Soulen-Irenaeus and the wrong turn

In The God of Israel and Christian Theology, R. Kendall Soulen often talks about “the standard canonical narrative.” This is the way Christian thinkers have told the biblical story since the second century. Soulen thinks this standard narrative is flawed.

Two biblical themes are the consummation of creation and the redemption of creation. God created the world and started a history with humankind moving toward fulfillment or consummation. The election of Israel was a part of this consummation history. However, because human sin frustrated the movement toward consummation, a second motif of redemption entered in.

Christian theology usually focuses on redemption. It tells the story of Christ as redeemer. Soulen believes that in the process it has demoted the theme of consummation. While downplaying consummation history in favor of salvation history, theology has also displaced Israel.

He traces this wrong turn to the second century. He talks about the church patriarchs Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. I have called Irenaeus my favorite church father and know a little about him. So I will concentrate on what Soulen says about him.

Before the time of Irenaeus the Christian Bible had been the Torah and the other scriptures of Israel. But by his time Christians had an additional official list of books: what we call the New Testament. The great task of Irenaeus, in the face of the separation of the gentile church from Judaism and the rise of gnostic teachers, was to tell a new story based on this twofold canon.

The gnostics were telling a story in which the God of Israel was inferior. In fact, in their story, Jesus saved mankind from the God of Israel and his material creation.

Over against this, Irenaeus affirmed that the God of Israel and the God of Jesus were the same God. Also, he affirmed goodness of creation. Irenaeus said God had created the world with the consummation of men and women in mind. He made us in his image, which Irenaeus conceived as something we had to grow and mature into. So the consummation involved humans becoming beings fit for companionship with God.

The fall of Adam, however, created a breach in the plan of God. We now needed to be saved and there was nothing we could do to save ourselves. So Irenaeus conceived Jesus as Adam in reverse, undoing the damage to the image of God that Adam had done. He also saw the church as taking up Christ’s work of “recapitulation”, undoing Adam’s fall.

This story was a powerful help for the church that was opposing the gnostics.

Nevertheless, Soulen says it was flawed in that it bypassed the heart of the scripture, which was God’s covenant with Israel.

Irenaeus was a kind of dispensationalist. He saw Israel as part of a dispensation that prepared the world for Christ. The actual coming of Christ ended that dispensation and the world moved on. “Israel serves as a training ground for salvation” (p. 46).

The whole idea of an Old and a New Testament goes back to Irenaeus. These terms name, not just two parts of the Bible, but entrench “economic supersessionism”: the idea that salvation history progresses from one divine “economy” to another, and that the new economy fulfills and ends the old one.

So there are two sides to Irenaeus in Soulen’s view.

There is the negative side in which he discarded Israel as part of the past and tended to apply the Hebrew Scriptures narrowly to the problem of sin and salvation. This lent itself to individualistic interpretations and a “flight from history” (p. 54).

But there is the positive side in which he recognized and promoted the idea that creation’s original goal was the consummation of humanity. Soulen will build on that positive side.

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Soulen-Jews and Christians beyond PC

I am re-reading R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology.

Soulen makes four preliminary points to his alternative to replacement theology.

First, he says that the motive for opposing such theology must have to do with theological truth. It has to come from more than just a Christian recoiling from the past treatment of Jews.

Second, he says that in order to discuss the problem, we have to have a serious conversation with Jewish theology. Here he finds most helpful the work of the late Orthodox Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod. I have a post about Wyschogrod here.

Wyschogrod treated the difference between Jews and Christians concerning the incarnation of Jesus as a difference about the story they each tell about the same God. Christians include the story of the incarnation.  Jews do not. But we are talking about the same God and the same underlying narrative.

Third, since the difference between us is about the stories told, Soulen says that the place to look for context is the “narrative unity of the Christian Bible” (p. 4).

Fourth, he says that a critique of replacement theology will look at how it creates a double distortion in the Christian mind. It tends to make Israel more foreign to Christianity than it should be. But it also has messed up the Christian imagination in other ways. He points to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as believing that alienation from Hebrew Scriptures has twisted Christian theology toward metaphysical and individualistic visions that do not reflect the biblical narrative.

We will get into the second, third and fourth of these in much more detail as we go through the book. But I want to state here my strong agreement with the first point: that opposing supersessionism or replacement theology is not just about “theological reparations” (p.5).

