Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Summing Up the Bible: Part IV

Now that we have mapped out a very broad view of the entire Bible, I'd like to fill in some details, beginning with the Old Testament. This is not going to be especially easy. How do you summarize such a large body of literary material into anything meaningful? But here's a start.

Biblical Texts summarize for us.
First, it is important to realize that the Old Testament was written over a very long time. Who wrote it and when are vexed questions that puzzle the best of scholars. But again, I want to take a shortcut and look at the typical way that the Old Testament summarizes itself---and it does! ('ll add some texts later when I find some time.) Yes, there are texts which summarize what's up. Most of these are found in the Psalms. These Psalms contain confessions of faith in Israel's God, YHWH (usually pronounced as Yahweh) and are telling us what this God is like. How do they do that?

God was understood through history.
In a nutshell, they tell us what God is like by rehearsing what he has done for his people, Israel. They aren't lectures in systematic theology with big words that begin with omni-. They are simple words that lay out the amazing story of God's love expressed in his historic deeds among the people. Sometimes they mention his original creation of the world, but always they tell of something that was strategically important to the nation as a whole. These will variously include references to God's covenant with Abraham, Moses and David, his deliverance from Egyptian bondage, his gift of law (Torah), his gift of land, his deliverances from the enemy, etc. In other words, Israel confessed her faith by telling the interconnected story from exodus to exile and beyond.

History is at the heart of the Bible.
If we want to understand the Old Testament, we have to be in touch with its national history. Its a bit like our own need to understand America in terms of European migration, entering the new land, encountering its original inhabitants, its gradual settlement and expansion, the fight for independence from Great Britian, the establishment of an independent political body, etc. Only by learning those historical details and the order in which they happened is an immigrant going to understand the country they are making their own. Likewise, only when we grasp something of the history of Israel as recounted in the Old Testament are we in any position to make Old Testament faith our own. As we shall see later on, Israel's history is the very early part of Jesus' history and our history too.

A Nation is promised.
So let's briefly review the direction and details of that history. First, there was the need for the nation Israel (Genesis 1-11 basically says the world is a mess) to shine God's ultimate blessing of restoration back into a dark world. Israel is called to redirect the world from going its own way to going the way of God. That begins with the call of Abraham, the father of the nation. He was promised an innumerable offspring (seed) and he was promised a land to provide a home base for them to live. This plan of seed and land is basic to Old Testament theology.

A Nation is born.
Second, God allowed this growing nation to become enslaved in Egypt. They were like a child that was ready to be born through birthpains. God was giving birth to a son. That nation is born when it is abruptly removed from her womb down in Egypt. There, under the power and afflicting hand of Pharoah, Israel cried out for rescue and deliverance. Of course, here is where YHWH revealed himself so deeply by being the God of the Exodus--literally the God of their salvation. Israel was delivered from the impossible through the mighty acts of God. They were set free under the leadership of Moses.

A Nation is bound to God by a covenant.
After the deliverance from Egypt, Isreal wanders in the wilderness for forty years before she is ready to enter the promised land (a great tract of land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea), 'a land flowing with milk and honey.' But in advance of entering the land, they were led by Moses to the foot of Mount Sinai where God gave Moses his covenant law. Here is where Israel must pledge allegience to be loyal to YHWH throughout all generations. If they obeyed the voice and law of God, they would experience prosperity and wellbeing. If they disobeyed, they would experience God's chastening hand. The ultimate chastening would be exile, violent removal from the land of promise. God's law was a codified instructional wisdom that told them how to live in love with God and each other. If they as a society followed that wisdom, all would to well. If they forgot the principles of love and respect for all members of their society, disaster would come. If disaster would come---and indeed it would---they would only be restored to their promised land through repentance and renewal of heart.

A nation is punished.
The first few years in the land were difficult and challenging, but they were years were they were preserved through God's faithfulness. Enemies often attacked them. Often they lapsed in their faithfulness. There were cycles of obedience, followed by disobedience, followed by repentance, followed by deliverance. There was even the choice to move to a dynastic governance where a king and his royal family would lead, guide, and protect Israel. Often, this kingship was a mixed blessing. The royal family had their own problems. Eventually Israel split apart and rival thrones and separate governments were erected. But ultimately each nation continued to crumble internally as social injustice and idolatry increased. Both nations were carried into exile--a reminder of infidelity to God.

A nation waiting for the future.
As Israel's political place in the land evaporated, there were various prophets sent by YHWH to create a new vision for the future. The themes of those visions were various, but centered on the hope of 'return from exile.' Though, there would continue to be ups and downs, ultimately God would again deliver Israel from her bondage to the pagan nations. Israel was in exile, but her there were various signposts placed alongside them, prophets who pointed the way forward. There was still the need for Israel to be the light to the nation. Yet, now they too were part of the dark problem of the world. They had become just like the other nations. God would have to do what only he could do. He must once again, act like the God of the exodus. He must defeat their enemies, restore them to the land. Only then, could the rest of the rest of the world benefit from her original vocation to restore the nations to God. Only when Israel was like a faithful Son could God use them. Only when they were resurrected to a new life in the world, would they become the means of salvation to all mankind.

The history of Israel is shaped by a pattern of death and resurrection.
In a nutshell, this is the Old Testament story. Promise, exodus, covenant, disobedience, and hope for future release from exile. These are the historical themes that unite the narrative. Pressed upon the story of Israel are the dual themes of exile and restoration, or as the prophets stated it, death and resurrection. The Old Testament is an incomplete story. It awaited a final chapter. It ends in exile, it looks forward to deliverance and salvation. It ends in a curse, it looks forward to a blessing.

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