Jesus: not what was hoped for? (Guest Blogger: Jason)

A note from the editor: I’m delighted to have Jason guest posting some ideas about scripture! I’ve been encouraging him to do so for weeks. So please welcome Jason — a brilliant philosopher and theologian, a great man of God, and a champion Smash Brothers player — to Diligent Leaves!

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Appropriating Old Testament Scripture

I’ve been struggling lately through the book of Hebrews. It’s a challenging book for me because the author uses Old Testament scriptures in rather peculiar ways to support Christ’s divinity.

Take, for example, the very first quote out of Psalms: “You are my son, today I have become your Father.” If you go on to read Psalm 2 it describes this Son as one whom will “rule with an iron scepter” and “dash [the nations] to pieces like pottery.” And perhaps even more poignantly it states “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.” I don’t know, doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me.

This is not the only place that Old Testament verses are re-appropriated (or misappropriated one could argue) to New Testament contexts/audiences.  Many of these seemingly misapplied OT verses have been vindicated to my satisfaction with some exploration; perhaps they all can be in time.  But even in the cases where exploration has brought some semblance of understanding, it has often taken, shall we say… creative thinking.  What are we to do with such verses?

Today, if someone tried to do something similar, we’d call it misleading, manipulative, or just blatantly false.  But this well accepted rabbinical practice is right there in holy scripture! This creative reuse of OT verses to defend the Messianic claims of Christ compels me to (re)consider how this all must have sounded to first century Jews

It would be wrong for me to judge the events of the NT anachronistically.  I take Christ’s divinity for granted.  Of course, it makes sense — I am a “Christian” after all.  But what I can’t help but notice looking back on OT scriptures regarding the Messiah is how incredibly justified the Jews were in killing Christ.  Many OT scriptures describe a warrior Messiah who would smite the enemies of Israel.  A Messiah sent by a God who was on Israel’s side against their enemies.  The warrior Messiah image wasn’t a stretch, Christ is the stretch.*  (Don’t take my word for it, start reading OT quotes in context, it’ll blow your mind).  Christ was not what was hoped for.  And if he wasn’t the Messiah, then he was a blasphemer, subject to death by Jewish law.

But of course, that’s not the whole story.  We also find OT scriptures supporting a God who was very much concerned with redeeming the entire world (including the enemies of Israel).  A God who sends Jonah to Nineveh as much for their well-being as for Israel’s.  A God who describes Israel as a beacon to draw all other nations unto Him and commands full acceptance of foreigners who have “bound [themselves] to the Lord”.

Understanding God’s Character through the Messiah

So what was God up to?**  What is his character?  Maybe biblical authors occasionally misrepresented God’s actions and saw Him as they wanted to see Him.  Maybe in some Ultimate Justice kind of way God is both a warrior (slaughtering directly or indirectly thousands of people for various reasons) and the embodiment of love/compassion/grace (in his desire to see all nations redeemed, his commands for care of aliens, etc.).  I don’t know!  Perhaps I never will!  But what I find interesting here, is what Jesus and his followers do in the midst of these pictures of God.

Jesus enters the Jewish narrative and completely transforms it.  He claims to be the Messiah hoped for and then dies on a cross without ever picking up a sword for battle.  And his followers hold to this Messianic claim in the face of barbaric torture and death!  Despite his apparent failure, Christ’s followers say he is the incarnation, the true revelation of the character of God.  Hebrews refers to him as the “exact representation of God’s being.”

Christ’s picture of God is even more radically loving than any given to us in the OT (in my opinion).  In short, he brings in to focus and completely redirects much of what is in the OT.  It’s not surprising they killed him for it.

Viewing Christ as the Messiah offers a beautiful Truth here, God is often much more than we hoped for.  The Jews wanted to be free from their enemies oppression, instead, God came down and freed all people from all oppression (in a sense).  The Jews were promised a Messiah who would destroy their enemies, Christ got rid of all enemies by establishing a common humanity narrative in which notions of position and power have no place.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

Now, if it was only Christ who practiced this radical re-framing of OT scriptures, I might feel less unsettled.  I could feel secure in the claim that this act is the purview of God alone.  But I don’t have that luxury.  The followers of Christ (most notably Paul) utilize a similar practice in their writings…writings which the church has accepted as cannon for centuries.  The NT is full of this re-framing of OT understandings, a progressive plea along the lines of “when God said [this] he meant [this]…don’t you see, Christ fits the bill!”

