Saturday, January 10, 2015

Reading Through the Exile Books with Goldingay

Chapter 10 of Goldingay’s, Old Testament Theology, volume 1, Israel’s Gospel is entitled God Preserved: Exile and Restoration. It takes us through, mainly, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel, although it also brings in something from Chronicles and the prophets who were ministering at that time. These exile books are critical because…

The story does not end with the fall of Jerusalem but continues in the account of a series of returns from exile and a series of acts of rebuilding and renewal in Jerusalem as well as new forms of life and new experiences of God elsewhere. The exile and the period that follows then play as creative a role as any in making the First Testament what it is, in the growth of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, and thus in the shape of Old Testament theology. 696

Jeremiah ChartSection 1, God Abandoned, discusses the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its aftermath, and the theological response to it. The city is in ruins, Israel’s survival is in jeopardy and so the people turn to Jeremiah’s command to submit to Babylon and trust his prophecy of return. The “Jerusalem temple theology” has completely collapsed and it appears that God has abandoned his people. But the exiles continue to “pray with incoherence” (recognizing their culpability, but asking Yhwh to fix it), trust Yhwh’s promise of return and prepare for a new “paradigm experience in Israel’s story.”

Yhwh is always ready to do the tough thing if necessary, and will do it again. 700

Logically it should be that the destruction of the temple and the suspension of sacrifices means the impossibility of forgiveness. But "instead of plunging into despair because there were now no means of cleansing the people's sins, it turned to its father in heaven and remembered that it is he who forgives sins and he can do so with or without the Temple," because it issues from love. 704

Israel resists any temptation to turn its story into a superficial, escapist, feel good narrative that does not face facts. It recounts the facts of the exile in their harshness, willfulness, tragedy and stupidity. It extends that realism to the theological interpretation of events. God has abandoned the people, almost as radically as had been threatened. But that is not all that needs to be said. 707

The next section, God Returned, focuses on the 70 year waiting of the exiles for God to provide another exodus. The exile books emphasize that God is the God of all the cosmos and thus is able to restore his people and bridge the rupture caused by their past idolatry. The key promise is that of a “New Covenant” that is first mentioned in Deuteronomy and expanded in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Goldingay makes clear that this covenant is “an agenda not complete,” which will be fulfilled in stages (return from exile, Christ event, consummation of kingdom).

The New Testament itself make clear that there is not a simple one-to-one relationship between Jeremiah 31 and the Christ event, because it looks to a coming fulfillment in Christian experience (Rom. 11.25-27). Nor did the Christ event produce a situation in which people no longer teach each other to acknowledge God. Christians still do that and know that in this sense God's truth is not inscribed on their inner beings. But they do experience a partial realization of this promise. 715

Ezra's theology of history thus involves several elements...God is capable of both punishment and mercy, and it is not possible to know which will emerge at any given moment. The people are therefore living risky lives. There is no moral reason why God should not revert from mercy to punishment. The community will be well-advised to accept the unvarying invitation of the prophets to turn back to Yhwh in order to find mercy. 717

The third section, A Restored Community, discusses the nature of the exilic and post-exilic community. It is clearly a restoration of all twelve tribes (no lost tribes). It is a priestly community as the priesthood takes a much more prominent role in governance. Though there is no king, the prominence of Zerubbabel points forward to the promise of a coming Davidic king. Most importantly Israel was to be a “family… marked by care for one another.”

Chronicles' understanding of the role of David puts the emphasis on his relationship to worship, and the significance of having a David-like leader is that the people are in a position to order their worship on the basis of David's vision. 721

The relationship between Yhwh and Israel was not established by one specific historical act; this relationship, an integral part of Creation itself, is renewed from generation to generation. There is no appeal to the exodus in Chronicles: the basis for the people's response to Yhwh is just the fact that they are in relationship. 725

Section 4 emphasizes that Israel was “A Worshiping Community.” The rebuilding of the temple is the focus; not the reestablishment of the kingship. God moves the Persian powers so that the temple can be completed despite great opposition from Israel’s neighbors. The temple thus becomes the center for joyful worship and tearful confession. The temple becomes the center of Judean life.

If we read Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah in that Greek/English order, the joyful worship of God runs like a silver thread from David's ark procession to the procession around Nehemiah's wall. In this work the joy which finds expression in worship is of the essence of religion. 729

Section 5, A Listening Community, “stresses the shaping of the community's life by the word of God.” God has fulfilled his promise of return and Ezra’s specific concern is the implementation of the torah of Moses as the law of the land. This is mainly accomplished by preaching that expounded Moses’ teachings and a call for a commitment to obedience with very specific practical application. 

Listening to Moses' teaching is supposed to be a joyful activity. It makes solemn demands and arouses a sense of failure, but it also encourages hope because it speaks about God's grace and power and about forgiveness and restoration. 735

Teaching needs to be applied to the community. They thus include attempts to detail how a ruling should be applied, how current application of a rule should be revised, how a ruling can be extended so as to apply to a new situation, how a ruling can be extended so as to be more comprehensive and how separate rulings can be integrated. Obeying Moses' Teaching does not simply mean adhering to its specific content, but perceiving what Moses would say if he were here now-perceiving what is the appropriate new equivalent to Moses' injunctions. 739

In Section 6, Israel is seen as A Distinct Community, with a “greater stress on its ethnic, political, linguistic, cultural and religious integrity.” This is especially true for the Jews that returned to Jerusalem, but also for those who stayed in the places to which they were exiled. The distinctiveness was especially emphasized in opposition to the people who never left the land in exile (Samaritans) and the people of the surrounding Persian provinces. The focus was not complete separation from the nations, but complete separation from their religious practices. This was carried out mainly through the Sabbath, food laws and forbidding of intermarriage.

