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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.


As we anticipate next developments in Old Testament theology into the twenty-first century, it is reasonable to anticipate that the lines of interpretation reported here will continue to be primary trajectories. Beyond that, of course, no one can foresee what twists and turns will emerge in ongoing interpretative work. It is clear, however, that there is currently great energy and dynamism in the field; it is likely that new developments will soon be under way from a younger generation of scholars and practitioners who have been, perhaps, not so enthralled by old issues of historicism. At least, the following seem likely.

1. Particular communities of faith will understand themselves more intentionally as ‘peoples of the Book’. This in turn will evoke, I anticipate, a variety of confessional and contextual appeals to, and reliance upon, the text tradition of the Old Testament. Thus I anticipate that across the spectrum of Protestant Christianity there will be a return to the text in a fresh engagement with ‘the strange new world’ that is offered there. While there will continue to be disputatious studies of the history of Israelite religion (as indicated above), it is less likely that there will be programmatic presentations of Old Testament theology that are situated outside and ‘above’ particular communities of faith and practice. That is, the older modernist approaches that seek to appeal to ‘universal’ claims in a foundationalist way, I believe, have no promising future. The work, rather, will be undertaken to find the self-identity and self-understanding of communities engaged in faithful practice. Such a direction of course runs the risk of sectarianism; that, however, seems to me now the inescapable risk, even as a kind of self-deceptive ‘objectivism’ was the risk in an earlier modernist era. Such confessional and contextual efforts at their best will need to answer to the critical expectations of the larger interpretative community, but not in a way that precludes distinctive interpretative ventures. If such an expectation comes to fruition, it assures that Old Testament theology will in the future be rich, complex, and vibrant, precisely because it will live close to the faith and practice of concrete communities. The one future in Old Testament theology is that such interpretive enterprises will live close to communities and missional praxis.

2. Confessional and critical readings of course run the risk of filtering the text tradition to serve the interests of the moment. (But that propensity is evident and was operative even in the magisterial work of Eichrodt and von Rad as they sought grounding in the face of the threat and alternative of National Socialism.) A counterpoint to such confessional and contextual readings will be that such specific communities of confession and context will do their work in a larger horizon and will inescapably recognize that the text offers a comprehensive vista well beyond any particular community of faith and interpretation, including the one that is at the moment operative in interpretation.

Old Testament theology in time to come will be done in an environment of religious and cultural pluralism that makes confessional and contextual claims complex. There can be, in such a context, no more myopic scenarios of Old Testament theology that refuse acknowledgement of the ‘other’ who is present in text and in context.

Old Testament theology will be done in time to come, I anticipate, for the sake of a ‘people of the Book’, mindful of the other ‘peoples’ of the Book. Thus Christian Old Testament theology will be done by reading the text in the presence of Jews, with some attentiveness to the different readings of the text by serious Jews. In time to come, moreover, the same awareness will surely be extended to serious Islamic readers of the text, who are also among the ‘peoples of the Book’.

Beyond these several communities of the children of Abraham, in time to come more attention is likely to be given to the other children of Noah. The rabbis, of course, have long since recognized the covenant of Noah, and have urged that other peoples, in a very different kind of covenant, are also commanded by YHWH in the Noachide commandments. Thus the peculiar claim of the elect community (Israel and eventually for Christians, ‘New Israel’) will be much more explicitly affirmed in the presence of other faith communities and other faith claims:

The Noachic covenant legitimates God's structures of creation for humankind, precisely those that belong to the natural world's capacity to sustain the matrix of history. The covenantal benefit, however, includes nature itself and not just humankind. That is, we tend to make a distinction between nature incorporating the material world and the creatures inhabiting it, leaving history to refer to the realm of human life and activity. The Noachic covenant views matters differently. The natural environment is secured in covenant with human and natural creatures. The covenant with Noah restores and secures the creation for the benefit of the creatures, animal and human. Human treatment of the natural world, therefore, is a matter not only of the attitude toward the creation, but also how humankind receives the promise, which it shares with the animal world.… The Noachic covenant is a guarantee of the created order on God's part but not a license for violence and corruption on the part of the human creature. For such corruption can threaten the creation and its order. Rendtorff has called attention to the phrase in Gen 8:22, ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease,’ and suggested that we can so disturb the earth in lasting fashion that the alternation of day and night, summer and winter, is broken by the permanent night and the permanent winter, what we call ‘nuclear winter,’ and the alternation of cold and heat is broken by the ‘warming’ of the plant, so that the fundamental conditions for God's promise in the Noachic covenant, ‘so long as the earth remains,’ are altered.… But the contrast between the universal/creation and the particular/covenant that is suggested there does not fully reflect the complexity of the way(s) creation and covenant meet in the OT, and especially with regard to Israel and the nations. Here again, the Noachic covenant needs to be taken into account.

