Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Old Testament Narrative: Theocentric Narrative with a Theocentric Purpose

Tea & Homiletics
The focus of Old Testament narrative is not on those men of old but on God. Here's more on God-centered/theocentric narratives and interpretation from our helpful homilectician, Sidney Greidanus in "The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text":
Theocentric Narratives
We [notice] the theocentric focus of Hebrew narrative…by observing how frequently God or his representatives is one of the "characters" in a scene and also how the narrator relates the story from God's "point of view". Even where God appears to be absent from a scene…the [narrative] as a whole will reveal the presence of God because the human characters act out the scene against the backdrop of God's promises, God's enabling power, God's covenant demands, God's providence. A few examples will make this point clear. The narratives about Joseph in Egypt appear to center on human characters and, taken in isolation, might be preached in an anthropocentric fashion. When understood in their context, however, these narratives cannot be interpreted anthropocentrically, for the context contains two of Joseph's speeches that "unlock the whole narrative" as von Rad puts it. The first speech is in the scene of recognition: "And now do not be distressed…because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…So it was not you who sent me here, but God" (Genesis 45:4-8). Von Rad comments: "Here Joseph at last speaks openly of God, and here the last veil is lifted; for here, finally, is manifested what in truth is the primary subject of the whole story: God's will to turn all the chaos of human guilt to a gracious purpose. God, not the brothers "sent" Joseph to Egypt". Joseph's second revealing speech takes place at the end of the book and functions as the key to interpreting the whole Joseph story: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Genesis 50:20).

Or take, for example, the gruesome story in Judges 3 of Ehud stabbing and killing Eglon. Because of all the blood and gore, few preachers may feel comfortable preaching this narrative today, but those who do preach it may easily do so in an anthropocentric manner. For instance, W Vischer understands Ehud's action as a "cogent contribution of the Bible to the right of killing a tyrant" – in other words, given similar circumstances, a positive example. In opposing Vischer, DF Baumgartel stresses that Eglon is a negative example: "This murder becomes immediately relevant for our faith, when we…begin to realize that we desire to act just like the brave Ehud…Indeed, we are Ehud". But the author of Judges 3 intends to provide neither a positive example for killing tyrants nor a negative example of how bad we are; on the contrary, the author has cast this narrative in a theocentric framework: "the Lord strengthened Eglon" (v12), and "the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud" (v15)… Consequently, the author's purpose is not to give moral examples but to reveal that God is at work in history, first in judging his people through Eglon, but now especially in redeeming his people through Ehud. Therefore, the author's message to the original hearers is in no way anthropocentric; it is a message for Israel to recognize the hand of the Lord in judgement and in redemption, together with the implied admonition (vv7 and 12): Do not forget the Lord your God!

As a final example of the theocentric character of Old Testament narrative, we turn to 2 Samuel. In 2 Samuel the history of David appears to be narrated strictly form a human point of view – except…that the omniscient narrator lets us in on God's evaluation of David's adultery and murder: "But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord" (11:27b). Von Rad comments: "if he [the reader] has taken note of the brief and quite unemotional warning at 2 Samuel 11:27, and then read of the succession of blows which befall the house of David, the reader will know where to look for the explanation of all this piling up of disasters: God is using them to punish the King's sin". At a later juncture the author provides another glimpse of God's evaluation – one which we might easily overlook: "And the Lord loved him [the baby Solomon]" (2 Samuel 12:24). Von Rad remarks that "at the end of the long story when Solomon is left in command of the field after untold complications, the reader will recall this sentence and understand that it is not human merit and virtue which have made the throne secure, but a paradoxical act of election on the part of God". The author of Samuel makes a third comment of this nature in 2 Samuel 17:14: "For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring evil upon Absalom". According to von Rad,"This was the turning-point in the rebellion, and the change in the situation was the work of God himself, who had heard the prayer of the King in his profound humiliation". Summing up, von Rad opines that "the deuteronomist shows, by a wholly valid process, just what redemptive history is within the context of the Old Testament: it is a course of events shaped by the word of Yahweh, continually intervening to direct and to deliver, and so steadily pressing these events towards their fulfillment in history".

A Theocentric Purpose
In general, it may be said that biblical historical narratives are told for a theocentric purpose: "their purpose is to show God at work in His creation and among His people. The narratives glorify Him, help us to understand and appreciate Him, and give us a picture of His providence and protection". This theocentric purpose can be detected in all the historical books of the Old Testament. The following summary will suffice to make the point in a general way: "A striking feature of all the historical books proper is that they emphasize the activity of the Lord in bringing about His divine purpose. He punishes those who disobey Him and blesses those who worship Him (Deuteronomy), if people pray to Him and trust in Him their enemies are virtually impotent (Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah), what the prophets preach, happens (Kings) and what Yahweh promises (to the patriarchs or David) is fulfilled (Genesis-Joshua and Samuel)".

Other Purposes
The overall theocentric purpose of historical narrative does not invalidate other purposes. One obvious purpose of the theocentric narratives is to stimulate faith in and obedience to Yahweh. That purpose is attained, however, not by holding up people as examples of faith and obedience but by showing in the actions of the covenant God that he is worthy of our trust and obedience…Only the particular passage itself, of course, can reveal its specific purpose, whether that be to call to faith, or hope, or love, or repentance, or commitment, or whatever.

Christocentric Interpretation
A genuine theocentric interpretation will take the pressure off attempts to force "lines to Christ", for from the New Testament perspective theocentric interpretation is already Christocentric since Christ is the eternal Logos. Nevertheless, one ought not to overlook the fact that a Christian sermon on an Old Testament passage ought to be different from a sermon preached by a Jewish rabbi, for the Christian sermon will need to take as its context the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. In other words, Christian preachers take their stand in the New Testament times, after the coming of the Messiah, and hence they will read an Old Testament passage in the light of the New Testament. From that New Testament standpoint, it is indeed possible to discover prophecies that are fulfilled in Christ, types of which Christ is the antitype, office which point forward to our Prophet, Priest and King. But those messianic and typological lines are not the essence of Christcentric interpretation and preaching. Fee and Stuart point out that when Jesus said "the scriptures…bear witness to me" (John 5:39), he was not speaking about every individual Old Testament passage but "of the ultimate, top level of the narrative, in which His atonement was the central act, and the subjection of all creation to Him was the climax of its plot". Genuine Christocentric interpretation of Hebrew narrative is not dependent on a typological line here and a fulfilled messianic prophecy there but on understanding the passage in the context of the universal kingdom history which finds its goal and climax in Christ.


At May 23, 2008 12:05 am , Blogger m-m said...

Hello with mt best regards
i studied some part of your web.
it was very intersting.
thank you.


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