Some issues in life are not capable of final resolution. Questions such as ‘What is the good life?’ and ‘How can we get good government?’ and ‘Whom can I trust?’ are not amenable to definitive answers in the same way as many mathematical and scientific questions. Rather, such fundamental questions of living recur afresh in every age. Part of the thesis of this chapter is that the role of the Old Testament in Christianity is, in essence, such an irresolvable issue. Christians ancient and modern have not found unanimity or finality in understanding and using the Old Testament – and this may be a sign not of failure but rather of the intrinsic variety of the challenges that the Old Testament poses for Christian faith. A collection of religious literature that is pre-Christian in origin, written over centuries and initially compiled by Jews (as Israel's Scriptures), and only subsequently appropriated by Christians (as the Old Testament), inherently poses intriguing, albeit enriching, questions to Christians.
Lack of definitive resolution therefore should in no way call into question the importance of wrestling with understanding the Old Testament within Christian faith. A. H. J. Gunneweg, for example, wrote
It would be no exaggeration to understand the hermeneutical problem of the Old Testament as the problem of Christian theology, and not just one problem among others…. If the interpretation of holy scripture is an essential task for theology, and if the Bible is the basis of Christian life, the foundation of the church and the medium of revelation, then it is of fundamental importance for the theologian to ask whether and why the collection of Israelite and Jewish writings to which the Christian church has given the name Old Testament are part – indeed the most substantial part – of the canon of scripture and what their relevance is. This question affects the extent and also qualitatively the substance of what may be regarded as Christian.
Thus, engagement in debates about the understanding and appropriation of the Old Testament – debates which in practice probably take place more in contexts of worship and everyday life than in formal academic contexts – is itself part of what constitutes Christian faith.
Some years ago, Cambridge University Press, under the editorship of James D. G. Dunn, initiated a series entitled New Testament Theology. The first volumes appeared in 1991 and the series was brought to completion in 2003. For whatever reason, a companion series that would focus on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible was never planned or executed. The present series, Old Testament Theology, is intended to rectify this need.
The reasons for publishing Old Testament Theologyare not, however, confined solely to a desire to match New Testament Theology. Instead, the reasons delineated by Dunn that justified the publication of New Testament Theologycontinue to hold true for Old Testament Theology. These include, among other things, the facts that, (1) given faculty and curricular structures in many schools, the theological study of individual Old Testament writings is often spotty at best; (2) most exegetical approaches (and commentaries) proceed verse by verse such that theological interests are in competition with, if not completely eclipsed by, other important issues, whether historical, grammatical, or literary; and (3) commentaries often confine their discussion of a book's theology to just a few pages in the introduction. The dearth of materials focused exclusively on a particular book's theology may be seen as a result of factors like these; or, perhaps, it is the cause of such factors. Regardless, as Dunn concluded, without adequate theological resources, there is little incentive for teachers or students to engage the theology of specific books; they must be content with what are mostly general overviews.
Some of the central problems of theological interpretation posed by changing attitudes toward the Bible in general, and Genesis in particular, are focused with unusual clarity on the famous story of Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac, often known by its Hebrew name, the Akedah (Gen 22:1–19).
Traditionally, Jews and Christians have read this story as displaying costly right response to God on the part of both Abraham and Isaac. In the New Testament, for example, Abraham is seen to demonstrate the kind of engagement with God that is called “faith” in a Christian context. James argues that Abraham shows that genuine faith entails a total lived-out responsiveness to God (James 2:14–26), while the writer to the Hebrews sees Abraham as a model of faith in the sense of trusting God for a future as yet unseen (Heb 11:1, 17–19). For both these writers, the significance of Abraham for believers is well summarized by the words of Jesus in John's portrayal: “If you are Abraham's children, then do what Abraham did” (John 8:39).
There is also a long history of reading Paul as alluding to Genesis 22 when he speaks of God “not sparing his own son” (Rom 8:32), in a way that sets up a potent imaginative link (a typology or figuration) between Isaac and Jesus, a link that has often been developed in the history of interpretation.
Much that was said about reading Genesis 1–11 in Chapter 2 applies also to reading Genesis 12–50, for there are many continuities of content and convention between these chapters. Indeed, any sharp distinction between chapters 1–11 and 12–50 has no warrant in the biblical text itself. Nonetheless, some distinction remains heuristically useful. Now in Genesis 12–50, the focus is no longer on the world and humanity generically; rather, the prehistory of Israel in the form of its ancestors becomes the center of attention. This raises certain distinct issues that merit separate comment.
THE PATRIARCHS AS A PROBLEM FOR JEWISH OBSERVANCE OF TORAH
Froma Jewish perspective, perhaps the central issue in understanding Genesis 12–50 is posed by the normative, indeed definitive, nature of God's self-revelation to Moses and Israel at Sinai/Horeb, together with the covenant making and gift of torah. If the norm for life with God is here, then how is Israel to understand those whose life with God is in some way of enduring significance – as Abraham and Sarah's, Isaac and Rebekah's, and Jacob and his twelve children's clearly are – and yet who lived without torah, because torah had not yet been given?
There are various possible approaches to this question. Should one perhaps imagine that torah somehow“must have” been known to the patriarchs and that they really were observant after all? This could take the form of supposing that Genesis's silence about observance need not mean its absence, and so the patriarchs were in fact formally observant.
Although the story of Noah and the Flood (Genesis 6:5–9:17) is one of the most famous of biblical stories, an understanding of its theological significance is hardly self-evident or straightforward. Moreover, although it is one of the first biblical stories that many children encounter, through picture bookswith colorful depictions of paired animals in proximity to a houseboat, it is a story that at the present time is generating high levels of unease as to its nature as a religious text and its suitability even for adults, never mind for children.
