Three Narrative Creeds of the Old Testament (Part 1)


Note: I am playing catch-up with posts. This one is from slightly more than a year ago. It may take a while to prepare part 2.

While I was a student at Canadian Bible College and Canadian Theological Seminary I was privileged to have excellent professors in Theology and Biblical Studies. It is always fun to see what they may be up to years later. This post and the following one  highlight my impressions of a 2013 lecture series by my Old Testament professor: Dr. Mark Boda. This part will try to summarize highlights from the video series on Youtube.

Dr Mark Boda’s Hayford Lecture: Three Pulses of Narrative Theology in the Old Testament 

When it comes to study of the Bible, modern scholars must recognize that they usually stand on the shoulders of giants. Some scholars recognize borrowings from other works in the biblical literature. Others recognize the work of later editors who arranged the material into what is now a “canonical form.”  Yet others take a step back and point out the obvious: the narrative form of most of the Old Testament. 

This last insight has developed into what is now called the study of Narrative Theology, which is what Dr. Boda is becoming increasingly interested in. He says it is important, however, to consider the insights offered by other branches of Old Testament Theology while immersed in the narrative.

An early proponent of a narrative approach was Gerhard von Rad. He noticed a  creedal history of redemption in narrative form, which Dr. Boda shortens to “narrative creed.” Von Rad’s examples of this include Deuteronomy 6:20-25 and Chapter 26, as well as much of the book of Joshua. 

Some portions of scripture look like a canonical form of salvation history in liturgical form, such as Nehemiah 9:5-33.

Another giant who infoms Dr. Boda is Christof Barth, whose Old Testament Theology,   God With Us  takes V Rad’s insights and builds on them.

With their insights and others, Dr. Boda attempts to bulid a coherent framework for Old Testament Narrative Theology. The first step is to notice that there are three heartbeats or pulses that run through the narrative of the Old Testament.

1st pulse: narrative creed

This is the “salvation history” noticed by von Rad. It is part of the overarching story of creation-ancestors-exodus-conquest-exile-restoration-redemption of the Bible. At many points where Israelites are gathered before God, they recite aspects of that story. For instance, as God pronounces the Ten Commandments he reminds them that his is the God “who brought you out of Egypt.” (Ex. 20:2)

As they gather forty years later at the border of the promised land Moses reminds them:

“We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 Before our eyes the LORD sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. 23 But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors. (Deut 6:21)

 A Narrative Creed basically confesses the redemptive action of God. This kind of creed is frequently featured in both Old and New Testaments. They provide an answer to the most important question: What lies at the core of my faith?

 God has acted mightily in the life of Israel to redeem them from slavery. Even in captivity God has acted to redeem his people. We can have confidence that he is well able to act again at the appropriate time.

2nd Pulse: Character Creed

The Old Testament contains a second form of creedal statement. These are statements about the character of God himself. A passage that rehearses the redemptive character of God is found in Ex. 34:6-7. This passage is found in the story of Moses asking to see God’s glory. God allows him to see his back, but not his face as he passes in front of Moses. Notice what God says about himself.

 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” 

 The themes of Exodus 34:6-7 can be found throughout the Psalms, for example.

Psalm 16:5-11 speaks of why David trusts God. It is because of the glory behind God’s personhood. God’s glory is not only about the greatness of his being and power, but especially about the greatness and goodness of his person.

Ps 108:1-4 praises the quality of God’s love, faithfulness and goodness. Ps. 25:7 is a call for forgiveness of sin, based upon God’s self-proclaimed forgiving nature.

 The Prophet Jeremiah, as he predicts the doom of what is left of Israel, repeats almost verbatim the second half of Ex. 34:7 as justification of God’s punishment on the people in Jer. 32:18.

This creed of God’s character – his love, faithfulness and justice is repeated throughout the Old Testament. God’s character is the foundation for both forgiveness and punishment.

