Exegesis #3 Reading the Old Testament through the New

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One thing I observe stretching from the OT to the NT is a progressive and developing understanding of God. In early Jewish writings, God is framed as one tribal God among many, by the time we get to the NT there is only one God, and false idols and demons.

In the old way of thinking something was either your fault ("Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did?" 1 Sam 6:6) or God's curse ("I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt" Exodus 7:3). So we have Isaiah telling the Israelites that their suffering - being pillaged, raped, taken as slaves - was basically because of something you did.

In the NT we have a more complex understanding which involves the demonic. In other words, with this perspective we now have three players: God, humanity, and evil. We are dealing not only with fallen people, but a fallen system where people can suffer, not because God willed it, and not because they deserved it, but because of evil itself. This adds the idea that something can be broken in the very system of the world that is (1) not God's will, and (2) not your fault. Along with it we also have the idea of sin, not just as transgression, but as bondage. An addict can't "just stop," as if it were simply a rational choice. They need help to break free. This is what we see Jesus helping people to do all through the Gospels - to break out of demonic bondage, to break out of cultural and religious exclusion, to break out of hurtful identities., to break out of the trap of sin. The idea of the demonic in the NT thus gives a way more complex understanding of how evil, hurt, and injustice function in our world.

I think that when Jesus read his Bible, he read it like that. He took the understanding he had - the understanding that had grown and developed into a more sophisticated picture of who God is, and read with that in mind as he read those OT stories that do not yet have these insights. The problem with our reading it strait as the story has it, while this may be "correct academic exegesis" is that if we believe that we are reading God's word (and I certainly do), this can lead folks to think that God is evil and unjust because we are seeing God through the dim vision of a primitive person. It really comes down to this: if we read the OT flat out, we will either la) lose our faith, (b) try to love a monster, or (c) decide that the Bible is not God's word UNLESS we can learn to read with the benefit of the progressive revelation of God which culminates in the person of Jesus (God's living perfect self-revelation), unless we learn to read the Bible like Jesus did.

So I really want to seriously question the whole concept of "correct exegesis" here, and suggest that we need to read the OT like Jesus (and the other Jews of his time) would have. Not only that, we need to read it with our own conscience intact, our own sense of what is right, which we have from God's Spirit in us. In fact, that's what Jesus says to do in Luke 12:57.

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At 8:14 PM, Blogger Rich said...

Or we can consider the fact that God can take a life and not be guilty. How can this be? He alone can give life. When we take life, we cannot give again. He can make it right. When all is said and done, no one will be able to say God is unjust.

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At 4:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I question what you mean by will of God. I agree with your analysis as far as it goes in that in NT evil is introduced as a third explanation. The obvious problem with this is that God chose to set it up to run like this, so in some sense it is his will. So - not only was it God's will that Jesus should suffer; but also that Paul would suffer in his work to bring the gospel to the gentiles. And the man born blind - no it was not something he or his parents had done, nor God's curse; but nor was it evil; it was God's will that when Jesus comes to restore his sight, something good would happen.
So I am beginning to wonder about God's will and that it may include suffering for his people. Not because he is out of control, or doesn't love me, or is teaching me a lesson; simply that beyond my understanding somehow it simply "has to be this way" for his higher and deeper purposes to become reality.

Of course revelation is progressive - so what of the past 2000 years? Not long ago, most Christians did not have a problem with slavery and now it's obvious to us all that slavery is evil. So - what do I believe now that in 100 years time I would look back and say "How could Christians possibly have believed that foolish stuff?" What am I blind to? So reading the Bible "as Jesus did" must include a progression in my understanding of who he is. But God understands this and I don't have to get it all right before I can do anything thank goodness, he uses even my half way right efforts

At 5:04 AM, Blogger drchrisf said...

Sorry now have google ID, 4.45 comment is me

At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The more radical way to read the OT is to let it stand on its own first without the NT explaining it or having types. Then read it with revelation not being progressive. God is really radical and there is not conflict. Just because people don't get it (like opposing slavery) doesn't mean it's wrong.

At 5:12 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

So you are advocating slavery?

At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Dr Chrisf,

The theme of Christ willingly bearing suffering for the sake of love, and our also bearing suffering in imitation of Christ is a major theme in the writings of Paul, and is very important. It is a dangerous theme however because there is the possibility that it can be wrongly interpreted as advocating suffering. So one needs to walk a real tightrope here. At what point does such a practice become abusive? Should a pastor counsel a woman to stay for example with an abusive husband as a way of being faithful to this principle?

