OT/ANE Background Studies: Five Theses

Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible Sometimes when Christians study the OT they are apprehensive about allowing ancient Near Eastern background studies to aid in interpretation.  Or, to state this apprehension in a question: “What do ANE studies have to do with OT interpretation?”  For some reason most Christians are more comfortable with NT background studies than OT ones.  I appreciate John Walton’s discussion of this topic in his article “Ancient Near Eastern Background Studies” (found in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible).

In this article, Walton argues that comparative studies (studies between the OT and the ANE) are crucial to the theological understanding of the Old Testament.  Here are his five (edited and summarized) theses on this point:

1) God did not reject the entire world-picture of Israel’s neighbors, but used much of its structure as a framework for revelation.  The revelation that Israel received typically concerned the nature and acts of God, the condition of humanity, and the relationship between God and the people he had created.  This revelation, penetrating and reformational as it was, did not change other aspects of Israel’s worldview (broadly speaking).  God left unchanged much of the way Israel learned about the shape of their world.  He left Israel operating and thinking in terms of Old World, premodern science.   Perhaps the best example of this is found in the concept of the three-tiered cosmos.

2) God often used existing institutions and converted them to his theological purposes.  Many of the theologically laden concepts and institutions in the OT were not devised as new ideas in heaven and delivered via theophany to the Israelites.  Numerous examples can be cited where they were adapted from contemporary cultural practice, perhaps the most obvious being circumcision.    This is an important example to show clearly that theological initiatives are not necessarily devoid of cultural history.  At the same time, the recognition of a cultural bridge does not rule out the providential activity of God within those cultures.

3) Revelation did not always counter ancient Near Eastern concepts, but often used them in productive ways.  When Israel was instructed to build the tabernacle, and thus define sacred space, ancient Near Eastern concepts were behind the entire undertaking, and they gave shape to the theology of sacred space.  Many aspects of the tabernacle and temple draw heavily from the ancient Near Eastern context.

4) Literary connections do not negate the inspiration of Scripture.  Ever since the discovery of the Babylonian flood and creations accounts, critics have attempted to prove that the OT is derivative literature and therefore a collection of man-made documents.  However, there is nothing inherently damaging to a high view of Scripture if the authors interacted at various levels with the literature current in the culture.  All literature is derivative relative to its culture – it must be if it intends to communicate effectively.  For the text to engage in polemic and correction, it must be aware of the current thinking and literature.  …Similarities do not jeopardize inspiration.

5) Spiritualized explanations must not be chosen when cultural explanations are readily available.  Without the guidance of comparative studies, we are bound to misinterpret the text at some points.  Distortion or misinterpretation will result if we fill gaps with contemporary theological trajectories when they ought to be filled [first] with cultural understanding.

Again, this is an edited summary of a bit longer essay.  Even if one doesn’t fully agree with every statement Walton makes, he does give some helpful guidance in considering the importance of OT background studies – studies in the ANE.  Here’s how he concludes:

“As theologians interested in the interpretation of the text, we should recognize the importance of comparative studies that focus on conceptual issues to illuminate the cultural dynamics behind the text.”

John Walton, “Ancient Near Eastern Background Studies” in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible.

shane lems

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No Creeds! (Except What Celebrity Preacher Says)

Democratization of American Christianity  “The study of the religious convictions of self-taught Americans in the early years of the republic reveals how much weight was placed on private judgment and how little on the roles of history, theology, and the collective will of the church.”

So writes Nathan Hatch in his assessment of American religion in his excellent book, The Democratization of American Christianity.  Many of the major weak spots in the American church today were already prevalent in the 19th century (e.g. “no creed but the Bible” was a common sentiment in the 19th century).  Hatch writes,

“In a culture that mounted a frontal assault upon tradition, mediating elites, and institutions, the Bible very easily became, as John W. Nevin complained, ‘a book dropped from the skies for all sorts of men to use in their own way.’ …In the assertion that private judgment should be the ultimate tribunal in religious matters, common people started a revolution.”

