Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting the Old Testament: What it meant to them, What it means for us

By Steven L. Bridge, 227 pages, Hendrickson Publishers.

Steven Bridge challenges us to connect with the Old Testament by entering into the time and culture of its authors and initial audience: "[W]e modern readers of the OT are eavesdropping on ancient conversations – conversations that took place in foreign tongues throughout distant lands more than two millennia ago."

The contexts out of which these documents arose, then, are long gone. "To compensate," writes Bridge, "many readers resort to doing what many eavesdroppers have done: they construct their own meanings."

Many fundamentalist, end-times preachers find all sorts of modern-day scenarios in the Bible, and its prophetic books in particular, including Daniel. Yet, Bridge argues, rather than interpreting the Book of Daniel like this, we need to understand why this book is so strange.

For one reason, it was written at a time of political violence, so Daniel had to announce his political program in coded language, including the language of strange dreams. Yet behind this odd approach is the belief in God's goodness for Israel. History, directed by God, has meaning and purpose. Israel's suffering at the hands of the tyrant Antiochus would come to an end.

Daniel is, then, a book of great faith in God and a call to hope. Hope and faithfulness to God in the darkest hour is a central virtue for Judaism and Christianity. Bridge notes that for Daniel, "It all had a purpose. It had been foreseen and preordained (or at least, permitted) by God for the good of God's people. Even Antiochus's persecutions achieved a greater good. In the long run, they served to 'refine' the faith of the Jews."

Getting the Old Testament is a rewarding read because it moves from one difficult biblical story to another, such as the devastation of the Great Flood. How can we have faith in a loving God who does such violence to humans and all creation? Bridge takes us into the historical context, showing that the Near East was full of stories of a great Flood, including in the Gilgamesh epic. The ancient Near East culture to which ancient Israel belonged believed that natural phenomena were caused by gods. Most of these gods thought little of humanity, and caused the Flood for petty, nasty, or no good reasons.

The Hebrew writers wanted to explain the Flood from the perspective of their theology. Rather than denying that the Flood had taken place, which would have been absurd considering that people accepted it as fact, the writers found a motive.

God did it because of His concern for justice. At the end, His great mercy won out, and He promised no new Floods. A covenant with Noah was established instead, giving a second chance to humanity. The biblical writers here, as elsewhere, also portray God as being close to His creation, in contrast to the distant gods of other Near Eastern peoples.

Getting the Old Testament shows how the theology of the Hebrew writings always sought to emphasize God's goodness, justice, and power. Despite the many contradictions and confusing stories of the Old Testament, this underlying constant is always present, and served as the blueprint for the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ.

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