Monday, 16th April 2012, Celebration of “Hope”
This paper briefly examines the relevance of the Old Testament today and the place of God in Old Testament theology vis-à-vis the underdog. By considering a few illustrative instances of the plight of the underdog in the public space, it determines that the Old Testament could be employed normatively and innovatively to uplift the dignity of the underdog when interpretation is carried out not just for or with the underdog but by the underdog.
Introduction – Is the Old Testament still relevant today?
There is a school of thought especially in secular humanism that argues that humanity has matured and does not need God or religion anymore; it must take charge of its own destiny by taking responsibility for itself (See De Gruchy 2006). Advances in knowledge—in science and technology, in medicine and in research in general—have boosted human confidence about its own maturity. How can anyone need God in a situation where human intelligence and skill have accomplished so much and human beings seem to have mastered their environment? The advent of the secularization of governments and various institutions especially among western nations which were once rooted in religion has also promoted the attitude that religion should be expunged, as it has little or no place in issues of development.
The same attitude seems to be assumed towards religious texts, in particular, towards the Old Testament. Naturally, such an attitude would spill over to the art of interpretation. If the Old Testament were no longer relevant, then, Old Testament theology, in the words of Hasel (1972:9), would be “undeniably in crisis”. From the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, Old Testament theology is said to witness a temporary decline partly because of an accent on the history of Israel’s religion, which also sought to diminish the authority of Scriptures as the Word of God. Some scholars observe that the history of religion’s approach to the text has a destructive influence on Old Testament theology. Furthermore, pre-World War II calls for the repudiation of the Old Testament became rooted, among other issues, in racial or anti-Semitic prejudices, the tendency to interpret religion in humanistic terms, a myopic Christian reading of Scriptures that relies largely on the New Testament, and a general antipathy to traditional religion (Hasel 1972:29-30; Hayes and Prussner 1985:126-145; Kaiser 1991:14-15). Even in Africa, Old Testament interpretation is fraught with its own challenges (Bosman 2001:101; 2007:64-65).
Although a revival of interest in Old Testament theology was observed from the 1920s (Hasel 1972:31; Hayes & Prussner 1985:151-166), the trend to downplay the significance of the Old Testament and of religion is creeping in on us again today.
But is it true that man no longer needs God, that religion is no longer relevant in a postmodern world? With religion being used as tool of terrorism and various forms of insurrection every day, as the examples of the Al-Qaeda network, Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somali insurgency show, it would seem foolhardy to assume that religion can be taken out of the picture. It is evident that religion will be around for a long time to come; so will the Old Testament and so will be God! No doubt, human beings have become more secure in their abilities and independence or “maturity”. However, increase in acts of terrorism, of gross atrocities that show a higher degree and fullness of man’s inhumanity to man being witnessed daily, points out that society is yet to make meaning out of its prevailing situations of senseless murders, suicide bombing, serial rape, racial intolerance and xenophobic violence, HIV/AIDS scourge, famines, hunger and crunching poverty. Therefore, as long as humans continue to seek answers, theology (Old Testament theology) will continue to be relevant.
Besides, as far back as 1914, Hermann Gunkel pointed out another reason why Old Testament will continue to be relevant:
For the Old Testament has a wealth of thoughts and conceptions which form the imperishable achievements of the Hebrew spirit. These are not, and can never become, obsolete, for they lie at the root of all modern thinking, whatever attitude men may take up towards church and religion (1928:37).
It is undisputable that different portions of the Old Testament acted as the foundation for various theories and laws in many modern disciplines such as medicine, law, physics, etc. Since its ideologies, its dictums, its worldviews seem to be intricately woven into the fabric of (post)modern society, the text of the Old Testament would continue to stare us in the face. Needless to add, the Old Testament will also continue to play a fundamental role in the church as the things written there are for our example and admonition (1 Cor 10:6, 11).
Old Testament theology and the underdog
This brings us to the issue of what constitutes Old Testament theology. In the first half of the last century and in the decades preceding that period, the trend in Old Testament study was to seek what is regarded as the centre (Mitte) of the Old Testament, that is, in the attempt to systematize its theology. Scholars have proposed different ideas of what constitutes the Old Testament centre such as covenant, election, communion, promise, the kingdom/rulership/holiness/experience of God, God is Lord, God’s saving acts, etc. (see Hasel 1972:138-139; Schuele 2008:261-262). Unsurprisingly, no consensus has been reached on the question of the centre of the Old Testament and of Old Testament theology.
