Karl Barth on the Covenant

‘What, then, we gather from the Noahic covenant, and everything that belongs to this strand, is that according to the Old Testament conception itself the special divine covenant made with Israel does not exclude the human race as a whole from the gracious will of God towards it. What we find in Isaiah’s view of the status of Israel as a representational and messenger to the nations is that the covenant made with Israel has a meaning and purpose which reaches out beyond the existence of Israel. And now, from the prophecy in Jeremiah of a new covenant of forgiveness and of the Spirit and of free obedience on the part of man, we learn that the Old Testament looks beyond the past and present to a form of the relationship between God and Israel in which the covenant broken by Israel will be set up, that the Israelite, for whom ultimately God has nothing but forgiveness, but does have it actually and effectively, must now take his place directly alongside his Gentile fellows, and that if at all he can hope for the grace and salvation of God on this presupposition. In the light of this passage from Jeremiah 31 we are indeed enabled and summoned to give to the concept of the covenant the universal meaning which it acquired in the form which it manifestly assumed in Jesus Christ.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics IV.1 p. 34)

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Notes on Stephen’s Speech

– Two things should be noted right off the bat: it’s the longest single speech in the New Testament, and it doesn’t jive to well with a lot of the other New Testament in terms of critique – Stephen is much harsher in his condemnation of the temple than Luke is, for example.

– The two main passages of Scripture that Stephen quotes are Amos 5:25-27 (in verses 42-43) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (in verses 49-50. Respectively, these deal with the themes of idolatry and God using the world as a footstool – i.e., not contained in a house built by hands. I think from these two specific quotations and the general theme of the speech, it can reasonably be assumed that Stephen saw the temple as not only superfluous in light of Christ but as totally unnecessary and even wrong from the very beginning. The entire temple apparatus simply allows the idolatry that Stephen takes to be part and parcel of the Hebrew people a greater reign.

– Being rather convinced by Wright’s thesis that the temple at the time of Jesus was more or less a talisman of a violent and nationalistic religion, I think it can Stephen’s speech can also be reasonably seen as a critique of Jewish privilege. Stephen traces a lineage of turning from God and his oracles in v. 38-41 – and note that it is the oracles of God that Paul connects with the advantage or privilege of the Jew. Stepehen also effectively turns the tables on his accusers by arguing that in their betrayal and murder of Jesus, they were the ones who broke the law as delivered by angels (an invocation which establishes its legitimacy). So, whereas Paul points to the receiving of the oracles of God as a privilege or advantage of the Jew, Stephen sees the idolatry present in his fathers as causing them to reject these oracles. Being also generally convinced of Wright’s thesis that a problem with the Judaism of the time was that it had developed into a closed-off ethnic religion or identity, I think that Stephen can be taken to be arguing that the privilege of the Jew had turned into a hoarding of the oracles of God.

– More evidence here could be cited from the examples Stephen gives of God’s revealing and workings in Hebrew history – such revelations are not restricted to certain people in the Holy Land but rather wherever God’s faithful servants can be found – Egypt, Mesopotamia, wherever. In his narrative, Stephen seems to connect the building of the temple with the stagnation of Israel’s religion.

– A very interesting transition occurs between v. 39 and v. 51 – in the former, Stephen refers to ‘our fathers’, who refused to obey Moses. In the latter, Stephen refers to ‘your fathers’, who resist the Holy Spirit in the same way that Stephen’s accusers do. What I think is happening here is summed up by Bruce Metzger in ‘The New Testament, It’s Background, Growth and Content’:

‘The reader can detect in the speech overtones of a growing awareness that the new faith could not be limited by Judaism and that it was the true goal of Hebrew history. The seeds of theological revolution lie within Stephen’s challenge of the alleged privilege of the Jews, and the logic implicit in his argument opened the way for a Christian mission to the Gentiles. In short, Stephen stands for a Christianity that was coming to realize its independence and self-sufficiency and was beginning to feel that it must either absorb Judaism or break with it.’ (p. 189)

Bloesch and Kaiser on ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’

