Biblical Theology (OT)

See also Biblical Theology

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY, OT, BASIC CONCEPTS

God

Existence of God.

The OT never argues for the existence of God (unless the Book of Job is so regarded) but assumes it as self-evident truth, necessary to all subsequent rational thought. None but a fool denies it (Ps 14:1). It is no accident that the Bible begins with God (Gen 1:1); and it is characteristic of OT thought that this is assumed as self-evident rather than proved, and introduced in a concrete situation, rather than in the abstract. This, however, is not a question-begging assumption; it corresponds to the modern insight that, if God is anywhere, He is everywhere, and that, since He is the basis of all proof, He is as incapable of proof as proof itself. Thus, as surely as the author of Hebrews, the author of Genesis knows that, to establish any effective communication with God, belief in His existence is a pre-requisite (Heb 11:6). Nor is this a belief that becomes outmoded, as man gradually comes of age, in OT days.

Activity of God.

The Heb. was not interested in proving the existence of God, because bare existence, without responsiveness, was meaningless to him. Again there is a parallel with the thought of Hebrews (11:6). To the Heb., it was the active presence of God that was all-important; indeed, His saving activity followed from His very nature. So to say that YHWH “had visited his people” (Ruth 1:6) is typical of OT thought. When the OT wishes to deny the reality of other gods, it does so by mocking their inability to act in any given situation (1 Kings 18:27). By contrast, the favorite and most binding Heb. oath was by the life of YHWH (1 Kings 18:15) because, to them, His life and activity were the most stable elements of the whole universe. Characteristically, God is not described in abstract terms as dynamic or active, but He is shown as such from the dawn of time, in the creation of the world (Gen 1; 2). Nothing could be further from the so-called “death of God” theology than this buoyant faith of the OT in the God who is eternally living and active.

Personality of God.

It could be argued that this type of saving presence and purposive activity implies from the start at least what among humans is called personality. To attribute this to God is not to limit Him, but simply to describe Him in the highest categories known to man, while at the same time recognizing their inadequacy, as the Heb. certainly did (Isa 55:9). The personality of God is brought out in the OT in several ways. The first is to be found in simple anthropomorphisms, as in Genesis 1:3, 4 (God said, God saw, God separated, God called, etc.). These express, in an unsophisticated way, a deep theological truth—that God is active in every area of being. Israel’s faith knew not so much an anthropomorphic God as theomorphic men, at least in their unfallen state (Gen 1:26). A second way in which the personality of God is stressed is by the continual use of divine names in the OT; of these the great Mosaic title of YHWH is the best known (Exod 3:15), whether used alone or in combination. To the Heb. name is much the same as the modern concept of personality; the modern view that a name is merely accidental noise by which a particular object is signified was foreign to their thought. That is why, in the Ten Commandments, to take YHWH’s name in vain (i.e., to swear falsely by Him) is such a serious crime (Exod 20:7).

Revelation of God.

In our day, God is often described as “the God who acts,” and the theology of the OT is seen as a recital, often by cultic prophets and in the liturgical context of the temple worship, of the saving acts of God. Thus, every act of God from creation onward, is also a revelation.


Nature of God.

This is intimately connected with His revelation, for He shows Himself to be spiritual and moral.

Spiritual.

While the Bible is clear that man has been created in God’s likeness (Gen 1:26) and that God wants to communicate with man (3:9), it never identifies God with part or the whole of the universe that He made; still less does it identify Him either with man or with any of man’s ultimate concerns. God is apart from man, utterly distinct from man, and far transcending him (Isa 55:9). To use the terminology of Genesis, taken up in many parts of the OT, God is spirit, and man is flesh (Gen 6:3). Flesh implies limitation, weakness and transience; because man is a fallen creature, this implies a tendency to sin, although the OT nowhere sees flesh in itself (man considered as a natural creature) as sinful. Spirit is the opposite of all these; but again it is typical of the OT that, great as the gulf is, God can and does span it. God’s spirit can live in man (Gen 6:3) or come upon a man (Judg 11:29).

Because of this belief, it was a natural outcome that, at least from the time of Moses, the worship of Israel was aniconic (Exod 20:4); no material form or shape could be symbol of such a God.

Moral.

