Thus says the Lord.
The Old Testament is a story. It is an expression of the full range of human emotions from exalted or passionate love to bitterest hate. The story has been narrated and written in prose and poetry, song and hymn, liturgy and prayer; it uses allegory, humor, irony, hyperbole, and all other devices to convey its meaning.
It is the story of a people — ancient Israel’s history over a period of some fifteen hundred years. But it is not merely a record of the past, for as the people of Israel told and wrote the story it was continuously re-created as a commentary on the meaning of Israel and the life of its people. Although the events related took place in the centuries long before our era, the meaning Israel found in her own history has had persistent relevance to all subsequent human existence, not only to Judaism but to Islam and Christianity.
It has been common to label the Old Testament as literature, history, or theology, but it is all three and cannot be categorized so simply as to its purpose and form. It offers examples of consummate literary skill; parts can be ranked with the best of the contemporary ancient histories; and nowhere else in all the world’s literature and history is God so consistently and passionately the center of action and contemplation.
But to call the Old Testament literature is to obscure its relationship to the life and faith of a people. The term literature conveys the impression of a single individual independently creating in his own art form. The Old Testament is the product of many individuals using many forms, and the content must be identified not merely with individuals but with an entire people and their faith, for the Old Testament developed out of a spoken “literature,” much of it anonymously, corporately, and even spontaneously formed.
To call the Old Testament history distorts its true character, if we think of history as simply a record of the past. Thomas Mann said of myth that, “It is, it always is, however much we may say, it was.” And history, too, is recounted and compiled not simply for its “wasness” but for its “isness.” A record of the past for its own sake, a past that is not continuous with the present or that has no meaning for the present, is a denial of the true character of history. The Old Testament was created to give expression to a people’s self-understanding, to convey the meaning of their existence. The event of the past evokes little interest in itself, but is recorded as a clue to the meaning of the present.
Old Testament history is even further removed from the rubric of history by the emphasis on the event as a witness in Israel to the one in whom all life has meaning, to whom belong the earth and its fulness, the world, and they who inhabit it. Ancient Israel takes for granted in her story that the determinative factor in all human events and in all creation is outside and above event and time. There is no history merely of men and events, since these are determined by the impingement of God’s life and will on the plane of human history. Thus the Old Testament remains essentially existential and suprahistorical.
Then why not give the Old Testament the primary designation of theology? Even here the emphasis may be misleading. The term suggests a self-conscious preoccupation with the discipline of one “science” or with one organization of reality as opposed to others. In the Old Testament there is no “other.” Our distinctions, with their common connotations, of mind and soul, secular and religious, would be incomprehensible in ancient Israel with her prevailing emphasis on the oneness of personality and experience. Man is God’s creature, inhabiting his world, subject to his laws. When the total category of experience is theological, the use of the term becomes misleading.
Thus the Old Testament is literature, history, and theology, and more than these three. Based on faith in the knowledge of God, it is a story of ancient Israel’s life as given form, coherence, and meaning by the life and purpose and power of God — by what the story characteristically calls the Word of God.
The Framework of the Story
The story of the people and the Word tends to group its varied events and numerous components, spanning two thousand years, around four central events, each one radically affecting Israel and, always at least implicitly, the world as well. Each of the four events is seen as a disclosure of the nature and purpose of God acting through the instrument of his Word. Three events are concrete. They occur and are treated in the story in detail from anticipation to realization to reflection.
The first event is the exodus from Egypt. The nucleus of this event is the actual escape of a group of slaves from Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C. But the total event also included the expansive prelude (composed in its final form in full knowledge of the event) and the more expansive sequel, the consequences of the exodus leading finally to the settlement and domination of a new land.
The exodus found a brief “confessional” formulation very early in Israel’s life as a people. “Confessional” is used here in an affirmative sense, as a declaration of faith and recitation of firm belief:
“We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers. (Deut. 6:21-23)
A similar credo appears in Deuteronomy 26:5-9, with only one significant difference. The second credo begins, rather than ends, with reference to the fathers of Israel, the Patriarchs, and therefore more closely retains the present form contained in the first six books of the Old Testament, from Genesis to Joshua.
A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
These are two forms of Israel’s earliest credo. Both forms had wide and continued use at Israel’s sanctuaries as a confession of faith defining Israel’s existence as the purposive creation of God and her present relatively secure environment as his gift to her. (A third, longer variation of the same essential confession of God’s crucial relationship to this event appears in Joshua 24.) The credo constitutes a Hexateuch in miniature (Genesis to Joshua), and provided the original nucleus and outline for the centuries-long process of the production and completion of the Hexateuch.1
The second central event of the Old Testament story is the establishment of the monarchy under David in Jerusalem. If, for the sake of creating convenient chronological pegs, we center the total exodus event in the date 1200 B.C., we can date the David-Jerusalem (or David-Zion) event about 1000 B.C. Saul, from one of the northern tribes in the confederation of Israelite tribes, formed an uneasy and incomplete monarchy in Palestine in the eleventh century B.C. with the help of the prophet-priest Samuel. But it was David, of the southern tribe of Judah, who completed the consolidation and organization of the tribes and took the last hostile Canaanite fortress city, Jerusalem, with its hill of Zion. The actions of David’s son Solomon led to the tragic division of the monarchy with the original tribes seceding from the union with Judah and the Davidic monarchy. The Kingdom of Judah no doubt continued to acknowledge the event of the exodus, but the David-Zion event was celebrated more prominently, and sometimes exclusively, as the primary, creative event by which God indicated his purposive choice and election of his people and in which he established an indestructible covenant.
