seeking not only information but promises, and in a way, an interpretation of reality on which we can base our lives. Faith is both intellectual ascent and trust; faith is acceptance and understanding of doctrine, and also it is the way in which you enter a kingdom where you have peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and access to God (Rom. 5:2). The love of God controls you (2 Cor. 5:14); you’re no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:12-23), you’ve victory over death (1 Cor. 15:56-57); and your daily interpersonal contacts are characterized by love and kindness (Luke 10:29-37). A Bible explorer can learn the book’s content while also growing in the qualities required in that kingdom: prayer, worship, faith, kindness, eagerness for justice, a righteous (but not perfect) life, and an eagerness to learn and share God’s promises of salvation, justice, and righteousness.

Fortunately, Bible study doesn’t have to be like taking medicine to “get better,” but rather like discovering wonderful things during times of happy, companionable exploration. The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas writes that a certain series of symphonies “reminds me of revisiting a familiar national park. Even though you have an idea of the terrain and the trail, if you come back with different people, you might ask them to pass quickly through the meadow, so we can all linger by the cataract a bit longer.”(8)

So it is with Bible study!

Coda: Unbreakable Scripture and Faithful Love

John 10: 35 contains an aside, “Scripture cannot be broken,” that is intriguing and often cited in biblical studies.  But how do you study scripture without “breaking” it? In other words (to put it in a slightly clichéd way) how do you appreciate both the unity and diversity of the biblical material? How do you have honest differences of biblical interpretation while also loving one another (Gal. 5:15, Eph. 4:31-32, and the ironic 1 Cor. 4:10)?

This is an important issue, because one could mention many contemporary issues and topics for which Scripture is marshalled.  For several years I’ve been blessed to be on a team of writers of a weekly curriculum that addresses current events through the lens of scripture.(9) Christians interpret the scripture as our normative guide to our convictions and practices, but at the same time, appealing to scripture does not lead to proposals satisfactory to all. When our opinions and convictions are connected to the Bible and our perception of God’s will, we want to defend our convictions—and our sense of personal identity can become tied together with those convictions. Naturally, conflicts will arise when we encounter contrary viewpoints.

We have biblical precedent for conflict among Christians. In Galatians 4:21-5:1, for instance, Paul discusses an Old Testament passage which, apparently, had been also used by his opponents; both “sides” argued the issue of circumcision. We are liable to say: Well, of course Paul was the correct side in that controversy. But at that time, Paul was just one participant in a sharp difference of interpretation. A commentator puts it this way, “Normative proposals about Christian practices must be adjudicated through debating the interpretation of Scripture. As the Letter to the Galatians shows [referring to the 4:21-5:1 section], the appeal to Scripture does not settle issues in a simple, straightforward way. The right reading of Scripture may be bitterly contested, as it was in Galatia. Still, Scripture defines the arena in which the contest must take place.” (10) This is not a subjectivist approach to truth; rather, we seek a deeper understanding of truth, humbly, knowing that truth-with-a-capital-T is Christ, our living Savior.

I found a clue to thinking about Scripture’s “unbreakable” quality in The Seventy Faces of Torah. The author, Stephen M. Wylen, discusses a midrash that “every single verse in the Torah yields seventy different interpretations.” He writes: “Each interpretation teaches something new and different. They may even contradict one another, like the teachings of Hillel and Shammai. Yet each one of the seventy interpretations is the true word of God… The image of the seventy faces may be taken from the imagery of the jeweler’s art. Each side of a cut gem is called a facet, a little face… The beauty and fascination of a fine gem is that the one stone sparkles in so many different ways. We know that there is a single light within the stone, but we see that light differently depending upon which face we gaze upon. One diamond is like seventy different diamonds as we turn it, but of course it is one. In the same way there is only one God, whose light shines forth from every verse in the Torah. We see that light differently depending upon how we interpret the verse. The unity light of God’s Holy Spirit is fully revealed in many sparkles and flashes, as we see God through a multitude of interpretations on every single verse of Scripture.”(11)

Using Wylen’s example, we can understand Bible study not as “breaking” scripture but as a process of examining it as we might the facets of a diamond (which, to continue the analogy, is hard to break). Scripture itself looks different if we turn it around, see it at one angle, then another, or if we change the lighting and look at it in light or darkness. That light or darkness may be particular times in our lives, too, that seem either lovely or hopeless.

While honoring Wylen’s Jewish viewpoint, let me respectfully use his imagery for Christian faith. As Christ is the light of life, his light shines through the Bible. Jesus says, You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf (John 5:39). The scriptures testify on his behalf because the Spirit shines through the words and proves the truth of the Gospel. As surely as light passes through a gem, God will grant his Spirit to those who seek God:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13).

Needless to say, a cut gem is very beautiful, and we can think of the Bible—without neglecting its darker and more confusing passages—as reflecting Christ’s beauty, and as beautiful in its own right.

But the beauty of Christ is, in turn, known to the world in the work of the Holy Spirit through the works of love of Christ’s people.  As we interpret the Bible and apply it to life, we must be guided by a passage that most of us feel sentimental about, but which should be the indispensable part of any religious discussion:

if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast [or, my body to be burned], but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end (1 Cor. 13:2-10).

Notes:

1. Harper’s Bible Commentary, James L. Mays general editor (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), pages 534-539.

2. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 177

3.  Harper’s Bible Commentary, page 540.

4.  Harper’s Bible Commentary, page 540.

5. Among others, one handy list of biblical messianic prophecies is found at http://www.scripturecatholic.com/messianic_prophecies.html

6. Goldsworthy, pages 172-173.

7. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 176.

8.  Allan Ulrich, “Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony of a Thousand,” Gramophone (North American edition), April 2009, page A3.

9.  See http://www.cokesbury.com/faithlink

10. The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), page 307.

11. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), page 63.

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History

When I was a kid I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater. In a documentary about director Stanley Kubrick, one of the interviewees commented that part of the ongoing fascination with the film is that the sections of 2001 fit oddly together; for instance, we move from the deactivation of HAL to the arrival at Jupiter and the long Star Gate sequence and the cryptic ending. What does it all mean?

It occurs to me that the Bible is a little like that. The Bible is, after all, a collection of writings (some incorporating and editing earlier writings and traditions) from different authors, in different time periods, with contrasting purposes and, in some cases, with different theological viewpoints. Thus, you have to think about how the Bible books fit together. 

This is true, for instance, as we move from the Torah to the next section, the historical books of Joshua through Esther.  Following verse after verse of laws, statutes, and material for Hebrew life and worship, you’d expect to find historical accounts of these laws and cultic practices carried out.  Not so much!   Instead we get military campaigns, times of spiritual and moral decline, the adventures of Israelite rulers of varying quality, and so on. 

We do find a few references: Joshua refers to the law of Moses, 1:7ff, 8:31ff; the stories of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba also reflect concerns for cleansing rituals; and the sins of Solomon are also connected to the laws: Deut. 17:1-17 and 1 Kings 9:26-11:40). (1) Then, in Ezra and Nehemiah, we see the emergence of a more obviously religious community as delineated in the Torah.

The apparent dearth of cultic practices (as well as agricultural statutes, civil and criminal laws, and other mitzvot) within the historical accounts alerts us to a topic debated in scholarly circles: the development of the law and practices before and after the Exile, the impact of the rediscovery of at least part of the law during Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 22:3ff) and the uplifting of the law as a community standard during the post-exilic period (1 Chr. 15:15, 2 Chr. 25:4, Ezra 3:2, Neh. 13:11f).(2) But several themes of the Torah continue in these books, as I’ll discuss below.  (There may be an ancient textual connection between the Torah and the historical material; scholars have hypothesized a “Deuteronomistic history” that now forms the basis of the material from the beginning of Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings.) (3)

These books following Deuteronomy form is a varied “landscape.” Two main historical periods are represented, the fulfillment of God’s promise of land to the Israelites, from Joshua to Solomon, and then the period of national sin and decline (and the rise of the prophets) from Solomon to the exile.

Joshua concerns the conquest of the land following the death of Moses. The first twelve chapters concern the conquest of the land, and chapters 13 through 21 record the partition of the land.

