Friday, January 12, 2018

Reading Through Theology of the OT: by Walter Brueggemann #9

BrueggemannThis post continues my reading through Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, by Walter Brueggemann. Chapters 10-12 conclude the second section of the Theology which highlight the tension between the core testimony of the OT which focus on God’s dynamic actions in creation and what Israel often experienced in its history: God’s hiddenness, ambiguity and inscrutability. 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.…

Chapter 10, Ambiguity and the Character of Yahweh, deals with the very difficult texts in the OT which seem to portray YHWH as being deceptive, contradictory, arbitrary, or even abusive in His dealings with His people. Often, these difficulties come from parts of the story that are peripheral to the main point and are often ignored in OT theologies. Some can be explained as human overstatement, misperception of God's motive in Israel's experience such as lack of understanding of God's purpose for suffering, as in Jeremiah's complaints (Jeremiah 20.7-18). God's seeming unfairness (his willingness to forgive David, but not Saul for example) could be explained by God's perfect insight into the human heart. Passages which show God as being willing to deceive (1 Kings 22.20-22) or changing His mind about previous laws (Jeremiah 3.1-23) are more difficult to reconcile with the core testimony of the OT. I think part of the solution is that God is committed to real relationship with flawed humans and accomplishing His purposes in creation through human agency. This throws some ambiguity into the mix when God chooses relationship over law and works His plan through flawed creatures. We need to leave the tensions in the text and recognize that God operates on a plane far above us and has a perspective far wider than ours. In the Word he speaks to us in ways we can understand, but our understanding limits our perception of the revelation. As Calvin said, He speaks to us in "baby talk." 

Yahweh knows well ahead what is to happen. Thus the tale (of David's anointing) is an exemplar of Yahweh’s hidden, inscrutable, majestic purpose for the historical process of Israel, which is well beyond human discernment, even that of Samuel. What interests us is that this sweeping, lordly intention is juxtaposed to a rather seamy strategy for securing the new king. 368

Yahweh’s will is not mushy and romantic. But it is a powerful resolve that Israel should return, in direct challenge to the old command of Moses. It is clear that the old command, to which Yahweh has just subscribed, and Yahweh’s present yearning for fickle Israel are in profound tension with each other. It is equally clear that Yahweh is willing to overthrow and contradict the old command of Moses, Yahweh’s own command, for the sake of the relationship. Yahweh, as it turns out, cares more passionately for the relationship than for the old command. Deuteronomy 24.1-4, Jeremiah 3.1-23, 366

Whatever else this particular narrative (David and Saul) may intend, it shows unmistakably that Yahweh is nobody’s hostage, not even David’s. Perhaps the deception in the anointing, the acceptance of Samuel’s listening to the people (and not Saul’s), the acceptance of David’s act of despoiling of the Amalekites (and not Saul’s), the readiness to forgive David (and not Saul), are all evidences in Israel’s countertestimony that Yahweh will make provisional alliances in the historical process; thus Yahweh may cohere for a time with historical persons, movements, or power arrangements, but only for a time. 372

Chapter 11, Yahweh and Negativity, addresses the Old Testament passages that seem to portray YHWH negatively. These would especially include the books of Job and Ecclesiastes and the "complaint Psalms." These witnesses seem to accuse God of not keeping covenant, being inattentive to the needs of His covenant people, punishing too harshly or violently or even not keeping His own standards of justice and righteousness. It must be noted here that, in these passages, God's faithfulness, justice and power are always acknowledged in the end with a corresponding required response of obedience and worship. How does one justify this seeming contradiction? First, as in Job and Ecclesiastes, the writers conclusion that the God of creation is so far beyond us we will never fully understand what He does or why He does it, forces us to trust Him (based on His known acts of love and righteousness) and believe that He will work things out. Second, we must understand that the OT is not speculative or philosophical in its witness about God. It is written in the emotional, passionate fires of relationship. The human writers vent their frustrations in prayer when their experience does not match God's promises and God accepts and responds favorably. These prayer "complaints" are actually statements of real faith despite an experience that seems to contradict it. 

Whereas the prophets hold to the sanctions and consequent indictments in asserting that Israel has betrayed the covenant, the complaint psalms hold to the sanctions accusing Yahweh of not having honored the covenant. For if Yahweh had honored covenant, it is argued, bad things would not have happened to Israel. 375

Yahweh’s rightful place is not in the speculations of heaven, but in the realities of the earth. Yahweh is not a member of a mythical cast, but a partner to the bold and the obedient in the earth. Yahweh’s continuing engagement is with Job, who is Yahweh’s partner in abrasive candor, and who turns out to be Yahweh’s proper counterpoint. Job does not yet know why the wicked prosper, and he no longer cares. Yahweh does not yet know if Job serves Yahweh for naught, but Yahweh knows enough. Yahweh is no easy, gentle partner, but then neither is Job.  393

Israel’s way is to voice all of its enraged candor, but always to bear in mind the One who must be addressed, and then obeyed. 397

Chapter 12, Maintaining the Tension, closes the discussion of Israel's "counter-testimony" about God. Brueggemann is concerned that the reader maintain the tension between the "core testimony" in the Old Testament about God's "faithful sovereignty and Yahweh’s sovereign fidelity," and its witness to "Yahweh’s hiddenness, ambiguity, and negativity" in their experience. It is as though Israel lived between the great actions of God in the past and His promises for the future. Though the New Testament Gospel, the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ resolved some of this tension, we as Christians still live between the "already" kingdom life which calls us to take up our cross daily and the "not yet" when we will rule with Christ in a renewed creation. We experience that hiddenness, ambiguity and negativity like the psalmists and should passionately, honestly and openly cry out to God and "complain," even as we trust Him to "make all things work together for good" in the end.

The lived reality of the world, with its barbarism and alienation, indicates unambiguously that Easter has not singularly settled all. Thus in its eucharistic confession when the church, rooted in Israel’s testimony, must “proclaim the mystery of faith,” it not only asserts: “Christ has died, Christ has risen.” It must also add: “Christ will come again.” It ends with an acknowledgment of waiting, albeit full of belief; confident waiting, but nonetheless waiting. 401

This waiting where the Old Testament ends is not, as some supersessionist Christian interpretation suggests, because Old Testament faith is flawed, inadequate, or incomplete. The waiting is inescapable because of the unresolved condition of life in the world, an unresolve shared by Christians with Jews and with all others. The unresolve is as profound in the New Testament as in the Old. The Old ends with the waiting of Elijah “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5). The New ends with a prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20). 402–403

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