Thursday, December 21, 2017

Reading Through Theology of the OT: by Walter Brueggemann #4

BrueggemannThis post continues my reading through Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, by Walter Brueggemann. Chapter 4 is entitled Testimony in Verbal Sentences. The idea here is that Israel's testimony describes YHWH in terms of His actions in their experience. He was a God who did things to drive back the destructive chaos around them, protect them, teach them, and provide them with a stable life. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the theology are in blue below. I am using the Logos version of the book.…

The first and most important of these verbs is "create." The Hebrew verb bara', "create," is used only with God as its subject in the OT. God's action of creation in the OT is always seen in terms of the nation of Israel, but places Israel in the context of God's plan for all the world. Creation is seen as the basis for God's covenant with Israel and with the world. In creation, God pushes (a present and past activity) back the forces of chaos, darkness and death, and replaces those with order, light and an "extravagant" gift of life that provides beyond all that people need to enjoy life. Creation also places all people under God's care and under the limits and rules He has placed on it for functioning well. Creation is also used to show God's sovereignty and superiority to the gods of the other nations (especially Babylon). God's action "to create" must be the source or basis from which our understanding of the other actions of YHWH flow.

Israel’s testimony to Yahweh as creator concerns Yahweh’s ultimate power to work an utter novum, one that on any other terms is impossible. In this testimony, the world is characterized, according to Yahweh’s intention and action, as a hospitable, viable place for life, because of Yahweh’s will and capacity to evoke and sustain life. 146

Creation faith is put into the service of covenantal sanctions. The God who can be trusted in the face of the Babylonians is the same God who must be obeyed in a season of Israel’s self-indulgence. All the forces of heaven and earth are at the disposal of the One who enforces Torah requirements.  Jeremiah 10.16, Amos 4.13, 153

Israel refused the claims of chaos, refused to cringe in helplessness before the powers that negated life. In its daring testimony, Israel seized on this ineluctable term create (and its less exotic synonyms). In the use of such verbs, Israel claims to know the name of the Subject powerful enough to enact the verbs. In these utterances, chaos is decisively driven back. In practice, the testimony provides a place (safe, dry land) in which Israel and the world may be fruitful and multiply. 164

2 other verbs that characterize YHWH in Israel's testimony are "makes promises" and "delivers." God makes promises by means of taking a verbal oath based on His own character, witnessed by Israel, to bless Israel with His life-giving presence and give them the land and other material blessings. The promise expands from Abraham to David to the later prophets who promise God's presence and blessing even in exile and extends it to all the nations. God delivers by "bringing out" of a bad situation, "bringing up" to a better situation, by "pulling out of danger," by acting as a "family redeemer," "redeeming" by paying a price or ransom, or by "saving" through struggle with oppressors. Israel characterized God's actions in their history in reference to the Exodus, as do the New Testament writers. This deliverance could be both material/physical from human oppression or cosmic/spiritual from sin, dark powers and death. The hope of Israel and Christians is that YHWH is a God who gets intimately involved with His people to bring out their ultimate well-being despite oppressive present circumstances. 

Israel’s testimony to Yahweh as a promise-maker presents Yahweh as both powerful and reliable enough to turn life in the world, for Israel and for all peoples, beyond present circumstance to new life-giving possibility. Yahweh’s promises keep the world open toward well-being, even in the face of deathly circumstance. 164

Israel’s testimony to Yahweh as deliverer enunciates Yahweh’s resolved capacity to intervene decisively against every oppressive, alienating circumstance and force that precludes a life of well-being. Yahweh is more than a match for the powers of oppression, whether sociopolitical or cosmic.  174

We must not argue, in my judgment, that deliverance is material rather than spiritual, or that salvation is spiritual rather than material. Rather, either side of such dualism distorts true human bondage and misreads Israel’s text, which well understood the larger, mythic component of human bondage. The issue for the Bible, in both Testaments, is not one of either/or but of both/and. 180

Another important characteristic verb describing God's actions in Israel's testimony is "command." God is Creator and Lord and people are dependent on Him. His commands provide the way that His people can prosper in His creation. The great expression of command in the "10 Commandments" is set in the context of the exodus. God has set Israel free to serve Him instead of pharaoh and His commands set the way that Israel can enjoy this relationship with God (covenant) and prosper within it. Subsequent revelation, especially Deuteronomy, develops, applies and adapts these laws to a new situation. The torah focuses on issues of justice that insure power is used to serve all the people, especially the needy, and issues of purity that hold back the chaos around them and make it possible for a holy God to live with His people. True freedom is found only in covenant with God and obedience and service to Him.

The new “command society” of Sinai is one of dignity, freedom, and well-being. It is important not to stress the command structure of Sinai without appreciating the emancipatory impulse of Yahweh. Conversely, it is impossible to appreciate the emancipatory impulse of Yahweh, operative in the Exodus narrative, without paying close attention to the command structure of Sinai. 182–183

The piety of Israel, as the final form of the Psalter proposes it, is a glad obedience to the commands of Yahweh, enacted in full confidence that such obedience produces a life of joy, well-being, and blessing. 197–198

The truth of the testimony, “Yahweh who commands,” is that unfettered, autonomous freedom is in fact not available. Life is fundamentally relational, and the One who instigates and stands as the source of life’s relatedness is the God who commands. 200

The last verb Brueggemann discusses is "lead." YHWH leads Israel into difficult times of testing (wilderness) so that, as they trust Him, He can provide generously to meet their needs. In this role YHWH is pictured as a shepherd and a mother who births and provides for Her children. God does this to transform His people into what He has destined them to be. The Gospels often place Jesus in this wilderness motif (feeding of 5000 for example) to show that He is YHWH come to His people to lead, prepare and provide for them. The point of this chapter is that God made Himself known to Israel through His actions. Israel's witness is that there is no God like YHWH and this is based on what He did and said in their experience. There is also an open-endedness to this experience. YHWH has acted in the past, but present experience does not yet match YHWH's promise. Nevertheless, based on that past experience, Israel's trust and hope is that YHWH will set things right for them and for all of creation.

The two verbs together, “eat and be satisfied,” affirm Yahweh’s extravagant generosity, which gives abundantly beyond Israel’s need, and Israel’s complete delight in Yahweh’s abundance. Yahweh is the God who performs in situations of hazardous scarcity in order to generate abundance. Exodus 16.8, Deuteronomy 8.10, 203

Yahweh is incomparable! There is none like Yahweh! No rival is or claims to be the subject of these active, transformative verbs...we may imagine the witnesses have a kind of quiet confidence, a trust mostly talked about only in the community itself, that the world is the arena wherein Yahweh’s verbs are enacted; that the world, circumstances to the contrary notwithstanding, is responsive to and necessarily conforms to the actions of this irresistible Character. 206–207

Israel generated, one verb at a time, one sentence at a time, one narrative at a time, this alternative Agent. And this Agent of an alternative life in the world gave to Israel (and to the world): instead of deathly chaos, ordered life; instead of despair, possibility for a future; instead of oppression, dancing freedom; instead of absolutizing autonomy, obedience in viable community; instead of wretched abandonment, nourishment and care. 209

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