Where to begin?

Story bookAs often seems to happen to me, something’s happening in church and I’m off thinking about something else all together. So Doug was introducing his talk on the “ten words” using the same kind of narrative framework that people like Tom Wright have popularised, the kind of six-act drama that begins with creation and the fall and follows through to Jesus’ cross and the church and even the restoration of all things. But there was I thinking to myself (as I often do) that we put far too much emphasis on the book of Genesis and far too little on the rest of the Old Testament, especially when we compare how we use scripture to how (for example) Jesus and Paul are recorded as using it.

Jesus quotes or refers to the OT many times – for example reading from Isaiah in the Synagogue or quoting Deuteronomy when tempted in the wilderness. But how often does he refer to Genesis? Well, once when talking about marriage, any more?

I didn’t know, so I did some research. Using data pulled from blueletterbible.org1 (a site I know nothing of, so this isn’t an endorsement!), I did my stats geek thing2 – and even made some charts. My suspicious are at least partly correct – Genesis is certainly lower on the list of most quoted in the gospels (and the rest of the NT) than Exodus, but both are a long way behind Psalms, Isaiah and even Deuteronomy.

I think we can suggest that Jesus and the early Christians had their favourite passages of scripture, parts that they read (and sang) far more than others, parts that helped them to define what it meant to be a part of God’s people. Exodus and Deuteronomy stand together as Deuteronomy is the “second telling” of the story and the restating of the covenant. However, in terms of quotations, the content of Laws features much more than narrative.

We must not forget, however, the way the festivals of the Torah shaped annual life. It made a framing narrative for life in first century Judea and Galillee as much based on action as quotation. (I heard an interesting discussion that paralleled it with the lectionary which interested me). I think John’s gospel above the others records that context, telling us which feast it was that gave Jesus occasion to visit Jerusalem. Just one example is the most important teaching Jesus gives, at least in John’s gospel. In the context of the passover meal, the celebration of the story of Exodus, Jesus gives his “upper room discourse” and our ongoing central ritual of communion comes directly from that meal.

It seems from my brief studies that in addition to the way sung worship shaped them (Psalms) there are two key defining stories for first century Jews (like Jesus and Paul) – Exodus and Exile – and the two are inextricably linked, especially in the way they interpreted them.

1357972_12388212The Exodus story looks very different to the Genesis based one we tell in church. First up, God hears ‘us’ in our time of need and oppression (the ‘us’ is essential and is made really clear in the passover celebration “we were slaves in Egypt…”). Next, he displays his power over the things that oppress us and frees us decisively. Then he goes on to give the good gift that teaches us how to live freely and in relationship with him despite our continual failure.

I think we should start reading the Old Testament with Exodus as it seems that first century Jews did – reading Genesis as a prequel, an interesting back-story that provides context for the main event, not the headline story in itself. We seem to get hooked up on a bunch of things that in the rest of scripture are relatively peripheral and miss the bigger picture that the are intended to point to.

The Exile story has the same key ideas as the Exodus one but modified subtly. In exile see find that the oppression is our own fault, because of our continual failure as a community, not following God’s instructions on living free. Yet he continues to hear us, to love and teach us, showing his power over and over to bring us back to himself and into more freedom.

Tom Wright writes that it’s important to understand that for first century Jews the exile story was not over, even though many Jews lived in Jerusalem. Jesus comes into a culture full of expectation that the story is about to be finished decisively just like the Exodus one was – and they’re right, just not in the way they expect to be! Jesus does bring about the end of an era but not the expected return of all God’s people to the Holy Land and their domination over all political/military powers. Instead it’s the end of an era of exclusion and suspicion of those not like us, the end of an era of us versus them, the end of an era of building power structures for a coming battle. It’s the end of an era where God’s teaching is seen as rules to feel guilt about and the start of an era where we see God as Love, God as Grace and Freedom.

Now, as we know, that message got confused a bit and the very same things Jesus came to pull down in Judaism are now found in the church, ripe for our deconstruction now. But we can only do this if we start the OT story in the right place, not at the beginning of Genesis but in two places: the start of Exodus and the middle of the exile.

  1. You can see the original data by following the link
  2. You can have a look at the spreadsheet on google docs