Judges is an account of a succession of leaders (“judges,” or shofetim) with the Israelites’ history degenerating into civil war.

Ruth is a lovely, familiar story of two women, a Hebrew and a Moabite, devoted to one another in a terrible circumstance.

1 and 2 Samuel concern the beginning of the Israelite monarchy with a focus upon the rise and reign of the greatest king, David.

1 and 2 Kings takes us through another long history, that of David’s successors.

The stories of Solomon and the construction of the magnificent Temple provide a positive beginning to the post-David history. But the Hebrews suffer a succession of unfaithful kings, the division of the kingdom, the fall of the northern kingdom in about 722 BC, the fall of the southern kingdom in 586 BC, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, and the beginning of the Babylonian exile (586-536).These books are called “the former prophets” in the Hebrew Bible and are listed along with the prophets Isaiah through Malachi.

The Hebrew Bible places some of the historical books—Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther—in the final section called the Writings. The Christian Old Testament includes these books among the “former prophets,” so that, for instance, the story of Ruth—a Gentile ancestor of David and Jesus—provides a glimpse of hope amid the warfare and desolation of Judges and the stories of Samuel and the monarchy.

1 and 2 Chronicles cover much the same ground as the books of Samuel and Kings but theologically reinterpret the history. Notice the difference between David’s farewell speech in 1 Kings (2:2-9) and in 1 Chronicles (28:1-29:20) Unlike [the Deuteronomistic history], the Chronicler assigned each generation with complete intimacy to God, losing the unity of Israel’s history, so I wrote in my old Bible during a seminary class.The fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile (2 Kings 24:18-25:30 and Jeremiah 52:1-34) are key events for the entire Bible. Not only did it mark the virtual end of the Davidic monarchy, it was a second experience of wilderness, perhaps more profound than the forty years of Moses’ leadership. We know little about thosee forty years (passed over in silence between Numbers 19 and 20), and we also have comparatively little history in the Bible about the Exile )besides 2 Kings 25, Jeremiah 52, Lamentations, Psalms 79 and 137 and some other scriptures). (4) But Ezra and Nehemiah record the period after the Hebrews return to the land following the Babylonian exile. The Temple is rebuilt, Jerusalem is rebuilt and repaired, and the covenant is reestablished. Although comparatively minor books in the Bible, these books show how God’s people made the first transitions from their former existence as a kingdom to a new existence as a worshiping community.

Esther is a story of a Hebrew woman who becomes the Persian queen and, with her adoptive father Mordecai, saves her people. The book gives another side of the post-exilic history: Jews who did not return to the land but remained among Gentiles.

The history of God’s people obviously does not end there. We have more of their story reflected in the book of Daniel (probably from the 100s BC), in apocryphal books like Maccabees, and in the history and witness of the Jews during the subsequent two millennia. And, of course, the New Testament provides scriptural history of the messianic subgroup of Jews (with a growing number of Gentile converts) who became known as Christians.

The historical books have several major themes.  One is certainly the covenant: God will reward faithfulness and will eventually punish wickedness and apostasy. So the connection of the historical books and the Torah is, at one level, the failure of the Israelites to keep their part of the covenant faithfully; thus God’s judgment in the form of the Babylonian conquest and exile at the end of 2 Kings. But throughout these centuries, God has remained faithful.

Connected to the theme of covenant is the theme and experience of the Land (ha-aretz)—the land promised to Israel since Abram in Genesis 12. As we saw in the Torah, God guides his people, establishes his covenant with them, gives them his law, and leads them to the Land under the leadership of Moses and then Joshua. Holding and keeping the Land, though, remains a challenge across the centuries: the seemingly victorious efforts of Joshua are far the end of the story.(5)

Connected to the Land and covenant is the history of the monarchy. Commentators like Anderson note that while the tribal confederacy of the Judges period had problems with faithfulness and idolatry, those problems were different from other nations in that they were defined by their covenant to the Lord. But once Israel had a king, an additional temptation was added: becoming a nation like any other nation. Certainly God’s power was operative, for instance, in the selection of Saul and David and the ongoing life of the people, especially in light of the Philistine threat. But, as Anderson notes, “the religious faith of the Confederacy [of the Judges] survived its collapse and found new expression in Israel’s prophetic movement. Israel was not allowed to identify a human kingdom with the Kingdom of God, for Yahweh alone was king.” (6) Unfortunately, that meant that Israel had eventually to collapse, too, in order that they become truly faithful to the covenant.

As you explore the stories of David and his successors, you see difficulties building. Although Israel became a renowned kingdom (occasioning the famous Queen of Sheba’s visit in 1 Kings 10:1-10), we also hear of resentment about David’s census (2 Sam. 20:24 and 24), the rebellions and difficulties within David’s own family (2 Sam. 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2), and eventually the division of the kingdom following Solomon’s death.(7) On the other hand, the possibilities of monarchy gave rise to the hope for a future king who would reunite the people and regain and surpass the possibilities of peace and prosperity, as we read in the well known messianic passages of Isaiah 9 and 11.

Within these stories, David emerges as a kind of “typology” for God’s rule.(8)  The two mountains, Sinai and Zion, stand for the two covenants of God, and Nathan’s prophency (2 Samuel 7) links David’s descendants to God’s Sinai covenant. Earlier ambivalence about a monarchy changes to a confidence in God’s rulership through David’s line. Since David is identified with Jerusalem (Zion) in his selection of that place as capital, Zion became identified with God’s own city (Ps. 46, 48, 76, and others).(9) The line of David, also celebrated in the psalms (2, 20, 31, 45, and others) connects to the later messianic hope that grows in Israel’s history and, for Christians, finds fulfillment in Jesus.

Another theme of these biblical books is the Jerusalem temple. The Temple, promised to David and constructed during Solomon’s reign, is connected to the history of the Tabernacle before it (Ex. 35-40) and, of course, to the Land itself. David’s hope for a great, permanent house in the Land for God is not fulfilled, but his son Solomon constructs the facility (2 Sam. 7, 1 Kings 5-8). Like the monarchy, the temple did not survive the collapse of Judah and Jerusalem in 586 (1 Kings 25:8, 9, 13-17), but the Temple serves in Israelite memory through the exile in, for instance, the dynamic vision of a restored Temple in Ezekiel 40-48. Following the exile, the high priest Jeshua and the governor Zerubbabel, helped by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, supervise the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 3-6). After the Old Testament period, Herod the Great began work on a restored temple in 20-19 BC, a building effort still going on during Jesus’ time and beyond. Herod’s temple was finally completed, ironically, just a few years before the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.

We find other connections within the historical books.

* The connection of the Canaanites with Noah’s curse (Gen. 9:25-26) as the Israelites take possession of the Land during these centuries.

* The ongoing theme of the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8-16, Numbers 13-14, Deut. 25:17, 19, Judges 3;13, 1 Sam. 15, et al.), connecting Joshua with Saul and later Hezekiah (1 Chr. 4:41-43).

* The ongoing theme of Bethel (Josh. 18:21-22, Judges 1:22-26, 20:18, 26-28, 1 Sam. 7;16, 1 Kings 12:26-32, 2 Kings 17:27-28, 2 Kings 23, 15-23, Ezra 2:28, Neh. 7:32, 11:31)

* The connection of the places Gilgal (Josh. 4:19-5:12, 1 Sam. 11:15, 13:1-10) and Gibeon (Josh. 9:3-27, 2 Sam. 2:12-3:1. As one commentator puts it, “The story [of Gibeonites] signals radical Davidic centralization by highlighting Joshua’s fulfillment of Yahweh’s command.” But these Joshua stories also connect to the law of herem (Deut. 7: 20:16-18), wherein God requires the annihilation of the people and prohibits the taking of spoils.(10)

We also find connections with the New Testament, some mentioned already.

* The great theme of Yahweh’s salvation. The name “Joshua” is in Hebrew the same name as “Jesus,” meaning “Yahweh saves.”

