Read: 1/30/08 – 3/12/08
Walter Bruegemann: Theology of the Old Testament
A must read for anyone taking seriously the task of biblical interpretation (and who can handle 750 pages of fairly rigorous intellectual discussion, but not too much where it is overly confusing). This book was a refreshing change from the standard conservative, Evangelical OT theology. Simply put, I just felt alive as I was reading and interacting with it, a clear sense that the Spirit was moving and working in my mind.
I think where Bruegemann is unique is in his insistence on theologizing in a “postmodern” context, whatever that may mean (which he attempts to describe). It is for sure not within the parameters and categories handed down by the Enlightenment project. Bruegemann is putting his money where is mouth is. He truly believes that the intellectual climate produced by the Enlightenment (modernism) is no longer valid. It is crumbling, has crumbled, whatever. But he is taking this seriously and going forth with his work in this context, even though it may be more difficult because of the uncertainty of how to do it or where it is going. Even if you poo poo the idea of “postmodernism,” this still is a must read. It is always good to interact with ideas you are not necessarily in agreement with.
It was refreshing to read Bruegemann discussing interpretation of the Old Testament from the perspective of the Old Testament, not 2000 years of Western Christendom’s New Testament version of the Old Testament. This was an absolute delight. His major conclusions were also refreshing and seemed to reveal a lack of understanding of the God and Father of my Lord Jesus Christ. For example, he discusses how Israel’s relationship with their God Yahweh was an extremely dynamic, relational one. They never totally knew what Yahweh was going to do. When they were pissed, they communicated that. Furthermore, if they didn’t, the argument goes, they were not being the people they were brought into existence to be. Yet their anger ended in praise because they realized that their very existence depended upon the God who created them. What struck me with this is how I feel we have neutered God. We relate to him with abstract principles like the omnis and even the character of being “good.” Yet at times in Israel’s testimony we see that there is a question whether or not God really is good. Is he really going to uphold is part of the bargain (the covenant). I feel like I am somewhat relearning who God is, gaining a greater boldness from approaching him and interacting with him, believing that this questioning and pushing back on him is part of how our relationship is supposed to be. This is different from the God I was told of growing up, one who has all the answers and can’t really be questioned because he has it all under control and will do what he will. This was not Israel’s state of mind. They cried out and (sometimes) God responded. Sometimes He even changed his mind. One of the purposes of the book of Job is to show that God could even contradict is own law, his own covenant, is he so chose. This is blasphemy to evangelical ears where the Bible seems to have become the end all be all. All of this is still under the understanding that Jesus could have possibly changed things, and how we relate to God now might be different from how Israel interacted with God in the past, but it is a huge part of the story that has been silenced under the guise of Christianity’s superiority to Judaism. We have something to learn from it, possibly something very important. Very interesting stuff.
Brugemann’s hermeneutics are also interesting. He comes to the text (and only the text, not searching for the “really real” behind the text, definitely a rejection of modernist categories) utilizing somewhat of a courtroom analogy for understanding how Scripture is to operate in the life of the community reading it. There are many voices in the text. Two of the major ones, or traditions, are the Deuteronomistic and Priestly. These voices are not always in agreement with one another and are attempting to make their case as being “true.” You can see right off the bat what this does with those “trouble passages” or the apparent contradictions in the OT. They are not contradictions as much as they are two different perspectives fighting for attention and trying to make their case. This also seems to be blasphemy to Evangelical ears where Scripture is seen as having a single trajectory, with everything coming together in a systematic and organized way to make very good sense. Any seeming contradiction must be explained away (or simply not discussed). I wonder if this was the context Jesus stepped into and essentially gave the “final word.” Still, understanding the Old Testament on its own terms, we must let the ambiguity and the polyphonic character of the text speak for itself. Trying to domesticate it by explaining things away for the sake of a nice, clean systematic theology is destroying the text. We might as well just write it ourselves. There is a doctrine of inspiration for you!
Bruegemann breaks the text into “Core Testimony” and “Counter Testimony.” The core testimony consists of active verbs with God as its subject; saves, redeems, etc. The object of the verb is Israel mostly, but also the world, creation, etc. These verbs (this testimony) arise from concrete experiences of Israel with their God, the most obvious being the Exodus. This is the core testimony of Israel in speaking of (writing about) their God. Yet, at times when it seems this core testimony is not vibing with experience in everyday life, counter testimony arises. When God isn’t “saving with an outstretched arm,” then what is he doing? He is still the creator of heaven and earth, so there must be language to describe what is going on when core testimony doesn’t suffice. Wisdom literature is an example of counter testimony, the doctrine of providence a specific example. If God is not out in the open fighting for Israel, he is doing so behind the scenes. This is not how Israel first (or really wants) relates to Yahweh, but is way in which they can testify to Yahweh and His actions in the world when they can not do so with the language of their core testimony. Is God out in public saving with an outstretched arm or behind the scenes upholding creation? Apparently both, though Israel (for their own sake) would prefer that God often do the first.
There is a lot more discuss in terms of content that I won’t. Hopefully you can get the feel and enough of a taste to pick it up. Suffice it to say, this work is a refreshing and empowering one that I would recommend to all. It challenges the long held assumptions and positions of scholarly evangelical OT theology in a positive and eye-opening way, not a destructive one. Ultimately, I firmly believe it is a step in the right direction to (re)discovering Yahweh, the God of Israel and the Church, and his Son Jesus the Christ.