Saturday, February 04, 2012

Does the NT reinterpret the OT?

Does the NT reinterpret OT prophecies and promises? Dispensationalists are understandably critical of this suggestion.

At the same time, we must take apostolic exegesis seriously. We can’t compartmentalize the OT and the NT, as if they represent diametrically opposing principles of promise and fulfillment.

However, I also think we need to go back a step. Even before we come to the NT, we need to explore how the OT develops the land-motif. There is evidence in the OT itself that OT writers view the land-motif in flexible, typological terms. Take the new Exodus theme. For instance:

12 He will raise a signal for the nations
   and will assemble the banished of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
   from the four corners of the earth.
13 The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,
   and those who harass Judah shall be cut off;
Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,
   and Judah shall not harass Ephraim.
14 But they shall swoop down on the shoulder of the Philistines in the west,
   and together they shall plunder the people of the east.
They shall put out their hand against Edom and Moab,
   and the Ammonites shall obey them.
15 And the LORD will utterly destroy
   the tongue of the Sea of Egypt,
and will wave his hand over the River
   with his scorching breath,
and strike it into seven channels,
   and he will lead people across in sandals.
16 And there will be a highway from Assyria
   for the remnant that remains of his people,
as there was for Israel
   when they came up from the land of Egypt.
(Isa 11:1-16)
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;
2 it shall blossom abundantly
   and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
   the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
   the majesty of our God.
6 For waters break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
(Isa 35:1-2,6-7)
14 “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ 15 but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. (Jer 16:14-15)

On this typology, the post-exilic restoration recapitulates the Exodus. But there’s discontinuity as well as continuity. The land of Babylon stands for the land of Egypt. You also have imagery that alludes to the wilderness wandering, although the return route from Babylon to Israel clearly doesn’t run through the Sinai desert.

So the plot motif or structural motif (i.e. banishment/restoration) remains the same, but the territorial referents change.

Likewise, the OT has a new Eden theme. For instance:

3 For the LORD comforts Zion;
   he comforts all her waste places
and makes her wilderness like Eden,
   her desert like the garden of the LORD;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song.
(Isa 51:3)
24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land...33 “Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. 34 And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. 35 And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ 36 Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it. (Ezk 36:24,33-36)

In context, the setting is exilic and postexilic. The Babylonians laid waste to the promised land. But God will restore the exiles to Israel.

Only this is depicted in terms of paradise lost and paradise regained. The promised land is portrayed in Edenic imagery. The Babylonian exile is analogous to the ancient expulsion from Eden. The post-exilic homecoming is analogous to returning to the ancestral garden.

Once again, the plot motif or structural motif (i.e. banishment/restoration) remains the same, but the territorial referents change.

It is possible, therefore, to oppose “Zionist” exegesis without taking the position that the NT reinterprets the OT. In principle, you could do that by taking OT typology as your benchmark or starting-point.

My objective is not to present a full-blown argument, but to mention a neglected interpretive strategy.

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