The bottom line here I think is that God does not will suffering, he wills to end suffering. The ultimate goal is a place where "tears are wiped away". But to get there God is willing to endure suffering for the sake of love. Anyone who is a parent gets this I think: a parent would be willing to put themselves in danger to protect their child. Imagine if your child were being attacked by a bear. You might stand in between them and the bear, not because you enjoy getting mauled by the bear but because care for your child's life and will do crazy stuff to protect them. I think this is the basic idea behind taking on suffering in the name of Christ and love. it is because we don't want out child to suffer that we ourselves allow ourselves to suffer.

So ultimately that means that we can be willing to suffer, while at the same time hating suffering and being angry about suffering. here I think of how Jesus wept before he raised Lazarus. It is okay for us to be honest about our feelings in the midst of suffering. God wants us to be real. Jesus prayed "Father take this cup".

So when I say that suffering is not God's will, I mean that ultimately things can happen in life, really horrible things, that are not God's will. Things that grieve God's heart. Things that are profoundly evil. God may be able to use this horrible evil situation to bring good about, but that does not change the fact that what happened in itself was truly evil and bad. That's the idea of the devil. Sin is real. Evil is real. Our world is really fallen, and real bad things happen in it.

I do believe that God's love and goodness can in the end overcome evil. I'm counting on that. And I do agree with what you say about God calling us to bear suffering for love. But we can do that while at the same time knowing how to weep with those who weep, and being angry with those who are angry. Being the kind of friends that Job should have had around.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger M.G. said...

Good job Derek. Man with that whole thing on the heart of God and hell. Then your thoughts on how Christus Vicar as the way God liberated us from sin, curse, and bondage. And then this article, you are really hitting a stream.

I agree wholeheartily that the OT was a progressive revelation. There is no scripture that is more pronounced in my mind than: "That you might know that I am the Lord." Or some variation of this. Why? Because God was in a battle to establish Himself as monotheist king in the hearts of His people. There would be little revelation of the devil and of demons until the people began to believe there is only one God: Yahweh/Jehovah. In fact as much as we hate it God took full responsibility for bringing evil on people who walked in disobedience and against His established ways. That was in the OT, but in the NT God distances Himself from the calamities and doesn't explain it as things the Father does for His own glory or pleasure as much. In the NT, as you said it is more complicated.

Look how carefully the Lord reveals the operation of Satan in the OT. What would it have profited the Lord to reveal Satan as a power rivaling God. The people, with all their idolatry would have turned to Satan.

No it was only in the fullness of time, where Jehovah was established as the one true God that the Father chose to reveal Jesus. What a glorious and wise God!

The implications are staggering!

At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Eli,

I had never really thought about your idea that the reason the devil is revealed later is that he needs to be understood in the context of monotheism. That is quite fascinating and worth pondering!

At 1:38 PM, Blogger Phil said...

Dear Derek,

I can't help thinking that in the OT they were standing real close to the situation, and God's revelation of why the way things were had to be understood in that context. Certainly in some parts of OT, God was statedly responsible for good and for evil, and they interpreted that in a limited tribal context.

In the gospels, the context is different, because a whole tranche of things were established and accepted - the Jewish monotheistic God who combined both power and morality, was in contrast to other gods who weren't necessarily any more good than people, just more powerful. The revelation of God in Christ is lovely, because in his personal ministry, we see real goodness in a way we can recognise.

In the letters, then leading through to Revelation, we start to see a cosmic context of what God is like, and we are brought, not full circle, but in a spiral, where once again, we have to confront the fact that God is responsible for everything, God hates evil in the sense that it is his will now, but not his will for ever.

First Christ, then us together with whole creation, are perfected by suffering. As you say, the suffering is not nice, but if there had been an easier way for God to create, then mature, then woo, then marry that part of his creation that became truly individual and free, then he would have done it.

Standing back as far as we can to try to see the whole picture, we can see that this loving relational God is Himself evolving (oh dear that sounds really unevangelical!) moving forward, as Jesus Christ espouses the Church. Surely Jesus Christ will not be unchanged by marrying the church - Paul implies not.

This present experience may not be the only way, but it must be the way that involves least "suffering". And then the only question becomes "Is it all worth it", to which we must assume yes.


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