* The theme of the Land. The Land is not spiritualized in the Old Testament the way that it tends to be in the New. In the Old, we speak of the actual land and its possession. Deutero-Isaiah begins to move in a more spiritual direction (Is. 44:24ff, 49:14ff), and in the New Testament, Jesus himself becomes the “place” where God dwells (John 1:14).(11)

* The theme of the Kingdom of God. The phrase is not used in the Old Testament, but the kingdom of God is the principle theme of Jesus’ preaching and connects with God’s sovereignty through Israel’s history. As Graeme Goldworthy puts it, “While the Old Testament is everywhere eloquent in describing the sovereignty of God in history to work out his purposes, Jesus declares that he is the goal of that sovereign working of God.”(12)

* The theme of a new kind of monarchy under David’s descendant, Jesus. In his person and work, Jesus brings themes like the Lamb of God, the sufferings of David, and the suffering servant of Isaiah into the theme of the king of Israel (13): thus, when Jesus is killed, the charge against him is “king of the Jews.” But in his suffering and death is victory over sin and death, and the ambiguities of the Israelite monarchy are resolved.(14)

* The theme of the Temple. The New Testament never explicitly mentions the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, an odd omission since portions of the New Testament are presumed to date from the late first century. Jesus quotes Jeremiah concerning the Temple, and he himself is the new temple (John 2:20-22). Paul, in turn, calls each of us “temples of the Holy Spirit” in that God’s presence dwells within us now in a special way (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

* The realities of post-exilic Judaism provide a more subtle connection. Groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees formed in response to the spiritual needs of the people during the post-exilic time, as did institutions like synagogues, Sabbath requirements, and festivals to which Jews—many living in different parts of the world after the exile—came to Jerusalem (e.g., John 11:55 and also Acts 2:5-11).

During my seminary years, I copied a chronology into my old Bible of the several biblical rulers, but since I don’t remember the original source, I’ll not recopy that chronology here. My Halley’s Bible Handbook gives an approximate resume of the time period,(15) as does my textbook by Bernhard Anderson, a favorite supplemental text during my seminary years. Other than the judges, the list and dates below come from Anderson.(16)

The judges of Israel were: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson are listed in the book of Judges, and also Eli in 1 Samuel. Samuel himself served both as the last judge and also as priest and prophet.(17)

The kings following Samuel were Saul, David, and Solomon. Then the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) divided about 922. The kings from the division of the kingdom to the exile are listed, sans these approximate dates, in 1 Kings 12:1-22:53, 2 Kings, and 2 Chr. 10:1-2:23.

Israel:                      Judah:

Jeroboam, c. 922-901 Rehoboam, c. 922-915

Nadab, c. 901-900    Abijah, c. 915-913

Baasha, c. 900-877    Asa, c. 913-873

The empire of Assyria rose in power during this time.

Israel:         Judah:

Elah, c. 877-876

Zimi, c. 876

Omri, c. 876-869

Ahab, c. 869-850, Jehoshaphat, c. 873-842

Ahaziah, c. 850-849, Jehoram, c. 849-842

Jehoram, c. 849-842, Ahaziah, c. 842

Jehu, c. 842-815, Athaliah, c. 842-837

The prophets during this period were Elijah and Elisha.

Joahaz, c. 815-801, Joash, c. 837-800

Joash, c. 801-786, Amaziah, c. 800-783

Jeroboam II, c. 786-746, Uzziah, c. 783-742

Zechariah, c. 746-745, Jothan, c. 750-742

Shallum, c. 745

Menahem, c. 745-738

Pekahiah, c. 738-737

Pekah, c. 737-732, Ahaz, c. 735-715

Hoshea, c. 732-724, Hezekiah, c. 715-687

The prophets during this time were: Amos, c. 750, Hosea, c. 745, Isaiah, c. 742-700, and Micah, before 722 to c. 701.

Also during this time, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in about 722-721. Subsequent kings of Judah were:

Manasseh, 687-642

Amon, 642-640

Josiah, 640-609

Jehoahaz, 609

Jehoiakim, 609-598

The prophets during this time were Zephaniah, c. 628-622, Nahum, Jeremiah, c. 626-587, and Habakkuk, c. 605). Also during this time, Assyria falls and Babylon rises in power.

Jehoiachin, c. 598-597

Zedekiah, c. 597-587

The prophets were Obadiah, and Ezekiel, c. 593-573.

The first deportation of God’s people to Babylonia occurs in about 597. The fall of Jerusalem and second deportation occur in about 587.

After the fall of Babylon and the rise of Persia, many of the exiles return. As recorded in Ezra, Jeshua and Zerubbabel led the exiles newly re-settled in Canaan, in addition to Ezra himself and Nehemia; the prophets of that period were Haggai and Zechariah. (Scholars date the prophets Joel and Jonah as probably post-exilic, though the writings contain few clues as to their time period.) During the post-exilic era, the temple is rebuilt and Jerusalem is restored.

The final prophet is Malachi, c. 500-450.

Imagine a history that begins at around 1200 AD–the time of King John and the Magna Carta, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and the Fourth Crusade–and ends at the present time.  The period from Joshua to Nehemiah and the post-exilic period is about 800 years.  But Bible history extends backward yet another 800 years, if we assume Abraham lived about 2000 BC. So from Abraham to Nehemiah we’ve a span similar to time of the decline of the (western) Roman Empire to today.

Notes:

1. Solomon’s sins vis-à-vis the Law are discussed in How to Read the Jewish Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pages 122-123.

2. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 137.

3. The first of several books on this subject is The Deuteronomistic History by Martin Noth (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002; originally published in 1943).

4.  See Childs, Biblical Theology, pages 161-163, for several aspects of the period from biblical sources.

5. One classic study is The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann (Second edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002). Gordon J. Wenham writes, “The [book of Genesis] begins with the triumphant account of God creating the world in six days and declaring it ‘very good’, and it ends with Joseph confidently looking forward to his burial in the promised land. Judges by contrast opens with the rather ineffective efforts of the Israelite tribes to conquer that land and closes after a most dreadful civil war with the gloomy reflection, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes’ (21:25).” Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), page 45.

6. Anderson, pages 162-163.

7. Anderson, page 184.

8. A helpful book to me was In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1972), on the freedom of David.

9. Childs, Biblical Theology, pages 154-55

10. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pages 562, 566.

11.  Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, chapter 10.

12. Goldworthy, page 52. Goldworthy notes that the political kind of kingdom extended from the exodus (and holy war) through the historical books and through the conquest of David and eventually the nation’s destruction. “After that, the Holy War and divine deliverance notion is reinforced in the account of Esther and the Maccabees, historic events occurring against the background of prophetic and apocalyptic portrayals of the victories of the people of God and the glorious restoration of the nation, its land, temple, and kingly rule. In all this the Passover imagery of the slain lamb of God, the sufferings and rejection of the anointed David before his final vindication, and the suffering servant of the Lord seem to have been forgotten.” Thus the political nature of God’s kingdom has been there but not at the expense of the images that Jesus also brought into his announcement of the kingdom (page 53).

13. Goldworthy, page 53.

14. “King, Kingship,” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, ed. By Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), page 451.

15. Halley’s Bible Handbook, by Henry H. Halley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), pages 283-284.

16.  Anderson, pp. 603-605.

17. Halley’s Bible Handbook, p. 283.

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A Jewish Book

Continuing my exploration of the Bible’s content as I think of the book as a “landscape” for exploration… I began with the New Testament but left out many of its themes so that I could show typological, historical and thematic connections between the testaments.  So now, I backtrack to the Old Testament as a whole, and then its respective sections: the Torah, the historical books,  writings, and then the prophets.   

Jews call their scripture the “Tanakh,” which refers to the three sections of the book “Torah,” “Neviim” (prophets), and “Khetuvim” (writings). This means: the Torah is still Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Then the middle section includes the historical books beside the prophetic books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (the “minor prophets”). Then the last, writings section includes: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. In the Christian Old Testament, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are placed after the 1 and 2 Kings, reflecting historical chronology. Then the next books are from the “writings” section of the Tanakh: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs–again, reflecting historical chronology in the placement of David’s and Solomon’s books near their historical accounts. Finally, the last books of the Old Testaments are the prophets–but Lamentations and Daniel are included in this section, and the twelve minor prophets are not grouped as a single book. In the following essays, I follow the Old Testament order but refer to the Tanakh order.