Even in the Genesis story, God’s activity is not arbitrary, but morally directed; if man is expelled from paradise, it is as a punishment for sin (Gen 3:23). Blessing and curse are alike morally motivated, for God is morally predictable, unlike the Baals of Canaan (Mal 3:6). This alone makes the continuous process of revelation in the OT possible; otherwise, there would be only a series of disconnected events. With the revelation at Sinai, this becomes even more clear; the ten commandments (to the Heb. the ten words of revelation) are a definition of God in terms of moral concepts, worked out in a pattern of relationships (Exod 20:1-7). The whole of the rest of the OT is a struggle to maintain this, in the face of the non-moral concepts of God held by the pagan nations around Israel.

Covenant


Signs of the covenant.

All such early covenants had some external material symbol associated with them, as visible guarantee of the accompanying promises. The simplest and most general was common salt (2 Chron 13:5) which therefore figures largely in Israel’s sacrificial worship (Lev 2:13). The symbol of Abraham’s covenant was circumcision, binding on all his descendants if they wished to consider themselves in this relationship to YHWH (Gen 17:9-14). It is probable that the older prohibition of the eating of blood (9:4) was likewise embodied in this new covenant; certainly both were retained as signs of the great Sinai Covenant, which so far overshadows the others in Heb. minds that to them it is “the covenant.” In later days, the written deed of contract would be the sign (Jer 32:9-14). Even in earlier days, the law—or more likely, a portion of it—may have had the same significance (Exod 24:7, “the book of the covenant”).

Response to the covenant.

Such covenants, if commercial contracts, might be between equals. The covenant made by YHWH with Abraham, however, was no more a covenant between equals than when a Hitt. overlord graciously accepted under his protection some subject people. YHWH was the initiator; all the promises were His (Gen 12:2, 3), for Abraham was not asked to promise anything in return (contrast the Sinai covenant). All that YHWH demanded from men was trust, and the obedience that expressed it (Gen 12:4). Indeed so important was this “faith-obedience” that, on the basis of it, YHWH freely accepted man with all his imperfections (15:6). This acceptance was to become the root of the great Biblical doctrine of justification by faith. True, Abraham is told to walk before YHWH, and to be blameless (Gen 17:1); but this prob. refers more to single-minded faith than to moral perfection.

The covenant as revelation.


The terms of the covenant.


Choice and the covenant.

While God’s choice of Israel is clear, there is also a sense in which man is called to make a definite choice in response. This is true even in the case of patriarchs; it is abundantly true in the case of Israel, where a definite affirmation of choice is demanded (Exod 24:7). This is reiterated at the various later renewals of the covenant (e.g. Josh 24:24) and therefore seems to be an essential part of it. The one difference is that man’s choice is fickle and erratic, as realized even by OT leaders (Josh 24:19, 20), while God’s is eternal and immutable (Isa 49:15).

Later covenants.

In the OT, though the Sinai covenant was the greatest, it was not the last. Associated with it for example was the Levitical covenant, governing the constitution of the priesthood in Israel (Num 25:13). Growing from the history of the covenant people came the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7), governing the nature of kingship. Even in the darkest days of her history, the knowledge of God’s covenant never left Israel; but there came a deepening of her own consciousness of failure to keep the covenant. Out of this was born the richest concept of the OT. Jeremiah 31:31 proclaims the coming of the “new covenant,” this time inward, not merely outward, and carrying within itself the power to fulfill itself in the hearts of men.

Sacrifice and the covenant.

Covenants, in Israel, were initiated by sacrifice; this is clearest in the case of Abraham (Gen 15:9) and Moses (Exod 24:5). Indeed, the peculiarity of Israel lay not so much in her sacrificial system as in the relation of sacrifice to covenant. All Israel’s sacrifices could be explained as either introducing the covenant, or maintaining the covenant (e.g., sin-offerings), or enjoying the benefits of the covenant and expressing consequent gratitude (whole burntofferings, peace offerings, etc).

God’s presence

Another important area for the understanding of the OT theology is the manner in which God was thought of as living among men. There is no evidence in the Biblical texts for any fixed place of worship in patriarchal days; there is not even evidence for a portable shrine as used during the days of Exodus. Certainly the patriarchs erected altars in any place where a vision, dream, or theophany had convinced them that God was peculiarly present. Jacob’s reaction at Luz is typical (Gen 28:17), when he realizes with awe God’s presence and activity. The standing pillar of stone (later forbidden to Israel, because of its association with Baal worship; Exod 34:13) symbolized God’s presence, and even His dwelling place, as the name Bethel (God’s house) suggests, and as Jacob’s own words indicate (Gen 28:22). In early days before the law, this primitive view was innocent enough.