However, Hasel has pointed out that the common denominator to all the proposals is an aspect of God; therefore, this shows that the Old Testament is theocentric just as the New Testament is Christocentric (Hasel 1972:139). He notes that God is active in the text throughout – from the beginning to the end. “In short, God is the dynamic, unifying center of the OT” (p. 140). This view has been taken up by more recent scholarship. For instance, Brueggemann explains that, “The primal subject of an Old Testament theology is of course God”. He claims that in the Old Testament, “God is the One about whom Israel speaks” (1997:117; 2003:8; cf. Nelson 2009:92). If we take this view of God as the unifying centre of the Old Testament as a starting point in this discussion, the question that arises is, what kind of God are we talking about?
Even though various images and metaphors of God are found in the Old Testament (see Mills 1998), the idea that God is the unifying centre of the text does not imply that He can be systematized or categorized, that is, serve as “the basis of which an OT theology can be structured” (Hasel 1972:142; Brueggemann 1997:117; Schuele 2008:261). Nevertheless, it is possible to say certain things about the nature or character of this God just as Israel did (Brueggemann 1997:117-313). Nuggets of information from the Old Testament depict God as one who advocates for the underdog. But who is the underdog? In this context, the underdog is anyone who has not only been sidelined by the society but also by biblical interpretation.
Defining moments in the Old Testament show Yahweh as a God who is ever rooting for the poor and the marginalized. From the Exodus event through the period of the monarchy to the return from Babylonian captivity, God’s concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the oppressed is clearly spelt out. The same emphasis is observable in the major corpuses of the Old Testament – in the Torah, the Writings (Wisdom Literature) and the Prophets (Exod 12:48-49; 22:22-27; 23:3, 6, 9-11; Lev 19-10-15; 25:35, 39; Num 35:15; Deut 15:1-18; 26:12-13; 1 Sam 2:8; Job 24:9-22; Ps 9:18; 34:6; 35:10; 69:33; Prov 14:31; Is 3:14-15; 10:12; 58:6-7; 61:1; Jer 39:10; Ezek 22:7; Am 2:6-7; Zech 7:10). The expression “God’s preferential option for the poor” may sound like a platitude; it nonetheless remains valid—God is on the side of the little fellow and the downtrodden.
What is the implication for us in the African context in which we operate? Bosman (2007:65) has affirmed that, “Endemic poverty and deprivation seems to be a pervasive context on the African continent that exegetes simply cannot ignore”. That would imply that using the idea of “God’s preferential option for the poor” in Africa becomes a hermeneutical necessity. However, my reasoning is that such liberative hermeneutical tools should not be limited to the poor. The poor are just a part (a significant part) of a whole spectrum of marginalized groups. Theological interpretation has to take into account all those who have been on the receiving end of the power play in the hermeneutical world and in the society. It has to be a theology that is sensitive to and accommodates the underdog, a theology that sensitizes us to issues of human dignity and human rights, a theology that invites us to consider a more humane way of relating with the underdog.
Since the God of the Old Testament unashamedly identifies with the underdog, would it then require such a stretch of the imagination to see that that God and the text which introduces him would remain relevant in a world that continues to be filled with oppression and exploitation and where the underdog struggles to be heard and to survive?
Everyday kind of issues and the plight of the underdog
To drive the point home that the Old Testament and indeed Scriptures could remain normative even in the world that we live today, I would like to turn briefly to everyday kind of issues that portray the plight of and affect the underdog. In Africa, several customs and practices exist which undermine the fate and dignity of the vulnerable members of the society such as the aged, women (especially widows, the childless and the peasants), children (especially those orphaned by HIV/AIDS, poverty and famine, and street children), people living with disabilities, homeless street persons, and all those who live on the margin. Manipulation and exploitation of the vulnerable and the powerless take place at various levels of societal life whether at the private or public level. One way in which such injustices are perpetuated in the public space is through the media. The media is sometimes used to disseminate false reality and to advance some forms of reality and double standard that ensure that the underdog is permanently relegated to the basement of the societal structure. For instance, in the name of advertisement, certain negative stereotypes continue to be upheld such that those who affected are not only unable to see that something is wrong but also that there could be a way out of their situation.