The nations are a part of the created order, the outcome of the blessing of God in the completion of creation. The restoration of the creation after the Flood involves also the restoration of humanity as a part of that creation and of the renewal of the blessing (Gen 8:17; 9:1, 7) through the lineage of Noah (Gen 9:19). So also the establishment of covenant with Noah is an establishment of covenant with all of humankind. The text makes this point repeatedly and thus with much emphasis. The universal covenant with humankind as a way of perpetuating and maintaining the creation incorporates the nations of which Israel is a single part.

The nations, therefore, are susceptible to the same divine blessing, mercy, and redemption as is Israel.

The covenant with Noah, therefore, has incorporated the whole creation, including the nations, in the blessing, the compassion, and the redemption of God arising out of the promise to maintain the creation. Mosaic covenant does not stand against that or mark out a special place for Israel. That raises the question, quite naturally, of what that covenant does mean for Israel if the Noachic covenant is the larger framework that both establishes a natural order as the matrix of human and historical existence, and creates the conditions for God's compassionate and redemptive activity to become available for ‘every living creature’. (Miller 1995)

The matter is freshly on the docket among us and requires fresh critical thought that will move beyond conventional ecclesial thinking among Christians. Gersten-berger has made an effort in this direction, though I think not a very effective one. The confessional and contextual Old Testament theology cannot any longer settle for hegemonic or monopolistic assumptions, because the text makes clear that the God-given promise of the ‘other’ characteristically de-absolutizes every absolutizing theological temptation.

3. For all the difficult and potentially disputatious interaction that Christian Old Testament theology may have with other peoples of the Book and with other communities comprehended in the Noachide Covenant, the key issue for time to come, I anticipate, is that all those who find truth mediated through this textual tradition—among them Christians, Jews, and Muslims—will together attest to the mystery of God's holy presence in a world that increasingly understands itself and presents itself in profane ways. That is, sectarian interpretation in any reading community is an ill-afforded luxury when in fact all of these communities of faith that are grounded in the biblical text share kinship that is contrasted with the predominant metanarrative of the emerging world that is marked by technological, therapeutic, military, consumerist values that empty the world of abiding meaning and risky fidelity. Thus Old Testament theology in time to come may be understood as an exposition of a metanarrative—one that is, to be sure, complex and disjunctive—that subverts and offers an alternative to the dominant ideological trajectory of the global economy.

I propose, then, that Old Testament theology be undertaken as a subversive alternative to the dominant, even hegemonic metanarrative of our time. In such a perspective we may usefully recognize that each of the great theological affirmations of the Old Testament is indeed a radically countercultural offer in a flattened world of anti-neighbourly social arrangements:

  • • An affirmation of the Holiness of God who is present in and for the life of the world is a subversive claim against a sociology that imagines a profane world without ultimate meaning beyond human construction.

  • • An affirmation of YHWH as creator who governs, loves, and summons the world is a subversive claim against a world understood mechanically or profanely. Creation faith attests to the hidden, but decisively defining, providential care of God for the world, a claim against an ‘empty sky’ without a giver who gives life beyond our inventiveness.

  • • An affirmation of wisdom as a force for the ordering of the world with its gifts, choices, and limits is a subversive claim against a modern world of self-invention or a post-modern world that lives close to nihilism, a practice that either way evolves without restraints into self-destructiveness and death in the myriad modes of foolishness.

  • • An affirmation of covenant with its stipulations and requirements is a subversive claim against a world of autonomy in which relationships are sustained only by convenience, and not fidelity, in which duty and responsibility are overridden in self-indulgence that devours self, neighbour, and environment.

  • • An affirmation of prophecy with its imaginative power to conjure alternatives in judgement and hope is a subversive claim against the world that has stilled dissent, silenced the poets, and reduced the social processes to monologues among the privileged and powerful.

On all these counts—plus many others that could be added—Old Testament theology in the time to come must attend to a world that is ‘strange and new’, so strange that it will not fit our conventional expectations, so new that its coming is profoundly destabilizing and abrasive. In time to come, the task of Old Testament theology may well be undertaken especially by ‘organic intellectuals’—that is, by those who are concerned to fund and enact the bold practices of specific communities of faith. In so far as that will be the nature of such work in time to come, it is clear that the discipline has moved a long way from any complacent ‘objectivity’. That move, however, will be congruent with the disruption voiced by Karl Barth, who gave impetus and permit for the vigour and ferment of the twentieth-century discipline. As the human community becomes increasingly under threat in the twenty-first century, the urgency of the task critically, canonically, confessionally, and contextually is immense; it awaits fresh and venturesome practitioners.

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