A Jewish friend points out how unlike (to Jews) are the Tanakh and the New Testament. That’s a point most of us Christians miss, because we’re accustomed to the two testaments being adjacent and related. We assume that the New Testament grows self-evidently from the Old, whereas, for Jews, a good deal of the New seems foreign to concerns of Judaism, especially passages that seem to repudiate the Torah and denigrate Moses. Not only that, but some of the New Testament is  addressed to Gentiles rather than to Jews and, indeed, much of the NT material comes across as hostile and dismissive of Jews and Judaism; even the most positive passages about Judaism (Rom. 11:11-32) would not seem so to Jews. (Dr. Julie Galambush, in her book cited in note 1 below, skillfully discusses the Jewish background of [and seeming anti-Jewish sentiments in] the New Testament [1].)  Certainly Christians through time have harbored prejudices and hatred toward Jews, in part because of the anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament.(1a)  

A Bible explorer can be sensitive to these facts.  The New Testament arises out of the experience of the risen Lord Jesus, but for those who do not see evidence of his lordship in the world, the New Testament seems a radical and foreign reading of the Old.(2) 

On one hand, this is true.  For instance:  Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words (and thus is a slightly lower level of authority, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship (a level of authority still lower than the other two).  If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. For Christians, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority; the prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). 

On the other hand, Christians shouldn’t think of the New Testament as something brand new; the NT’s special witness was shaped and verified by the divine authority of the Jewish scriptures and, as I show in these essays, there are abundant interconnections between the Old and New Testaments. 

Christians still need to take care how they interpret the Old Testament.   For instance, because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. We must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness, so that “You shall not murder” is always true but “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (Lev. 19:28a) is more time- and culture-bound.  We should avoid the disingenuous practice of proof-texting from the Torah laws when we’d never think of practicing (or even reading) most of them.  

Similarly, the prophets. A person could easily cite the ancient prophetic judgments in order to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) True, the prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future, which Christians affirm as the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” (the concern of my professor Brevard Childs) that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.

One time, in a Sunday school class, the classmates tried to think of similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. All the folks could remember were differences: Jesus, of course, and also different holidays. Looking back, I sigh, because now I know that almost everything important in Christianity is a “reconfigured” Jewish idea. (A major exception is the cross, a Gentile way of killing people, but even the crucifixion is foreshadowed in Hebrew scripture: e.g., Ps. 22:16-18, Ps. 69:21, Isa. 52:13-53;12, Zech. 12:10, et al.). The oneness of God, creation, atonement, redemption, the Hebrew people, holiness, ethics, and so on: these are ideas foundational to both religions. We find them right away, in the Torah.

Torah

The Torah has five books.

Genesis takes us from the Creation to the death of Joseph. Along the way, we read the familiar stories of the first generations of humans, the call and covenant of Abraham, the stories of his descendants, and the emigration of Jacob’s family to Egypt.

Exodus explains the Israelite slavery, the call and ministry of Moses, the Passover and Exodus, the entry into the wilderness, the Sinai covenant, and the creation of the Tabernacle.

Leviticus contains numerous laws: laws of sacrifice, the consecration of priests, laws of holiness, kashrut (kosher), purification, holy days, and atonement, among others.

Numbers continues the Israelites’ travels in the wilderness. The people travel from Sinai to Moab but fail to believe the counsel of Joshua and Caleb concerning the inhabitants of the Land. God punishes their rebellion by forbidding that generation from entering the Land. Thirty-eight years passes between chapters 19 and 20, and Moses himself is forbidden from entering the Land as well.

Deuteronomy concludes the Torah’s long story in the fortieth wilderness year as Moses addresses the people in two discourses (1:6-4:40 and 5:1-26:19). Moses reiterates the law (the name of the book means “second law”) and reminds the people of the necessity of faithfulness to God. After speaking his parting words, Moses dies and is buried.

It’s a shame that we tend to disconnect portions of the Bible from other sections. For instance, we tend to isolate Genesis 1-2 when we think about God’s creation. But the stories of creation connect with the beginning and spread of human sin and God’s plan of salvation. Genesis 1 connects with the Jewish Sabbath, the sign of God’s covenant with Israel (Ex. 32:12-17). In turn, Genesis 1-11 can’t be set apart as separate stories, for those chapters are necessary for understand how the story of humankind has a “twist” that alters everything else: God’s great call to Abraham in Genesis 12 and following.

I love reading Genesis. The stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants always seem like small gospels, in the sense of the “good news” of God’s favor and blessing to people who, though deeply flawed, respond in faith to God’s unmerited grace. But I can’t isolate the book from Exodus 1-15, for everything is necessary for understanding who the people of Israel are and why they are in Egypt. So in Exodus we find more stories of God’s history of his people: the reasons for Israelite slavery, the story of Moses, the liberation of the people, their deliverance across the Red Sea, and the beginning of Moses’ long leadership of the people in the wilderness as they approach the Promised Land. So the basic story forms a long “arc” from creation to God’s great work in the exodus and the parting of the sea.

But the Exodus, movie-worthy as it is, isn’t the climax of a drama!   From there, God creates and cares for his people. Interestingly, the prophets do not evoke Abraham and his covenant but instead evoke the Exodus as the great event by which God established his covenant people (e.g., Amos 2:9-11, 3:1-2, Hosea 2:15, 11:1, 13:4, Isa. 43:16-21, 51:9-11, Ez. 2:5-6, 20:33-44, and also Deut. 5:6, 6:20ff, 26:5ff, Psalm 78, 81, 95, 105, 106, as well as the allusion in Joshua 3:1ff, and later in Neh. 9:6ff, Daniel 9:15, 1 Chr. 6:5, 7:22, and also references to the plagues and rebellions in Psalm 78, 95, 105, 106, and in Wisdom of Sol. 17 and Sirach 45:1ff.(3)

This connection of the exodus and subsequent history is possible because the exodus and the covenant of Sinai are connected, as in Ex. 19:3-6. As Anderson puts it, “…Yahweh’s initiative evoked a response from the people. It placed them in a situation of decision, summoned them to a task within the divine purpose. What Moses had experience earlier at Sinai … was experienced by all the people at the same sacred mountain, and with far-reaching implications for the future.” (4) In Exodus 24, which binds two traditions (verses 1-2 and 9-11, and 3-8), the covenant is ratified between God and the people. But the covenant, too, can be tied back to creation. Scholars note that the building of the sanctuary parallels the six days of creation (Ex. 24:15-18), alerting us that God’s work, after resting on the seventh day, continued in the creation of God’s special people. (5) Not only that, but the covenant and law comprise a new “Eden” in which the people can live, close to God.(6)

The material from the 10 Commandments on is not just a collection of statutes. The story continues and if you’re tenacious, you notice things. In the middle of Leviticus, you encounter a family tragedy: Aaron’s two sons are killed by God’s fire. Later on, in Numbers, you find the story of Korah’s rebellion, which resulted in casualties—inflicted by God—greater than the bloodiest Civil War battles, if you take the biblical statistics literally. Also in Numbers, Moses is forbidden to enter the land; he also loses his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, who have shared the journey. Reading hastily through this material, we’re liable to miss the poignancy of Moses’ circumstance.

If you read this material closely, you notice certain “story arcs.” Exodus 29, which concerns priestly ordination, connects to Leviticus 8-9. The covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. The laws of Leviticus connect back to the events of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24. (7) The stories of the spies and the rebellion of Israel in Numbers 12-14 connect us forward to the book of Joshua and set the stage for the long sojourn in the wilderness (which is not recorded but which happens between the end of the story at Numbers 17:13 and the beginning of Numbers 20. The story of Numbers 20 connects us back to Exodus 17, two similar rebellions of Israel.

Finally, in Deuteronomy, Moses gives a long farewell message, instructing the people again about the importance of following God’s will and commandments. With the death of Moses at the end, we conclude this part of the Scriptures that faithful Jews hold most precious. But the death of Moses is not the end, for Deuteronomy looks to the future. In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24).