In one of the local TV adverts, for example, a woman who is doing laundry with her hands using a bar-soap is heard complaining to a friend – “times are hard”. The friend replies that she should go and get “the hard bar that lasts” – not some detergent or washing machine! In other words, because the chance that she would get out of that level of poverty is non-existent she should make peace with that fact. No one advises her to go back to school or get another job or to acquire some other skill that would put her above the level of a domestic worker. Rather, she should just get a cheaper, more lasting bar-soap! Of course, no one asks either why it should be a woman that must do laundry with her hands! But the Old Testament lends hope to the hopeless and the incurably poor (1 Sam 2:8). More importantly, no one enlightens this woman that many women in the ancient world stood shoulder to shoulder with and above men to accomplish great things and that it is possible to do the same today. She never hears anything about the Queen of Sheba in her church sermons because the focus is ever on Solomon. The preacher is unable to see that before Solomon got his doctor of philosophy degree, the Queen of Sheba was his external examiner! In 1 Kings 10:1, we read that the Queen came to test Solomon with hard questions; but it was after that visit that Solomon received his certificate (vv. 23-24)! Could not such a reading of the text (of 1 Kings 10) open up a world of possibilities to women who use “the hard bar that last”?
In another advert, an old man is seen snoring loudly as he dozes off on a chair. A group of children (apparently his grandchildren) begins to poke fun at him until he stirs awake. They tell him food is ready while laughing at him as if he were some neighbourhood idiot. Clearly, no one has ever told these children that the Old Testament teaches honour and respect not only for one’s parents but for all elderly and aged people (Exod 20:12; Lev 19:32; Pherigo 2001:80-82). The sad reality is that the advertisers are either portraying what obtains in real life or promoting a culture that debases elders (or both).
In yet another TV advert, a little boy is sent on endless errands and whenever the adult males eat with their bare hands, instead of washing and drying their hands, they rub the smeared hands on the poor little boy’s clean-shaven head. The boy murmurs to himself, wondering why everyone uses his head as a napkin. Later, he is sent to buy his old man some KFC take out. The old man finishes the entire meal without leaving a crumb to this little boy. In fact, he licks his fingers afterwards (rather than rub the boy’s head with his hand as he would normally do)! Talk about child abuse! Again, neither the adult males in this clip nor the advertisers seem to have any idea that children are the heritage of the Lord and the fruit of the womb are his reward (Ps 127:3).
Could not the text of the Old Testament therefore be used to create awareness of and redress societal trends that contradict human dignity and fair play? Nelson (2009:87ff) demonstrates how the message of the Old Testament could be employed in the public sphere. He explains that the Old Testament can speak in the public square because “it is a well-known, classic text with powerful stories and characters and a captivating poetic vision” (p. 89). Therefore, besides its poetry, its wisdom, its God, its law and prophets, Old Testament stories could be used in a way that “will resist letting privilege define truth or allow power to silence or discount” those suppressed voices in the public realm (p.88). From a different perspective, Wright outlines how the Old Testament enjoins the privileged members of society—those who have acquired wealth righteously—to contribute generously and practically to the welfare of the underprivileged. They are to “set an example by limiting personal consumption and declining to maximise private gain from public office that affords access to wealth and resources (Neh.5:14-19)” (2011:264).
New wine from old wineskin – Conclusion
There is no gainsaying the fact that Scriptures have been used to legitimize or justify some human atrocities and human rights violation and abuse historically or in recent past. For instance, the Bible has been used to justify slavery e.g. by European and American slave raiders and owners during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from the 16th through the 19th centuries; racism e.g. in the context of apartheid in South Africa; sexism as well as different forms of exploitation and discrimination. More importantly, Scripture is still being used to perpetrate subtle injustices and discrimination, in particular against women in the name of patriarchy or male hegemony. It should be noted however that the same text contains valuable resources that could be used not only to redress some of the atrocities of the recent past but to promote human dignity and human rights today in a way that would lay a good foundation of hope for the future.
Is the Old Testament too old-fashioned then to make a difference in this generation? The answer is clearly ‘No’. The Old Testament text does and could be used to address the plight of vulnerable members of the society who are daily victims of inhuman treatment such as deprived children especially orphans and those who live in abject poverty without access to healthcare, education or good food and potable water, the elderly, the poor, the alien, prisoners, people living with disabilities and terminal illnesses and the peasant labourer.
Insofar as the God of the Scriptures sides with the underdog who constitutes the world’s majority, the text would continue to be relevant. Old texts can be reread in normative and innovative ways. Responsible interpretation of the text should therefore strive to speak to human situations in which indignity thrives and to the plight of the underdog through faith communities, FBOS and the academia. To be sure, power influences interpretation and that should trigger taking responsibility for the powerless and the underdog. However, the underdog must become a partner and not simply the beneficiary in the interpretation process. Therefore, the theology that would accommodate this dynamic is “a theology for and by the underdog”.
