Recently, at Cornerstone, we hosted some lectures on the Old Testament history books, which for us, in the Christian Old Testament, would consist of the books Joshua through to Esther. The lectures were mainly introductory, given by a friend, Mike Orsmund, who is lecturer in Old Testament studies and Hermeneutics at Trinity School of Theology in England. I will look to make the audio files available in the near future.
Though the time was mainly a simple survey, covering twelve books in 4 one-hour lectures, the sessions had me deeply thinking about some things with regards to the finalisation of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament canon.
If you don’t know, within the past few centuries, biblical studies has brought with it lots of what is known as higher criticism. This deals with analysing the origins of the text – how did it really come about, when did it really come about, etc. In all, this asks – How did we get the text that we have today?
For some who approach higher criticism, there can be an overly critical approach that desires to debunk many of the beliefs of evangelicals – the supernatural events within the text, questioning whether Jesus really said and taught what the Gospels say, giving precedence to other non-canonical writings, etc. This can feel quite threatening to the community of faith that sees the biblical text as a very central part of understanding God and his revelation.
Still, even for evangelicals committed to the authoritative and God-breathed nature of Scripture, there are things that I believe we must be willing to recognise about the text. One of those I am beginning to see more and more is that much of the Old Testament that we have in our canon today did not come to us in its more final compiled and organised form until sometime after exile.
So, practically, though Genesis records the beginnings of the universe, humanity and the Hebrew people, or Exodus records events from the middle of the second millenia BCE, what we have today is a product of the community of faith in the exilic period within Babylon.
Why would someone think such?
For me, there are a couple of reasons that stick out, with one being more significant than the other:
1) Editorial statements
I think most Christians would be willing to acknowledge there are little statements here and there within the Old Testament that point to later updates and edits. This is no major point. But it is still worth considering.
This can be seen from short statements such as ‘until this day’, i.e., in Judg 19:30 and 2 Kgs 17:23. This points to a later writing-development of the text, beyond the time period it records. Or when Moses is recorded as the meekest man within the context of the ‘books of Moses’ (Num 12:3). Of course, it is possible Moses recorded such about himself. But it’s more probable that such was an addition in its final form.
We also see cities that were given names that probably would not have been possible to be called by such a name during the time period it refers to, i.e., the city of Dan being identified as Dan, this being well before the patriarch Dan was ever born (Gen 14:14).
There could have been other passages to consider, but what we see here are most likely editorial editions and updates by scribes in latter centuries. I believe none of this is detrimental to the purpose and greater intent of the biblical text. It is simply a recognition of editorial changes, all to speak into the situation that the community found itself within during exile.
Of course, all of these edits and updates could have come within a much closer time frame to the period the text records, rather than in a much later exilic time. I still believe the final edits (as the text could have gone through multiple refinements) took place in the exile in Babylon. But the next point is much more significant when examining this view.
2) The focus of the Old Testament narrative
I, personally, am beginning to see how the Old Testament narrative is shaped in such a way, from Genesis right up to the post-exilic books of Ezra-Nehemiah, as to speak into the community of God’s people that found themselves in exile in the foreign land of Babylon.
Why would I assert such?
What we must remember is that the Hebrew-Jewish people had been conquered and exiled in a more complete sense by the year 587-586 BC with the destruction of the temple and their beloved city of Jerusalem. This would have been devastating in the mind of such a people. For them, Jerusalem was the centre of the world. There, within the temple, was the place where heaven and earth met.
Within such a worldview-shattering context, the people would have been filled with questions of why – Why has all this happened? Why has our beloved city and temple been destroyed? Why are we in exile? Has Yahweh been unfaithful? Are his promises not true?
And so the Old Testament canon begins to take its more final form, all to speak into that situation of the exiled community. The text was being somewhat reshaped to carry a voice into the Jewish state of affairs. And it all starts back in Genesis.
One now realises how Genesis 1-3 is about our first parents being blessed with a land, but their unfaithfulness leads to expulsion from the land. Sound familiar? The account of Noah and his family speaks of a faithful people receiving a restored land and the unfaithful people losing that land through judgment and death. Sound familiar?
When you move on to the great inaugural story of faith for the Jewish community – that of Abraham and his descendants Isaac and Jacob – they were the ones who received the first great promise of a land, a land flowing with milk and honey. That was the goal. But the current exiled Hebrew people found that promised unfulfilled, or lost. Joshua reminds them of how they took the promised land; Judges looks at the counter-perspective of why they were having a hard time keeping the land. Great kings were ultimately given in Saul, David and Solomon, but none of their lives had a great ending, which led to the demise of the two split kingdoms of northern Israel and southern Judah, both being ransacked and exiled.
