Wednesday, 5 December 2007

God, Moses and Scripture

In a recent comment, the following statement was made:

"... the Bible is not itself envisioned as an act of God, and the fact that the prophecies that the Bible contains are genuine does not make it so. In short, while Childs keeps pushing everything toward the "final form", the Bible itself locates revelation at the initial form, at the pre-textualized phase. I see nothing within Scripture to warrant associating revelation, inspiration, or God's authoring of something with the final form of the canon."

As I've come to see, Child's understanding of the authority of the Bible is far more nuanced that this. Though he claims that for the church the authority of Scripture lies at the level of the final form, the final form is authoritative in a derivative sense. As Childs said in 1972,

"... the formation of the canon in the first centuries of the Christian era testified to a fundamental understanding of the nature of the Christian faith. By tying the Christian faith to an authoritative body of Scripture the church sought to establish its truth in terms of both a historical and theological continuity with the prophets and apostles." (713, italics mine)

In other words, it is fundamental to our faith to affirm the inspiration and authority of the prophets and apostles as historical personages, rooted in time and space. This involves a commitment to the text as an intentional act of communication rather than a timeless text floating above history. The authority of the final form is derivative of the authority of the historical prophets and apostles.

The question arises as to the nature of the relationship between the texts that evolved from these historical sources and the sources themselves. Is it the task of theology to dig behind the accumulated tradition in order to uncover what these historical personages actually said?

I believe that the answer is 'no' and in this and forthcoming posts I will try to demonstrate why. Today I will look at the example of Moses in Deuteronomy (taken from Childs' Introduction pp. 132-135). Tomorrow I'll take this post further by looking at Childs' article"Retrospective Reading of the Old Testament Prophets" (1996) ZAW 108 362-77.

Here's what Childs has to say on Moses and the phenomenon of 'scripture':

"Within the Pentateuch, Moses' writing activity is closely tied to his mediatorial role in receiving the divine law at Sinai. Whereas God himself is portrayed as writing the decalogue (Ex. 34:1; Deut. 4:13; 10:4), Moses not only proclaims the 'words and ordinances' of God to the people (Ex. 24:3), but he is also commissioned to write them (v. 4; cf. 34:27). The significance of Moses' writing of the law receives its clearest formulation in Deut. 31. The context of the chapter is the impending death of Moses, and his commissioning of the writing of the law. Several crucial points are made in the chapter. The law, which derived from God's speaking to Moses, applies to every successive generation of Israel (31:11-13). It serves as a witness to God's will (v. 28). The law of God has now been transmitted for the future generations in the written form of scripture. It is placed next to the ark in book form to be read to the people periodically (10ff.). Indeed, the original role of Moses as the unique prophet of God (34:10) who proclaims the word of God as a witness (31:27ff.) will be performed by the book of the law in the future (31:26ff.). Moses will shortly die, but his formulation of the will of God will continue. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament the identification of the divine law with Moses' writing of it in a book is continued (Ezra 6:18; Neh. 13:1; II Chron. 25:4)." (133,4).

We thus see that within the divine economy provision is made for the for ongoing knowledge of the will of God, revealed to a prophet, yet safeguarded in a text. This text is understood to be sufficient for revealing God's will to future generations, without the need for the physical presence of the prophet.

Given Childs' commitment to the historical dimension of the text, a logical corollary of his commitment to a faith revealed to the prophets and apostles, how do we explain the historical evidence that the canonical form of the Pentateuch contains much material which is obviously later than the age of Moses?

In the context of Childs' essay, the main concern is to determine the canonical function of Mosaic authorship. As such, Childs does not focus attention on the historical question of 'how' the text got to its final form, preferring instead to focus on the significance of the fact that such a move was made ("The claim of Mosaic authorship functioned as a norm by which to text the tradition's authority").

In the light of the challenge posed above, however, namely that for Christians the Bible should function as an archive within which one must peal back the accretions to get to the real Moses, the question of the 'how' becomes important. If it is the case that our faith is based on the testimony of the prophets, are these later accretions legitimate?

This is the subject of my next post. For the meanwhile, it is interesting to note that in Childs' Introduction one possible historical scenario is posited: Perhaps the role of Moses was continued in an office and later persons accordingly added material in the name of Moses? Though Childs quickly brushes off the theory for lack of evidence, it is telling that at the level of the diachronic dimension he is committed to some form of theological continuity between the layers. It is the 'quality' of the relationship which counts.

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