Richard Dawkins, for example, says,
The legend of the animals going into the ark two by two is charming, but the moral of the story of Noah is appalling. God took a dim view of humans, so he (with the exception of one family) drowned the lot of them including children and also, for good measure, the rest of the (presumably blameless) animals as well.
Although, as will be seen, this account of the story's “moral”
hardly reflects an attentive reading of the text, Dawkins' attitude is representative of a widespread contemporary sense that the Bible is a far more problematic and dangerous text than has sometimes been allowed by those who revere it as holy scripture.
Within modern scholarship, although the moral and theological significance of the Flood story has not been neglected, it has usually been considered primarily in conjunction with two other debates about the text: on the one hand, the mode of telling of the Flood story, and, on the other hand, the significance of the nineteenth century discovery of a strikingly comparable account within the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The famous story of Cain and Abel is puzzling for most readers. Why does God prefer Abel's sacrifice to Cain's? And what is the story really about? As with all the resonant narratives of Genesis, there are various possible readings, whose theological significance may differ considerably.
Onetime-honored approach is to see the Cain and Abel narrative as a negative exemplification of the double love commandment, a failure to love God and love neighbor. This reading takes its cue from the context of the story, subsequent to Genesis 3 (traditionally construed): “Gen 4 graphically illustrates how alienation from God produces alienation from one's fellow human beings.” Alternatively, one can read the story as exemplifying some of the problems of human free will: “The use that humans make of their freedom to be responsible for themselves is catastrophic: the first deed recounted is a murder, fratricide in fact…. We see here what humans are capable of. But we also see, with inescapable clarity, that God will not allow this: Cain is banished from the human community.” Or one can read the story as an overture that introduces certain prime moral and theological categories that will be more fully developed elsewhere in the Bible: “Genesis 4 is not only the first narrative about sin and guilt that compresses the action into particular terms, it is also at the same time a narrative of forgiveness that unfolds at least in rudimentary ways.”
Before we consider the theological meaning and significance of the early chapters of Genesis, whose use within Christian faith has been enormous, it will be appropriate to say something about the genre of the material. For one cannot put good questions to and expect fruitful answers from a text without a grasp of the kind of material that it is. If one misjudges the genre, then one may produce poor and misguided interpretations.
One initial difficulty, however, concerns the problem of finding a good classificatory term. All the common terms – myth, folktale, legend, saga – tend to be used in a wide variety of ways. Especially with usage of “myth,” there is something of a chasm between scholarly understandings and popular pejorative uses. Thus, unless any term is carefully defined, it is unlikely to be helpful. Moreover, argument about the appropriateness of particular terms can easily displace attention to those features of the text that give rise to the use of the term in the first place. I propose, therefore, to eschew the use of any particular classificatory label and to focus rather on an inductive study of indicative features within selected texts.
BUILDING ON THE HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION
At the outset it is worth noting something of the history of interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. Among other things, this history can dispel facile assumptions, especially the assumption that difficulties with the genre of the text are solely the result of the development of modern historical and scientific awareness.
The picture of the world in Genesis 1 is sublime, and it remains so despite its detractors. Yet an account of its theological significance is as controverted as anything in the whole Bible. Handling Genesis 1 is not made any easier by the way in which many of the debates that surround it tend to bear either on particular parts of it, such as humanity in the image of God, or on particular issues whose relation to the text is in fact rather oblique, such as the nature of Jewish and Christian understandings of creation ex nihilo or the implications of modern creationism.
In order to try to maintain a focus on Genesis 1 as a whole, I propose to offer several different readings of the text – the difference each time being the context envisaged – in part because differing contexts, for both text and interpreter, bring different readings. My primary concern is to argue that the theological significance of this biblical text is inseparable from the varying ways in which it impacts on the imagination; how one pictures the world is the issue at stake. However, the way in which one pictures the world relates to the varying contexts within which that picturing is done.
A FIRST READING OF GENESIS 1
First, I offer a preliminary reading of the text “in itself.”
Initially, one overall observation. Although an impressive sequence of divine fiats – “Let there be … and it was so” – runs through Genesis 1, creation is not through fiat alone, but also substantially through fashioning.
In the previous chapter, we saw that the extensive scholarly interest that has been directed to Genesis 12:1–3 has tended to focus on v. 3b. By contrast, little scholarly attention has been given to v. 3a, where Yhwh says to Abram, “I will bless those who blessyou, and the one who curses you I will curse.” To be sure, there is some passing comment, but it tends to be little more than routine.1 Beyond scholarly circles, however, things look different, and at the present time, at least within some Christian groupings within the United States of America, there is great interest in 12:3a, which is taken to mandate U.S. support for the state of Israel, support that is practical, both financial and military, and not solely idealistic. Since I do not think it wise for biblical scholars to ignore the actual use that the Bible receives beyond the academy, and since the appeal to Genesis 12:3a raises interesting issues about what constitutes good interpretation and use of Genesis, it will be appropriate here to consider briefly this particular appeal to this text.
WHY CHRISTIANS SHOULD SUPPORT ISRAEL
The phenomenon of Christian Zionism is complex and takes many forms, both distinct from and overlapping with the numerous Jewish forms. My impression, however, is that appeal to Genesis 12:3a has been promoted especially by Christians operating within a premillennial dispensationalist frame of reference and that this particular form of Zionism has had significant public impact and influence. So this will be my focus here.
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