Hatch calls this “populist hermeneutics” because it wasn’t necessarily a Christian hermeneutic, a churchly hermeneutic, or a confessional one – it was a hermeneutic of the common individual divorced from the church and the historic Christian tradition.  “Solo Scriptura” had its American origins in the 1800s.

Ironically, this populist hermeneutic was led by “a few strong [religious] figures imposing their own will.”  Nevin, who was critical of this hermeneutic, said this:

“The liberty of the sect consists at last, in thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible only through its theological goggles.  These restrictions, at the same time, are so many wires, that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.”

In other words, the [celebrity] leaders of this “populist hermeneutic” told common Americans to read the Bible as if they were the first ones reading it and forget about the creeds and Christian scholars before them.  On the other hand, the leaders were ultimately dominating the movement and many of the people were following them.  Rather than follow in the footsteps of those Christians in history who went before them, these people were forgetting those who had gone before them and following the current popular [celebrity] leader.

Sadly, this still happens today.

The above quotes were taken from pages 182-3 of The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

One Text, One Meaning?

Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge I’m often amazed and even edified when several different preachers or commentators preach or comment on the same text and emphasize different themes, points, and applications.  It’s good for us as Christians to realize that Scripture is quite deep and rich; it’s not like one sermon or one commentary can say all there is to say about a verse or verses.  Kevin Vanhoozer makes this point quite well:

“…Particular interpretations may make valuable contributions without needing to make the further claim that they have said everything that needs to be said.  Just as many members make up one body, so many readings may make up the single correct interpretation.  Is it really the case that hermeneutic realists must kill off certain commentators in order to eliminate the variety of interpretations? …[Wayne] Booth reminds us that as we go about the business of interpretation, we should try to understand not only texts but their various readers too: ‘Seek critical truth – and incidentally, while you are at it, try to be fair, try not to kill off critics unnecessarily, try to understand them.”

I think this is a great insight, and this is why I try to get a few different commentaries from different authors and various periods in church history when working through Scripture.  In other words, it isn’t overly helpful to get 5 Reformed or evangelical commentaries on a Bible book only to ignore others from the past or from different backgrounds.  Vanhoozer continues:

“Diversity as such is not a curse but a gift.  Why else should we have four Gospels, four ‘interpretations’ of the one event of Jesus Christ?  We would be the poorer were we to have only one, two, or three rather than four.  It is nevertheless possible to assert both that there is a single correct meaning to the event of Jesus Christ and that it takes all four Gospels together to articulate it.”

“…A critical hermeneutic realism, highlighting as it does the multileveled nature of literary acts, should lead us to expect that the single correct meaning may be richer than any one interpretation of it.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There A Meaning In This Text?, p. 420.

shane lems

The Significance of Sin (Carson)

Fallen: A Theology of Sin (Theology in Community) Don Carson’s contribution to the book, Fallen: A Theology of Sin, is an excellent piece in which he talks about the significance of sin in Scripture and life.  Near the beginning of the essay he says,

“There can be no agreement as to what salvation is unless there is agreement as to that from which salvation rescues us.  The problem and the solution hang together: the one explicates the other.  It is impossible to gain a deep grasp of what the cross achieves without plunging into a deep grasp of what sin is; conversely, to augment one’s understanding of the cross is to augment one’s understanding of sin.”

Carson goes on in the article to lay out and explain some theological structures that are shaped by what the Bible teaches about sin – and that therefore shape our understanding of sin.  Here they are:

1) Sin is tied to passages that disclose important things about God [who he is and what he’s like].
2) Sin is tied to the work of Satan.
3) Sin is depicted in many ways [in the Bible].
4) Sin is enmeshed in theological constructions [e.g. anthropology, pneumatology, soteriology, etc.].
5) Reflection on sin is necessary to understand suffering and evil.

If you want to read Carson’s discussion of these points, you’ll have to get the book. Here’s one more helpful note where Carson summarizes the importance of understanding sin’s significance in the Bible:

“…If we do not comprehend the massive role that sin plays in the Bible…, we shall misread the Bible.  Positively, a sober and realistic grasp of sin is one of the things necessary to read the Bible in a percipient [perceptive – spl] fashion; it is one of the required criteria for a responsible hermeneutic.”

