The Big Picture of the Old Testament

The Big Picture of the Old Testament

C. John Collins

When it comes to describing “the theology of the Old Testament,” not everyone is convinced that there is a single theology represented in these diverse books. Many scholars have, however, tried to find a point of unity for all the books, often by proposing a single unifying theme, such as covenant, or the kingdom of God, or the Messiah, or God himself. These proposals do provide genuine insights, but they are often too oversimplified to do justice to the variety of materials in the Old Testament.

It will be more fruitful to understand the Old Testament as a whole in terms of an unfolding story, with a number of basic components: monotheism, creation and fall, election and covenant, covenant membership, and eschatology. This chapter will first explain these components, so that we can summarize the overarching story. Then we will consider briefly how the various parts of the Old Testament relate to this unfolding story, and consider how this provides a link to the New Testament authors’ stance toward the Old Testament. The goal is to articulate some of the beliefs that will enable careful readers to profit more fully from reading the Old Testament books themselves.

The Components of the Story

1. Monotheism. There is only one true God, who made heaven and earth and all mankind. He made a material world that he is happy with, and he made it a fit place for human beings to live, and love, and serve. Every human being needs to know and love this God, whose spotless moral purity, magnificent power and wisdom, steadfast faithfulness, and unceasing love are breathtakingly beautiful. This one God rules over all things, and he will vindicate his own goodness and justice (in his own time). In ruling, God has not limited himself to working within the natural properties of what he has made, for he can go (and has gone) beyond these properties to do mighty deeds both in creation and in caring for his people.

The Old Testament invites Israel not simply to acknowledge the existence of this one true God, but to commit themselves to him in exclusive loyalty and love, centering their lives on the inestimable privilege of knowing him (Deut. 6:4–9). The fundamental character of this God is explained in Exodus 34:6–7, which focuses on his steadfast love and mercy (a passage frequently echoed in the rest of the Old Testament). The Old Testament also affirms that God is “righteous,” that is, morally pure and perfect. Although this righteousness certainly results in God’s work of punishing evildoers and vindicating his own moral character, the term commonly emphasizes God’s reliability in keeping his promises (e.g., Pss. 71:2116:5).

The Old Testament does not explicitly describe God as a trinity. Rather, with its references to God’s Spirit (e.g., Gen. 1:2), its use of “us/our” for God (e.g., Gen. 1:26), and its indications or hints of a divine Messiah (e.g., Ps. 110:5Isa. 9:6; see Ezek. 34:15, 23), it lays the groundwork for the fuller declaration of divine triunity that is found in the New Testament (Matt. 28:191 Cor. 12:4–62 Cor. 13:14).

2. Creation and fall. The one Creator God made the first human beings, Adam and Eve, with dignity and purpose; their calling was to live faithfully to God and to spread the blessings of Eden throughout the earth. Because Adam and Eve betrayed God’s purpose, all people since the fall are beset with sins and weaknesses that only God’s grace can redeem and heal.

3. Election and covenant. The one true God chose a people for himself and bound himself to them by his covenant (Ex. 19:4–6Deut. 7:6–11). This covenant expressed God’s intention to save the people, and through them to bring light to the rest of the world, in order to restore all things to their proper functioning in the world God made. The land of Israel was to be a kind of reconstituted Eden, which would flourish as the people’s faithfulness flourished (or languish if the people were unfaithful). God’s covenants generally involve one person who represents the whole people (e.g., Adam, Noah, Abraham, David); the rest of the people experience the covenant by virtue of their inclusion in the community represented. The representative is required to embody the ideal of covenant faithfulness as a model for those on whose behalf he has acted.

4. Covenant membership. In his covenant, God offers his grace to his people: the forgiveness of their sins, the shaping of their lives in this world to reflect his own glory, and a part to play in bringing light to the Gentiles. Each member of God’s people is responsible to lay hold of this grace from the heart: to believe the promises (see Paul’s use of Abraham and David as examples of faith in Rom. 4:1–25; see also Heb. 11:1–40), and then to grow in obeying the commands, and to keep on doing so all their lives long. Those who lay hold in this way are the faithful. These people, as distinct from the unfaithful among them, enjoy the full benefits of God’s love. Each Israelite is a member of a people, a corporate entity; the members have a mutual participation in the life of the people as a whole. Thus the spiritual and moral well-being of the whole affects the well-being of each of the members, and each member contributes to the others by his own spiritual and moral life. Thus each one shares the joys and sorrows of the others, and of the whole. Historical judgments upon the whole people often come because too many of the members are unfaithful; these judgments do not, however, bring the story of God’s people to an end but serve rather to purify and chasten that people (often by removing unbelieving members).