The sabbath is a distinctive marker of Judahite life over against that of other peoples, and it will henceforth have a key emphasis in Jewish life. It is the only specific requirement in the Sinai revelation mentioned in the prayer in Nehemiah 9. 746

The Second Temple community assumes that Yhwh is God of the entire world and pictures the great world leaders recognizing that this is so, yet in its own life believes it needs to stay distinguishable from other peoples who might imperil its distinctiveness. It has to hold on to distinctiveness but also hold on to a vision for other peoples coming to acknowledge Yhwh. 750

Section 7, A Subservient Community, deals with the question of “how to be true to its ancestral faith and tradition when it finds itself… under the aegis of an imperial power.” This can be done because God can use even the pagan emperors to accomplish his purpose for his people. Cyrus is “his anointed.” Even though Judea is an insignificant Persian province, its God is Lord over all superpowers. Thus, the Jews can be submissive to the Persian powers and even ask for their help in building the temple and walls. Nevertheless there is still a longing for the promises of freedom to be fulfilled.

The return from exile is greater than the exodus, for Yhwh influences the king to be generous rather then tough. Koch suggests that Ezra himself sees his trek as a second exodus and a fulfillment of prophetic expectations. 757

Israel's story starts with Yhwh leading the people out of subservience to find independent life and nationhood. In Ezra-Nehemiah, it closes with the community in Judah a chastened remnant living in subservience. In a sense the story is a disappointing one, though the people are able to live a tolerable life before Yhwh without being a sovereign state. 760

Ezra StructureSection 8, A Priest and Theologian, discusses the person and book of Ezra. Ezra is a man of fasting and prayer who identifies with his people, by confessing and grieving over their sin as though it were his own. He boldly confronts sin in a public context and holds the people accountable to follow the Torah.

Ezra's words are in the purest sense "confession"; Ezra confines himself to confessing facts about the people and facts about God...Ezra's prayer contains no overt request, such as one for forgiveness and mercy... "Yhwh, God of Israel you are in the right (Ezra 9.15). The confession explicitly acknowledges that the people are in the wrong. 762

Nehemiah structureSection 9, A Man Who Prays and Builds Walls, discusses the person and book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is a government worker who sees himself first as a servant of God. He is a passionate man of action who, like a prophet, takes drastic measures to get people to accomplish God’s mission. Everything he does is saturated with prayer and a “remarkable combination of idealism and realism.”

A secondary function of prayer is to build up the conviction of the pray-er. The prayer reminds the person praying of Yhwh's character. By articulating the conviction that Yhwh is powerful and faithful, Nehemiah's own conviction about that is built up. By recalling the qualities of the people to whom God is faithful, his commitment to love and obedience is reinforced. 768

The story of Nehemiah is a story of "cultural revitalization": Nehemiah faces facts and sees a vision, communicates the vision, formulates practical machinery for implementing it, handles resistance to his project, moves from bricks-and-mortar work to the building up of the community and encourages the development of a new "steady state" phase in the community's life. 771

Section 10, A Wise Politician, discusses the person and book of Daniel. Daniel has to deal with the “schizophrenic self-understanding” of being one of God’s people living in the kingdoms of this world. How do they maintain distinctiveness and yet navigate the realities of daily life? Daniel is able to take advantage of foreign learning without compromising what he learns from God’s revelation. He is able to live a foreign lifestyle without compromising his Jewish identity. He is forced to trust God when he must take a stand against his culture. He is able to submit to worldly authority without compromising his first loyalty to God.

Daniel's story gives them an example of someone daring to take a stand in a dangerous situation and heartens them by portraying how his God honors that commitment. It cannot claim that God always does that... but it can encourage them by noting that God sometimes does that. 775

Daniel (ch. 6) has put loyalty to God above loyalty to the state, but thereby in his way has been loyal to the state by not letting it be more than it truly is. 779

Esther ChartThe final section, An Intrepid Woman, discusses the person and book of Esther. Esther is an example of having to work within a system as it is and wait to take action when God gives opportunity. She “does start off as an apparent bimbo” but becomes a woman who “takes initiative.” It is through her act of risk that a great new act of deliverance is accomplished for the Jewish nation as God works behind the scenes. The book that begins with the Persians feasting and rejoicing ends with a Jewish festival.

 

The stories of Esther and Daniel represent both poles in the First Testament's gospel in connection with the pressures that come on the Jewish people. There are times or contexts when God multiplies signs and wonders, and times when God acts via coincidences and human decision-making processes. 786

For the Dispersion community, the close of the First Testament story is more positive. God's deliverance is a present reality and not merely future promise. The pressures on the community are real, but God is involved in its life, enabling it not merely to survive but to flourish. 788

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