D. A. Carson, “Sin’s Contemporary Significance” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin, chapter 1.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

An Interpretive Realist

Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge Here are some great words about texts and their meaning in our postmodern context.

“The basic problem with the postmodern liberation of the reader from dominant interpretations is that it fails to free readers from themselves. The irony of this liberation from fixed orders is that the postmodern self becomes free and responsible only by emptying out everything that opposes it. That meaning is not ‘really’ there, but only an imposition of institutional ideologies and practices, is a liberating insight for the postmodernist; for if nothing is really there, then nothing can make a claim on my life. Must we say, amending Derrida, that there is nothing outside oneself? This does seem to be the logic behind much postmodern thought. An independent reality with its own intrinsic order would limit my creativity and call my freedom into question.”

“Theological hermeneutics, on the other hand, is unabashedly realist about meaning.  A theological interpretation of interpretation contends that there is something in the text that transcends me.  It believes that readers can receive something from the communicative act of another that can engage, and perhaps enlarge and enhance, their being.  How do hermeneutic realists deal with the phenomenon of textual otherness?  If there is indeed a meaning in texts that transcends the process of interpretation, what is the readers obligation toward it?  Just this: the reader ought to acknowledge it as other, to respond to what is there, to what Steiner terms its ‘real presence.’  Concretely, this means acknowledging a communicative act for what it is, namely, a verbal work whereby an author says something about something to someone.  It means acknowledging the text’s matter (the sense and reference), energy (illocutionary force), and teleology (perlocution).”  For example, with regard to Jesus’ parables, one must acknowledge that these texts metaphorically describe the kingdom of God and challenge the reader to espouse a way of life commensurate with it.  Thiselton rightly highlights the speech act nature of the parables: ‘They attack, they rebuke, they claim, they defend.’  …The ethics of the interpretive realist is characterized by responsibility to another, not freedom from it (p. 394-395).

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

shane lems

Calvin on Christ in the Old Testament

I’m thankful that many preachers and teachers in conservative and broadly Calvinistic evangelical churches are talking about Christ in the Old Testament.  I do hope it keeps up, but I wish people wouldn’t act like this approach is novel, innovative, or ground-breaking – as if this is the latest “cool new thing.”  It’s not.  Our Christian forefathers have been talking about Christ in the Old Testament for hundreds and hundreds of years going way back to the early church.  Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament isn’t new; it’s part of historic Christianity.

One great example of this is found in John Calvin’s introduction to the French New Testament (translated by Pierre Robert around 1530).  This introduction has, as far as I know, only been published in English twice – most recently in Thy Word is Still Truth (p. 271-282).  Here is one excellent example of Calvin speaking of Christ in the Old Testament.

“For this is eternal life, to know the one and only true God, and Him whom He sent, Jesus Christ, whom he has constituted the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation.  This One is Isaac the well-beloved Son of the Father, who was offered in sacrifice, and yet did not succumb to the power of death.  This is the vigilant Shepherd Jacob, taking such great care of the sheep He has charge over.  This is the good and pitiable Brother Joseph, who in His glory was not ashamed to recognize His brothers, however contemptible and abject as they were.  This is the great Priest and Bishop Melchizedek, having made eternal sacrifice once for all.  This is the sovereign Lawgiver Moses, writing his law on the tables of our hearts by His Spirit.  This is the faithful Captain and Guide Joshua to conduct us to the promised land.  This is the noble and victorious King David, subduing under His hand every rebellious power.  This is the magnificent and triumphant King Solomon, governing His kingdom in peace and prosperity.  This is the strong and mighty Samson, who, by His death, overwhelmed all enemies.  And even any good that could be thought or desired is found in this Jesus Christ alone.”

Calvin’s entire preface to the French New Testament is a beautiful explanation of how the Old Testament leads us by the hand to Jesus God’s Messiah.  If you can find this essay, I highly recommend it.

John Calvin, “Christ the End of the Law,” found in Thy Word is Still Truth ed. Peter Lillback and Richard Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013).

shane lems

Over-Interpretation and Redemptive History

In many ways, Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings is a helpful resource.  I’m glad I own it and will keep using it as I work through the Solomon narrative for a sermon series on which I’m working.

