By Sandra Richter –
The Bible, in all its parts, is intended to communicate to humanity the realities of redemption. Over the centuries, the church has stumbled when it has forgotten this truth, and has thereby, ironically, damaged the authority of the book from which it has drawn its life.
We forget that this book was cast upon the waters of history with one very specific, completely essential, and desperately necessary objective – to tell the epic tale of God’s ongoing quest to ransom his creation. And to, thereby, give each generation the opportunity to know his amazing grace. The Bible is the saga of Yahweh and Adam, the prodigal son and his ever gracious heavenly father; humanity in their rebellion and God in his grace. This narrative begins with Eden and does not conclude until the New Jerusalem is firmly in place. It is all one story. And if you are a believer, it is all your story.
Two-thirds of the story of redemption is known to Christians as the Old Testament. Yet in the decades that I have been teaching Bible, I have found that most Christians, if allowed to answer honestly, might be tempted to dub this section of the Bible the “unfortunate preface” to the part of the Bible that really matters. So why is it that most laypeople struggle with the study of the Old Testament?
1. Most Christians have not been taught that the story of the Old Testament is their story. Rather, they have been encouraged to think that knowledge of the Old Testament is unnecessary to New Testament faith. Worse, many have been taught that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New; that unlike Christ, Yahweh is a God of judgment and wrath. So these folks stick with the part of redemption’s story that seems to include them – the New Testament.
2. The “great barrier.” Since the narrative of the Old Testament happened long, long ago and far, far away, it can be very challenging to get past the historical, linguistic, cultural, and even geographical barriers that separate us from our ancestors in the faith. As a result, to the typical twenty-first-century Christian, the God of Israel seems foreign, his people strange.
If our goal is to know our own story, then we first have to come to understand the characters who populate the Old Testament: who they were, where they lived, what was important to them. The heroes of the Old Testament must be brought into focus so that we can see them as real people who lived in real places and struggled with real faith, just as we do.
3. The Dysfunctional Closet Syndrome. Everyone has a dysfunctional closet somewhere in their lives. The closet is crammed full of clothes slipping from the hangers, accessories dangling from the shelves, shoes piled in disarray on the floor.
The average Christian’s knowledge of the Old Testament is much the same. Dozens of stories, characters, dates, and place names. Years of diligent acquisition. Yet these acquisitions all lie in a jumble on the metaphorical floor. A great deal of information is in there, but as none of it goes together, the reader doesn’t know how to use any of it. Rather, just like the dysfunctional closet, the dates, names, and narratives lie in an inaccessible heap. Thus the information is too difficult, or too confusing, to use.
The end result is that most decide that the Old Testament is just too hard and give their attention to the New Testament where there is some hope of memorizing the characters, places, and dates. Until a believer is able to organize what they know about the Old Testament meaningfully, they cannot use it.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Old Testament is not a hodgepodge of unrelated materials thrown together by some late, uninformed redactor. Nor has it come to us as the result of an empty-headed secretary copying down verbatim some mysterious message. No, the Old Testament writers were themselves theologians, and, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have written for us a carefully formatted and focused piece of literature in which there exists an intentional, theological structure.
Our objective as Christians is to understand the story of redemption, the Bible. More than anything else, we want to hear the words of the biblical writers as they were intended and claim their epic saga as our own. To accomplish this, we need to get past the great barrier – that chasm of history, language, and culture that separates us from our heroes in the faith.
Different Time, Different Place
Humans, rather than recognizing the trappings of their own culture (and that their culture may in fact be very different from someone else’s), tend to assume that other societies are just like their own. This is known as ethnocentrism and is a human perspective that is as old as the hills. As regards the Christian approach to the Old Testament, consider for example the standard depiction of Jesus in sacred Western art as a pale, thin, white man with dirty blond hair and blue (sometimes green) eyes.
