A Lecture Reflection
The Old Testament might be a difficult set of books to read, or at least for me. I remember in my early phase of Christian life, my Bible was colourful in the New Testament part and sticky in the Old Testament part, simply because I was not interested at all to read it. I thought, why bothered with confusing stories if we could have Jesus spoken directly to us in the gospels and letters about things which were more applicable to our daily lives, like love, peace, joy, and relationship, in comparison to war, weird culture, sacrifice, tradition and rituals, and many other things.
However, learning to see the Bible as a narrative, particularly the Old Testament with its plot, characters, setting, and other elements has totally changed my perspective, even on the accountability and credibility of the Bible itself. As stated by Brisben & Klein (2012, p. 326), the failure in understanding the Old Testament as a story can lead to pious and religious legalism. It is important to read the Old Testament for its doctrine and theology, however, it is not enough for our spiritual formation, because we will only have “heads without hearts”. This is personally true for me, because the way God tells us this story shows the relationship He wants to have with us, just like a father who reads story to his son every night, instead of giving a set of certain rules to be followed. It is supposed to have transformational power which can provide growth in faith and life, as also mentioned by Corcoran (2007, p. 34).
I remember when I was asked, “Why is it so hard for you to read the Old Testament but it is so easy for you to read a set of seven novels with the thickness of a dictionary?” I just thought I did not understand and it was hard, but now I realise maybe because I treated it wrongly. Song (2008, p. 28) explains beautifully that a story “grips you in the depths of your hearts and minds, forces you to look deeply into yourself and into human nature”. I never feel so engaged with the Old Testament and its characters before, which could be the reason why it was so enjoyable to read those seven novels instead. Song (2008, p. 28) continues that a story make us relate ourselves to others, to the world, nature, and also with God. So, it is theological to treat the Old Testament as a story because it relates the relation between human being and God.
The biggest problem in reading the Bible, besides the different historical, cultural, and geographical issues, is the different stories occurred in different books, which often leads to confusion. Therefore, the first lecture points out the importance of treating it as a story; that it was told by people and should be seen through perspective. This includes various points of view and that being different does not mean it is wrong, simply because narrative is a story about something happened to someone, somewhere, sometime, as told by someone, somewhere, in a particular time, as discussed in class. We can only see what is presented to us, just like we can only read what is told by the narrator in the Bible, from his point of view, and for what he considers important. This is a big deal for me because it changes the way I view the Bible, not only the Old Testament, but also the four gospels in the New Testament.
Therefore, to read the Bible as a narrative, we ought to see the characters and setting as well. Learning about major and minor characters, as well as foils, explain it well for the reason of why certain weird stories are included in the canon. I know this is for the purpose of the narrative, but I still wonder if there is such thing as foils in God’s eyes. I want to believe that everyone is as important and precious in front of God, but I cannot deny that sometimes some people are more than others. Sometimes this is affected by someone’s status, intelligence, physical appearance, charisma, personality, and talent, which sometimes (again) leave people with no choice and no control. Can it also be affected by someone’s faith and obedience? If so, there is also a possibility that someone has no control over their faith and obedience, simply because they have no chance to understand deeper, which then lead them to be ordinary, and to work as foils in this story of God’s meta-narrative?
Back to the narrative elements, Crain, 2010, (pp. 110-126) suggests that we can identify characters through the context, actions, other characters’ responses, words, and description. He adds that by learning from the characters, we learn and understand more about our motives, attitudes, and moral natures. However, if God is the central character in the Bible, and it was told through omniscient point of view, how can the narrator be omniscient then? This relates to a lot of things, just like the statement “the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth” in Gen 6:6. As Fokkelman (1999, p. 56) states, that the first sentences of the Bible betrays the characteristic of the narrator, because he is omniscient. The narrator tells us about something with no one including himself being present. The narrator knows because he says it, which is not necessary to consider that it is historically reliable. As it was discussed in class, that maybe God is not omniscient. I still think that the way the narrator portrays God cannot fully describe God’s divinity. The omniscient narrator is able to show us prior knowledge of what is to come because he knows it (Fokkelman, 1999, p. 124), so it is subjective based on what he knows and what he feels.