3rd pulse: relational creed (confessing redemptive relationship with God)

There are four  covenants that involve Israel in the Old Testament: Abrahamic, Sinai, priestly, Davidic.  All four of these are “eternal” covenants. In Hebrew that is  berith olam.” This shows that these covenants are very important to both God and Israel.

Of these covenants, the Priestly covenant is very important but almost unnoticed by scholars, pastors  and lay people.

A biblical covenant is basically an agreement with obligation (berith) between two parties. Many are made between people in Bible. The usual format concludes with a formula: “I will be your ___ and you will be my ____.”

Similar wordings are found in Exodus 6:7 and Jeremiah 30:22, where God says that he will be Israel’s God and they will be his people.

Within a covenant a relationship is formalized that includes reciprocity, status and  responsibility. Reciprocity means that responsibility and benefit go both ways. It is not a one-sided agreement. Each of the parties has a status in the eyes of the other. for instance God becomes the only God for Israel and Israel becomes God’s favoured people. Both parties agree to a set of principles and duties. As an example, Israel follows God’s laws and commands and God provides for them and protects them against enemies.

We see this for example in Deuteronomy 26

17 You have declared this day that the LORD is your God and that you will walk in obedience to him, that you will keep his decrees, commands and laws—that you will listen to him.

18 And the LORD has declared this day that you are his people, his treasured possession as he promised, and that you are to keep all his commands. 19 He has declared that he will set you in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made and that you will be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.

 

As God introduces himself to Moses in Exodus 6 he reminds Moses of the covenant he made with Abraham and tells Moses that he is about to use Moses to fulfill his promise to Abraham.

2 God also said to Moses, “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty,a but by my name the LORD I did not make myself fully known to them.

4 I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. 5 Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.

6 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. 8 And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.’ ”

God’s declaration, “I am the Lord” is key to all three of the narrative pulses of the Old Testament. Notice that the elements that form the narrative creed, the character creed and the relational creed are all included in the passage above as God moves from ancestors to nationhood in his promises.

 

For Dr. Boda, these pulses are also key to the New Testament

 

1) Elements of the Creed of God’s Redeeming actions can be found in the following passages:

Compare Act 2:11 with Deut. 11:2, which speak of the “mighty works of God.”

Luke 24:1-8, 25-27, which quote passages that state that the Messiah will suffer and be proclaimed.

1 Cor. 15:1-8, 19-26 declare as of first importance the activity of Jesus Christ in atoning for our sin.

 

2) Creed of God’s Character

John 1:14-18, echoing Ex 33-34 with the witness to God’s glory, grace and truth.

2 Cor. 3:7-12 compares the Holy Spirit’s effect in our lives with the glowing in the face of Moses after Moses spends time in God’s presence.

 

3) Creed of Relationship with God

Christ renews all 4 covenants to a whole new level.

Abrahamic  Covenant: In Gal. 3:6-9, 15-18, 24-29 God has promised Abraham more descendants than can be counted, and Jesus includes anyone with the same kind of faith in him as Abraham had as children of Abraham.

National Covenant with Israel: An example is in Matt. 22: 1-10, where Jesus opens up the Kingdom of God to include non-Israelites.

Davidic Covenant:  Compare 2 Cor. 6:14-18  with 2 Sam. 7:14, in which David’s descendants will be considered God’s children. The Corinthians passage calls all who overcome God’s children, radically expanding David’s “family.”

Priestly Covenant: We find examples in 1 Pet. 2:4-10 and Heb. 13:10-16, where Peter calls the assembly of believers a royal priesthood and the writer of Hebrews declares Jesus to be the greatest High Priest of all, who intercedes with God on our behalf with a once-for-all sacrifice that actually atones for all sin.

This last section in Dr. Boda’s lecture about how the three narrative pulses found in the Old Testament continue and are expanded in the New Testament is just a brief overview. I will expand on these and add my own thoughts in the next post.

 

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About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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