Symbols of God’s presence.

If God’s presence and saving activity among His people was symbolized by a stone pillar in Jacob’s day, it was symbolized by a tent in the days of the Exodus, and by a temple from the time of Solomon onward. Admittedly, in detail the plan of the later Temple differs from that of the earlier Tabernacle; the point at issue is, however, not the elaborateness and extent of the symbolism but its existence. It is also true that there were less static and more dynamic symbols of the divine presence in such phenomena as the column of the cloud (Exod 33:9), lightning, thunder, storm, darkness, wind, earthquake, bushfire, etc. These, although less exposed to the dangers attendant on static symbols, were at best temporary not permanent. Even the mysterious manifestation referred to in the OT as YHWH’s glory (Exod 16:10), or in later days as the Shekinah, the visible sign of God’s presence, seems to have come under this heading.

Reason for these symbols.

The reason for the choice of these symbols is not hard to see. In fully pastoral-nomadic days, the symbol must be a natural object to mark a spot, so that it can be recognized again when the nomads return. As against this, when the semisettled Israelites left Egypt, they used a portable shrine (as other desert people have been known to do) which resembled the tents that they lived in themselves. The inner division of the Tabernacle seems to correspond to the two familiar divisions of the nomad’s tent, and possibly the outer perimeter corresponds to some kind of stock enclosure. God was thus in either case using a symbol of His presence familiar to daily life. The same could be said of the Temple; when men had lived in tents, God had used the symbol of a holy tent. Now that man lived in houses, God would use the symbol of a holy house (or, more prob., the symbolism of a king’s palace), for this is the true meaning of Heb. הֵיכָל, H2121, (from Sumer. ē-gal, “great house”).

Increasing remoteness of symbolism.

All such symbolism was valuable, expressing the purpose of man’s creation as being fellowship with God. That there were difficulties involved from the start, arising from man’s fallen nature, was clear; this was symbolized by the “bipartite” construction of both tent and temple, denying easy access to God’s presence. It is also well-symbolized by the early Mosaic tradition that YHWH’s meeting tent had been pitched in the middle of Israel’s camp. After the great desert revolt the tent was pitched away from the main camp (Exod 33:7), so that the approach to God was no longer easy for the ordinary man. The same process is prob. to be seen in the development of the professional priesthood. In patriarchal days, there was no such group in Israel; even as late as Sinai, Exodus 24:5 tells of young men sacrificing animals. Later, however, the holiness of God and the sinfulness of men were both underlined not only by the institution of a professional priesthood, but also by a complex ritual of approach to God, even by these men. God could no longer be considered as living in the midst of His people. While Solomon’s Temple was unquestionably more beautiful than all that had gone before, and the ritual more complex, YHWH must now have seemed too lofty to be near the humble Israelite (in spite of prophetic protests, Isa 57:15), just as Solomon was distant from the people in a way which David his father had not been. In the theological realm, this accompanied an increased sense of the majesty and transcendence of God in later Jewish thought (e.g., Ezekiel and Ezra).

Dangers inherent.

In all such symbolism, there are inherent dangers, from which Israel was certainly not free. The first was that of excessive localization of God’s presence, as though, because God was pleased to show His presence particularly in tent or temple, He was therefore restricted to that place. But this was popular theology rather than Biblical teaching (see 1 Sam 26:19 for an example on the lips of David himself) and did little damage, the more so as it was balanced, from very early days, by the complementary truth of the vast gulf between God and man (Gen 6:3).

More serious was the danger of the static symbol becoming a dead symbol. Men began to assume that, if YHWH’s Ark was with them as a physical presence, then YHWH Himself was of necessity with them. The disaster at Aphek should have taught them wisdom (1 Sam 4:11), but Israel was slow to learn. Shiloh too must fall before they could realize that even YHWH’s Tabernacle did not give an automatic guarantee of His presence, despite the sin of His people. The fall of Shiloh was long remembered (Ps 78:60; Jer 7:12), but the prophets had to bring the same teaching with reference to the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem (Mic 3:12). Had this form of symbolism then outrun its usefulness? Not only had it been abused; men realized more and more its inadequacy (1 Kings 8:27). How could YHWH, the great creator-God, live in a house made by human workmen? But, if this be abandoned, how could God’s saving presence among His people be symbolized?

