Monday, December 1, 2008

Why is the Old Testament Shut Out of the Church? --- Ralph Dale Davis

Ralph Dale Davis is one of my favorite authors. He has written delightful commentaries on Judges, Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. Davis is the only commentator who can make me laugh as I am reading a commentary! I commend all of his commentaries to you. They are not difficult and will help you understand God's Word.

The post below is Davis' lecture on the things that keep us from reading the Old Testament in a profitable way. His prayer at the end of his article may whet your appetite to read all of the article:

Incessantly interesting God, your character is our rest, your ways our relish;
you have left your fingerprints all over your word--you tempt us to come find you in it! Oh, grant that we will faithfully yield to this temptation, and in and through these pages come to you, to 'God our exceeding joy.' Amen.


Why is the Old Testament shut out of church?
Article by Ralph Davis November 2008
John Reed Miller Lecture Series: Part One

I don't want to begin this lecture by spiritualizing a text but...the Old Testament is good bit like Jephthah the Gileadite in Judges 11:1-3. His brothers so much as booted him out of their father's household because of his illegitimate birth. That's the way it is with the Old Testament in much of the contemporary church. The church seems to feel that it's okay if the Old Testaments stays in the land of Tob with Jephthah, but let's not even give it the status of step-testament in the household of faith. In short, there are certain barriers that keep--and have kept--the Old Testament from being heard in the church and I want us to understand what some of them are; it should help us understand the problem.

I. Scholarly Barrenness

I don't care if many beg to differ, professional study and teaching of the Old Testament has largely killed the Old Testament for the church and wrecked it for hundreds of theological students. I speak especially of the so-called higher critical position regarding the OT. (Now don't accuse me of being anti-intellectual; in fact, I think that any MDiv grad from an evangelical seminary should know the critical position(s) regarding especially the Pentateuch, should know--and be able to refute--the criteria scholars have used to carve up the canonical text. A little time with Kenneth Kitchen or R. K. Harrison is time well-spent). We have had about 150 years of this anti-supernaturalist scholarly study of the OT and it has produced results as cold as concrete and as appetizing as stewed okra. Let me give examples.

Here's a commentary on Exodus 14:5--the first part of the verse speaks of 'the king of Egypt,' while the 2nd part refers to him as 'Pharaoh' and so 'there can be no doubt' that the verse is 'composed of two different sources.' Naturally, we find that very moving. Or go to Exodus 34:6-7; this commentary says that Yahweh's self-proclamation here ('Yahweh, Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious...') is 'out of place' and is 'an addition which is made up of customary, stereotyped phrases.' Here is the crucial, climactic, consoling self-revelation of Yahweh, brimming with theological profundity and devotional power--and Martin Noth never heard it. The Fountain of living waters overflows and Noth spends eight lines of critical hogwash on him.

Or here is a commentator on 1-2 Kings. At 2 Kings 2:23 we read of Elisha going up to Bethel, where apparently the incident of the bears tearing up 42 lads occurs. But this commentator says there is nothing in the narrative itself to suggest that this happened at Bethel except that introductory comment that Elisha had gone up to Bethel. This amounts to saying that the text says this occurred in Bethel but we can't be sure because the next two and a half verses don't mention Bethel--no landmarks like the Bethel Moose Lodge, I suppose--so we really can't be sure it happened in Bethel. One could forgive such nonsense were it not for worse stuff. The same commentator, writing on 1 Kings 8:27 (where Solomon prays, 'But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!'), tells us this verse must be deleted as 'secondary' and that it looks like a 'marginal comment which later found its way into the text.' Leave aside the critical issue. Even if he were right on that (and he's not), how can he ignore, how can he pass by without any comment the massive, head-throbbing theology of that verse?

On and on it can go. You can find out, for example, that 1 Samuel 3 may not be a prophetic call but an 'auditory message dream theophany,' and then like Lucy in Peanuts you think: Now that I know that, what do I do?

And so theologs tend to give up on the Old Testament. If it involves such complex, intricate analysis by the high priests of whatever the reigning German-geschichte is, then surely it is 'too complicated for me for bother with.' Use a psalm or two for funerals and a quote from Amos for Social Justice Awareness Sunday, but otherwise forget the OT. Mainstream critics may mock evangelical use of the OT, but they have not given us any help. Unbelieving biblical interpretation cannot nurture life--it cannot even arouse interest. It is worse than lethal--it is boring.