The David-Zion event was also given expression in the cultus, that is, in the liturgies of the Jerusalem temple which Solomon built upon the hill of Zion. The Lord:
. . .rejected the tent of Joseph,
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;2
but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves.
He built his sanctuary like the high heavens,
like the earth, which he has founded for ever.
He chose David his servant,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the ewes that had young he brought him
to be the shepherd of Jacob his people,
of Israel his inheritance.
The Psalm does not question the relationship of David and Mount Zion to all Israel3 In its moods of deepest despair, the Old Testament story finds hope for the future of all Israel in the certainty that God would realize his purpose in the David-Zion covenant with the re-establishment of that rule in some form.
I will establish his line for ever
and his throne as the days of the heavens.
I will not violate my covenant,
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
His line shall endure for ever,
his throne as long as the sun before me.
(Ps. 89:29 ff.)
The third dominating event represents the Word of God effecting harsh judgment in the apparent demise of all Israel. The northern segment of the severed monarchy suffers political execution at the hands of Assyria in the last quarter of the eighth century B.C., and Judah at the hands of resurgent Babylon in the first quarter of the sixth century B.C. In prophetic utterance of that time and in later cultic liturgy, the catastrophe was deemed to be (no less than exodus or Zion) the disclosure and effects of God’s will and power.
Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel,
“Because you despise this word,
and trust in oppression and perverseness,
and rely on them;
therefore this iniquity shall be to you
like a break in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse,
whose crash comes suddenly, in an instant;
and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel
which is smashed so ruthlessly
that among its fragments not a sherd is found
with which to take fire from the hearth,
or to dip up water out of the cistern.”
In cultic language, the event is recalled in abject misery in the same Psalm which extols the grace of God in the David-Zion covenant:
Thou hast renounced the covenant with thy servant;
thou hast defiled his crown in the dust.
Thou hast breached all his walls;
thou hast laid his stronghold in ruins.
All that pass by despoil him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
Thou hast exalted the right hand of his foes;
thou hast made all his enemies rejoice.
How long, O Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself for ever?
How long wilt thy wrath burn like fire?
(Ps. 89:39 ff.)
The fourth event is and is not a concrete event. It is of an elusive nature. When the story appears ready to identify and affirm this fourth event, it dissipates as event and any affirmative word in the story is projected into the future. The fourth event is concerned with fulfillment, completion, consummation. If God acted and covenanted with Israel with grace and steadfast love in the events of exodus and Zion; if, in order to purify rather than to punish Israel, he put her through the furnace;4 what and when is the end of all this? If this is the story of Israel and the Word, what has this to do with the world? What of the promise, even expectation, of Israel’s blessing to the world? What of the covenant with Israel and the world that cannot really be broken? What of healing, God’s healing — the healing of hate, bitterness, animosity, alienation, hostility, fear, terror, anguish? Can this be the end — a broken Israel in a broken world, with a broken God?
The fourth event never quite comes. Israel’s existence as a political, though not autonomous, entity is re-established in the closing decades of the sixth century B.C., and for a brief moment the event of reconstitution is hailed with eloquent rapture as the fulfilling event (Isa. 40 ff.). And yet at the same time this particular identification of the event is rejected.
Still this undefined consummation remains. It is affirmed in prophetic faith-knowledge even before the third event — the purification. The Word of fulfillment has been spoken:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither hut water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I propose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
And what is the nature of the event? The blessing of the families of the earth (Gen. 12: 3). A man “upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isa. 9:7). The healing of the world’s internal estrangements (Isaiah 11:6-9). The bridging of the chasm between God and man in a redefined and re-created covenant (Jer. 31:31 ff.). The restoration of God’s creation of man symbolized and allegorized in the words:
In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”
And, equally incredibly, the cessation of all fear:
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and none shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
(Mic. 4:2 ff)5
Will this fourth event occur? Can it have real existence in any meaningful form? Is there a real sense in which the fourth event was and is accessible? Has the fourth event an “isness” as well as a “to-be-ness”? The Old Testament answers with a powerful affirmative. If the fourth event is only the stuff of dreams, the three preceding events around which the whole story revolves are meaningless, and the God who speaks and in speaking acts in these events is not only dead — he never was.
1. This view of the relationship between credo and Hexateuch originated with G. von Rad in his Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuch, Munich, 1958, pp. 9 ff. Also see von Rad’s Genesis, trans. J. Marks (From Das Erste Buck Mose, in the series Das Alte Testament Deutsch, vol. II) Philadelphia, 1961, pp. 13 ff.; and M. Noth, Ueberlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien, Tubingen, 1943, pp. 180-182.
2. Joseph and Ephraim represent the tribes of the seceding North.
3. Cf. Ps. 132 and Ezek. 34:23 f.
4. Cf. Isa. 1:25.
5. Cf. Isa. 2:2-4.