‘The sixth commandment forbids murder. The ethical theology that lies behind this prohibition is the fact that all men and women have been created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-26; 9:6). While Hebrew possesses seven words for killing, the word used here, rasah, appears only forty-seven times in the OT. If any one of the seven words could signify “murder” where the factors of premeditation and intentionality are present, this is the verb… Without exception, however, in later periods (e.g. Ps 94:6; Prov 22:13; Isa1:21; Hos 4:2; 6:9; Jer 7:9) it carries the idea of murder with intentional violence. Every one of these instances stresses the act or allegation of premeditation and deliberateness –and that is what is at the heart of this verb. Thus this prohibition does not apply to beasts (Gen 9:3), to defending one’s home from night-time burglars (Ex22:2), to accidental killings (Deut 19:5), to the execution of murderers by the state (Gen 9:6); or to involvement with one’s nation in certain types of war as illustrated by Israel’s history. It does apply, however, to self-murder (i.e. suicide), to all accessories to murder (2 Sam 12:9), and to those who have authority but fail to use it to punish known murderers (1 Kings 21:19)’ Kaiser, Walter C., Exodus, in Gaebelein, Frank E., ed., EBC, vol. 1, pp. 424f.

‘To kill in the name of Christ and in order to advance the kingdom of Christis expressly forbidden by Jesus (Mt 26:52, 53). Yet sometimes we have to take up the sword in order to preserve life, and this is permitted in the Bible but as something that pertains to the passing aeon, the world of sin and darkness, not to the new age of the kingdom of God. Since we belong to the old age as well as to the new, we act in two roles: as responsible citizens of the state, which can only maintain itself by force, and as ambassadors of the kingdom of Christ, which maintains itself solely by works of faith and love. The ethic of Jesus expressed in the so-called Sermon on the Mount was given to disciples, not to nations. If the radical ethic of nonresistance were applied directly to nations, it would mean the end of all civil government. Yet the church, which is under this higher command, can be a guide to the nations. It is the moral monitor or the conscience of the state. In Romans 13 the power of the state to wield the sword is expressly acknowledged by Paul; at the same time, the sixth commandment is vigorously reaffirmed. The principle of nonresistance or no retaliation can be a goal or ideal in the social arena, but never a political strategy.’ (Bloesch, Donald, Freedom for Obedience (NY: Harper and Row, 1987), 292-293

Some Scattered Thoughts on Peter Enns Ideas on Scripture, the Enlightenment and God

This post is basically an edited and condensed version of some comments I made at Rachel Held Evans blog and on Alastair Roberts blog:

It seems that despite Enns not wanting keep the Bible at a safe distance in all its troubling messiness, he does a remarkable job of keeping it at a safe distance while allowing some fairly modern presuppositions to shape how he reads it.

For starters, I wonder what makes our current and modern sensibilities the standards by which everything must be measured, which seems to be a given for Enns. I’d also wonder about his method of reading Scripture – i.e. to see the violent portrayals of God as ‘tribalistic’ etc and his, despite his insistence that he’s not doing so, dismissal of such portrayls. These are examples of his holding Scripture at arms length – can’t have those violent pictures of God, can we? Chalk em’ up to a primitive tribes record of their experience of God seen thru their own agendas and assumptions. Hence, no need to really believe the same thing as those Israelites wrote down – we now know better. This seems to be little more than Enns holding Scripture at arms length. I get that his project is to ‘wrestle’ with the ‘messiness’ of Scripture, take it on its own terms blah blah blah – got it. I really do . The end result of that, however, is that certain parts of the Scriptures that don’t conform to his method are jettisoned as being the imaginings and mistakes of an iron age tribe engaged in primitive warfare. Hence it’s not really wrestling with the texts or allowing them to really speak on their own terms. Hence my comment. (And, as an aside, invoking things like ‘enlightenment presuppositions’ does more to muddy the waters than anything else – what is an example of an ‘enlightenment presupposition’?) I could probably argue that Enns’ thinking is actually quite influenced by ‘enlightenment’ presuppositions, honestly. It strikes me that a position such as Enns’ isn’t far at all from the very real Enlightenment idea that we are free from the past and must progress past it. Alastair observes a rather important point that seldom gets noticed:

‘One could also argue that Enns et al are directly in line with the Enlightenment ideal of universal reason. Revelation conditioned by historical particularity is instantly exposed to suspicion because it doesn’t attain to this ideal. The historical and cultural particularity revealed in the Scriptures is cause for distrust for those of us who have attained to the regime of liberal universal reason. We must free Scripture from its cultural shackles and discover the timeless and universal truth that it was straining towards within its problematic cultural embeddedness.’

The picture of God that emerges from Enns’ thinking bears a suspicious resemblance to a lot of very modern, liberal ideas – ‘enlightenment based sensibilites’, to use those terms, hence (again) the point of my comment – for all his attempts to let the texts speak on their own terms, it seems like he ends up with a view of God based on some a priori viewpoints he has than what the Scriptures actually say.