II. Evangelical Sloppiness

We have our own boners, of course. We may ring the changes and make the jump from Rahab's scarlet cord (Josh. 2:18) to the cross; there's a proper way of doing that in Joshua 2 but not by hanging from Rahab's cord--it won't bear the weight. Someone may make Jael's hammering Sisera in Judges 4 a picture of the mortification of sin. One should never dispute with Spurgeon, I suppose, but one might be excused for thinking that the writer of Judges would be surprised to know that that was what he was suggesting. That 'take', however, is preferable to the one that sees in Jael a true picture of the Christian evangelist, for she 'went softly to him' and we ought to be gentle in the work of evangelism. (One may as well see in Sisera's drinking Jael's yogurt a foreshadowing of the Lord's supper!) Or, does the compassion of Pharaoh's daughter for baby Moses (Exod. 2:5-6) point to the need we should all feel to exercise empathy with people?

This sort of thing does not come from the sterile biblical critics but from our own camp, the Bible-thumpers. Naturally, we would distance ourselves from most of the samples just cited (though some might want to hold on to one or two of them!). Still, evangelical-types have their own problems with tone-deafness to Scripture. How easy it is for a Bible-believing, gospel-preaching interpreter to take up Genesis 39 and zero in on verses 7-12 and start pressing home 'principles for overcoming temptation.' Now it doesn't matter whether Potiphar's wife was an old bag or a real doll, this approach will likely miss the main point. The whole narrative of Genesis 39 is framed with these notices that 'Yahweh was with Joseph' (vv. 2, 3, 21, 23). These notes do not eliminate the temptation theme, but don't they say that the presence of God is more primary than the temptation? The testimony of the whole chapter is then that Joseph had Yahweh's presence in his forsakenness (vv. 1-6), in his temptation (vv. 7-18), and in his probable disillusionment (vv. 19-23). The accent falls not on principles we follow but on the presence of the God who keeps us. It's almost a case in point contrasting man-centered and God-directed hermeneutics.

I know we want to show how 'applicable' Scripture is to our people's needs and some apparently fear that having a God-focused approach to Scripture will sabotage that. On the contrary! It's when you keep seeing the splendor of God in Scripture that you will address the needs of your people. Ah, but here I have left lecturing and gone to meddling.

I simply want to note that not even the Bible-packers have done the OT right. We often need to be cleansed of our hermeneutical leprosy. Having a right view of inspiration does not guarantee a proper practice of interpretation. I think Walt Kaiser said something like that. So you know it's true.


III. Superficial Assumptions

One morning when we were in Baltimore, my wife called me on the manse-to-study intercom. I had left a note for her about the repair of our washing machine. She told me that she could not 'make out one word' of that note. Then she had to gall to proceed to read the note to me over the phone. My anger began to ignite over the paradox: she had just said she could not make out one word of my note and here she was reading it off perfectly easily to me! Then she stumbled on a word--it was the one word she could not make out. I had assumed when she had said she could not make out one word that she was making a snide remark about left-handed handwriting and that she meant 'not any word' instead of 'just one word.' I thought she was speaking extensively, whereas she was speaking literally. It was one of those quick but mistaken assumptions.

I think assumptions like that are made about the Old Testament. We may make such assumptions because pastors or teachers have passed on their attitudes about how dull or uninspiring many sections of the OT are. Or we may get that attitude by our own superficial reading of it--there is nothing useful here, we say, or, the writer of Judges 1 must've been an unemployed geography teacher angry over the demise of his subject in the public school system and so taking out his vengeance on generations of Bible readers. I can only say that this attitude keeps you from hearing the OT. I can only say that I find the apparently dullest and deadest texts to be brimming with vitality and excitement. I think our real problem is that we don't want to sit before the Lord's word and think.

Take Genesis 25:12-18. It begins, 'These are the generations of Ishmael...', and you say, 'Ugh, this looks like a downer.' No sparkling narratives in this section; after all, you're never going name your kids Mibsam or Mishma. Twelve sons of Ishmael and so on. Then what? Then 'the generations of Isaac' (v 19). Here is the promise line. Did I say line? Well, not quite. Isaac's praying because Rebekah, like Sarah (see 11:30), is barren (v. 21). Do you catch the contrast? Here is the non-promise line, here is the kingdom of this age, Ishmael's line, and it is going to town with furious fertility (vv 12-18), and here is the promise line, the kingdom people, who can't even get out of the starting gate. Isn't this the way it often is? The kingdom of God is there but in such mustard-seed form, in such hidden and obscure and fragile fashion, that it doesn't seem to hold a candle to the virility and vitality of the kingdom of this age. You still will not likely feel a wave of devotional warmth come over you, but you should see that the biblical writer was making a point when he placed the dull list of Ishmael's fertility side-by-side with Isaac's sterility.

