Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Thursday, 15 October 2015

How do we understand God in the Old Testament?

From a presentation titled 'Divine Attributes' given to the 'Old Testament Theology' class of the University of Edinburgh.

Isaiah 1:10-20
This passage emphasises the fact that God will not accept false piety, but will truly forgive when we are concerned with cleansing our sin and evil, before asking for His help and blessing. This of course highlights that the God of the Old Testament accepts the sacrifice of ‘a broken and humbled heart’ as we read in David’s 51st (50th) Psalm, rather than that of a proud, unrepentant person. We could conclude from this that our Creator desires our humility, and our self-sacrifice for Him. Of course the context of the passage, and the general theme of the book of Isaiah is that the Holy One of Israel, Yahweh, punishes His unrepentant people but will later redeem them. Man’s role is one of faith in response to God’s holiness and will. 

The New Jerome commentary calls this passage a call to attention, as instruction to the faithful. Isaiah is telling the faithful that God will not accept mere worship and sacrifice from those who oppress and mistreat. God is indeed Just, desiring fairness and peace among His people, desiring a good relationship with them. 

The Interpreters Bible Commentary similarly emphasises the two options given freely to man; repentance or destruction. However the question we must ask ourselves is whether this destruction takes place as a direct consequence of our own sin and distance from God, or whether it is simply God’s decision. 

Psalm 50
Firstly it is important to note that Psalm 50(51) is the only psalm recited in its entirety, at every Orthodox Divine Liturgy. It was written by the Prophet King David after he acknowledged and confessed his sin before the Prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12). David’s sin was a two-fold sin. He committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, with Bathsheba becoming pregnant and David sending for Uriah, who was with the Israelite army at the siege of Rabbah, leading to lies, concealing the identity of the child’s father, and finally, murder. 

Particularly for Christians ,this Psalm is not merely an expression of penitence and self-disgust. It is the overwhelming holiness of God that is the source of profound repentance, and it is particularly related to the coming of the Holy Spirit. The recitation of Psalm 50 is a preparation for the epiclesis, or calling upon the Holy Spirit. David remarkably knows the days ahead are ones of renewal, ones of joy, with no need of sacrifice. Of course this refers to Christ, as He Himself is the sacrifice, making it unnecessary for us to sacrifice any creature. This presence of holiness, and hope within Psalm 50 results in the passage being far from morbid and dark. We are reminded that repentance finds its fulfilment not in looking back on our sins in despair, but in looking forward with hope and faith; not in looking down into the pits of hell, but in looking up to God, witnessing Who He really is.  The Lord is clearly shown to be the source of light, life, and joy. We are called to ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ (Lev. 11:44) - which also highlights God’s desire to unite with mankind, to become one with us. Humanity is bound to God, and He, out of His love for mankind, guides us to His Kingdom.

The Biblical Scholar, Brueggemann, argues that there is a distinct shift in Yahweh’s movements regarding his partners. Firstly it seems God's creation should be gladly obedient to Him, but through man’s free choice, this relationship fails, which fundamentally leads to rehabilitation for a new beginning. Throughout the Old Testament we find that the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, is created for obedience, discernment, and trust; but through mistakes, sin and evil, divine judgement is experienced somewhat harshly - however eventually comes to restoration, and given hope through His love. He is the God of new life, praise and hope. We see here a general pattern of creation-sin-redemption, but I’d argue that the most important factor, or experience of Yahweh is found in the end; the redemption. Of course this pattern also reflects the Christian Tradition, with this forgiveness, and new life granted by the Saviour and Messiah Jesus Christ. While throughout the Old Testament there is of course the sense of brokenness with regards to God’s relationship with man, there is also restoration. 

The Lord is clearly the restorer, the comforter the helper of mankind. We frequently read ‘I cried to you O Lord’ ‘my helper’, the One who brings us out of the pit, as our rock and paraclete. Often, there is an emphasis placed on patience, awaiting the full revelation of the GodHead. But trust is put upon Him. Similarly, at the culmination of Israel’s portrayal of reality, is a certitude and a vision of newness and full restoration - and of course the Christian Tradition would argue this is God leading mankind to the incarnation of Christ, our Saviour and restorer. 

Though we recognise God's attributes within the Councils and Creeds of the Church, it is important we do not worship abstract qualities, rather than worshipping the Trinitarian God and Lord. One question frequently asked is how we relate the Old and New Testaments to each other? 

This question is regarded as an issue mainly for Biblical Theology, rather than for systematic Theology. It is important and appropriate to deal with the Old Testament as God’s way of preparing the world for the coming of His Son. The Fathers and Theologians of the Early Church were vitally concerned with the Old Testament and sought to read its Books as Christian documents. As controversial as it may seem within todays circles of Biblical Exegesis, the Church Fathers believe that the entire Bible is a Book about Christ. They understand it as a coherent whole, pointing and guiding to the Messiah, the Renewer, the Redeemer and Restorer Christ. For this reason, everything must be about our relationship, as the people of God and the Church, with Christ. For example, the Fathers’ interpretation of the Song of Songs is a somewhat knee-jerkingly shocking one for contemporary scholars; the idea being that it is not about human love, but about the loving relationship that exists between Christ and His Church. It is easy for us to dismiss this understanding, however we must not forget that Saint Paul himself explicitly links the husband-wife relationship to Christ’s relationship with the Church ( in Ephesians 5).

For the Fathers, and therefore for the Orthodox Christian Church, the Old Testament undoubtedly reflects upon Who God Is. God’s love for Israel in the book of Hosea for example, from a Patristic point of view, mirrors God’s love for His own Son. After all, Matthew in Chapter 2:15 links these two by quoting from Hosea: ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son’  From these short examples we see that the New Testament indicates that certain events, people and relationships in the Old Testament prefigured greater realities. The Fathers were witnesses to Christ, His Resurrection and His living presence, so for this reason their aim was was to unlock the riches of the Hebrew Scriptures, scouring the Old Testament for hints, prefigurings and fore-shadowings of Christ and His Church.Perhaps in many ways we should take the Fathers examples of interpretation. It is an interpretation which does not stumble upon seemingly controversial, violent or harsh passages, but one that leads to a harmonious, coherent understanding of the Old Testament. Saint Irenaeus writes:

‘All Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonise with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear shall serve to explain the parables and through the many diversified utterances there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things!’

This sort of interpretation is of course troubling to us in our Modern Biblical and Exegetical context, and many of us may brand it as allegorising. However, we should notice two important things about this way of interpretation; 1) Irenaeus and the Fathers do not denigrate the historical accuracy of events, with most fathers affirming the historicity of the narratives meanwhile 2) they see beyond its historicity to its theological, coherent meaning in light of Christ. 

The reason for me suggesting we should perhaps look to this more whole, coherent understanding of the Old Testament is because one of the main claims we make about God, is the fact He is unchanging. He, as God, does not change throughout history and within the Scriptures. Perhaps the ways in which He acts and works within people and societies may differ, but His being, His will, and His attributes do not. To conclude, only through this Patristic understanding and account, can we truly understand our One, Trinitarian God, 'Who is Love' (1 John 4:8) within the Old Testament's context.

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