21 Sep 2020

“I Ain’t Guilty:” Claims of Historical Innocence in Light of Biblical Theology

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Contemporary Ethics, Discipleship, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Jewish Backgrounds, Race Relations
Nice overview of the considerable differences between cultures.

Some have said Americans, especially White Evangelical believers in Christ, detest history and the notion of corporate identity/solidarity. That history has any hold upon us is anathema to many. This seems to me, just one area where we western believers are shaped far more by the Enlightenment’s political tradition than by the Story of God within Scripture.

Theology Shapes History. If you have ever read any of the Bible then you know this is true.

The Hebrew Bible is dominated by two great macro narratives: the Deuteronomistic History (DtH) and Chronicles (Chr). These histories are considerably different and both have an “agenda.” Neither hesitate for a second to criticize grandpa, great grandpa, great great grandpa (i.e. ancestors).

Further both interpret the present in light of that long history. The Exile, for example, was not the fault of any one single generation in the DtH, rather it was the result of the accumulation of centuries of covenant unfaithfulness. This telling of the family history is not an exercise in hating or beating up the ancestors rather the Bible believes that we “individuals” are part of something bigger than ourselves. We have fellowship/koinonia across space and time. I share in their good and I share in their bad. So Moses was not wrong to tell the present generation that they had been unfaithful to God for as long as God has ever laid eyes on them (Deut 9.1-29, esp. v.24. Note the pronoun “you.” “You had cast an image for yourselves …” referring to the Golden Calf, but the historical people hearing Deuteronomy 9 were not even born yet when that sad event took place. But just as they shared in the Exodus, so they shared in the “fall of Israel.).

To tell the story is a way of confessing that we and our mothers and fathers stand in need equally of Yahweh’s hesed and mercy for we, not just them, are a people of an uncircumcised heart.

The Psalms inculcate this perspective (by the inspiration of the Spirit). Texts like Psalm 78 and 106, just to enumerate a few, take the people of God liturgically through a massive exercise of confessing the sins of the mothers and fathers. Of course Nehemiah (1.4-11) and Ezra (Neh 9) lead the people in corporate confession.

I said, ‘O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love [hesed] with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you night and day for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments …” (Neh 1.5-7).

Daniel (9.1-27) does the same. And according to the book, Daniel was one of the good guys. But listen to his prayer,

Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you … WE have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments … WE have not listened to your servants the prophets … To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for WE have rebelled against him … ALL Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice … While I was speaking, and was praying and confessing MY sin and the sin of MY PEOPLE, Israel … (Dan 9.4-19).

The Day of Atonement had the people acknowledging their legacy of falleness as well.

A “New Testament” example comes immediately to mind but we rarely reflect on it. The Hebrews’ Preacher depends on this corporate notion for some fundamental doctrinal teaching. Abraham is said to have paid a tithe to Melchizedek (Heb 7). Because Abraham did therefore so has Levi. And because Levi has so have all the Levites.

One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestors when Melchizedek met him” (Hebrews 7.9-10).

In Moses day, in David’s day, in the Hebrews Preacher’s day, Melchizedek had been dead from centuries to over a millennium and yet the Levitical priests in Jesus’s day still had paid tribute to the King of Salem. The Hebrews Preacher has zero interest in a particular individual Levite, rather he is concerned about the group.

We western Evangelicals resist corporate teaching in scripture. First,we often simply deny it is there (though it is ubiquitous). Second, if the New Testament has “unhitched” Christianity from such a flawed Jewish notion along with the rest of the Hebrew Bible (as Andy Stanley so wrongly claims), then Hebrews (and a myriad of other texts like Romans 5) are extremely difficult to explain. For an examination of 1 Corinthians 5 in relation to these complex of ideas see “Drive Out the Offender:’ Paul, the OT and Church Discipline.

But even the Romans had a deep sense of corporate identity. The tradition of tripartite names (first, middle, last) we inherit from Romans Latin culture. But we do not use those as the Romans did. A Roman name consisted of a praenomen (given name), nomen (clan name) and cognomen (family or tribe name). M. Tullius Cicero simply referred to himself as “Cicero” which was not his name but his father. His name was reduced to M (Marcus). His identity is connected to the family/clan and Rome. This is actually quite biblical.

I have a hard time imagining the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua thru 2 Kings, minus Ruth) being composed by modern Western North American Christians. It would read radically different. I have a hard time imagining most of the Psalms being written or prayers like Daniel’s and Nehemiah’s or Ezra’s. English speakers baptize the word “you” and simply assume it means ME, when the vast majority of time it is a plural in Greek and Hebrew meaning “us” or “all y’all.” Spanish does not conspire against the Spanish the way English does English only readers.

For our culture the individual has supreme sovereignty and sadly this is as true in our churches as it is in those who are the enemies of Jesus. Thus our understanding of Sin is truncated.

Thus our understanding of history is skewed. Thus our sense of community – a notion that spans TIME as well as space in Scripture – is seriously awry.


P. S. Every thoughtful student of the Bible should read and ponder, yes ponder, the outstanding volume (and excellent read):

Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

There is an engaging chapter on individualism vs collectivism.

H. Wheeler Robinson’s Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel though dated is still very perceptive. The substantial study by Hans Walter Wolf, Anthropology of the Old Testament is fundamental.

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