Today we classify a lot of things under identity politics and political correctness.

For instance, we are more sensitive—as we should be—about the way we speak of black citizens in the USA. Behind this is the history of slavery and segregation. We take the affliction imposed upon the slaves into account in our treatment of their descendants.

There is a somewhat justified backlash to the extremes to which political correctness has gone. Some people too readily volunteer for the amateur thought police.

I have been accused of unwarranted political correctness because I stopped using A. D. as a designation for dates. A. D. refers to a Latin phrase for the “year of our Lord”. So it has seemed insensitive to those for whom Jesus is not called Lord, particularly Jews.  Also, I write of the Hebrew Scriptures instead of the Old Testament.

One way to approach this would be to say that we owe the Jews new sensitivity because of the horrors of the Holocaust, just as we owe blacks sensitivity because of slavery.

It is not bad to take history into account.

But there is always the suspicion that we change the way we speak just to signal virtue and avoid giving offense. If it was just about political correctness, I would probably rebel against dropping A. D. too. For better or worse, there are limits to what I do to avoid giving offense.

However, in the case of Israel there is a truth that goes behind the division of time into before and after Christ. There is certainly a pragmatic division of history there. But I do not want to imply that the God of the Jews is different from the God of Christians.

We can fully acknowledge Christian (and human) guilt in regard to the Holocaust and antisemitism. Theology, though, is about truth, not making amends.

I am afraid this point will sound callous to some. So let me put it in terms of a true story. Near the end of World War II at a German POW camp, the commander ordered Master Sergeant Roderick Edmonds, the senior non-commissioned officer in charge of American POWs, to assemble all the Jewish prisoners so they could be separated.

But Edmonds assembled all 1,275 American POWs, among whom were about 200 Jews. The commander held a pistol to Edmonds head and demanded that he point out the American Jews. According to the Wikapedia article:

Edmonds responded “We are all Jews here,”—and told the commandant that if he wanted to shoot the Jews he’d have to shoot all of the prisoners. Edmonds then warned the commandant that if he harmed any of Edmonds’ men, the commandant would be investigated and prosecuted for war crimes after the conflict ended—since the Geneva Conventions required prisoners to give only their name, rank, and serial number; religion was not required. The commandant backed down.

Edmonds was a Baptist.  But, “we are all Jews here”. This was a truth that came before the Holocaust. That a Christian shares a story and identity with a Jew is the theological truth that is much more profound than identity politics.

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Soulen-Israel’s God for Christians

A book I read more than a decade ago has had a profound influence on me. It is R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology. However, I loaned my copy to somebody or somehow left it behind in one of my moves from interim ministry to interim ministry. Anyway my copy has been missing for a long time.

I have watched to see if it would come out in Kindle format. I have been trying to declutter my house by getting books in electronic format whenever possible. But I have finally given up and ordered a new dead-tree copy.

Some years ago I blogged through the first tome of Soulen’s work on the names of God, beginning here. My mind is more oriented toward the concrete than the abstract, so I often have a hard time with theoretical theology. I struggled to grasp Soulen’s trinitarian thought in that book.

But I do not remember being so much out of my depth in the other book. My next reading project is to revisit The God of Israel and Christian Theology. The book presents an alternative to the displacement of Israel in so much Christian theology–what is sometimes called supersessionism.

Without yet drawing on Soulen, let me give you a few paragraphs about why this seems so important to me.

Most of us gentiles have a Christian heritage that goes back so far that we forget that our ethnic forbears were pagan. In my case, most of them were northern European. Odin was their high god and in the spring they had a festival to the goddess Ostera (Easter). They believed their lives were ruled by fate and capricious deities. But they tried to assert some control through ceremonies and sacrifices, including bloody sacrifices of prisoners of war, according to the Greco/Roman, Strabo.

But all gentile Christians are like the biblical character, Ruth. She turned away from her Moabite worship of Chemosh and told the Hebrew, Naomi, “your God will become my God” (Ruth 1:16).

All Christians, in effect, tell the Jewish people what Ruth told Naomi.  But often we have not come to terms with it. You can see this in the many cases where Christians disparage “the God of the Old Testament” as though a different deity than the God of Jesus.

So, like all gentile Christians, I have turned away from my own heritage and adopted one that is very foreign and that arose in a place and culture very far from my own.