Deuteronomy circles back even further, toward the beginning. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” says Deut. 26:5, meaning Jacob, and the passage 5-10 remembers Egyptian bondage, God’s salvation, and circles back again to the promise of the land, which the Israelites are about to enter.

The conclusion of Numbers circles back even further, for as commentators note, the passage describing the land of Canaan and its settlement (chapters 34-36) belongs to the “priestly source” which was the source of Genesis 1. Thus the promise of land for God’s people reflects God’s love of all creation and God’s desire for new human relationships.(8)

The Torah, though, may be the most ambivalent portion of the Bible for Christians. Some Christians won’t touch the statutes with the proverbial long pole—unless, of course, some of the laws are suitable to prove a point, and the laws become God’s eternal word to criticize people.

We Christians should remember a few things about the Torah. The first is that much of material was not originally meant to be applicable for us Gentiles (Acts 15, Gal. 3:3-5). These 613 laws were first given for Jews to do God’s will and to set them apart as God’s people.(9)  The distinction you often hear—the moral laws are applicable for Christians but the ceremonial laws are not—is not a biblical distinction at all, because in the Torah, all of life—worship, legal translations, daily behavior, diet, and so on—are of whole cloth, as it were. In his love, God has given the Hebrews a precious expression of his will. God shares this religious heritage with us Gentiles because of his love, and because of God’s favor, this legal and narrative material is part of our religious heritage (Rom. 11:17-24).

Contrary to a common Christian idea, Judaism has not historically viewed the law as a means of self-justification and self-salvation; the law has been God’s wonderful gift to follow. Paul, however, was adamant that the laws were unnecessary for Gentile converts to Christianity; even more than the moral law, he stressed the law of the guidance of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Now, we see the law through Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness and took the consequences of our law breaking onto himself (2 Cor. 5:21). But Paul upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), to show how Christ’s perfect (law-keeping) life is now a gift of life to us. (10) Arguing thus, Paul stayed within the Torah and went back before Moses to Abraham to show how God’s favor touches people through their faith apart from the law (Romans 4). (Jesus did a similar thing, going prior to Moses to God’s first intentions: Matt. 10:2-9). The question remains for Christians: how does the law still apply? A classic solution is to view the law in three ways: as a restraint to the wicked (the political use), as the law that brings us to Christ’s salvation (Gal. 3:24, the theological use), and then the “third use of the law,” which is to give content to the love of Christ which we display as we’re transformed by the Spirit (Gal. 6:2).

The Torah is deeply foundational for Christians, in ways  so obvious that we take them for granted. A Bible explorer will discover interesting “arcs” and connections. One is the idea of the covenant, for now God has extended his covenant to include non-Jews (Rom. 3:29-30). Another is the idea of blood for atonement forgiveness of sins (Rom. 3:25). Christ’s blood was shed and now there is no longer need for sacrifice, even if they were still being done (Heb. 9:11-14).

Still another idea is the faithfulness and righteousness of God, a Torah theme strongly defended in Romans 3 in Paul’s preaching of Christ.

Still other connections:

* The Creation and New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:1)

* Adam and the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21)

* The faith of Abraham, in some important ways the key to the whole Bible (Gen. 12:1-3, Rom. 4, Heb. 11:8-22)

* The manna in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread (Ex. 16:1-21, John 6:25-40).

* The covenant, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the Eucharist (Ex. 24:6-9Lev. 7:12, 22:29, Ps. 107:22, 116:17, Amos 4:5)

* The healing serpent and the healing of Christ (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15)

* The condemnation in Deuteronomy of a condemned criminal “hanging on a tree” (Deut. 21:22-23; John 19:31, Gal. 3:13)

* The salvation of Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)

* The role of Moses (Heb. 3:1-6, 11:23-28)

* The priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-14, 9:1-10:18)

* The “rest” of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:7-4:13)

* The Pascal Lamb (Ex. 12:11; 1 Cor. 5:7)

* The ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24:3-8 and the Eucharistic words of institution (Mark 14:22-25, 1 Cor. 11:25.

* The two great commandments (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:28-34, Gal. 5:14).

Moses stands as the great Old Testament lawgiver and the greatest prophet. He tends to be downplayed in the New Testament because of the concern of the writers to preach the primacy of Christ (Heb. 3:1-6); in Christ God has revealed the purpose and goal of salvation and has revealed a new attitude toward the law. But what a tremendous figure of intercessory love and compassion! He takes the side of the people, stands up for them, refuses to let God wipe them out. Any pastor who identifies with Moses as an example of flock-leading must be willing to accept intercessory suffering and to identify fully with the people. Moses is a true shepherd.

Notes:

1. The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book by Julie Galambush. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

1a. A funny but awful exchange in the musical Spamalot goes: “Patsy: I’m Jewish! King Arthur: What? Why didn’t you say so? Patsy: Well… it’s not the sort of thing you say in front of a heavily armed Christian.”

2. In terms of Jews and Christians, for instance, Maurice Friedman puts the matter well: “The Christian sees the Jew as the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened, and the Jew sees the Christian as the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms redemption in an unredeemed world”: in Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1960), page. 279. 

3. Understanding the Old Testament by Bernhard W. Anderson, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), pages 9-10; Child’s Biblical Theology, p. 131.

4. Anderson, pages 82-83.

5. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 112, which notes that both Genesis 1 and Ex. 24:15-18 come from the “priestly source” that is incorporated into the narrative of Genesis through Numbers and also influenced Chronicles.

6. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldworthy, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), page 37.

7. Brevard S. Childs in his Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986,), page 53.

8. The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998), pages 267-268.

9. The 613 laws of the Torah are set forth and discussed in The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law by William J. Doorly (New York: Paulist Press, 2002).

10. Goldsworthy, p. 159. 

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Songs, Poetry, Wisdom

Between the historical books and the prophets, we have several books that, in the Jewish Bible, appear in the final “writings” section.  In the Tanakh, the “writings” are  Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Ruth, Song of Songs, Daniel, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles).(1)  In the Christian Old Testament, some of these writings are found among historical writings, and others between 2 Kings and Isaiah. 

Here again, we encounter a portion of the Bible that doesn’t at first sight seem to fit with what came before, as I’ll discuss in a moment.   These writings are among the beloved portions of the whole Bible.  

Job is the well-known story (a long poem framed by short narrative sections) of a righteous man who suffered terribly. He and his friends try to plumb the mysteries of God’s providence.

The Psalms are 150 songs of praise, complaint, lamentation, penitence, and supplication. They were used in the rebuilt Temple and, eventually, in synagogues and churches.

Proverbs is a collection of sayings, many attributed to Solomon, on topics like morality, knowledge, justice, and other issues of right living.

Ecclesiastes is a reflection upon the seasons of life, the difficulties of gaining wisdom, and the ultimate vanity of human striving.

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is an emotional poem of love and longing between two people.

Some of the writings are connected to Jewish festivals. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther are known as the Five Scrolls (Hamesh Megillot) and are read in synagogues on Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), Tisha be-Av (anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem), Sukkah (feast of tabernacles), and Purim, respectively. What enrichment these books bring to the Bible! In Ruth, we find not only a story of family love and loyalty, but also a warm illustration of how God can work through faithful people, including Gentiles like the Moabite Ruth. Esther is a counterpart to Ruth: in Ruth, a Gentile survives within a Jewish majority, while in Esther, a Jew must survive (with more ominous stakes) in a Gentile world.(2) Esther also is a reminder that God’s people the Jews have and will endure as God’s special witnesses.

Ecclesiastes and Job provide a check against any theology that takes a flippantly “sunny” approach to life: as if our walk with God was a victory-to-victory process. Although you wouldn’t want this material to “have the last word,” we need material in the Word of God that, paradoxically, rise the issue of the difficulties of knowing God—and the difficulties of managing the tragedies and pain of life.

Song of Songs can be interpreted as an allegory and as such is beloved by many as a religious paean. As I’ve written in my Bible, though, its interpretations have been many, and reading it as erotic poetry—in the Word of God—is also quite permissible, and anyone who’s been in love can be happy that God so blesses mutual human love, including physical attraction. (In fact, the prophets depicted the relationship between God and Israel in often startling terms that we might feel inappropriate if we were writing the Bible.)