The new symbolism.

When God created unfallen man, He created him in His own image; mankind himself was then the visible sign of God’s presence in the universe that God had made, and man could freely enjoy fellowship with God. Even when this image was marred, the new type of kingship at least gave some human analogy by which certain aspects of God’s being could be understood. In view of the promises associated with the line of David (2 Sam 7:11-16), this was even more true. At the time it was recognized that YHWH could not be restricted to a building, and at the moment when the abuses of the static symbol were at their worst, Isaiah 7:14 contains the promise that a child will yet be born, a descendant of David, whose name will be Immanuel—God in the very midst. Now at last the cycle is complete. At the first, God had shown His likeness to men in unfallen man; at the last, God would live among men by becoming a man. No wonder that when He did, tent and temple passed away forever.

King

Kingship of YHWH.

Like all other Biblical concepts, kingship is not to be studied in the abstract, but as actualized in various kings. Similarly, in early days, the rule of God is not so much stated as exemplified and actualized. God creates man “in his own image” and therefore to share in His dominion (Gen 1:26). Genesis 14:18-22 shows recognition of the rule of God (El Elyon) both by Jebusite Melchizedek and Heb. Abraham. No doubt the concept of divine kingship was widespread if not universal, as the various words used for God in the small Sem. nations round about show (e.g., Milcom, Molech; 1 Kings 11:5-7), all being variants of the word for king. This kingship of God, implicit in patriarchal days, became explicit with the formation of Israel as a nation. The 13th cent. Oracles of Balaam presuppose this (Num 23:21 and 24:7). Deuteronomy 33:5 describes the Mosaic covenant as “thus YHWH became king in Jeshurun” (this occurs in an archaic poem, the Blessing of Moses). This also is the origin of the oftrepeated refrain in the Psalter, “YHWH is king” (Ps 10:16, etc.). The thought of human kingship (Judg 8:23) brought horror to the pious Israelite. All kingship in the OT is ultimately to be understood in terms of, and in relation to, the ultimate kingship of God.

Human kingship.


Nature of kingship.


Failure of kingship.

Saul was not this ideal king; the type had failed. David came nearer to it. He could be described as a man whose heart was like YHWH’s (1 Sam 13:14), but even David’s later days were clouded with failure. There was always the hope that a descendant of David would succeed where he had failed. This was reinforced by God’s promise (2 Sam 7:12-16). When David’s brilliant son Solomon ascended the throne, it must have seemed to many that the ideal type of kingship had come, esp. in view of Solomon’s association with the Temple at Jerusalem, and the part that he took in the worship there. Perhaps it was therefore at this time that Israel’s poets began to use, of the earthly king, language that was really only appropriate to the divine king, of whom he was a type (e.g., Ps 72). But soon the people were disillusioned, and the kingdom divided. As king succeeded king in Judah (always of David’s line) such hopes were again and again disappointed, although not completely dashed. It was not to be; in inter-testamental days, kingship passed altogether from David’s house.

Fulfillment of kingship.

Yet this failure of earthly kingship to realize the ideal, as shown in the OT, was fruitful theologically. Israel was forced to turn from the literal fulfillment to the hope of a spiritual one, though still associated with the name and family of David. What is sometimes called the Messianic hope is nothing more than the mutation of this theme; and since in the Psalter, this ideal Davidic king was also called Son of God (Ps 2:7), the roots of NT Christology are plainly visible. There was yet another level at which kingship was to find a spiritual fulfillment, and that was the area of priesthood. The connection of Israel’s king with covenant and Temple has been noted. If justification for his quasipriestly status was to be sought, it was found in the figure of the old Jebusite priest-king, Melchizedek (Gen 14:18 and Ps 110:4). In Christian thought, this too was fulfilled in the eternal high-priesthood of Christ, the theme of Hebrews.

Bibliography

L. Koehler, OT Theology (1957); T. C. Vriezen, An Outline of OT Theology (1958); G. E. Wright and D. N. Freedman (ed.), The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, 145-184, “The Significance of the Temple in the Ancient Near East” (1961); R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961); W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT (1961); Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (1961).