These 5 insights overlap a bit, but here they are.
1. The Old Testament is an ancient Near Eastern phenomenon.
Perhaps an obvious point, but worth putting at the top of the list.
Nothing has changed our understanding of the Old Testament more dramatically than what we have learned over the past 150 years or so about what Israel’s ancient neighbors thought and how they lived—and how much the Israelites not only resembled their neighbors but how indebted they were to modes of thinking that were well in place long before the Israelites ever existed.
No corner of the Old Testament has remained unaffected: stories of origins, cosmology, theology, cult (worship), psalmody, wisdom, prophecy, and more.
The Old Testament cannot be treated in isolation from its environment.
2. “Myth” is an inescapable category for describing portions of the Old Testament.
Sidestepping the various definitions of myth people like to argue about, ancient mythic categories are self-evidently present in the Old Testament.
At times the Israelites applied these myths to their own worship (e.g., applying to Yahweh in Psalm 18 descriptions of west Semitic storm deities; Yahweh presiding over a pantheon in Psalm 82). At other times mythic categories were used to distinguish Israelite belief from that of other peoples (e.g., Genesis 1 vis-a-vis the Babylonian Enuma Elish).
Regardless of how they were used, ancient myths serve as a “conceptual structure” for how the Israelites understood their God, at least in various places in the Old Testament.
3. Israelites did not write their history “objectively.”
No writing of history is objective anyway, which is an idea few have trouble accepting—and the Old Testament does not escape that truth.
The Israelites wrote the story of their past not to talk about the past for its own sake, but to see their present in light of their past and their past in light of their present. The Israelites were storytellers.
That doesn’t mean the Old Testament is “devoid of history” or some such thing. But it does mean that the Old Testament gives us something very different than what we might call “history” today.
Put another way, #3 follows on #1 and #2.
4. The Old Testament does not contain one systematic and consistent body of “truth” but various, and even conflicting, perspectives.
We see this at work, for example, when we compare Israel’s two histories (the one contained in Samuel and Kings and the other contained in Chronicles); laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy that conflict; portraits of God’s actions that differ among the Psalms and wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes).
The Old Testament does not allow itself to be systemized into one smoothly consistent “body of teaching.” The reason is that its various writings reflect vastly different times and circumstances—which brings us to #5.
5. The Old Testament “evolved” over time until it came to its final expression.
The Old Testament, technically speaking, is a product of the Judahites in the centuries following their return from Babylonian captivity (539 BCE).
That does not mean the Old Testament was written out of whole cloth at the time. Much older writings and traditions were brought together and also combined with new literary creations. All of it was then edited together to form what would eventually become the Old Testament we know.
Israel’s Scripture came to be over time. David did not read the book of Genesis. The prophets do not say, “As we read in the book of Leviticus.” Whether or not the traditions contained in these books were known is an interesting and fruitful discussion, but that is not the same thing as whether the literary productions were in existence.
There is much more to the Old Testament than these 5 points, of course. And accepting the Old Testament as scripture doesn’t depend on fully working out these 5 points. In fact, whosoever wishes can safely ignore all of this and move on with their lives of faith. I mean that.
But when we want to dig into why the Bible “behaves” as it does, and especially if we are curious about engaging the Bible on a historical level, these 5 factors simply can’t be brushed aside.
Any notion of, say, inspiration or revelation that seeks to gain traction cannot be formulated in blissful isolation from or in antagonism toward these 5 points. The ship has sailed, the horse is out of the barn, cats are beyond herding, worms are out of the can—pick your metaphor.
Any “doctrine of Scripture” that does not address these issues synthetically—working with them rather than against them—will at the end of the day be of little help and even produce harm for Christians navigating the sometimes rough terrain of an ancient faith in a modern world.[If you’re interested, I’ve written about some of these issues in more detail, especially here, here, and here, as well as elsewhere this blog—see the categories below.]
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