The issue surrounding the use of ‘enlightenment’ is that there is no one ‘Enlightenment’ way of thinking, or, if there is, it’s so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless (‘progress’, could fit, but that is, as I said, so vague as to be usless.). In terms of the natural sciences, it refers to Newton, an anti-a priori/pro-empirical approach (for the most part – Newton made plenty of hypotheses), in terms of political philosophy it refers to individualism, the development nation-state and nationalism, John Locke, private property and the beginnings of liberalism, in metaphysics it refers to the blank slate, Hume, Locke, suspicion towards classical metaphysics and scholasticism, skepticism and the way of ideas, in terms of historical study it means Lessings broad ugly ditch and the march of history, in ethics, the categorical imperitave, the project of morality without God and the absolute moral autonomy of the self – there is no one monolithic way of thinking that we can invoke by saying, ‘you and your damn enlightenment presuppositions!’ It’s a buzzword, honestly, that is invoked more often than it is critically examined.

Thoughts on Walter Bruggemann’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’

I started reading Bruggemann’s massive ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, and finally made it through the first 2 sections, which form a ‘lay of the land’ of Old Testament theology and scholarship. As a work of scholarship in its own right, it’s brilliant – well-researched, heavily footnoted, calm, carefully reasoned – in other words, a great academic book. I do, however, have a few cautious and open criticisms/questions, regarding the viewpoint and methodology Bruggemann holds to. I’ll confine my comments here to a few specific instances so as not to be distracted by meta-questions of history, postmodernism and literary theory.

The discussion of the inadequate-ness of thin, positivst/pseudo-objective historical methods is very good – there is a good amount of time spent dismantling the ‘assured results of higher criticism’, and establishing the fact that presupposition-less exegesis/history is impossible.

I do, however detect a certain inconsistency with Bruggemann’s insistence that we should not import claims and categories foreign to the text to help us understand text or the ‘behind the text.’ He resists, for examples, what he terms ‘essentialism’, which seems to be the idea that there is a kind of ‘essence’ behind the text or to the ideas which the texts talk about (in this case, God). He also argues against ontologies foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking – ‘Greek’ ontologies, as he terms them, that focus on abstract concepts of ‘being’ which are incompatible with Jewish modes of thought and discourse (as an aside, I don’t find the dichotomy between Greek/Hebrew thinking terribly helpful, and think that on closer examination, such an objection loses a lot of force).

‘A student of Old Testament theology must be alert to the problem of conventional thinking about ontology, thinking that is essentially alien to the Old Testament testimony.’ (p 118)

The inconsistency arises when Bruggemann seeks to impose modern categories of literary thinking onto Scripture – ranging from conceptions of drama and narrative to Bakhtin-esque ‘many voices’ theory. For example:

‘…the characters, the plot and the subplots must be recognizable in order to sustain the plot. This means that the characters must have consistency and constancy. It also requires however, that the characters must change, grow, or develop, in order that successive scenes are not simply a reiteration of the first scene.’ (p. 69)

For someone so opposed to importing foreign categories onto Scripture, Bruggemann seems to foist very modern categories of drama and narrative onto the text – categories that draw from an understanding of drama that is more at home with the modern novel than with ancient narrative. Such an imposition, while seeking to do justice to the dynamic, rhetorical, dramatic and ambiguous aspects of the text, seems to be rather inconsistent in light of Bruggemann’s opposition to imposing metaphysical and theological categories onto the text to help us understand it.

Bruggemann also places a fair amount of weight on the ‘polyphonic’ character of Scripture – that is, the many voices within the text:

‘The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon a narrative which at times is disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. The Bible is no easy read.’ (Mark Coleridge, ‘Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies’, quoted in ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, p. 89)

It is fairly obvious that the story of Scripture is made up of many smaller stories – any story is. However, the claims of disjointed-ness aren’t quite so clear cut – the Biblical text shows a remarkable unity (in spite of, or perhaps despite the ‘many voices’) in its narrative. That a narrative is composed of smaller stories is hardly grounds for disconnected-ness – if that were the case, no narrative could be said to have any unity (this is leaving aside the support that the extrabiblical and extratextual evidence offers to the idea of a unified narrative of Scripture. Perhaps a little more attention to facts and less attention to poorly-defined existentialist literary theory would serve a bit better here).