This in a sense is the claim of liberation theology. In his Academy of the Poor, Gerald West expresses his support for biblical scholars whose reading of the biblical text “collaborate with the poor and marginalized in their struggles for survival, liberation and life” (1999:11, 16-19). West claims that he is committed to reading “with” the poor rather than “for” them (1999:27). That claim could be extended to the underdog in general, that is, it is not enough to read for them but with them. However, my argument is that even that is simply not enough! Because of the imbalance in the power relations between the underdog and the “advocate” who seeks to read with them, the underdog will have to learn to read by themselves. Over the centuries, interpretation has been done on behalf of women, the poor, the fatherless, people living with disabilities, and other classes of marginalized folks. Attempting to read with them may seem a step forward but they must be able to read without any pontiff standing in their midst to adjudicate their reading. Mind you, this is not to diminish the role of dialogue in reading. Rather, the point is that space must be created for the underdog to come to their own conclusions about the text without prejudiced interference from those in the position of power. We would be surprised how the interpretation of those who are different from us and who may be at the lower end of the scale could challenge us!
On this point, it delights me to point out that the Faculty of Theology here in Stellenbosch has already begun to grant that kind of access. A careful look at the pictures of its alumni in its Hall of Fame shows that for more than a century, the students who passed through the faculty are uniformly white males. However, in the last twenty years, the pictures show a shift as the so-called “female underdog” try to play catch up. Women could now read by themselves! Again, the fact that one who arrived here as an international student could be afforded an opportunity to further my research is a testimony that the Hope Project is committed to its goals of lending hope to all irrespective of gender, colour, social class or political affiliation.
Such new horizons are beginning to emerge due in part to the open-ended nature of the text. Because of its prophetic and eschatological character, the Old Testament message remains open; “… it remains in its message a book of expectation, a book that is open to the future” (Zimmerli 1993:238) It is “an ‘open book’ which points beyond itself” (Hasel 1972:143; Schuele 2008:266). It may be called “Old”, but the Old Testament’s “old wineskin” could certainly turn out “new wine” especially for a generation that prides itself in its ability to recycle stuff (and for a theology faculty that is strategically located on a wine route)!
Bosman, Hendrik L 2001. “All Past and Present but Little Future? African and Old Testament Concepts of Time and History”. In Mary Getui, Knut Holter and Victor Zinkuratire (eds). Interpreting the Old Testament in Africa. Papers from the International Symposium on Africa and the Old Testament in Nairobi, October 1999. Bible and Theology in Africa. New York: Peter Lang.
___________ 2007. “Old Testament Studies from African Perspectives: A Research Survey and Some Suggestions about Future Trends”. In Wallace M Alston Jr. & Michael Welker (eds). Reformed Theology: Identity and Ecumenicity II. Biblical Interpretation in the Reformed Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 58-65.
Brueggemann, Walter 1997. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute and Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Brueggemann, Walter 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.
De Gruchy, John W 2006. Being Human: Confessions of a Christian Humanist. London: SCM Press.
Goldingay, John J 2008. “Old Testament Theology and Canon.” Tyndale Bulletin 59(1): 1-26.
Gunkel, Hermann  1928. What Remains of the Old Testament? London: George Allen & Unwin.
Hasel, Gerhard 1972. Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate. Third Edition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
Hayes, John H and Prussner, Frederick C 1985. Old Testament Theology: Its History and Development. London: SCM.
Kaiser, Walter C, Jr. 1987. Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Mills, Mary E 1998. Images of God in the Old Testament. London: Cassell.
Nelson, RD 2009. “The Old Testament and Public Theology”. Currents in Theology and Mission 36(2): 85-94.
Pherigo, Lindsey P 2001. “Perspectives on Aging: Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant”. In Derrel R Watkins (ed). Religion and Aging: An Anthology of the Poppele Papers. Binghamton, NY.: The Haworth Press, 79-87.
Schuele, A 2008. “Theology as Witness.” Interpretation 62(3): 256-267.
Watkins, Derrel R (ed). Religion and Aging: An Anthology of the Poppele Papers. Binghamton, NY.: The Haworth Press, 79-87.
West, Gerald O 1999. The Academy of the Poor: Towards a Dialogical Reading of the Bible. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Wright, CJH 2011. “The Righteous Rich in the Old Testament”. Evangelical Review of Theology 35(2): 255-264.
Zimmerli, Walter 1993. Old Testament Theology in Outline. Translated by David E Green. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
 Note that for Goldingay (2008:8, 9), “The subject matter for Old Testament theology is the canonical writings…
The subject for Old Testament theology is the Old Testament, not the history of Israel”.