Friday, June 30, 2006

Hebrew History Writing

Coffee & Wireless
Coffee & History*
Our God reveals himself in human history.

He did not merely create the universe, populate the bit called Earth with munchkins and leave them alone to run along on their own, perhaps checking in occasionally to have a quick look round and fix whatever was broken; instead, he created the universe, continued and continues to sustain it to this day, guiding its complete workings and determining its direction. He did not relate to mankind by presenting the first man and woman with a nicely-bound autographed autobiographical "All You Ever Wanted to Know About Me (and More)" with "Laws for Living in My World" in an outlying Appendix XIII; instead, he related to the human race through the lives of individuals and nations, in their physical growth, their interpersonal relationships, their hearts and minds and experiences etc.

Because our God reveals himself in human history, so the important and authoritative snapshots of God's involvement in the Old Testament world are contained in Hebrew historical writing.

Hebrew History Writing
Hebrew history writing is quite different from the modern idealistic ideal of "objective history" ("idealistic" because history can never be objective. Variables inevitably include (i) the observer's interpretation of what happened; (ii) the message the observer tries to communicate about the event; and (iii) the message received by the listener.)

Differentiating Hebrew History Writing
Ancient historical standards allowed, even expected, history writing to have a specific point of view. Authors shaped material to drive home their specific messages, perhaps by a rearrangement of the chronological order, selection of certain facts, or lingering over some events while zooming past others. They were laissez faire with copyright (a new-fangled concept if any) and certainly didn't bother to credit their sources with footnotes like "Spoken by the LORD to Samuel at [insert venue] on [insert date] at [insert time], who later dictated these words to [insert name of scribe] and verified the same on [insert date] at [insert time]". Speeches were not recorded verbatim (bloopers, burps, body language and all) as they are now with, say, parliamentary reports in the Hansard (well, even then the bloopers, burps and body language are edited out. Come to think of it, even reality TV isn't verbatim.).

The other thing is that the Biblical authors were plainly and obviously biased, interpreting history in a theocentric manner.

Perhaps our indoctrinated modern minds are shell-shocked by this flagrant disregard of proper historical methods and intend to approach the Bible with more sneering skepticism ever than before. But hold the lift! There really are good reasons for retaining every confidence in the good book.

Trusting Hebrew History Writing
The Bible does not purport to be a litany of historical facts nor an encyclopaedia of every thing that has ever happened in the universe. It confronts us not with history but with literature about history. What we find in the bible is not a chronology of all the events in the Middle East but an interpretation of selected events.

However, this does not impute that the events that are the subject of this interpretation are fictitious. In fact, the authors made sure of their historical facts - their location and their significance - and frequently appealed to their having-happened-ness. For example, in 1 Samuel alone, the author writes of God reminding Eli and the people of the Exodus rescue from Egypt (1 Samuel 2:27 and 1 Samuel 10:18), of the Philistines remembering God's judgement on the Egyptians before the Exodus (1 Samuel 4:8) and the hardened heart of the Pharaoh (1 Samuel 6:6)... It did matter to the Old Testament authors that the Exodus did actually happen because that event was integral to their message; if there was no Exodus, then there was no evidence of a God who worked in the past to rescue the forefathers of the Israelites from Egypt, and so, no reason to appeal to his goodness and faithfulness and power to spur them to obedience and submission.

In quality of history writing, it is the modern history writers who are deficient, not the Hebrew history writers. Far above the human limitations of the moderns who cannot but focus myopically on, say, the social, economic or political aspects of the same event, the Old Testament authors had a glorious bird helicopter God's-eye view of history. Up there, everything was as clear as day. The interpretation by the Old Testament writers of events in their day was not a product of their superior intellect nor remarkable inference, but rather, God's authoritative disclosure to certain servants of his concerning what he had done, is doing and will do. God granted to selected men an understanding of these things.

And because event + interpretation = revelation, God is thus revealed to us.

So the focus of our exegesis and exposition of Hebrew history writings in Bible studies and sermons is neither to prove the historicity of the text, nor concentrate on the historical facts and ignore the interpretation, nor make up our own interpretation (which we inevitably think is far superior to that of ye olde Old Testament author). The Old Testament events have already been interpreted by God himself, through his servants, and our work is not to say more or less than what the Spirit of God conveyed to those whom he first disclosed the meaning.

*"The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text" by Sidney Greidanus, an extremely helpful homiletician.

Because our God works in human history, so most Hebrew history writing is inevitably and necessarily narrative. And reading Hebrew historical narrative, it seems, is a completely different kettle of fish.

The Danger of Anthropocentric (Man-centered) Preaching of Old Testament Narratives

Old Testament Narratives: Theocentric Narratives with a Theocentric Purpose



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