Skip to main content

In my last post, we looked at what the main point of the Old Testament is. A good time was had by all and lives were changed, I’m sure.

Remember, I am not saying that land is “the center” of the Old Testament, but, boy oh boy, it is important. Think about it: where in the Old Testament is Israel not,

  • anticipating receiving their own land,
  • fighting to get it,
  • fighting to keep it,
  • fretting about losing it,
  • or fretting about getting it back in once it was lost?

Land makes the Old Testament story tick.

Israel’s entire existence is predicated upon possession of the land–their inheritance, their gift from God.

They were given laws that mark them off as a separate (i.e., “holy”) people from the “nations”–laws of what they can eat and not eat, touch and not touch, what to sacrifice and when, keeping the Sabbath, the feasts, male circumcision, etc..

None of these laws, these distinguishing marks, were given an expiration date. Keeping those laws would ensure that they retained possession of the land.

Then there’s the sanctuary–first the tabernacle in the wilderness and then their permanent structure in the land, the temple built by Solomon. This temple was decreed as the only place where God was to be worshiped and where sacrifice to atone for sin could happen.

Temple requires land, hence, the exile posed a huge problem. God’s dwelling place was leveled to the ground and the exiled Jews couldn’t continue as is in some other structure on foreign soil. Rebuilding the temple once the Israelites returned was top priority.

In what sense, without these things, how can we speak of “Israel” at all? This was the dilemma the Israelites first had to deal with while in exile in Babylon: how to be an Israelite when their entire religious system is predicated upon land, temple, and the laws that need to be kept there?

Beginning with the exile, Israelites had to think creatively about how to “be Jewish”–i.e., how to remain tied to a God and a Scripture that assumed as a premise the possession of the land and a functioning religious system therein. It’s a bit reductionistic, but one reason synagogues developed was as a response to that challenge: study of Torah became a means of connecting with God when the land-and-temple-locked means of connection were not available.  But I digress.

Now think about these core elements of Israel’s story and what becomes of them in the New Testament.

  • The continued existence of a people of God on a particular piece of real estate is no longer God’s will. Now God’s people are sent out to the nations.
  • The Gospel actually requires the destruction of the temple. According to the Gospels, it is a sign of a new era dawning.
  • Non-Israelites are now welcomed into the family of the Jewish God without needing to hold to any of the distinguishing marks of Judaism–circumcision, what to eat, what to touch, keeping the Sabbath, and other rituals.

Tie this to the kind of “messiah” Jesus was.

An expectation of a messiah in Jesus’ day–at least for those Jews who thought of such a figure–was sort of a military holy man. As N. T. Wright puts it, “with a sword in one hand and Torah in the other.” His job was to re-establish Jewish independence from Rome in order to bring back the glory days of Israel and usher in a new age, where Israel, in the land, with its temple, and its king on the throne, embodied the very presence of God. Israel would be what it was meant to be: the center of the world.

Jesus, as we all know, had other ideas–a “kingdom of God” that was not marked by military might or political power, but by inner transformation and love and service toward others. And nothing in the Old Testament prepared the Jews for a messiah who would arrive on the scene and, instead of winning, be executed by the very people he was supposed to defeat–and then rise from the dead shortly thereafter.

So, here–finally–is my point for today:

Tying together Israel’s story and the Gospel has been the grand challenge of the church since the very beginning. The two don’t fit together easily, and it takes creative energy to bring them together.

What we see in the New Testament is the early followers of Jesus, like the Gospel writers and Paul, taking up that challenge. They are doing the work of connecting Israel’s story–with its focus on land, temple, gentile exclusion, holiness laws, etc–to the Jesus story–where those elements were no longer central, and where Messiah Jesus didn’t meet expectations.

To bring those stories together, the Old Testament could no longer be followed, but had to be transformed beyond its original intentions.

The New Testament writers were assigned this task of explaining how the Gospel, which goes so far beyond the confines of Israel’s story, is still connected to Israel’s story. The center point of that transformation was Jesus.

I don’t want to overstate, but accepting this “hermeneutical challenge” has been the church’s task ever since. When that transformational dimension is retained, I think this is where the hermeneutical challenge is being met well. Whenever the Old Testament is seen as either an independently valid source of theology rather than in need of the transformation modeled by the New Testament, I feel that hermeneutical ball has been dropped.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.