As I said, these are more open questions and criticisms rather than decisive refutations. Bruggemann’s insistence on the reality of the dynamics of the Old Testament text, as opposed to a more static positivistic conception is one with which I very much agree – simply click on the ‘philosophy of language’ category/tag to the right to see that my own ideas aren’t too terribly far from Bruggemann’s. At any rate, ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ is an outstanding book so far, and I very much look forward to being continually challenged by Bruggemann.

N.T. Wright on Repentance

‘Repentance’, in a good many texts, was what Israel must do if her exile is to come to an end. Though the Greek word metanoia and its cognates, which occur in the gospels with this meaning, are rare in the Septuagint – and when they do occur, they refer, more often than not, to YHWH himself ‘repenting’ – the first-century sense of the word encapsulates a range of meanings expressed in other ways in the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek translations. Deuteronomy spoke of Israel ‘returning’ to YHWH with her whole heart; this would be the condition of her forgiveness and of the return from exile. In Deuteronomic terms, this would mean a return to the shema, to the love of YHWH alone with all the heart. The prophets regularly used the term ‘repent’ to denote the turning to YHWH which would result in restoaration, return from exile. Indeed, the word shub and epistrephein, since they mean ‘return’, hint constantly, particularly in Jeremiah, that for Israel to ‘return’ to YHWH with all her heart is the crucial thing that will enable her to ‘return’ to her own land. The whole point of passages like Daniel 9, Ezra 9 or Nehemiah 9 is that these great prayers of repentance – and we must be careful not to confine our thinking simply to occurrences of shub and epistrephein – are prayers precisely designed to bring about the return from exile. (We may note once again that all three books are clearly ‘post-exilic’ in the normal sense, and yet still seeking the real ‘return’.) (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, pp. 248-249)

Camels, Minimalism, Anachronism, and Kenneth Kitchen

‘Camels were last and least of Abraham’s possessions (Gen. 12:16), and in his time were used solely for the long-distance, desert-edge trip to Harran and back by his servant to obtain Isaac’s bride (24:10-64 passim). They were among the last named in Jacob’s wealth (30:43; 32:7, 15) and again were used solely for the long trip from Harran back to Canaan (31:17, 34). The desert-traveling Midianites used them (37:25). This is remarkably little. Then, at the time of the exodus and after (thirteenth century at the latest), they occur once among Pharaoh’s transport animals (Exod. 9:3) and twice in lists of creatures not to be eaten (Lev. 11:4; Deut. 14:7). Not much of a presence at all!

What about external sources between circa 2000 and 1200? We first consider the early second millennium (vaguely patriarchal), for which we have the following: from Egypt, a camel skull from the Fayum, “Pottery A” stage of occupation, within circa 2000-1400; from Byblos, a figurine of a kneeling camel, hump and load now missing (originally fixed by a tenon), about nineteenth/eighteenth century; from Canaan, a camel jaw from a Middle Bronze tomb at Tell el-Far’ah North, circa 1900/1550; from north Syria, a cylinder seal of the eighteenth century (of deities on a camel), in the Walters Art Gallery; and from mentions of the camel in the Sumerian lexical work HAR.ra-hubullu, going back in origin to the early second millennium….

[T]he camel was for long a marginal beast in most of the historic ancient Near East (including Egypt), but it was not wholly unknown or anachronistic before or during 2000-1100.’ ( Kenneth Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 338-339)

‘Abraham did not want his son to marry a Canaanite, so he sent his servant to Paddan Aram (as the Haran region of north Mesopotamia is called) to secure a bride for Isaac. With ten camels and adequate personnel, the servant heads the caravan towards his master’s Aramean kinsmen. The mention of camels here and elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives often is considered anachronistic. However, the correctness of the Bible is supported by the representation of camel riding on seal cylinders of precisely this period from northern Mesopotamia”

“It is often asserted that the mention of camels and of their use is an anachronism in Genesis. This charge is simply not true, as there is both philological and archaeological evidence for knowledge and use of this animal in the early second millenium BC and even earlier. While a possible reference to camels in a fodder-list from Alalakh (c. eighteenth century BC) has been disputed, the great Mesopotamian lexical lists that originated in the Old Babylonian period show a knowledge of the camel c. 2000/17000 BC, including its domestication. Furthermore, a Sumerian text from Nippur from the same early period gives clear evidence of domestication of the camel by then, by its allusions to camel’s milk…For the early and middle second millennium BC, only limited use is presupposed by either the biblical or external evidence until the twelfth century BC.’ (Kenneth Kitchen, full source here.