Or take Genesis 23. Interesting but seemingly not very vital. Sarah has just died and Abraham is under the gun to get a place to bury her. He doesn't want to borrow a grave from the locals but to obtain his own burial plot. Any mortician with a marketing heart would tell you that you shouldn't wait till then--arrangements should be pre-planned. Otherwise you're at the mercy of the Hittites and you know they will put the screws to you. But there's more here than the last rites for Sarah and Ephron's deposit in First National of Kiriath-arba. The story brackets itself as occurring in 'the land of Canaan' (vv. 2, 19), which might seem trivial except that it was the land Yahweh promised Abraham in 12:7 ('to your seed I will give this land'). And four times we read that what Abraham wanted was a 'possession' (one time the Hebrew word varies but this does not affect the idea; vv. 4, 9, 18, 20). And that's what he got. Do you see what happened the moment that wry smile wrinkled crafty old Ephron's face as he felt the 400 weight of Abraham's silver? Yahweh had begun to fulfill his promise of a home to Abraham and his seed. True, it wasn't much. But more than he had asked for--Ephron insisted he buy not only the cave but the field it was in! It was only a cemetery plot, but it was a part of Canaan that now belonged to Abraham. Yahweh was being faithful to his promise of 12:7! Sometimes that is the way Yahweh shows himself--as the God who is faithful in little. And note when he does that--at the death of Sarah. You can say what you want about a 'redemptive-historical hermeneutic' but don't leave the flesh and blood out of it. Verses 1-2 (Sarah's death and Abraham's mourning) show that covenant people meet common sorrows, and it is interesting that it is precisely in this time of grief and trouble that Yahweh gives Abraham this tiny token of his firm faithfulness.

Sometimes it's the commentators who are superficial. Take the axe-head story in 2 Kings 6:1-7. One writer says this story illustrates how trivial some of the OT miracles are; another dismisses the whole episode in less than six lines and says it has 'no particular merit or significance' apart from showing the power the man of God possesses. But think a little and put this 'rinky-dink' episode in its context. Before it is the 'Naaman' chapter, with all its high-powered political tension. Well, ask the king of Israel: the Syrian king sends this high-profile military man to Israel and is obviously trying to foment an 'international incident.' And then, post-axe, in 6:8ff. there are these military conflicts between Syria and Israel. And in the middle of anguished diplomatic maneuverings and military conflicts the God of Israel cares about a dirt-prophet who has lost a borrowed axe-head. That may be trivial and without merit or significance to some; others, however, will see flashes of glory in it. They will say, "That's just vintage Yahweh! Having his eye on his most obscure servant amid all the stuff that steals headlines in the evening news!" There is much more in this text but we can't take the time this morning to--shall we say?--sharpen the axe.


IV. Hermeneutical Intimidation

Another barrier to the use of the OT in the church is what I call hermeneutical intimidation. I'm thinking of those OT passages that depict events so racy or so appalling that we wonder whether we dare sully the sermon space with such material. Or there are texts where God seems to act with such harshness or abruptness that we fear we cannot 'explain' them adequately. The laws of uncleanness in Leviticus 11-15 suddenly seem more preachable than Genesis 38 or Judges 19 or 1 Samuel 15. Even explaining the 'sin unto death' in 1 John 5:16 seems like a piece of cake beside trying to handle a story of a concubine who has been gang-raped and whose corpse has been hacked up into 12 pieces and parcel posted throughout Israel. Even safer is a nice exposition from Philippians 1. Now Philippians needs to be preached (and I have done so) but why are we so wary of these wild and unruly OT texts? I think we are intimidated by them, and wrongly so, for I hold that these terrible texts hold tremendous treasure.

Take 2 Samuel 6, for instance. David wants to bring the ark of Yahweh out of obscurity into the city of David. The celebration begins by transporting the ark, Philistine-like, on a new cart. Somewhere on the trek the oxen get clumsy and Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark. Next thing we know, Uzzah is writhing on the ground, the music fades, the gasps begin. The EMTs arrive but can do nothing. And the text won't allow you to say, 'Well, Uzzah had always had trouble with angina,' for verse 7 is clear: 'The anger of Yahweh burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there.' Of course, questions pile up. Well, Uzzah was in the wrong, but why didn't Yahweh cut him some slack? Why was he so abrupt? So severe? Now you can explain some items. You can say that Yahweh had spelled out how the ark was to be moved and apparently no one thought Numbers 4 was that important. You can probably say that this was not a final but a temporal judgment on Uzzah, i.e., it did not involve his salvation but was a temporal punishment for his error. In one way, however, that is little help: how can you say he 'only' lost his life? When all is said and explained, the story leaves you with the impression that Yahweh is a scary God. I think that's the point the story wants you to get: you don't mess with a God who is both real and holy; you can be angry like David if you want (v 8), but you will do better to join his later response and tremble (v. 9). Maybe there's a message for the church here. We're always hearing that we should have more emotion and feeling in our worship. Okay, so how about fear? That's emotional. How about trembling? How about some God-induced terror?

