Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Theological Center of the Old Testament

Crime and punishment, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; that’s the sort of theology I expect from Deuteronomy. Some would say I lack an appreciation for the subtleties and layers of meaning buried in the context of that book. And so I did. Until I heard Lawrence Boadt speak about the book of Deuteronomy at the Castelot Summer Scripture Series.

I have come to discover that in Deuteronomy there is a theology of repentance and hope; of reconciliation and restoration; that there are the beginnings of the theology of Jesus in this book. Deuteronomy is the beginning of the theology of love.

And that is a message I can embrace archeologically, historically, and theologically.

“Lawrence Boadt,” I said looking over the brochure. “I don’t think I’ve read anything of his. Why does his name sound familiar?”

“Look in the front of your Bible,” said Gloria.

“Ohhhhh. Lawrence Boadt.”

Yes, the man is brilliant. I would first say that Fr. Boadt has a very classical sense of order and style, evidenced by the organization of his notes and outlines. I really like that kind of nerdy intelligence and wry sense of humor he brings to his lectures.

Some of what I learned wasn’t exactly a surprise. Yes, Moses is the narrator, and yes, it was written after Moses died, so no, Moses didn’t write it. If you are shocked by this, take a deep breath. Biblical scholarship is not about undermining faith or truth, but about being open to the deeper message the text is trying to convey to you. So what if Joshua was made up?

So yes, Deuteronomy was written by a variety of authors who edited it and added to it to respond to what was going on around them at their time.

There’s nothing wrong with using a variety of literary forms, including myth, to illustrate a theological truth. To quote the Jewish Rabbi Rami Shapiro, "The transformative power of faith is not rooted in outward signs and historical facts, but in inner awakenings and literary narratives. Only in our day has the human imagination become so degraded as to reduce truth to fact, and myth to falsehood. Only in our day does story pale before history."

Okay, look at Numbers 36:13. “These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.” That’s the last line before the book of Deuteronomy. Now look at Deuteronomy 34:1. “Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan.” Chapter 34 is the last chapter of Deuteronomy. Look at the two sentences again. Num 36:13, then Deut 34:1. It’s the next sentence. They go together. That means everything in between, that is basically all of Deuteronomy, was inserted later as part of the Pentateuch. There are other particularities, such as the use of singular and plural forms, or phrase and theme comparisons with other contemporary writings, which to the trained scholar indicate changes and additions and help to make connections to various times and sources.

But what are the important themes and connections? Well, look at it this way: justice in the ancient world could be very arbitrary and ruthless. Downright nonexistent. When men looked to other men for justice more often than not they did not find it. Only the God of Israel brought justice to the world, and the men who feared Him and followed His laws. The people of Israel were obsessed with justice—and the way to find it was through God, and his prophet Moses. In Deut 4:5-8 Moses said, “See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?”

So justice and righteousness, yes. The punishment attitude was a natural outcome of this evolution of theology to the one God of Israel. Unlike the Greeks or Egyptians who had multiple gods to praise or blame when things went right or wrong, having only one God and struggling with the problem of evil brought people to the idea that when bad things happen it must be because we deserve it; it must be that we did something wrong and we are dominated by sin. But the theology of love is introduced as well—the people of Israel knew God loved them—it appears over and over. God has chosen the people of Israel because he loves them and he offers them justice as they did not have in Egypt: Deut 10:17-19 “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The God of Israel even loves strangers, and commands us to do so as well. The greatest commandment of the people is to love God. The Shema comes out of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41.

And indeed, when Jesus is asked, he singles it out as the greatest commandment. “'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31

Another of the great themes is that of repentance and hope, reconciliation and restoration. God is always faithful. God recompenses for what you lost; just wait, you will be restored. Return to the Lord, return to the covenant. The message is that God will not fail you or forsake you—you may forsake God when you do not follow his commandments, but you can always repent and come back to the Lord. He will never forget you.

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” Deut 30:19

Now, if you view the Commandments through the prism of the Beatitudes, you’re really starting to get it.

Books by Fr. Lawrence Boadt, CSP:
Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction
Why I am a Priest
“Scriptural Exegesis” in Paulist Liturgy Planning Guide, Years A, B and C
And the forthcoming The Life and Missions of St. Paul (2008)
Along with many others.

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