The term “wisdom literature” refers to different biblical material, not only Proverbs but also Ecclesiastes, Job, the Song of Songs, and Psalms such as 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, and others.(4) Wise men and women are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible (Genesis 39:1-6, 41:8-32, 2 Samuel 14:1-20, 16:23, 20:14-22), and King Solomon, of course, the designated author of many of the proverbs, earned a reputation as the wisest man of all (1 Kings 4:29-33).

But wisdom literature has different characteristics compared to previous material in the Old Testament. Here again, we have to think about how this material fits and contrasts with other biblical literature.  For instance, as Anderson puts it: “The prophetic themes that dominate the Pentateuch and the prophetic writings—Israel’s election, the Day of Yahweh, the covenant and the Law, the priesthood and the Temple, prophecy and the messianic hope—are dealt with hardly at all.” In fact, wisdom seemed to be criticized in prophetic passages like Jeremiah 8:9 and Isaiah 29:4.(4)

Furthermore, wisdom authors did not address legal and religious obligations (as did the priests of Israel), and usually they did not explicitly communicate God’s own oracles, like the prophets. Only in the Apocrypha’s wisdom books, like Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and Baruch, do we find more obvious linkage of wisdom with law and covenant. (5)

Wisdom literature, instead, aims to uncover some of the lessons which a wise person would have learned about “life” in general and how life should be lived. Life experiences, rather than the law per se, guide to moral behavior and correct judgments. Remember, for instance, that Job seeks answers to the problem of his suffering in a series of conversations with his friends, since his religious and moral uprightness implies that his suffering is undeserved. Remember, too, that Ecclesiastes reflects on life’s meaning after long reflection on the problems of suffering, human pride, and God’s providence. The Song of Songs, a much happier and more confident book, also reflects the meaning of life as discovered through the experience of God’s creation and human love.

Proverbs is also a confident book. A person’s growth in wisdom and knowledge (compared to the fool who is lazy and unconcerned) is not only recommended, but ordained by God. As The Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “The highest type of family life is extolled; monogamy is taken for granted; the respect for mother and wife is emphasized throughout; chastity and marital fidelity are enjoined for all. The glutton, drunkard, and sluggard, the robber and oppressor of the poor are all roundly condemned. Those who live in accordance with wisdom’s laws are prosperous and happy. A belief in the one true and living God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked permeates the book from cover to cover.”(6)

I’ve saved the psalms till this point. My professor Brevard Childs notes that, “the psalms function to guide Israel, both as individuals and as a community, in the proper response to God’s previous acts of grace in establishing a bond. The psalmist can praise God, complain of his sufferings, plea for a sign of vindication, but through it all and undergirding his response, lies the confession that life is obtained as a gift from God. His conduct is not seen as a striving after an ideal or toward fixed ethical norms, but a struggle to respond faithfully to what God has first done on Israel’s behalf. The response of the psalmist is so intense and directed so personally to God because the possession or loss of life is measured in terms of his relation to God who both ‘kills and makes alive’. Although the terminology of the Old Testament psalms often differs strikingly from Paul’s the theological understanding of man’s relationship to God as one of sheer grace shares much in common.”(7)

Connections of these writings to the New Testament are many. Just a few:

* Some of the New Testament’s most well known passages allude to (and sometimes directly quote) particular Proverbs. Jesus’ words about the wise man and the foolish man who built their homes on rock and sand echo Proverbs 10:25 and 12:7. Jesus also echoes Proverbs 3:28, 11:4, 11:17, 11:28, 16:19, and 30:8-9 during his Sermon on the Mount. Proverbs 25:21-22 admonishes the wise to take care of one’s enemy rather than retaliate, and the Apostle Paul makes use of the saying in Romans 12:20. Jesus’ maturity (Luke 2:52) echoes Proverbs 3:4 Jesus also alludes to Proverbs 16:1, 18:21, 24:12, 25:6-7, 27:1, 28:24, 29:23 in the course of his teaching (see Matt. 10:19-20, 12:36-37, 16:27, Luke 14:7-11, Luke 12:16-21, Matt. 15:4,6, Luke 14:11 and 18:14b, respectively).(8)

* The Psalms are also frequently referenced in the New Testament: 2, 22, 34, 69, 78, 89, 110, and 118 especially, but also 33, 35, 39, 50, 102, 105, 106, 107, 116, 119, 135, 145, and 147. Several psalm passages are understood to be fulfilled in Jesus: Matt. 13:35 and Ps. 78:3, John 19:24 and Ps. 22:18, John 19:36 and Ps. 34:20, Acts 2:25-35 and Ps. 16:8-11, 132:11, and 110:1.(9) We also find Acts 4:11 and Ps. 118:22, Acts 4:25-26 and Ps. 2:1, Heb. 1:8 and Ps.45:6-7, Heb. 1:10 and Ps. 102:25, and especially Heb. 1:13 and Ps.110:1.(10)

* The blamelessness and suffering of Job and of Christ’s. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, without specifically referencing or alluding to Job, is in harmony with Job’s values and also promises grace to those who suffer.(11)

* As I stated earlier, the traditional, allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs with Christ and his church.

Notes:

1. As I noted earlier, Jews consider the writings section (Ketuvim)  to be of a lesser level of inspiration than the prophets and the Torah. The “writings” section of the Tanakh is: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

2. Brettler, pp. 270-271.

3. I developed these thoughts about wisdom and Proverbs in my article, “Practical Wisdom,” Adult Bible Studies, June-July-August 1998 (Nashville: Cokesbury), pages 8-10.

4. Anderson, p. 531-532 (quote on page 531).

5. Childs, Biblical Theology, pages 189-190.

6. The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), page 777.

7. Childs, Old Testament Theology, pages 209-210.

8.  The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4, pages 777-778.

9.  Goldsworthy, page 199. Luke T. Johnson notes how artfully Mark 15:23-27 weaves Psalm verses in his depiction of the crucifixion: Ps. 69:21, Ps. 22:18, Ps. 22:7, Ps. 109:25, Ps. 22:8, Ps. 22:1, Ps. 69:21. The Writings of the New Testament, page 139.

10. The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), pages 672-675.

11.  “Job, Theology of,” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, page 419.

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Eastbound

When I was a younger person growing up in Vandalia, Illinois, I pictured the Bible text in an unusual way: as if it was a vacation landscape for exploring. My dad was a truck driver who hauled gasoline and fuel oil, and so images of travel and “the open road” come naturally to me. (The Bible contains 66 books, and Dad regularly drove Route 66 in Illinois … how providential!) In Sunday school we had to memorize the books of the Bible in order, and so I was aware of the Bible’s basic “layout,” and perhaps I was also inspired by the well-used maps at my church of Bible lands, maps which seemed as interesting as the folded maps, free at filling stations, in the glove compartment of our family car. I imagined the Bible as a large area, not of Palestine, but of sections of landscape, like states, laid out for more or less eastbound travel. (When I read my favorite translation of the Torah, I begin to imagine the right-to-left text as westbound.)

At the Bible’s beginning, the “scenery” is interesting from Genesis through about 2/3 of the way through Exodus. A few places become tedious—the genealogies, for instance—but the reading moves along, peaking in cinema-ready excitement with the Red Sea crossing, the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Calf. The reading slows as you journey through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But you’ve encountered some of the Bible’s high points: the Creation, the Flood, Abraham’s call, Egyptian slavery, the Exodus, and the revelation at Sinai.

You continue on a varied landscape though the historical books: some good parts, some dry. Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel contain plenty of violence and intrigue. Beyond, as you pass through the books of Kings and Chronicles, the “travel” becomes tougher again. Do I really need to know all those kings—who sinned and how badly—and lists of names, in order to be saved?

But in this landscape, too, we find high points: the conquest of the Land, the establishment of the monarchy and kingdom (with David and Solomon as the key figures), the destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, and the Restoration. Understanding the Bible requires some grasp of these events.

After the historical books, the journey becomes more interesting again. Among the writings, the Psalms alone are worth many revisits; Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, too. Then you embark on journey through the prophets. The prophets contain fascinating material, but without the narrative structure of the historical books, and without a clear chronology, the prophets’ writings can seem scattered and hard to grasp. A person can lose her bearings there.