Another essential element in a narrative is the plot. It was discussed in class that the Hexateuch is preferred to Pentateuch because of the plotline, which actually makes sense. A plot in the story consists of exposition, conflict, complications, climax, resolution, and conclusion, which integrates the whole narrative in the Old Testament. The first is exposition. This is the introduction of everything, including characters and setting. The story starts with the prehistory from Creation to when God calls Abraham. Creation has never been a struggle for me because I think I just need to believe that God is able to do it literally in 6 days and science must be wrong. However, it is actually dangerous because it results in my ignorance, which I realised when I was doing my field research report on creation account. According to Geisler & Howe 1992, pp. 32-33), there are two ways to reconcile with science. First is that modern science is wrong and earth is not that old. Others argue that universe could be billions of years old without considering Genesis 1 and 2 wrong. It can be because of the time span or time gap. I stand on this position, because our calculation and understanding about time is not the same as God and ancient people. However, I learn that the most important point is that there is no demonstrated contradiction of fact between Genesis 1 and science, and it’s only a “conflict of interpretation” (Geisler & Howe, 1992, p. 33). Then it was discussed in class about the difference in Genesis 1 and 2, which also bothers me. For me, they are both the same, as Geisler & Howe (1992, p. 35) explain that Genesis 1 is more about the chronological order, and Genesis 2 is more about the topical content.
The discussion continues with the Garden Narrative which tells about the fall. This is when they were conscious of their deception and also their disobedience. They try to cover their shame with apron of fig leaves (Schultz, 2000, p. 14). This story presents a wonderful realisation of God’s mercy and grace when He was looking for them and still made the garments from animal skin for them (Gen 3:21). However, I am curious if they had no shame before, then would human have to deal with lust? If being naked is not so special, how would they reproduce? This just comes to mind since lust is the biggest struggle snaring human being in this life. Relating this to another class where I learned about Jesus’ command in Matt 5:29, I was arguing that it is impossible for man not to have this lustful thought because they are visual persons. Yes, it is obedience for them not to continue with their thought, and not to compromise, but it is impossible to be pure in mind at all because it is just our nature in this broken world and broken body.
Therefore, the effect of sin is disharmony. The relationship between man and woman, God and human, brothers, neighbours, parents and children are spoiled. We can see this narrative pattern consisting of “harmony, revolt, punishment, and divine grace” occurred throughout the story (Deist, 1982, p. 2). However, this then leads me to wonder if God actually destroyed Adam and Eve that day, then there would be no misery in this world, and He did not need to see these people sent to hell.
The composition in Genesis 1-11 serves as the exposition in this plot, showing the chiasm structure in which fall and punishment become the centre. Connecting it with the conflict which happens in Genesis 12, this prehistory serves like a prologue to Hexateuch and further, to David Narrative, the New Testament, and the world today.
The conflict arises when God calls Abraham and makes a promise with him, which then is also known as the Patriarch. Here God makes a covenant with Him that Abraham is going to be a father of a big nation, which means that he will get a descendant, land, and blessing. It is a big problem because Abraham’s wife, Sara, is barren. In addition, they are nomads, and they are sinners. It seems impossible. Delays and threats come along the way as the complications of the conflict, or known as the rising actions. Then, we also learn about Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Each story develops certain issues that portrays God’s character, about His providence and sovereignty. One of the promises is fulfilled in Exodus 1, when “they become too many” as Abraham’s descendant. However, this is just part of a bigger plot, because it rises another conflict. Since now they become many, they need a land to become a nation. As stated by Deist (1982, p. 15), the idea of the Promised Land is a “safe and blessed home”, because out there is dangerous. How will God fulfil this promise? The story continues with Moses leading them to go out from Egypt. Exodus to Deuteronomy talks about how God deals with His people along the way.
Finally in Joshua, all the promises fulfilled, as the theme of the Hexateuch we learned in class, that God is able to stay true to the promises He made to His helpless people. We can see in Joshua 21:45 “Not one of all the LORD's good promises to Israel failed; everyone was fulfilled,” works as the resolution in this story, followed with the rest of Joshua as the conclusion. This is a soothing feeling when we see that God keeps His promises and everything is beautiful in His time. It is God’s commitment, not Abraham, but he only believes. It is Jesus, not us, we just need to believe. Abraham is not great because of what He has done, but because of the God He serves. However, this troubles me because it is hard to differentiate whether something is delayed because of God’s timing or our disobedience. When God promises something, we do not know when it will be fulfilled, whether it is delayed or it is what God intends it to be. It is easy to see how God journeys with His people in the Old Testament because we are the third person who knows the end of the story.