In order to avoid a superficial and watered down version of Christianity, I think it is important to struggle with how dependent my faith is on Judaism.

It may take me a few days to get far enough into rereading Soulen to begin writing.

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An interesting dig that does not yet prove anything

In the last few weeks I have seen a proliferation of articles in the popular Christian press suggesting that new evidence of the exodus may have been found. See here, here and here. So I looked for the sources of the stories.

There is, indeed, something behind this. Archeologists Ralph K. Hawkins and David Ben-Shlomo have been digging at a place called Khirbet el Mastarah in the waterless hills over the Jordan valley about 4 miles north of Jericho. Hawkins explains how the late Adam Zertal told him that this would be an important place to dig in connection with the Hebrew origins (see here). Zertal spent 30 years doing a surface survey of a huge swath of the west bank in Israel.

Hawkins presents the finds at the site as possibly contradicting the widespread view today that the Israelites were Canaanites who moved into the hills. His team has apparently uncovered at Khirbet el Mastarah, a temporary early Iron Age settlement of nomadic sheep or cattle herders.

There are stone enclosures.

But all the pottery pieces have been found outside these enclosures. This suggests that the stone structures were corrals for animals and that the people lived in tents in the vicinity. That is similar to the way Bedouins have often lived.

Hawkins speculates that this corresponds to the picture in the Bible of early nomadic Israelites camping in eastern Manasseh near Jericho and then moving into the highlands where they settled and built villages.

All of this is preliminary. The dating of the site is not settled yet. The connection with the exodus in the popular press goes beyond what Hawkins and Ben-Shlomo are claiming. There is nothing in their finds to connect the nomads with Egypt.

See here for a summary of the Khirbet el Mastarah project without the speculation.

So, although, this may prove to be an important find, the apologists should cool it.

One of the things to note that, for me at least, gives weight to this project is that it may connect with the boom in villages in the central highlands in the early Iron Age. This is the period of the decline of Egyptian power in Canaan—the power vacuum that probably made the rise of Israel possible.

However, apologists for an inerrant Bible often argue that the exodus and conquest took place centuries earlier than this. If that is the case, then Khirbet el Mastarah is irrelevant.

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Were Rachel and Leah married to the same man?

Rachel means ewe and Leah means cow. There have been jokes about how Leah’s name reflected on her attractiveness. There might be something there. In the story Jacob is much more attracted to Rachel. But the story is the product of skillful, popular storytelling. Many scholars have argued that the underlying meaning is that Rachel was the mother of shepherd tribes and Leah the mother of cattleman tribes.

There does seem to be a social and geographical difference between the primary Leah tribes and the Rachel tribes. The primary Leah tribes,; Reuben, Judah, Simeon and Levi; are southern. They are the only tribes listed in Exodus 6 as being in Egypt with Moses. Jacob was supposed to be buried near Hebron. The Rachel tribes of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin are more northern. Joseph had a different relation to Egypt. Joseph’s tomb was near Shechem.  The stories about Jacob, Rachel and Leah are in Genesis 29 ff.

In what I take as the oldest account of a league of tribes in Judges 5, the Rachel tribes are there, although Manasseh doesn’t appear as a separate tribe. Of the Leah tribes only Reuben appears. Judah, Simeon and Levi are absent.

One proposal has been that storytellers early on conflated the history of two patriarchs. Jacob and Israel were not two different names for the same figure. They were names for different men. When the story of the league of tribes got told the storytellers told of one figure who fathered the tribes with two wives and two handmaidens.

Of course, some modern scholars say that the patriarchs are all mythical figures. They were just invented by the storytellers.

But I think that the stories we have arose as sanctuary traditions. Some of the sanctuaries were connected to graves. In other words, the sanctuary traditions likely go back to real men and women who were buried and remembered in a kind of ancestor cult.

Genesis 49:30-31 says that the patriarchs and their wives all were buried in a cave in the Hebron hills. It only mentions Leah being buried there with Jacob. Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, who died in childbirth had a well-remembered tomb near Bethlehem. Now Bethlehem is not that far from Hebron. The storytellers have Jacob brought all the way from Egypt to be buried near Hebron. But Rachel, buried just a few miles away, does not get buried next to her husband?

This strongly indicates that Rachel had a different husband. Rachel was the wife of Israel. Leah was the wife of Jacob.

