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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Some Thoughts on the Calling of Abraham’s Family

I’m reading ‘A New Heaven and a New Earth’ by J. Richard Middleton, and therein he makes the Wright-esque claim that Abraham’s family was called to ‘set things to rights’ or some variant on that theme – to paraphrase Middleton, it is through Abraham’s family that the nations will be blessed or find blessing. While there is indeed a sense in which this is true, I do not think that it is true in the sense that Middleton wants it to be, namely that such blessings and calling relate to salvation.

As I read the verses which Middleton cites in defense of this thesis (Gen. 12:1-3, 18:17-18, 22:17-18, 26:4-5, 28:14) I’m struck by a couple of things, the first of which is this: the promises to Abraham from God are all that those in his seed or in him (in Abraham) will be blessed. I see this, off the top of my head, as pointing to or anticipating when Jews and Gentiles will be part of the one family of Abraham and not a declaration that Abraham’s family is the agent by which redemptive blessings flow.

Secondly, I really see very little evidence that Abraham’s family was called to set to rights the problem of Adam’s sin or undo Adam’s sin. I honestly think one has to strain fairly hard to really get that from the Genesis texts – the overwhelming sense I get is that Abraham’s family is called to be a witness/light to the nations, not the bearers of salvation. Salvation will come through Israel, not from Israel. In a word, Abraham’s family is not called to be the agent of salvation but a light  to the nations and a witness to the One God – neither of which is the same as being the world’s saviour.

There is, it seems to me, an eschatalogical element here in that, as noted above, the promises of God to Abraham look ahead to when in the fullness of time both Jew and Gentile will be brought into the one family of God. These are cursory sketches and stand in need of development but the basic gist should be clear: the thesis that Israel is the means by which the world is set to rights at the very least can be challenged on the grounds of textual evidence

For a more developed critique along these lines, see this helpful summary of Hurtado and Witherington’s thoughts.

A Few Thoughts On My Neighbor

This post is also a comment, in reply to Alastair Roberts take on the prophet Oded and the Good Samaritan (there remains a lot of work to be done here, as this is a very rough sketch):

Immediately preceeding Levitucs 19:18, which Jesus quotes in the parable (as you noted) is a series of injunctions of Israel’s practice of justice – treating the poor fairly, no injustice in judgement, no stealing, no swearing, fairly well-known moral teachings. These sayings/teachings/whatever have a fairly universal quality – I have a hard time seeing these commands to properly execute justice as pertaining to *only* Israelites/covenant people.

Having said that, I fully agree that the background question relates to the question of membership in the people of God. I don’t think it follows, though, that the status of ‘neighbor’ is restricted to those who are alienated (sp?) covenant members.

Following from that (my Barthianism is about to show – take that, Wright!) I think that all people are, in a sense, the people of God by virtue of God’s election of humanity in Christ. What follows from that is that while all people are elect, not all people accept said election, and hence resist (I strongly agree with Lewis when he says that hell is locked from the inside out) the grace of the covenant, and are hence alienated from the covenant. So I see there being a distinction between the people of God who are in the Messiah, and the people of God more broadly as those who are elected by God in his election of Christ. The former are charged with, as you said, restoring the alienated and wounded, who are the latter.

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

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.

James K.A. Smith On Peter Enns Method of Biblical Interpetation

Here: http://www.colossianforum.org/2012/04/24/book-review-the-evolution-of-adam-what-the-bible-does-and-doesnt-say-about-human-origins/ – a bit dated, but still worth reading.

”While Enns affirms the inspiration and authority of Scripture, this sort of hermeneutical approach functionally naturalizes biblical interpretation.[3] Because this sort of account of biblical meaning is tethered to the intent of human authors, there is no functional role for divine authorship in determining meaning—which is precisely why Enns treats these books and letters as discrete entities rather than parts of a whole canon (more on this below).’

‘Enns’ approach leaves little room to recognize such recontextualization within the canon—nor does he accord any positive, constructive role to tradition (cf. 114). In fact, if it becomes a contest between “the authors of Genesis” and Paul, Enns sides with “the original meaning” of Genesis as the determinative meaning: “what Genesis says about Adam and the consequences of his actions does not seem to line up with the universal picture that Paul paints in Romans and 1 Corinthians […]. I do not think the gospel stands on whether we can read Paul’s Adam in the pages of Genesis” (92). To use Enns’ language, Paul attributes something to Genesis that the “authors of Genesis” are not trying to give us. Again, this account is entirely “from below,” as if it is Paul alone who “invests Adam with capital he does not have either in the Genesis story, the Old Testament as a whole, or the interpretations of his contemporary Jews” (135).

But now the problem above comes home to roost: what if there is an Author who is the author of both Genesis and 1 Corinthians? What did he intend? And could he intend meanings in Genesis that outstrip what the “authors of Genesis” intended? The church has always staked its reading of the Bible on the conviction that Scripture’s meaning exceeds what the original human authors could have intended. So we can’t neatly and tidily settle the cross-pressures we feel at the intersection of Genesis and contemporary science by simply limiting the meaning of Genesis to what was intended by its Ancient Near Eastern authors.’

 

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.