Even when they settle in the land, we can see that they still do not obey God and turn their back on God. They have the Judges era but then they are not satisfied. They want a king just to be like the other nations, although they have God as their king. Then they start nagging although God has told them that He is their King. I feel this relates to us. Sometimes we nag to get something in our own time and desire, and we often end up disappointed because it is not as we imagine. If only we listened and waited. Yet still, God can make something good out of bad. When Saul is appointed to lead, he disappoints God because of his self-centeredness. Then the story continues with David, and we can learn so much from his relationship with God. God still blessed Israel through him, and he is known as “Israel’s greatest national hero” (Drane, 2000, p. 94). It was discussed in class about how could David who looks like doing more wicked sin than Saul actually is called a man after God’s own heart. We learn that it is the attitude of humility, which should then be applicable to our lives as well. No matter how bad we think we are, as long as we humble ourselves and confess, we can be someone after God’s own heart, too. Then here we have Solomon who is so wise, but he still falls. He ends up ignoring God's warning, which is weird because he is supposed to have this wisdom to take God's warning wisely. When Solomon prays for wisdom, as mentioned by Drane (2000, p. 280), he asks for the ability to rule “with justice and to know the difference between good and evil”. This makes me worried, if a man who gains his wisdom from God can be so unwise, then how about us?
Then because of the consequences of sin, the kingdom has to be divided. One thing that catches my attention is when King Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:8) chooses not to listen to the wise elders and prefer to consult with the young people instead. It is ironic that now the younger generation seems like losing their respect to elderly people, supported by the advance technology that makes the older generation looks even dumber. They tend to disrespect and look down at them think that they are way smarter. However, experience cannot lie. It can be wrong, but still it has passed so many stages of life and learn from the mistakes. It is good to explore with the uncertainty of the future, but it is even better to learn from the certainty of the past.
From the past, we learned that Jerusalem is the city of David and the Israelites believe that God is there because the temple is where God dwells. His covenant that David’s kingdom will endure forever and his descendant will always be on the throne is a big deal for the Israelites when they were sent to exile, because then Jerusalem apparently is not an everlasting city that never falls. So their theology was shaken. I think this is applicable to our cases today where something happens and we get shaken because we have a wrong understanding on where God is and who He is.
However, then they learn that there is a reason for them to be in exile, and that there is hope, too, as they can see from the Deuteronomist perspective. They have turned their back on God, but again, as the theme of the Hexateuch occurs again and again, God is able to stay true to the promises He made to His helpless people. This is also the reoccurring theme for our whole lives. I think when the Israelite went into exile, this is like the phase of disorientation in the Psalm cycle for them, where they ask God why this happened and if there is any hope. However, some of them chose to believe in the God which they know, to hold on to His promises and reflect back to His goodness, which is the time of reorientation. When they finally go back to Jerusalem from exile, they see that God keeps His promise and they enter the phase of new orientation, as pictured by the Chronist. The Chronist invites people to see that God is generous, merciful, and faithful, despite our own failure (Goldingay, 2011, p. 168) which is also applicable to the way we see life.
The Chronist focuses more on cult, on everything that happens around the temple. Therefore David and Solomon are portrayed really well because they kept the cult. He also looks at history differently from the Deuteronomist. As it was discussed in class, the Chronist emphasises that it is God’s invitation that is extended to people to experience the abundance of life in Him. If we treat the Chronicles right, its message is still relevant to us. As stated by Deist (1982, p. 98), “the Chronicler's powerful message that God intervenes in history and that salvation is meant for all people, is an important statement in the religious history of Israel and it should continue to be appreciated by believers today”. Every rule and regulation is God’s protection. God sets this framework for His people, not to be carried out legalistically. Even by discussing about the sacrifice of the animals, I finally understand that it is because we have been saved, therefore we do this, to remember the price we have to pay for sin, which is in coherence with the death of Christ.