So it looks like Rachel and Leah may have had simpler love lives than the current story in Genesis reflects. However, there are other factors to take into account.

First of all, I am not sure that the Hebron sanctuary tradition is accurate about where Jacob was buried. Perhaps other patriarchs were buried there, so they just added Jacob to their claims. The route of Jacob’s funeral caravan from Egypt goes into the Transjordan (Genesis 50:10). This makes no sense as a route to Hebron. So perhaps Jacob was actually buried across the Jordan. Or we may have no idea where Jacob was buried because we just have hints that both a sanctuary across the Jordan (the one at Nebo that Mesha of Moab claimed to destroy?) and near Hebron claimed his tomb.

Second, the conflation of Jacob and Israel must have happened very early. Just Israel is mentioned in the Mernephah Stele  (about -1209) and the Song of Deborah (probably before -1150). But in the old northern texts such as Hosea 12:12 and the Psalm 81:4, Israel and Jacob mean the same thing.

I wish we knew more about the sanctuaries and priesthoods before the monarchy at Hebron, Shechem and Nebo. Also Bethlehem gets mentioned in Judges more than once in connection with Levites. Tending to the tombs of ancestors was a priestly function, so the Levites at Bethlehem may have looked after the tomb of Rachel.

The oldest traditions about the patriarchs probably got passed on in connection with these tombs by these priests. The traditions from Hebron held priority because Hebron priests took over Solomon’s Temple.

A while back, I wrote about Igor Lipovsky’s book, Early Israelites: Two Peoples, One History. He correctly saw the Bible written from a Judah-centric perspective that required much of the Bronze Age history of the northern tribes (the sons of Israel) to go away. While I did not agree with his use of the Amarna age Habiru soldiers-for-hire to fill in the gap, I do think there is something to his theory.

It is pretty clear the Leah and Rachel tribal groups had different experiences with Egypt. Beyond that, I so far have only found hints and traces of the tribes in the Bronze Age. Maybe if we finally find the library at Hazor. . . .

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Gary Rendsburg and the sons of Jacob

Gary Rendsburg is a scholar of Hebrew linguistics who collaborated with Cyrus H. Gordon on a book in the 1990s, The Bible and the Ancient Near East.

(Gordon is an enigma. He was brilliant. He worked in the army as a cryptographer during World War II. He helped to crack Nazi codes. This skill he brought to the study of ancient history by helping to decipher the Minoan Linear A language. He also studied in the original languages the texts discovered at Ugarit, Ebla, and Nuzi and the Amarna letters. But when he sought to synthesize it all, he proposed some very unlikely theories. He became close friends with John Phillip Cohane, who held even more unlikely theories.)

One of the interesting things Gordon and Rendsburg proposed was to take the genealogies of the Bible seriously.

Many conservatives calculate the dates of the patriarchs or the exodus using the statements in the Bible about how many years the Hebrews were in Egypt or how many years elapsed between the Exodus and Solomon. Many critical scholars find these dates impossible. They distrust any biblical information and look only for dates that other sources corroborate.

But Gordon and Rendsburg accepted the biblical genealogies, while distrusting the year reckonings. By calculating from the geneologies, they dated Abraham to -1385 (p. 112 of The Bible and the Ancient Near East). This would make the Amarna period the age of the patriarchs.

I recently came upon Rendsburg’s supporting essay for this view: “The Internal Consistency and Historical Reliability of the Biblical Genealogies” (PDF here).

He claims that if you take the genealogy of Moses in Exodus 6 and plug it in with the genealogies of other major figures, you get a consistent timeline. The only anomaly is the genealogy of Joshua in 1 Chronicles 7:20-27. I have written before about how old and odd that genealogy is. I see signs that it is really old and perhaps reliable. However, Rendsburg dismisses it as confused and out of line with the rest of our genealogical information.

But there is another way to see it. The schema of Jacob and his twelve sons is artificial. The primary narrative of the Bible built itself around that schema and the genealogies got sculpted to fit. Perhaps that is why they are consistent. Perhaps 1 Chronicles 7:21-24 slipped through as an oversight.