Then note what the narrative does. The presence of the ark seems to bring blessing to Obed-edom, its interim caretaker (vv 11-12a), and someone had apparently read the Pentateuch, and so they bring up the ark with joy and celebration. In the second half of the story, note the emphasis on joy, dancing, and shouting (vv. 12-16). And there's another tragedy; this time not Uzzah but Michal--she does not delight in God. Second Samuel 6 may be a troubling text. But do you see the theology of the chapter when you put both halves together? To rightly respond to Yahweh you should both shudder and dance. Our God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24) but he should also be our exceeding joy (Ps. 43:4). This holy and happy God wants us to reject both irreverence and coldness. Have you ever wondered what Psalm 2:11 means when it says to 'rejoice with trembling'? Don't we see a narrative incarnation of it in 2 Samuel 6, that leprous text we may have wanted to ignore? Where can you get a better balance of truth than that?

But let's face it. A lot of this 'hermeneutical intimidation' comes not from difficulty in understanding the OT text but rather from the way the text will grate on the sensibilities of contemporary culture. The text is not unclear; it's the sovereign God of Israel who aggravates the daylights out of proud post-moderns. Take the first hunk of 2 Kings 1. King Ahaziah takes a tumble out of an upper storey and is pretty mashed up apparently--enough to be concerned whether he will survive. So he sends messengers to ask Baal-zebub god of Ekron if he will recover. Yahweh sends Elijah to intercept his lackeys. Elijah tells them: 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire from Baal-zebub god of Ekron? Now therefore, here's what Yahweh says: "The bed to which you have gone up--you will not come down from it, but you will surely die"' (vv. 3-4). But folks are offended at such virile biblical theism. It's okay for Yahweh to put the first commandment on the books but no need for him to take it so all-fired seriously. Here is a man in anguish at the most critical hour of his life and is seeking to 're-discover some spiritual roots'--and he's sentenced to death for it. Just because he prefers a 'different meta-narrative' he is doomed. Why does Yahweh have to love truth that much? Why is the heat of his holiness always turned up so high? Why won't he allow us to shape him in our image? This not only offends crass pagans but tends to embarrass soft-around-the-edges evangelicals as well. Sometimes our problem is that the text is all too clear.


V. Spiritual Deficiency

I thought I might end on a little piece of heresy--or at least some might think it so.
Let me do this through the back door.

I remember preaching in one of our Mississippi churches one Sunday evening while I was serving at this fine institution. After the service a faithful member of that congregation, a lady around 80 years of age who had almost lost her eyesight (but carefully listened) gave me her reaction to the Old Testament text that had been preached: 'Isn't God dear?,' she said. She did not mean that in a schmaltzy or mushy sense. She meant: Isn't God delightful? Isn't he marvelous? Doesn't he act in such ways toward us that stir up our love for him? She may have been nearly blind but she saw something with keen clarity--if you keep your eyes on God himself you will be thrilled, or at least immensely satisfied.

Maybe this is why the OT is shut out of the church. We do not have the right approach. I am not convinced that there is a 'problem' with the OT. I do not think the 'strangeness' or 'distance' or the language of the OT is much of a problem; nor is our difficulty with the OT mainly a matter of techniques. Rather we get off track in our interpretation of the OT because our eyes are fastened on the wrong 'object.' I do not mean that we cannot consider methods and genre and criticism and problems, but for crying out loud there is a living God waiting to reveal himself in the OT and we so easily take our eyes off of him! If he is my exceeding joy (Ps. 43:4) then I should delight in seeing him in the OT. If he is the fountain of living waters (Jer. 2:13), I should be thirsting and craving for him as I read its texts.

So much depends on this. Don't tell me, 'But Leviticus is so dull.' I know the provisions for the sin offering in Leviticus 4-5 aren't nearly as racy as Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38), but when, for example, you read that if the offender can't afford a lamb, he can bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, and that if he can't afford those, he can bring a tenth of an ephah of fine flour--Yahweh is telling you something about himself. He is saying that he will never let anything get in the way of his finding an atonement for your sins. For the present he'll do it with two quarts of flour if he has to. What kind of a God is that? Who's ever heard of such massive, world-moving, guilt-drowning grace?

Well, we mustn't get sucked into giving more examples here. I simply wonder if a good bit of our 'problem' with the OT might be a heart problem. Maybe our problem is a spiritual one--maybe we are not salivating for the triune God as we read our Bibles. Maybe we're focused on sermons rather than worship. If once you have found God fascinating...that goes a long way towards curing the 'problem' of the OT.

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