Why I Am A Christian (#8): The Old Testament’s Admission of Incompleteness

Nehemiah as cupbearer to the Persian Emperor (depiction from 1873). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Nehemiah as cupbearer to the Persian Emperor (depiction from 1873). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[<<] [Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [>>]

The Christian faith is not infrequently derided as irrational, delusional, fairyland. Though such arguments are sometimes made in an intellectually vigorous manner, I would argue that at least as often such arguments are made facilely, and without any proper understanding of what Christianity claims or teaches.

In spite of such attacks on the Christian faith (intellectually vigorous or otherwise), I remain a believing Christian, convinced of the truth of God’s revealed word, the Bible. In this series of eleven posts, I outline some of the reasons why I still find the Christian faith compelling and convincing.

Reason #8: The Old Testament’s Admission of Incompleteness

From Genesis to the end of the Torah

“One of the things that’s remarkable about the Old Testament is its own admission of incompleteness.”

One of the things that’s remarkable about the Old Testament is its own admission of incompleteness.

Painted in very broad brush-strokes, the story of the Old Testament is the story of (i.) creation; (ii.) fall; (iii.) redemption.

So the opening chapters of Genesis begin with an account (actually two accounts) of the creation of the world. Rather than become tangled up in the details of these accounts, it is best to view them as making one really big theological point: The world (including humankind) was created by God and belongs to him.

“Painted in very broad brush-strokes, the story of the Old Testament is the story of (i.) creation; (ii.) fall; (iii.) redemption.”

Very quickly in the book of Genesis, however — by the end of the third chapter, in fact — this initial, paradisal state of the created order is wrecked by human sin against God, and his consequent judgement upon the world and upon humankind. This is the fall.

But even in the midst of the fall there is the promise of redemption. In Genesis 3:15, God says to the serpent-tempter,[1]

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”

And that plan of redemption starts in the very next chapter: with the birth of a son, Cain (Genesis 4:1).

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the LORD.”[2]

Eve must have thought that this manchild would be the promised redeemer, the one who would “bruise [the] head” of the serpent and restore the paradisal state.

“The same pattern — fall, redemption; fall, redemption — is then repeated over and over again throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Northrop Frye describes this as a U-shaped narrative structure, a kind of ‘divine comedy.’”

However, it all goes wrong; Cain turns out to be a ‘bad apple’ and murders his own brother (Genesis 4:2-16).

The same pattern — fall, redemption; fall, redemption — is then repeated over and over again throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Northrop Frye describes this as a U-shaped narrative structure,[3] a kind of ‘divine comedy’ (where ‘comedy’ is understood in its classic sense as any story which there occurs a colossal fall, but this fall is then cancelled out by a positive reversal, a restoration).

Thus:—

  • Mankind is found to be only wicked all the time. So God floods the earth, bringing an end to all humanity. But there is redemption: humanity is saved through Noah and the ark.
  • Mankind again rebels against God by trying to storm heaven with a tower (the Tower of Babel). God brings down the tower and scatters the human race. But there is redemption: God calls a particular man Abram and promises to make him a blessing to all families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
  • Abram’s great grandson Joseph, the recipient of great prophetic visions from God, is betrayed by his own brothers and is sold into slavery in Egypt. There, though innocent, he is cast into prison. But God raises him out of prison and causes him to become the second highest ruler in Egypt. There Joseph is able to deliver the entire region from a severe famine and to save many lives.

“The Exodus story is so powerful and so baked into the Jewish consciousness, that it is still celebrated by Orthodox Jews year and year at the festival of Passover.”

All this occurs before we’ve even got out of the book of Genesis.

However, the great creation-fall-redemption story of the Old Testament is the Exodus story. This is such a powerful story and so baked into the Jewish consciousness, that it is still celebrated by Orthodox Jews year and year at the festival of Passover.

The Exodus story (again painted in very broad brush-strokes) runs thus:

  1. Creation — Out of the family of Abram’s grandson Jacob, the nation of Israel (or more precisely at this time, the Israelites) is created, as a people within the land of Egypt.
  1. Fall — A new Pharaoh comes to power, who fears the Israelites (they have become very numerous) and enslaves them.
  1. Redemption — Through Moses, God spares his people from the death of the firstborn sons (by the death of the Passover lamb), and then delivers them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 14:26-31).

This great, divine rescue from Egypt is probably the key event of the entire Old Testament story. It is constantly referred back to throughout the rest of the Old Testament.

“At the point where the Exodus from Egypt has been effected, it looks like paradise has been restored. We have God’s people, having received God’s redemption, receiving God’s provision, in relationship with him, and in obedience (or so it seems) to his law.”

After this great rescue, God provides for his people (manna in the wilderness) and gives them his law (Exodus 19:1-9).

At this point it looks like paradise has been restored. We have God’s people, having received God’s redemption, receiving God’s provision, in relationship with him, and in obedience (or so it seems) to his law. All that remains is for his people to walk into the Promised Land and the story will be over.

But even as the Old Testament reaches this high point — it all goes wrong again.

The people of Israel rebel against God (repeatedly), and the relationship between them and God turns sour (Numbers 14).

And in fact the whole of the rest of the Old Testament story consists in a series of these cycles of fall followed by redemption; fall followed by redemption — the U-shaped trajectory.