These portrayals are standard in spite of the fact that we are all fully aware that Jesus was a Semite and his occupation was manual labor. So shouldn’t we expect a dark-haired man with equally dark eyes? So why is he presented in Christian art as a pale, skinny, white guy? Because the people painting him were pale, skinny, white guys!
We naturally see Jesus as “one of us” and portray him accordingly. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, our close association with the characters of redemptive history allows us to see ourselves in their story. And this is as God would have it. But to truly understand their story, we need to step back and allow their voices to be heard in the timbre in which they first spoke. We need to do our best to see their world through their eyes.
The flip side of ethnocentrism is a second tendency I have come to speak of as “canonizing culture.” This is the unspoken (and usually unconscious) presupposition that the norms of my culture are somehow superior to the norms of someone else’s. Like ethnocentrism, this tendency is also as old as the human race.
But history proves to us that it is impossible to diagnose any human culture as fully “holy” or “unholy.” Human culture is always a mixed bag; some more mixed than others. And every culture must ultimately respond to the critique of the gospel.
As we open the Bible, however, we find that the God of history has chosen to reveal himself through a specific human culture. To be more accurate, he chose to reveal himself in several incarnations of the same culture. And, as the evolving cultural norms of Israel were not without flaw (rather, there was a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly), God did not canonize Israel’s culture. Rather, he simply used that culture as a vehicle through which to communicate the eternal truth of his character and his will for humanity. We should not be about the business of canonizing the culture of ancient Israel, either. But if we are going to understand the content of redemptive history, the merchandise that is the truth of redemption, we will need to understand the vehicle (i.e., the culture) through which it was communicated. Thus the study of the Old Testament becomes a cross-cultural endeavor. If we are going to understand the intent of the biblical authors, we will need to see their world the way they did.
The very term redemption is culturally conditioned. It had culturally-specific content that we as modern readers have mostly missed. In fact, redemption is one of several words I have come to refer to as “Biblish” – a word that comes from the Bible, is in English, but has been so over-used by the Christian community that it has become gibberish. So what does the word redemption mean, and where did the church get it? The first answer to that question is obvious; the term comes from the New Testament.
• “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people” (Luke 1:68).
• “Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
• “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:13).
Okay, so the word comes from our New Testament, but what does it mean? And where did the New Testament writers get it? A short survey of the Bible demonstrates that the New Testament writers got the word from the Old Testament writers. The prophet Isaiah declares:
“But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!’” (Isaiah 43:1).
And where did the Old Testament writers get the word? Contrary to what we might assume, they did not lift it from a theological context. Rather, this word and the concepts associated with it emerged from the everyday, secular vocabulary of ancient Israel. “To redeem” (Hebrew gã’al) in its first associations had nothing to do with theology, but everything to do with the laws and social customs of the ancient tribal society of which the Hebrews were a part. Thus if we are to understand the term – and what the Old Testament writers intended when they applied it to Israel’s relationship with Yahweh – we will need to understand the society from which the word came.
Israel’s Tribal Culture
Israelite society was enormously different from contemporary life in the urban West. Whereas modern Western culture may be classified as urban and “bureaucratic,” Israel’s society was “traditional.” More specifically it was “tribal.” In a tribal society the family is, literally, the axis of the community. An individual’s link to the legal and economic structures of their society is through the family.
In Israel’s particular tribal system, an individual would identify their place within society through the lens of their patriarch’s household first, then their clan or lineage, then their tribe, and finally the nation. Even the terminology for “family” in ancient Israel reflects the centrality of the patriarch. The basic household unit of Israelite society was known as the “father’s house(hold),” in Hebrew the bêt ‘ãb. This household was what Westerners would call an “extended family,” including the patriarch, his wife(s), his unwed children, and his married sons with their wives and children. (An example of this is Rebecca’s marriage to Isaac in Genesis 24. She left her father’s household in Haran and journeyed to Canaan to marry.)