Living in the Tension

I have to say, I sympathize with the Jews!  What Jesus and His followers were doing was the worst kind of heresy, changing the entire trajectory of a rich tradition.  Or if not changing the trajectory, certainly clarifying it!  What are we to do in the midst of all these conflicting messages!

God is a warrior who is going to smite your enemies and bring vengeance upon them, if not in this age than rest assured it will happen in the age to come!  No, God is more loving than you can imagine, he descended from on high taking on our humanness, dying for us, pleading with us to promote peace and abandon blood-shed!  His love shines like the sun, on the wicked and righteous alike!  The Word is God-breathed and we are not to change it at all, neither to add to it, nor take away from it!  No, the Word is living, and Christ and his followers demonstrate for us that it can mean something new and unexpected, something completely different from what we thought if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear!

It’s this kind of confusion that makes me cry out for a starting point, a foundation on which I can test all ideas.  It’s in this confusion that I find myself humbly returning to the only place I can find solid footing; the only place where I feel confident saying, “Yes, this…this is something I can and I want to believe in…”; and that is Jesus…the refiner and finisher of my faith.

It’s a critical choice!  On what and whom we choose to base our view of God has ripple effects on every idea we glean from the Bible, every action committed, and every judgement uttered.  I’m going to suggest that we live in the tension offered us by scripture between recognizing the Bible’s sacredness and Truth principles while allowing it to speak in different ways in different times and different cultural contexts.  I think we have a good basis for doing this!  Christ after all broke Jewish law on more than one occasion didn’t he?  Saying effectively, “you worship and uphold the rules but have forgotten the purpose of those rules.”

I want to suggest we take the scary and challenging route of digging for Biblical principles not Biblical mandates: that we spend less time finding specific rules to hold over and against people and more time engaging the living God with people, drawing on Biblical principles to guide our moral compass and doing our best to exercise sufficient care and sufficient grace.

Anyone with me?

Notes on this post:

Although I feel justified in my claims above, I’m not a biblical scholar.  I don’t have the training some have in this area and welcome any corrections.

* At least by-in-large.  Some scriptures which seem to describe Christ in detail don’t include a militaristic Messiah picture, but many verse which have the militaristic Messiah picture are still used in reference to Christ in the NT.

** I certainly am aware of and understand many of the arguments which attempt to reconcile the love we see demonstrated on Calvary with the wrath we see demonstrated by the flood.  I can get behind many of them.  I think the seemingly apparent conflict between the two pictures of God still raise important issues even if these reconciliatiatory tactics are taken.

Tell us what YOU think:

What tools do you use to understand/interpret scripture, especially the tough passages? How do you take action in a situation when you don’t have full information or understanding to do so? What is one of your most burning questions about scripture?

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7 Comments

Filed under Guest Bloggers, Theology and Faith

7 responses to “Jesus: not what was hoped for? (Guest Blogger: Jason)

  1. Mindy Phillips

    I continually admire the skill and eagerness with which you approach difficult questions.

    Perhaps a conversation is better suited for this topic, but I’m trying to respond appropriately for the forum–therefore using a comment for one specific thought. 🙂

    From your post:
    “Today, if someone tried to do something similar, we’d call it misleading, manipulative, or just blatantly false. But this well accepted rabbinical practice is right there in holy scripture! This creative reuse of OT verses to defend the Messianic claims of Christ compels me to (re)consider how this all must have sounded to first century Jews.”

    My thought/question:
    Are you assuming that because this was a well accepted rabbinical practice used in holy scripture that it is therefore not misleading, manipulative or just blatantly false? I think you could flush out that assumption and perhaps the practice does indeed stand soundly but its acceptance in a particular group/field/etc. doesn’t prove that. I think you also may have been saying that because it was a well accepted practice in holy scripture it prompts you to explore and discover how and why it may work, at least for a time believing in good faith that it is legitimate. Both/and…either way, a thought.

    • Jason Gorski

      Thanks for the compliment…and you know I’m always up for such a conversation :).

      “Are you assuming that because this was a well accepted rabbinical practice used in holy scripture that it is therefore not misleading, manipulative or just blatantly false?”

      Um, it’s certainly a valid stance that a practice could be misleading, manipulative, or false in one context and not another. For instance, people hearing these re-appropriations of OT verses *may* have been familiar with their contexts. If the Biblical authors knew that their audience understood the context from which they were quoting (which was likely for Hebrews anyway), they could be reasonably confident the audience would be accepting/rejecting the OT quotes with full knowledge of their original intents. The audience would have clearly seen that these were reappropriations. Which is much different than, say, a minster today doing something similar to a lay audience.