Do you see where this is all headed?
The text is taking shape, or being re-shaped, to speak like a two-edged sword into the exiled community. It’s given to answer their questions of why. And then we have the Chronicles, which comes along to give a more positive perspective, skipping over much of the negative stories of their kings, to remind them that all is not lost. God has been faithful to his covenant promises. But it is the people who have failed on their end.
So much of the Old Testament narrative is about blessing in obedience to the covenant, cursing in disobedience to the covenant. We see inheritance of ‘the land’ in faithfulness to God’s covenant and exile from the land through disobedience.
Some of these accounts, especially as seen in the early Genesis narrative, are not so much about ‘pure’ historical record. There is a point, a point the compilers and editors are trying to make with the text. Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, the tower of Babel, etc, are all a kind of allegorical statement to speak into the community of their day. It is the word of God coming into their context to both challenge and encourage the people of faith in the midst of their questions. It is to stir them of how to properly respond to Yahweh. The promises are not all lost if they will simply heed the words of the torah and repent. They can be restored to their land of promise.
I appreciated this definition of the biblical historical narrative – A theological re-telling of history in the form of a narrative with the purpose of speaking into the present. I believe that is what is going on in our Old Testament canon.
Now, I need to spend some time clarifying that I believe none of this devalues the makeup of the Old Testament and its God-breathed nature. Let me repeat – none of this has to question the important and significant nature of the Hebrew canon of Scripture. Rather, it is to show that there was a point in the final compiling of what we have in our Old Testament canon, a point to make God’s word very, very real. It’s all actually quite purposeful.
For some, to ponder such is completely out of bounds, noting such passages as Deut 4:2; 12:32; and Prov 30:6. All of these passages speak against changing the word of the Lord given to the Israelite community, with even severe consequences for doing such. But, I believe we have to recognise that the Old Testament canon did go through a re-shaping during the history of the ancient Hebrew culture. But again, this is not detrimental to the text by any means. And the scribes obviously did not think this was in any way an unfavourable practice. They did not believe they were disobeying previous commands given by Yahweh to the Israelite community, for they would have been quite aware of those teachings.
You see, they were convinced they were not adding to God’s word. Rather they were simply making God’s word relevant in the midst of the people in exile. Remember, the word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12). It is not static. He has to be as real today as when the first words were penned, whenever and however that came about.
And so, I believe these scribes and final compilers of the Old Testament canon actually did a noble thing in making the word of God in Scripture a reality to the current context in which they found themselves. For me, it’s not unlike translating out of the ancient manuscripts into English or French or Dutch or Telegu or Bulgarian. In doing such, there will be a little bit of reshaping of the text. It always happens when coming from one language to another. And I am pretty certain God is also aware of this. But I am also certain that none of this presents disobedience to the afore mentioned verses, or others that speak of the reality that our God does not change (i.e. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Mal 3:6; Jam 1:17; etc). For we never read of any judgment upon these wise and dedicated scribes.
Sometimes I think we can put restrictions upon the biblical text that not even God himself applies to it. God has always wanted his word to ‘become flesh’ in the midst of his people. And so, this is why I believe God did not get bent out of shape as the Old Testament canon took shape over centuries of development within the ancient Hebrew context. This is why I also believe that the God-breathed, inspired and authoritative nature of Scripture is not confined to the original autographs, but that this characteristic of the text comes through in our translations that we read from on a daily basis.
Again, from a practical-pastoral standpoint, I know that such a presentation above can sound detrimental to the text: The word of God is perfect, the Scriptures are the word of God. So to claim such has ramifications on the biblical text and our perspective of such. To suggest such is to suggest a perfect text has been corrupted. The text is no longer inerrant.
But to suggest such, at least as I see it, is to simply impose a more modern view on the text. And I don’t believe God even holds to such a view.
It’s not that we just arbitrarily do whatever we want, cutting out passages here, chucking out whole sections there, pasting in whole new portions in their place. Yet, I am secure enough in the providence and goodness of God as to make sure his word has been preserved. Not preserved in a more modern, 100% objective sense (if ever such existed). But preserved from a more fluid, living and active frame of reference. Remember, God never felt the need to judge such people for their editorial actions to reshape the text in its final form. And it’s still piercing like a two-edged sword today (which I can testify happened during those Old Testament history teachings).
I know people will still struggle with such a notion. Still, for me, this brings further into a place of contentment when dealing with all the higher criticism presented towards the text, at least that which looks to deny the reality of our Christian faith and heritage. I find a freedom to approach the text, recognising the difficulties and tensions and questions, but also recognsing the providential character of our God to allow the text to have taken shape into the form that we have it today, all that this God-breathed text might teach, reprove, correct and train us in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).