So I guess you noticed that the series took a sudden left turn in the last post. We were discussing Bible study tools, and then all of sudden, we’re talking narrative hermeneutics — but hermeneutics are just another kind of tool. And the best hermeneutics are built on the Bible as a whole as a narrative — because that’s what the Bible as a whole is.
So while I’m recovering from back surgery (L5/L4/L3 fusion), I’m re-running some older posts, but in a sequence that establishes a better hermeneutic than most of us were taught.
Long before we get into the nitty gritty of interpreting a particular passage, Greek grammar, cultural backgrounds, and such like, we need to see the big picture, and this is where we have so often gone wrong.
I’ve found just a handful of sources that provided extraordinary insight into the overarching narrative of scripture. In the last post we considered Scot McKnight’s latest book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Less well known, perhaps, but of equal importance is John H. Walton’s Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan.
Walton is an expert in the cultures that surrounded Old Testament Israel, and this knowledge provides him with insights into the Old Testament text that few others have. But beyond being a historian, Walton does some excellent theology, tying his historical insights into the scriptural narrative with great effect.
He does not write for a popular audience. But neither is the writing too dense for most people to follow. Just be prepared for a reading level quite a bit higher than The Purpose-Driven Life. (And that’s no slam against Rick Warren’s excellent book. It’s just that the books are written in very different styles.)
In Covenant, Walton asks one of those really big questions. He wants to discover the unifying theme of all of scripture. That’s all.
Well, any Christian is going to argue that the unifying theme is Jesus — of course. But if we’re not careful, we’ll read the New Testament and the prophets backwards into the Torah.
Walton points out, for example, that “redemption” in the earlier books of the Bible is all about God freeing Israel from Egyptian slavery. God didn’t promise Israel an eternity in heaven. He promised them the Promised Land and protection from their enemies.
When God is called “Savior” in the early Biblical texts, God is being praised for protection from Israel’s earthly enemies, not from hell.
(Exo 6:6 ESV) 6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.
(Psa 17:7 ESV) 7 Wondrously show your steadfast love, O Savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.
(Psa 106:21-22 ESV) 21 They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, 22 wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
As a result, many scholars prefer to speak in terms of “covenant” — that is, that God has intervened in the world so that he could enter into covenant relationship with his people. That is certainly true.
And certainly God made covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and the church. There’s no denying that God is pictured in the Bible as a covenant-making God. Indeed, the making of covenants seems very nearly central to the biblical narrative.
But why? What’s the point of making these covenants? Does God just enjoy treaty making? Where are all these covenants taking us? What’s the point, not only of covenants, but the related doctrines of election, calling, and being chosen, not to mention the requirement that God’s people be faithful to the covenant?
The old, largely-rejected theory of “dispensations” argues that God wrote a body of law, bound it in a covenant, and then later repealed that law in order to impose a new, different, better body of law.
Thus, the Torah is repealed and suitable for study solely by historians. The only covenant that matters in this theology is God’s covenant made through Jesus (some would even say Paul, relegating Jesus to the Old Testament!).
Then why did God make the earlier covenants? If they weren’t sufficient to save (but for the sacrifice of Jesus), why all these intermediate steps that God knew would have to end?
Walton has this theory —
God has a plan in history that he is sovereignly executing. The goal of that plan is for him to be in relationship with the people whom he has created. It would be difficult for people to enter into a relationship with a God whom they do not know. If his nature were concealed, obscured, or distorted, an honest relationship would be impossible. In order to clear the way for this relationship, then, God has undertaken as a primary objective a program of self-revelation. He wants people to know him.
The mechanism that drives this program is the covenant, and the instrument is Israel. The purpose of the covenant is to reveal God.
(Kindle Locations 230-234) (emphasis and paragraphing added).
That is, God’s over-arching purpose is self-revelation. It’s not the creation of a legal system that forces his people to do right. It’s not making up rules to test God’s people. Rather, it’s all about helping humans know God — helping the mortal and flawed and limited and earthbound know the immortal and the perfect and the unlimited and the transcendent.
Why? Well, because we can’t truly be in a loving relationship with someone we neither know nor understand. Not that God is fully knowable or fully understandable. He’s not. But neither does he hide himself from us. Rather, unlike the distant god of the Deists, God purposefully intervenes in human affairs because he wants us to find him.
Why is this important? Well, because our Christianity and our theology depend very heavily on how we perceive our God. If we see God as the Great Legislator in the Sky, then we see our relationship with God as being all about obeying his laws. If we see God as the Great Tester of Faith, then we see obedience, worship, and even our love for God as an effort to provide God the right answers, to pass the test.
And as a result, our relationship will be strained and feigned. We’ll claim to love God, of course, but when our love is compelled by threat of hellfire with the risk that the slightest mistake will damn us, well, that hardly creates the most healthy relationship.
It is exactly this kind of thinking that Jesus confronts repeatedly in John. Jesus wants us to see God in a very different way.
Rather (and I’m not following Walton’s book as much as thinking through his themes), the true God of the Universe is revealed by such passages as —
(Luk 14:16-24 ESV) 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'”
The Master of the House gets angry when his invitation is rejected, because his fondest desire is that his banquet be well attended — that his house may be filled.
God isn’t looking for ways to trap us so that we’re damned. Rather, he’s going far out of his way to make sure we receive his invitation.