In the end, we can see from this set of lectures that God indeed has a plan for us, but how to relate this to God’s sovereignty and our free will? The explanation presented in class is the best way to conclude and close this last class. We are part of God’s meta-narrative, part of His redemptive plan. When I first became a Christian, I believed that God would lead my every step, what major I should choose, which university I should study at, what company I should work at, and which country I should stay in. All are written as a wonderful testimony. They are all miracles and I don’t say that now they are not. However, I come to this understanding that God indeed has a plan for us. It is dangerous to tell people that God doesn’t care what you wear and what you study about. I think God does care, because He loves us, and if it can strengthen the relationship, why not? I imagine myself asking my dad what I should wear today. Will it make me look good? Will it represent and honour Him well? Will it please Him and please the people I love? From the simplest unimportant thing to the biggest important decision, I think it is good to involve Him. On the other hand, it is also important that as long as it is inside the framework of His plan, we are not obliged to study certain major at certain university, and if not then we ruin His plan and our lives. It doesn’t work that way and we need to understand. We do not need to be like robots and do not consult our hearts and interests at all. I believe that God puts interest and dreams in our hearts not as random things, but it can be used for the purpose of His glory.
I portrayed that this life is a story with a plot. Since I was born, to my primary school, high school, university, and work, I feel that God draws this one line which I need to follow. If I did not go straight with His path and turn somewhere, I couldn’t come back, or I could but I would waste my time to make the turn around. So I always prayed before deciding anything. Someone once asked about this company where I work, “Are you sure it’s from God?” I was pretty sure because I miraculously got this job and I loved it. Yet this question bothered me and stole my peace because I was still with my old understanding. I started thinking if I was at the wrong place. However, now I can say that it’s in His framework. Now I can see that God can make a new way out of our choice. Maybe when we mess up because of our sinful nature and free will, it may take longer to find the light, but we will. Then for us who try to be obedient and ask Him in everything we do, there is no such thing as wrong way. We will always find the light heading to the goal of His plan, which is the redemption for people.
I think this is very important. People come to us to ask about the most important things, yet the most difficult. Is God happy if I marry him? Is he the one from God? Can I study this, or actually God will be happier if I choose that? What do I need to study? Or some people will say, “Well I want to study at Bible College, but I need to pray if it is God’s will”. It is a godly thing to say and yes of course we have to pray before making decision. In the time of waiting for answer, we can see how God really support this idea and we get reassured, which is important to strengthen us in the time of hardship. But how many steps are not taken because we are too afraid when we do not hear any answer? This will not happen if we know whatever we do as long as it’s heading toward His plan for us, we can just obey.
In conclusion, the Bible is actually a master story about God’s plan for us, and we can learn so much when we treat it right. It is important not to disregard the Old Testament, because it plays the crucial part in the Bible, as precious as the New Testament. Without the New Testament, the Old Testament is only a collection of unfulfilled promises, yet without the Old Testament, the New Testament is just something which can be claimed to happen by anyone, anywhere, anytime, or as plainly stated, “the New is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed” (Schultz & Smith, 2001, p. 8).
Crain, JC 2010, Reading the Bible as literature: an introduction, Polity, Cambridge, UK.
Corcoran, HA 2007, 'Biblical narratives and life transformation: An apology for the narrative teaching of Bible stories', Christian Education Journal, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 34-48.
Drane, J 2000, Introducing the Old Testament, Rev. ed, Lion, Oxford, England.
Fokkelman, JP 1999, Reading Biblical narrative: an introductory guide, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.
Geisler, NL & Howe, TA 2008, The big book of Bible difficulties: clear and concise answers from Genesis to Revelation, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI.
Goldingay, J 2011, Key questions about Biblical interpretation: Old Testament answers, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.
Klein, A & Brisben, D 2012, 'Reading the Old Testament as story: a pedagogy for spiritual formation', Christian Education Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 326-341.
Schultz, SJ 2000, The Old Testament speaks, 5th ed, HarperCollins, NY.
Schultz, SJ & Smith, GV 2001, Exploring the Old Testament, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL.
Song, CS 2008, 'Story is the matrix of theology', Theologies and Cultures, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 28-48.