      *Even* with that being true, I think the question of the validity of such a practice is still on the table for me…*especially* in today’s age. If the dominant understanding of the OT was a militaristic Messiah (and very understandably so from the verses), and God (through the Biblical authors radical redirection of the OT verses) brought a new meaning out of the OT, is it possible God can still do such things today? With OT scriptures…with NT scriptures?…

  2. Jason, great post. You ask a lot of really good questions. That is, you’d make a good seminary student. 🙂

    I would have liked to see more quotations/analysis/commentary of Hebrews, as at the beginning this is where I thought you were headed. When you said Jesus the refiner and finished of my faith, I thought you were going to cite Hebrews 12:2, Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

    When it comes to the Bible, which is a text that came together over hundreds, if not thousands, of years, there is certainly a lot of tension to live in. We like to think of a book as having internal cohesion and having it all planned out. While there are certain valid theological arguments that treat the Bible as an exhaustive, complete text, I find it much richer to live in the tension of historical context and multiple authorship. There is the said as well as the “unsaid,” as one professor put it. Jewish tradition fills a lot of the “unsaid” with Midrash, and I think that is a lot of what biblical scholarship has done over the years… filling in the gaps and trying to flesh out a very rich and deep text.

    In any event, our thirst will never be quenched in this life, yet the intricacies and mysteries of the bible keep me coming back for more. I hope the same is true for you and many others.

    One last comment: The bible is perhaps our last “common text” in a 15-min news cycle where the old is thrown out as soon as something new comes in.

    • Jason Gorski

      Hi Evans,
      Thanks for the comments. I wasn’t really seeking to make an exhaustive analysis of OT use in Hebrews, I just wanted to use it as a context for the larger questions about Biblical interpretation/scholarship.
      I agree with you about tension. My friend Sarah often described the tension in the Bible as the “itch that needs scratching”.
      J

  3. Thanks for some great comments, friends. I love that you’ve joined in the conversation!

    Mindy: I appreciate your push back against the assumption that all the “practices” of scripture are ones we should consider sound/trustworthy. Certainly there are some problematic traditions not only in the text itself but in the way it’s been used and interpreted over the centuries, right?

    Evans: I also appreciated your contributions! The Hebrew Bible reflects different oral traditions, so it makes a lot of sense for dialogue and commentary to be part of the written record. I love what you said about the mystery and the “unsaid” pieces that will always draw us deeper into scripture!

    Jason: Thanks for bringing some great, thought-provoking conversation to Diligent Leaves! I do think about scripture as a living, dynamic story/tradition, and I do believe that (as the UCC church motto declares) “God is still speaking!” That’s why we can continue to discover new truths — personally, spiritually, intellectually, communally — as we come to scripture. I love the kinds of questions you’re asking, and I’d love to throw some book suggestions your way! Keep digging and keep sharing!

    • Also, wanted to add this:
      “It is often stated that the postbiblical Judaism is a religion of the Book, and that interpretation and debate are quintessentially rabbinic activities. In light of the phenomenon of inner-biblical exegesis and allusion, it becomes evident that these characteristics of Jewish creativity did not begin with the Rabbis. Biblical authors themselves regarded older biblical texts as authoritative, sacred, and worthy of study. Close examination of some biblical documents … shows something extraordinary: Priests and prophets, psalmists and scribes composed Scripture by recycling Scripture, by turning it and turning it to find new truths in it. For many biblical writers, new words from God emerged from intense examination and reordering of old ones. The interpretation of such a sacred text could yield revelation, as much as revelation yielded a sacred text. If this is so, then the gulf that separates the Bible or “Written Torah” from rabbinic tradition (“Oral Torah”) is smaller than one might think. The Rabbis stand alongside their biblical forebears when they interpret the Bible, even when they interpret the Bible in surprising or radical ways… By reading and revising, explaining and debating, the authors of the Bible as well as those who follow them demonstrate that many different texts, biblical and otherwise, contain the living words of God.
      Benjamin D. Sommer, “Inner-biblical Interpretation” (essay in the Jewish Study Bible)

      • Jason Gorski

        OMG Benjamin D. Sommer speaking to my heart here. Thanks for sharing Bris! And thanks for the thoughtful reply.
        J

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