It is important for Christian readers to sharpen their grasp of how the Old Testament uses words such as “salvation” and “judgment.” When the Old Testament speaks of God “redeeming” his people (e.g., Ex. 15:13) or “saving” them (e.g., Ex. 14:30), it refers to God’s gracious dealings for the sake of this corporate entity, the people: he calls it, he protects it, he purifies it, in order to foster the conditions under which the life of its members may flourish. The Old Testament can also speak of God giving “salvation” or “redemption” to particular persons (e.g., Pss. 3:2, 719:14). Generally in the Old Testament, however, such expressions refer to members of the people experiencing the benefits of covenant membership, whether that be forgiveness of sins, or deliverance from some trouble or persecution, or something else—tracing everything back to the grace of God that led him to make the covenant originally and now to keep it in effect. When Christians speak of personal salvation, they usually are thinking of individuals in isolation, and so have a much narrower meaning in mind; they should consider whether the New Testament usage is closer to the Old Testament usage than they might have realized hitherto, including both every aspect of their lives and their connections to other believers, and thus extending to a wider range of experience than simply their souls.

The “law,” given through Moses, plays a vital role in the Old Testament. It is uniformly presented as an object of delight and admiration (e.g., Psalm 119), because it is a gift from a loving and gracious God. The law is never presented in the Old Testament as a list of rules that one must obey in order to be right with God; rather, it is God’s fatherly instruction, given to shape the people he has loved and saved into a community of faith, holiness, and love, bound together by mutual support and care. The various laws, with their penalties for infractions and provisions for repayment, were designed to protect that community from the failures of its members, and the moral guidelines gave specific form to what the restored image of God would look like in the agrarian culture of ancient Israel. Right at the heart of this system is worship at the sanctuary, with its provisions for atonement and forgiveness for those who have gone astray. Sadly, only in a very few instances in the Old Testament do we see anything that even remotely matches this ideal, whether on a large scale (Josh. 22:1–34 is an excellent example, distinctive for its rarity) or on a small one (e.g., Boaz in the book of Ruth, who embodies the Lord’s own kindness to a foreign-born “proselyte”). The prophets anticipated an era, after Judah’s return from exile in Babylon, in which God’s people would really take the law into their own hearts (e.g., Ezek. 36:25–27); the covenant renewal that the postexilic community experienced was, however, only a brief foretaste of that expectation. (Interpreters debate the way in which this relates to the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles—is it focused primarily on Israel laying hold of the covenant properly, or does it describe the new arrangement that Jesus’s resurrection brought in?—but that is outside the scope of this chapter.)

5. Eschatology. The story of God’s people is headed toward a glorious future in which all kinds of people will come to know the Lord and join his people. This was the purpose for which God called Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3), and for which he appointed Israel (Ex. 19:4–6). It is part of the dignity of God’s people that, in God’s mysterious wisdom, their personal faithfulness contributes to the story getting to its goal (see Deut. 4:6–8).

The Old Testament develops its idea of a Messiah (eventually clarified as the ultimate heir of David) in the light of these components. The earliest strands of the messianic idea speak of an offspring who will undo the work of the Evil One and bless the Gentiles by bringing them into his kingdom (Gen. 3:1522:17–1824:60); the idea that kings will descend from Abraham (Gen. 17:6, 16) and Jacob (Gen. 35:11) becomes focused on the tribe of Judah, to which the obedience of the peoples will be brought (Gen. 49:10). The kings in David’s line carry this idea forward. They are to embody the people: just as the people as a whole is God’s son (Ex. 4:22–23), so also the Davidic king is God’s son (2 Sam. 7:14Ps. 89:26–27). The promise of a lasting dynasty for David (2 Sam. 7:16) becomes the expectation that a final heir of his line will one day arise, take his Davidic throne (in “the last days”), and lead his people in the great task of bringing light to the Gentiles (e.g., Pss. 2:872:8–11, 17 [using Gen. 22:18]; Isa. 9:6–7;11:1–10; see Isa. 42:1–9).

The Parts of the Old Testament in Relation to the Story

The Old Testament is thus the story of the one true Creator God, who called the family of Abraham to be his remedy for the defilement that came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt in fulfillment of this plan, and established them as a theocracy for the sake of displaying his existence and character to the rest of the world. God sent his blessings and curses upon Israel in order to pursue that purpose. God never desisted from that purpose, even in the face of the most grievous unfaithfulness in Israel.