However, I’ve run across a few “red flags” that have made me question Leithart’s interpretive methods.  Time and again, his interpretation of different parts of these stories struck me as fanciful and far-fetched.  Here are a few examples of this over-interpretation from Leithart’s comments on the early Solomon stories.

First, concerning Solomon riding on a mule for his coronation (1 Kings 1:44):

“Mules are mixed-breed animals, and this perhaps points to Solomon’s kingdom including Jews and Gentiles.  As mixed-breed animals, further, mules are cherubic, reflecting the composite character of those creatures that draw the chariot of Yahweh (cherubim have four faces: ox, lion, eagle, human; Ezek. 1).  Adonijah attempted to capture the high ground by presenting himself as the “son of Yahweh,” traveling in a glory-chariot, but in the end David designates Solomon as son of Yahweh, riding on a cherubic animal just as his divine father does” (p. 32).

My response: the problem here is that the text neither states nor hints that Adonijah or David had these things in mind.  Further, I’m very hesitant to jump from a mule to a cherubim without clear textual warrant.  It is quite a stretch to view Solomon’s coronation parade as a son of Yahweh riding a cherubic animal.

Next, Leithart comments on David’s speech to Solomon and Solomon’s executions (1 Ki. 2):

“Solomon is a ‘New Joshua,’ who spends the early part of his reign wiping out the ‘Canaanites’ that remain in David’s kingdom, bringing ‘rest’ to the land, and building a sanctuary for Yahweh, recapitulating the sequence of events in Joshua. …Solomon’s execution of Joab is a cleansing sacrifices that saves Solomon from the consequences of Joab’s sins” (p. 36).

My response: The narrator does not commend Solomon for executing the enemies of the throne in 1 Kings 2.  In fact, there are clear textual notes that make the reader seriously wonder if Solomon did the right thing in executing these men (i.e. Joab may have been holding the horns of the altar when he was executed, and Shimei was executed even though he didn’t cross the brook Kidron as he promised not to do).  It’s not for nothing that some commentators say that Solomon was ruthless and callous in these executions.  I simply do not see textual warrant for comparing Solomon to Joshua in this way.  It sounds cool, but it’s not very accurate.

Another comment that makes me wary of Leithart’s interpretive method is the section on the court case of the two prostitutes and the living child (1 Ki. 3).  This is the famous case where Solomon wisely suggests cutting the child in two in order to determine which woman is the child’s true mother.  Here is one thing Leithart says about the story:

“[It] has an eerie resemblance to Passover.  The exchange of sons takes place at night, as does Passover (Exod. 12:29), and as at Passover one male child dies while another is delivered.  This suggests that the false mother is Egypt, a Pharaoh-like woman who smothers her own child and then seeks to toss Israelite children into the Nile.  Endowed with Yahweh’s wisdom, the king comes with a sword to kill, as the angel of Yahweh frees the sons of the Israelites, under threat from Pharaoh. …Through this test, Solomon discerns which woman is the true Israelite, the true daughter of Abraham, who, like Abraham gives up her child in faith to save him.”

My response: This is far too fanciful.  There are no hints in the text that the one prostitute had a Pharaoh-complex, nor is there any indication that Solomon is trying to find out which woman is the true Israelite.  What is more, we have no idea what kind of faith the one woman had; we only knew that she really loved her child (1 Ki. 3:26).  Again, it sounds cool, but it is speculative.

There are many more examples like this in Leithart’s commentary.  I wouldn’t call this a redemptive-historical commentary as some have called it – it is sort of redemptive-historical, but not really.  I hate to use the term allegorical, but that word did come to mind when I was working through these parts of this commentary.  For the record, I’m not saying one should avoid this commentary, but buyer beware of fanciful over-interpretation.  It is helpful in some ways, but I don’t highly recommend it.  Right now, I like these two commentaries better (which I’ll discuss here some other time): 1 & 2 Kings by I. Provan and 1 Kings by J. T. Walsh.

shane lems