You reach the New Testament, which—again, in my young imagination—I pictured as a landscape which gradually narrows. That’s because the New Testament books tend to become shorter and shorter. Little-bitty 2 John, 3 John, and Jude have only one chapter each, compared to Matthew’s 28. It was as if God was focusing your spiritual travels toward the end times and salvation, the subject of the longer, final book of Revelation.

I still like that informal image of the landscape.  During a recent year of midlife studies of the Bible, I tried to regain a sense of the Bible’s interconnections, themes, and “places” to explore, think about and pray about. (1)  Appreciating different ways to study the Bible, I’ve mixed devotional, homiletical, typological, canonical, higher-critical, and interfaith studies willy-nilly.  I used my favorite old Bible, a thirty-year-old Harper Study Bible, in which I’d already jotted notes and underlined passages over the years.  

What follows in this and the next few posts, I share some of my studies.  What are the characteristics of the Bible’s sections? How do they interconnect thematically and typologically? What places in this “landscape” invite revisits?

Gospels and Acts

I’ll start with the gospels. Leafing through my old Bible, I find all my jottings from college and seminary when I studied the Bible (on my bed rather than at a desk), with commentaries close at hand. I can scarcely convey my excitement I felt when I discovered that the gospels contained evidence of early oral traditions, possible antecedent written sources, and intentional compositional ordering of material about Jesus. I poured over the book Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences.(2) I learned that over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and that the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material. Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used. I hadn’t doubted Jesus’ historical existence, but I was fascinated by the shaping of the material, the use of sources of Jesus’ words and deeds to put forward theological convictions. That the Gospels were not straightforward biographies, factual in all chronology and detail, didn’t matter in the least.(3)

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” begins Mark’s account. Hasty, simply written, the gospel contains a key verse, 10:45: “the Son of man …came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Who is this Jesus, though? As the gospel proceeds, Jesus’ friends don’t seem to “get” him. He confuses those closest to him. One of the saddest verses is 14:50, And they all forsook him, and fled. (I’ve written in my Bible margin, now they understand!) Meanwhile, the people on the “outside” identify Jesus right away: the demons, outcasts, and goyim. The first post-crucifixion person to “preach” Jesus is a Roman soldier who participated in his execution (15:39). And yet, for all its darker qualities, the gospel seems written to those already Christian for their guidance and comfort, as I’ve jotted in the margin. Mark’s gospel omits birth stories, devoting chapters 1 through 13 to Jesus’ ministry (chapters 1-9 in Galilee, chapter 10 on the way to Jerusalem, and 12-13 in Jerusalem), and then chapters 14 through 16 for Jesus’ passion.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus addresses his mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). In spite of Jesus’ bitter diatribe in Matthew 23, we get a strong vision of Jesus the Jew in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus by no means repudiates the Torah, but interprets it by his own authority. At the same time, Jesus provides hope for Gentiles, too (12:18, 15:28, 24:14, etc.), and among the gospels only Matthew uses the word “church” (ekklesia). Matthew retains Mark’s basic geographical framework (the Galilean ministry, chapters 4-18; the journey to Jerusalem, 19-20; and the week in Jerusalem, 21-28:15), but unlike Mark, Matthew includes a birth narrative (including the stories of the Wise Men, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the innocents). The gospel presents Jesus’ teachings in five discourses (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), and uniquely gives us teachings such as the wicked slave (18:21-35), the landowner (20:1-18), the ten virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the narrative of the last judgment (25:1-46).

Luke’s gospel is the first of two writings addressed to a person named “Theophilus,” which means “God-lover.” (That was Mozart’s actual middle name: “Amadeus” is the Latin translation.) In the gospel, Jesus addresses his concerns for the poor and disadvantaged; Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:18-19) doesn’t spiritualize the blind, oppressed, and imprisoned, but he proclaims liberty and release to them. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)—not “poor in spirit” which you and I might be able to claim Unique to Luke’s gospel are the story of the good Samaritan (10:25-7), the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42), the parables of the lost coin and the prodigal son (15:8-32), the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), not to mention the stories at the Gospel’s beginning: the birth of John the Baptist, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the song of Simeon, the shepherds in the field, the story of young Jesus in the Temple.

How is John’s gospel related to the other gospels? Is it a different historical tradition or does it assume the traditions of Mark? This is a debated subject; the basic outline and facts of Jesus’ life are there, but the stories are different: the water into wine, the Samaritan woman, the raising of Lazarus. John focuses on seven “sign” miracles, five of which are not found in the other Gospels. John’s is a “high” view of Jesus, a view that helps us understand him theologically. We don’t find parables and pericopes here, but rather long reflections and dialogues. While Jesus’ Synoptic parables do not deal directly with Jesus’ identity, John’s gospel contains numerous “I am” sayings. While the other gospels announce the Kingdom of God, in John, Jesus’ announces the Spirit which will guide Jesus’ followers.

Acts provides stories of the first (approximately) thirty-five years of the early church. Peter dominates the first portion of Acts, Paul the second half. Notice that Luke frames the stories of Acts with affirmations about God’s kingdom (1:3, 28:1); Jesus had preached the kingdom, and after his ascension, the life-power of Jesus is given to people through the Holy Spirit, and so for Luke, the kingdom of God exists wherever people accept that ever-available life-power. Thus the disciples are instructed not to fret about the signs and portents of Jesus’ second coming, they have what they need for the present time, the Spirit promised in Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-21).(4)

In spite of its connection to Luke, I tended to think of Acts as a stand-alone historical account between the gospels and the epistles. But eventually I realized that Acts is as important as the gospels because the book provides the way that Jesus is known to us now. We’ll never know Jesus in the flesh—and judging from Jesus’ own words, we shouldn’t even long to have known him in the flesh (John 16:12-15). Now, Jesus is now fully present to us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ story continues in the innumerable book-length stories of us, his disciples (cf. John 21:25).

An explorer of this “landscape” will notice the way different gospels accounts are shaped, and how placement of stories and teachings elucidate meaning. She’ll learn about God’s love from the many “pictures” of God (Mt. 18:10-14, 35, 19:13-15, Luke 7:36-50, 15:3-32, and others). She’ll try to regain a sense of childlike openness and wonder (perhaps lost in adulthood) which Jesus says is essential for understanding him (Mk. 10:13-16). She’ll understand that those who are good, upright, Ten Commandments-following people are often the ones who can’t follow Jesus, and those who’ve made messes of their lives may get into the kingdom first (Matt. 21:31-32, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 15:11-32).

The explorer should try never to isolate Jesus as a teacher from Jesus as a healer, and Jesus “in the book” from Jesus as living, risen Lord upon whom she can call anytime for help and guidance. As I’ve written elsewhere, Jesus’ teachings had characteristics of healing and vice versa. When Jesus taught, he aimed not just at ethical standards but at the healing of our hearts from the disease and power of sin. When Jesus healed people, he not only showed a concern for people’s physical needs but also wanted to teach people about God’s hope and salvation (Matt. 12:15-21).(5)

Letters

The Bible has many different kinds of literary genres.(6) In the two testaments you find history, poetry, legal codes, prophecy, songs, letters, sermons, gospels, and even one book of erotic poetry. Ideally, we should understand the different genres as we read, and genres overlap within books. Ezra contains autobiography, letters, and history; several of the prophets contain oracles and narratives. The gospels and Acts are history, but they’re also preaching. Hebrews is a sermon with an epistolary conclusion (though no epistolary greeting). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy form a long history and contain accounts of individual incidents, but the books also encompass ancient legal codes and cultic (worship) instructions.