This overarching story serves as a grand narrative or worldview story for Israel: each member of the people was to see himself or herself as an heir of this story, with all its glory and shame; as a steward of the story, responsible to pass it on to the next generation; and as a participant, whose faithfulness could play a role, by God’s mysterious wisdom, in the story’s progress.

Some who have seen this category of Israel’s story as a key to Old Testament theology have argued for reading the entire Old Testament as a story. This does not help the reader, for the very obvious reason that not everything in the Old Testament is narrative or “story.” For example, there are laws (in the Pentateuch), whose purpose was to protect equity and civility in the theocracy by guiding judges in what penalties to impose and by specifying the minimum standard of behavior necessary to preserve the theocracy (many of the specific laws do not intend to spell out the moral ideal for the members of Israel, which comes from likeness to God in the creation account and from the goal of community holiness; the “perfection” of the laws consist in the way they serve the social fabric of God’s people); there is wisdom (in the books of JobProverbs, and Ecclesiastes, as well as in the Psalms), which helps the members to live well daily; there are songs (esp. the Psalms) that the people of God should sing in corporate worship; there are poems (esp. the Song of Solomon; see Prov. 5:15–20) celebrating such wonders as romantic love; and lots more. Therefore it is better to speak of reading the parts of the Old Testament in relation to its overarching story. That is, we can see the parts in relation to the Big Story that unifies the whole. The Proverbs help people to live their little stories in such a way as to contribute to the Big Story. The Psalms—many of which explicitly recount parts of the Big Story—help people live as faithful members of the worshiping corporate entity, the people of God. The Prophets keep recalling the Big Story, the direction in which Israel’s story is headed, calling their audiences to live faithfully in its light. The Big Story tells us that God’s purpose is to restore our humanity to its proper function, and thus it reminds each person of the human nature he shares with every other human being, and of the duty and benefit of seeking the good of others. For example, enjoying the love of a faithful spouse is a way of experiencing renewed humanity—a way that displays God’s goodness to the rest of the world (as in the Song of Solomon).

All of these factors explain why it is possible for the New Testament authors both to say that the Sinai covenant is done away with (see below), because it was focused on the theocracy, which had an end in mind from the beginning (when the Gentiles would receive the light in large measure)—and at the same time to affirm that this covenant has embedded in it principles that cannot pass away, because they are part of the larger story of which the Sinai covenant is one chapter.

The Old Testament as Christian Scripture

The Old Testament presents itself, then, as a story that is headed somewhere. The Old Testament closes with both anxiety and hope under Persian rule (see Malachi). The books of the Second Temple period (between the Old and New Testaments) continue this notion of Israel as God’s people chosen for a purpose, but not all strands of this material make clear what that purpose is. Some of these Second Temple books offer endings for the story (e.g., in the Qumran community as the elect); but the faithful were looking for more. (For more information on the Second Temple period, see ch. 6.) The New Testament authors, most of whom were Jewish Christians, saw themselves as heirs of the Old Testament story, and as authorized to describe its proper completion in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the messianic era that this ushered in. These authors appropriated the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, and they urged their audiences (many of whom were Gentile Christians) to do the same. There is debate over just how the New Testament authors used the Old Testament as Scripture, but the simplest summary of the New Testament authors’ stance would be to say that they saw the Old Testament as constituting the earlier chapters of the story in which Christians are now participating.

This construct, of earlier and later chapters in the story of God’s work for his people, allows us to understand how the Old Testament era and the Christian era will have elements both of continuity and of discontinuity. The Old Testament had looked forward to an internationalized people of God, without explaining exactly how that would connect to the theocracy of Israel (see Ps. 87:4–6). The theocracy defined the people of God as predominantly coming from a particular ethnic group in a particular land; Gentile converts (“sojourners”) were protected (Ex. 12:4920:1022:21Lev. 19:10) but could not be full-status members of the theocratic community (see Deut. 14:2115:3Num. 34:14–15 shows that land was allocated to Israelites alone). The New Testament abolishes the distinction (Eph. 2:19), because the theocracy as such is no longer in existence and many of its provisions are done away with (see Acts 10:34–35Heb. 9:11–14). At the same time, the character of the one Creator God, and his interest in restoring the image of God in human beings, transcends the specific arrangements of the theocracy; hence, the moral commands of God apply to Christians as they did to the faithful in Israel (see Rom. 13:8–10).

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