Modern ethnographic studies indicate that the Israelite bêt ‘ãb could include as many as three generations, up to twenty persons. Within this family unit, the “father’s house(hold)” lived together in a family compound, collectively farming the land they jointly owned and sharing in its produce. And those who found themselves without a bêt ‘ãb (typically the orphan, the widow, and the resident foreigner [Hebrew gēr]) also found themselves outside the society’s normal circle of provision and protection. This is why the Old Testament is replete with reminders to “care for the orphan and the widow.”
God’s way of doing things often stands in opposition to the cultural norms of our native society and redemption’s story critiques every human culture. The choice of David is particularly telling. As the eighth-born son of Jesse, David’s inheritance would have fit into a backpack. But after surveying all of Jesse’s sons (eldest to youngest, of course), God’s spokesman says “no” to those David’s society would have chosen (the eldest and the strongest) and “yes” to the one least likely in the eyes of his own community: “For I have selected a king for Myself among his sons” (1 Samuel 16:1). Indeed, “people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). This choice of the unlikely leader is rehearsed many times in the Scriptures.
Jesus and his culture
Israelite culture and the concept of the family compound survived into New Testament times and serves as a backdrop to many of Jesus’ stories and teachings. Consider John 14:1-2. Just after the meal, Jesus begins telling his disciples about his impending departure and the troubles that will follow. Of course, the disciples are confused and upset. Peter asks the question on everyone’s heart: “Where are you going … and can we go with you?” (John 13:36-37). Jesus responds as follows:
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places, if it were not so I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3, NASB).
Did you notice Jesus’ vocabulary? “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.” For generations we in the West have imposed our cultural lens upon this passage such that we have whole songs dedicated to the “mansion up over the hilltop” that is awaiting us in heaven. But what Jesus is saying to his disciples and to us is so far superior to the objectives of a consumer culture that it takes my breath away – our ultimate destination as the newly adopted children of the Father is the family compound! And Jesus, the firstborn of his Father’s household, is going back to heaven to get your four-room pillared house ready. Why? “So that where I am, there you may be also.” The goal of redemption is not a marbled mansion, but reincorporation into the bêt ‘ãb of our heavenly Father.
In Israel’s tribal society redemption was the act of a patriarch who put his own resources on the line to ransom a family member who had been driven to the margins of society by poverty (Ruth and Boaz), who had been seized by an enemy against whom he had no defense (Lot and Abraham), who found themselves enslaved by the consequences of a faithless life (Gomer and Hosea).
Redemption was the means by which a lost family member was restored to a place of security within the kinship circle. This was a patriarch’s responsibility, this was the safety net of Israel’s society, and this is the backdrop for the epic of Eden in which we New Testament believers find ourselves.
Can you hear the metaphor of Scripture? Yahweh is presenting himself as the patriarch of the clan who has announced his intent to redeem his lost family members. Not only has he agreed to pay whatever ransom is required, but he has sent the most cherished member of his household to accomplish his intent – his firstborn son. And not only is the firstborn coming to seek and save the lost, but he is coming to share his inheritance with these who have squandered everything they have been given. His goal? To restore the lost family members to the bêt ‘ãb so that where he is, they may be also.
This is why we speak of each other as brother and sister, why we know God as Father, why we call ourselves the household of faith. God is beyond human gender and our relationship to him beyond blood, but the tale of redemptive history comes to us in the language of a patriarchal society. Father God is buying back his lost children by sending his eldest son, his heir, to “give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), so that we the alienated might be “adopted as sons” and share forever in the inheritance of this “firstborn of all creation.”
Sandra L. Richter is Robert H. Gundry Chair of Biblical Studies at Westmont College and a member of the Committee for Biblical Translation for the NIV. She is best known in the church for her work The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (IVP) and her DVD curriculums (Seedbed) designed for those serious about their faith. Taken from The Epic of Eden by Sandra L. Richter. Copyright ©2008 by Sandra L. Richter. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.
The Epic of Eden is available for purchase here.
Companion video sessions to supplement her book, are also available here.