We find very little epistolary material in the Old Testament, but letters form the largest body of material in the New. The canon includes letters of James, John, Peter, Jude, the author of Hebrews, and Paul. Paul’s several letters are arranged in order of length, although 1 and 2 Thessalonians were probably the earliest letters, and Philippians and 1 and 2 Timothy seem valedictory. All these letters were written to individuals or churches in order to address particular issues, to deal with needs and problems, to convey information and greetings, and to communicate feelings. Although not intentionally written in an epigrammatic way, we can lift epigrams, slogans, and promises from the letters for our own needs, for within these letters are treasures of biblical proclamation and pearls of wisdom. If I were to give someone a single Bible book to convey the Gospel, I’d tell them to read Romans or Ephesians. Galatians is also excellent for communicating the Gospel, although it was written in frustration and anger; if you’ve a good commentary to help you, your faith may very well be renewed by Galatians.

The letters have different purposes and viewpoints. Like the Gospels, they’ve changing facets in which God’s light beautifies, changes, and illuminates. Reading in turn through my various marginal notes and scribbling:

Romans is Paul’s self-introduction to a church he wished to visit soon. He argues that God accounts us righteous by faith rather than works of the law. The righteousness of God is revealed in God’s justification of sinners through the atonement of Christ.

1 and 2 Corinthians is largely Paul’s words of teaching, advice, and reprimand to a congregation swayed by impressive teachers, confident in their own wisdom, and yet lacking in love and spiritual maturity.

Galatians is Paul’s frustrated letter to a Gentile church. Paul points out that the Galatians already evidence of God’s power and acceptance in their lives through the gifts of the Spirit. They must not add anything on to God’s work, especially rites like circumcision.

Ephesians and Colossians are similar letters, written (if Paul did write them) while he was imprisoned. He shows the sufficiency of Christ and God’s free salvation. In Christ we are built up as a church; Christ has removed barriers between us and God.

Philippians, another “prison letter,” is a joyful letter, warm and affirming for a congregation Paul clearly feels gratitude.

1 and 2 Thessalonians concern the second coming of Christ and the need to be watchful, though the first letter is warm and the second letter, though also warm, contains more admonishment.

1 and 2 Timothy concern the qualities of church leaders and provides advice and encouragement to Paul’s young colleague. Titus also deals with church leaders and the need to deal with false teaching.

Philemon concerns a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul has helped convert, and so Paul writes Onesimus’ master about the matter, hinting strongly that Onesimus should be freed.

Hebrews is an epistolary sermon by an unknown author to an unknown group of people. The title, which is a latter addition, is based on the fair assumption that the original audience consisted of converts from Judaism, who, more than a Gentile group, would have grasped all the many references to the Hebrew scriptures and traditions. The sermon is beautiful, intricate, and argues the sufficiency of Christ compared with the angels, the prophets, and the temple.

James stresses the validity of one’s faith through the good works of one’s personal growth and one’s relationships with others. The book only mentions Jesus twice and is similar in style to Old Testament wisdom literature.

1 and 2 Peter concern the steadfastness of one’s faith in times of persecution and also in regard to false teachers.

1, 2, and 3 John all provide glimpses into the lives of the early church. 1 John, especially, teaches the need to provide one’s faith through love.

Tiny little Jude, which quotes a non-canonical writing (Enoch) as scripture, is concerned false teachers and apostasy.

After these brief epistles, we come to the final book, Revelation, which concerns the final times. It’s actually a letter, too (1:4), to seven Asia Minor churches. John must be a different man than the apostle, for the book’s style is quite dissimilar from the gospel and the letters, and this author does not identify himself as an apostle. The book chronicles the many signs of the end times and is written in symbolic language that harkens back to Old Testament prophecies.(7)

The letters, like the gospels, aren’t just “about” the historical Jesus but also witness to his continuing, living reality. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer, Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:16. This verse used to bother me; aren’t Jesus’ life and teachings important? They are, but Jesus’ life and teachings can’t be disconnected with his death and resurrection, and his earthly life cannot be disconnected with the eternal life which he now shares with all of us, his disciples. And so it is appropriate that much of the New Testament deals not with specifics about Jesus’ life and teachings (the letters scarcely quote Jesus’ teachings explicitly) but the grand fact of his salvation and gifts of the Spirit. Now, as readers of this material, we too receive the first-century preaching of the Gospel of Jesus, and our lives, too, become guided and maintained by the Spirit.

For some Christians, that’s enough material to read, explore, pray about, and study. But that’s only a third of the Bible! So far, I’ve saved several important New Testament themes and ideas so I can show interconnections between the New Testament and the Old.

Coda:  Interpreting the Bible through Jesus

We don’t always think through the way Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible. This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.”  While his argument does not address many issues of biblical interpretation, I do find his argument interesting with regard to preaching, devotional Bible reading, and Christian practice. How has the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—clarified, modified, fulfilled, or even negated the meaning of a particular Bible passage?

You sometimes hear people say, “Every word of the Bible is true.”  On closer reflection, the Good News of Jesus and the inspiration of the living Spirit do influence and change the way we read the Bible, so that we do not have to uphold a simplistically literal reading of the Bible.  As I discuss in the next section, for instance, the preaching of Jesus changes levels of authority of the Old Testament material while still upholding the OT as sacred scripture.   As Goldsworthy also discusses in his book, the death and resurrection of Christ—the living Christ—also informs how we understand the teachings of Jesus himself! The Good News of Jesus’ resurrection frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) but also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we’ve checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.” Christ in his roles as teacher, healer, and risen Lord help us do his will.

As I reflected on this point, I thought of several ways this is true.

* When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or more unprintable versions): Matt. 5:21-22.  I still, on a daily basis, identify bad drivers and oblivious shoppers with “nicknames”!  Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).

Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24, so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?

* Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But it’s not that we have to force ourselves to try to forgive awful people because God says so; we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or an absurd obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.

* And prayer. Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that! Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually. But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful. That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.

* And speaking of prayer: do we pray the Psalms “Christianly”?  Obviously the psalms are originally (and remain) Hebrew and Jewish prayers, which by God’s gift are now part of the Christian canon. But we could very easily neglect to connect the ancient, pre-Jesus psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? Psalm 51, classic though it is, has to be connected to verses like Romans 7:24-25, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of sinners is affirmed.

* What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person?  This happens all the time, of course. Remember, though, that Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was under a curse because of God’s law (Deut. 21:23). He also gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11 when people used God’s word against her. Certainly the Bible warns us and can be used to warn; but Bible verses can be used out of context and wielded in thoughless and unloving manners.  One particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way.

* Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts. Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; yet “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, and Paul’s ministry among the Athenians was ineffective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work is done by God’s Spirit promised to us by the risen Lord.

* How about using Bible characters as models? Let me use David as an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too. We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?” Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.

But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories! First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them. Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12). So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our covenant relationship with God, our relationship to God through Christ, and Christ’s commandment that we love.

Notes:

1. I’ve adopted the image of landscape exploration from Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, New York: Walker & Co., 1999.  Several good books provide a survey of biblical themes and theology, for instance, God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology by Dominique Barthélemy, O.P. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), Far As the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption by Michael D. Williams (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible: An Introductory Biblical Theology by Graeme Goldsworthy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1991), God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible by Vaughan Roberts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002).  A small, handy book worth searching for is A Year With the Bible by John Marsh (New York: Harper & Bros. 1957).

2. Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, ed. By Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1973).
When we study the Gospels, it’s difficult not to mentally harmonize the material. For instance, we think of the “seven last words of Jesus,” but no single Gospel contains all seven; we mentally conflate the material. In fact, a second century Christian named Tatian harmonized the content of the four gospels into a continuous life, called the Diatessaron, which we now know through variant versions of ancient copies. Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History: An Approach to the Study of the Gospels (second edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977) pp. 281-292.

3. I still have some of my favorite seminary paperbacks like Jesus of Nazareth by Günther Bornkamm (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), The Crucified Messiah and Other Essays (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974) and Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), both by Nils Alstrup Dahl (who autographed them for me); and Klee, op. cit. A good recent text is Four Gospels, One Jesus? by Richard A. Buridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1994).  Among the many New Testament studies, two excellent ones are The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation by Luke T. Johnson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), and Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

4. Brevard S. Childs in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), page 643.

5. I make this point in my book What’s in the Bible About Jesus? for the series What’s in the Bible, and Why Should I Care? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), page 43.

6. An introduction to the Bible’s types of writings is And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms by Margaret Nutting Ralph (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, 2003).

7. Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000), page 217.

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