Nevertheless, Rendsburg’s use of the genealogies rather than the year reckonings is suggestive. The genealogies may have been fitted to a narrative. But they probably were not made up out of thin air. The genealogy of David in Ruth 4:18-22 includes Nahshon, who was supposedly a participant in the Exodus. If you calculate back from our best guess for the time of David, you get a date around -1200. for Nahshon. This, incidentally, is near the end of Egypt’s 19th dynasty. That is where I would put the Exodus.

Although Rendsburg sees the patriarchs as historical figures, he recognized that the schema of twelve tribes descended from a single patriarch was not completely historical. He sees two sets of sons of Jacob. Those born early to Leah and Rachel represent historical reality.

Early Israel consisted of twelve tribes each of which had an eponymous ancestor. Six of these ancestors were the sons of one man, the patriarch Jacob, who in turn was the son and grandson of the patriarchs Isaac and Abraham. Certainly, not every member of these tribes could trace a direct lineage back to Jacob, but the leaders of the tribes presumably could. To this group little by little other non-related tribes began to link themselves, so that by the time of the Judges they were twelve in number. These tribes, even their leaders, could not claim descent from Jacob, and accordingly their eponymous ancestors play no part in the stories about the patriarch. But their eponymous ancestors were depicted as sons of Jacob, albeit in the reduced role of the handmaidens’ offspring or as a second set produced by Leah. Once the league was fully established, material such as Gen. xxix 31-xxx 24, xlvi 8-25; Exod. i 1-5, etc., was formulated and the result was Israel’s idealized or schematized history as presented in the Bible (p. 204).

I am not certain that the twelve tribes even go back to the time of the Judges. But Rendsburg’s idea is interesting. I will present a little more radical idea in my next post.

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Allison-God over wishful thinking

I have read Dale Allison’s Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things. There are three aspects of his book that he mentions right at the end.

The first is historical. At various places he has surveyed what Jews and Christians have said over the centuries about death, heaven and hell. He has set this over against what is the major perspective in the modern West. That perspective is skepticism based on the idea that our thoughts about life after death come from projection or wishful thinking.

The second aspect is the argument that today’s Christians, especially in mainline Protestant denominations, should not allow the modern perspective to muzzle us concerning Christian hope. In popular culture the discussion is very much alive, whether you think of evangelicals who talk about the rapture or ideas that arise from Near Death Experiences or Eastern religions.

The third aspect is the way we may use imagination to deal with the unknown. This is necessary because in all humility we have to recognize that we really do not know much about the life to come.

One of the reviews of this book on Amazon claims that Allison does not give any reasons for believing in life after death at all—that it is all just a leap of faith.

That is not the way I read Allison. He is a historical-Jesus scholar who takes a relatively conservative position on the historicity of the gospels. Although he knows the constraints on using the resurrection accounts as proofs, he also knows that there is more to those accounts than projection.

More than that, he believes in God because the reality of God impinges upon him in silence and darkness and the experiences of community and worship.–even in some mysterious religious experiences. Once you believe in a God who is stronger than death, I think you see the resurrection accounts and the whole question of life after death in a less skeptical light.

Even the New Testament knows that we do not know any details about life after death. “What we will be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2). So I do not fault Allison for his appeal to imagination.

I know a little about the ancient Egyptians who used their imaginations to say a lot about life after death. Of course, they tied it all to their many gods. But the basis for their imaginings and speculations consisted of their experience of life.

They basically used two this-worldly experiences. They used their experience of the river that nourished their lives and gave them a means of moving up and down their land. They imagined life as a river that eventually carried them away from their familiar world into a new one.

But their other experience was more universal. They observed the sun rising and setting each day. Night came. But every morning the sun rose again. This is also the fundamental image that we see with Allison. Night comes. . .but what then?

Every night we go to sleep with a certain trust that we will wake to a new dawn. I recently saw the children’s movie, Peter Rabbit. It is amusing that the rooster in the movie who rises and crows with the dawn always expressed great surprise that the sun rose again. To me this is a metaphor for the resurrection morning. Maybe we will be surprised to wake to a new dawn.

When I was a child I sometimes experienced terror of the dark and the night. Perhaps monsters would come out. Perhaps I would die before I woke. But, instead, I awoke refreshed to a new dawn.

So I think we have to take seriously both our fear of the dark and the reliability of the dawn in a created world.  I leave this topic with the music video of Metallica’s Enter Sandman. It is an anti-lullaby. It is laced with religious themes. It imagines the things we fear. “Exit light, enter night.” But “take my hand.”

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