The really surprising bit

The part that’s really surprising in all this, is that the Old Testament story never really comes back to the dizzy heights of the miraculous rescue from Egypt.

“Given the consistent U-shaped narrative structure of the Old Testament which we’ve seen from Genesis onwards, one would naturally expect the Old Testament to come to a satisfactory, final resolution. It doesn’t.”

Sure, there are other high points in the story — settling in the Promised Land in the book of Joshua; the reign of King David, in the Second Book of Samuel; Israel’s greatest and most prosperous period under King Solomon.

Much of the historical story of the Old Testament is taken up with the monarchical period of Israel and Judah — a period of gradual, but more or less steady, decline from the death of Solomon in around 931 B.C.[4] to the end of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.[5] and of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.[6]

The latter event, the end of the Southern Kingdom in 586, is generally referred to as the Babylonian Exile and is surely the great cataclysmic event of the entire Old Testament history. A considerable percentage of the Old Testament is concerned with this event — whether that be forecasting it in advance (e.g., Jeremiah 27:1-11), relating it (e.g., 2 Kings 25:1-21), or absorbing its social and psychological effects (e.g., Psalm 137).

And here comes the surprise.

“Following the Old Testament narrative, you think that once the people of Judah are back in the Promised Land, things are going to get better for them. To a certain extent it does, however the whole endeavour ends on a note tinged with sadness and disappointment.”

Given the consistent U-shaped narrative structure of the Old Testament which we’ve seen from Genesis onwards, one would naturally expect the Old Testament to come to a satisfactory, final resolution.

It doesn’t.

Firstly, the Babylonian Exile only lasts for 70 years, at the end of which the Jews are allowed to return to their land and rebuild their city and temple. This is U-shaped; this is redemption from the clutches of disaster.

But the people’s return to their land and their rebuilding seems a pale shadow of what went before. The new temple lacks the grandeur of the Solomonic temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians:

But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid…
Ezra 3:12[7]

And Judah is no longer a kingdom, but a governorship under the Persian Empire.

“In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people. And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair.”

Nehemiah 13:23-25

Even worse, you think that once the people of Judah are back in the Promised Land, things are going to get better for them. To a certain extent it does (the re-establishment of the temple is by no means insignificant), however the whole endeavour ends on a note tinged with sadness and disappointment, in the book of Nehemiah:

In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people. And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them swear in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?”[8]
And one of the sons of Jehoiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite.[9] Therefore I chased him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have desecrated the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites.
Nehemiah 13:23-29[10]

“The Orthodox Jewish canon of Scripture attempts to disguise this sense of final disappointment and failure, by placing the two books of Chronicles (which are very likely of later composition but mainly concern earlier events than Nehemiah) at the very end, thus producing a sort of high note to end on. Nevertheless, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah cover later events, and in this sense it is undeniable that the Old Testament (historical narrative) ends on a very disappointing note — almost as if it is waiting for its own completion.”

With the book of Nehemiah, Old Testament historical narrative comes to a close (at least in the Protestant canon of Scripture[11]).

The Orthodox Jewish canon of Scripture attempts to disguise this sense of final disappointment and failure, by placing the two books of Chronicles (which are very likely of later composition but mainly concern earlier events than Nehemiah) at the very end, thus producing a sort of high note to end on.

Nevertheless, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah cover later events, and in this sense it is undeniable that the Old Testament (historical narrative) ends on a very disappointing note — almost as if it is waiting for its own completion.

Thus the Old Testament stands as — by itself — an unfulfilled document.

No wonder, then, that Christians — from the very first times, from the moment the first disciples were called from mending their nets by the Sea of Galilee — have always seen a great fulfilling and, as it were, capping-off of the Old Testament in the words:

Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 1:14-15[12]

*        *        *

In the next instalment in this series, we will consider why the Bible’s accounts of the creation of the world and the fall of Adam and Eve — accounts so often derided by atheists — are in fact satisfying and descriptive accounts of the world in which we find ourselves today.

[<<] [Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [>>]

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] That is, the serpent who tempts (rather than ‘the one who tempts the serpent’).

[2] Note, the use of capitals in writing the name of ‘the LORD’ isn’t intended to be ‘shouty’; it is a device used in most English translations of the Old Testament to differentiate between two different Hebrew words for ‘Lord.’

[3] Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, London, 1982), 169–72. Cited in Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York: Routledge, 1999), 492 (n. 544).

[4] https://biblehub.com/timeline/old.htm

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezra+3%3A12&version=ESVUK

[8] It behoves us to point out here that Nehemiah’s prohibition on marrying foreign women is not to do with racism or with racial purity. The women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab were worshippers of false gods — gods whom the Lord had explicitly and repeatedly warned Israel not to follow or worship. The intermarriage of Israel with women from these nations would inevitably lead to their worshipping their gods. That is the reason for Nehemiah’s prohibition: it is about religious purity, and devotion to the Lord, and not about racial purity.

[9] Sanballat the Horonite: An enemy of those who had been trying to reinforce the defences of the city of Jerusalem, earlier in the book of Nehemiah.

[10] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Nehemiah+13%3A23-29&version=ESVUK

[11] See https://etimasthe.com/2018/08/29/comparison-of-the-books-of-the-old-testament-in-various-christian-traditions/

[12] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+1%3A14-15&version=ESVUK

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