Monday, March 29, 2010

My Approach to the Old Testament

I have been teaching the Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at a couple of theological colleges in Sydney, Australia, for the last nine years. Perhaps some of you might be interested in my approach to teaching the Old Testament, so here goes:

I strongly advocate that we need to respect the exegetical details of each particular text (even when it challenges our preconceived ideas), but at the same time we always need to place the exegetical details of each particular passage in the context of the bigger picture of the book in which it is found, and indeed the Old Testament as a whole. My general approach to the teaching of individual books of the Old Testament involves considering the historical background of the book in question, summarizing its structure and content, and identifying its major themes. My experience is that students are generally cognizant of the details of many of the more familiar stories of the Old Testament, but where they need to be challenged to think further is in considering the bigger picture of the Old Testament, how the parts fit into the whole.

In terms of the bigger picture, I link the purpose of creation and the outworking of history with God’s desire to reveal himself to humanity through the building of the kingdom of God on earth. Within this overarching purpose, the Old Testament is primarily a story of rebellion and the promise of restoration and realization in the context of God’s relationship with Israel.

The Pentateuch is primarily concerned with the historical background to and the establishment of the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants, which were covenants made exclusively between Yahweh and Israel. Given this covenantal emphasis in the Pentateuch, the key to understanding God’s relationship with old covenant Israel is understanding the nature and function of the Mosaic covenants. Israel’s obligation (both corporate and individual) under these covenants was faith expressed in a holistic way. This was typically talked about in terms of obedience, which was to be pursued in the context of the grace of redemption and atonement. The Mosaic call to obedience was a call for Israel to be loyal to God and his covenant.

If the Pentateuch explains the background to and the nature of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, then the Prophets (i.e., the Former and Latter Prophets) are primarily concerned to trace the historical failure of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. As covenant spokesmen for Yahweh, one of the major functions of the Old Testament prophets was to remind Israel of the nature of the relationship that she was in with God. The four main kinds of prophetic oracle (i.e., indictment, judgment, instruction, and restoration) all presuppose the operation of the Mosaic covenant, and reflect the relational dynamics spelled out in the Pentateuch.

But the message of the Old Testament prophets is quite clear. The Old Testament as a whole is concerned to show that the nation of Israel did not stay loyal to God and his covenant. This covenant disobedience was problematic as, according to the way in which God had structured the covenant with Israel, the efficacy of the system of atonement, and the realization of the blessings of the covenant, were conditional upon Israel’s continuing covenant loyalty.

The consequence of Israel’s covenant rebellion was that the curses of the covenant came down upon the nation, the climax being the military defeat and exile of Israel and Judah. But in a wonderful way, at the lowest ebb of God’s relationship with Israel, God spoke graciously through his prophets of how he would one day act to rectify the situation. According to the Old Testament prophets, the solution to the problem of the covenant disobedience of Israel would be the new covenant, which would involve God sending his Suffering Spirit-filled Servant to Israel, to make full atonement for sin, and to bring Israel and the nations back in faith and obedience to Yahweh, in order that the fullness of the covenant blessings might be realized:

“And now Yahweh says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him … he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’” (Isa 49:5–6).

In this way, the restoration oracles of the Old Testament prophets are prophecies of the gospel, which is the proclamation of the establishment of the new covenant in Christ, the royal announcement of the realization and consummation of the kingdom of God on earth and the fulfillment of God’s promises of blessing.

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