An Old Testament Mood

Anthony J. Petrotta

In a New Yorker magazine cartoon, a person enters heaven. St. Peter, notes in hand, checks his list. He says to the person, “Bad timing—He is in one of his OT moods today.” It is bad enough that the person has died, but to find God in one of his “OT moods” adds insult to injury!

Christians seldom deny the OT as a source of knowledge about God, but in purely practical actions, they deny it all the time. Sunday after Sunday, all across our country (and to the ends of the earth no doubt), prayers are prayed and sermons preached, and the OT is hard to find. Marcion in the second century was condemned as a heretic for rejecting the OT, yet his views have largely won by default. The church does not regularly read and reflect on the OT. At best the OT is used as an illustration of a NT principle, not as a source of theological reflection in itself.

Granted, it is difficult to preach Leviticus, Zephaniah, or Psa 137. Yet all the creeds and catechisms throughout church history have affirmed the importance, indeed the necessity, of the OT for faith and practice. “All Scripture…,” begins the oft-quoted passage from Paul, and ostensibly Paul was writing without the Gospels in hand.

When God is in one of his “OT moods” you may not want to be involved with him. Only do not tell that to E. Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. Professor Davis, who studied at Yale under B. Childs, has been quietly putting together an impressive list of articles and books showing how and why the OT is not a prelude to the NT or only of historical curiosity. Rather, the OT is a vital source of the good news (gospel!) that God communicates to us. “The key piece of good news that the OT communicates over and over again is that God is involved with us, deeply and irrevocably so.” She goes so far as to say that the OT is necessary for Christians.

In Getting Involved with God (Cowley, 2001), Davis brings together lectures and sermons she has given over the years to show us God’s involvement and what that involvement may mean for Christian living in the world today. She tackles some of the most formidable passages, topics, and books of the OT: the “binding of Isaac” (Gen 22), Psalms of lament and cursing, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, just to name a few. With two pieces on “biblical ecology,” she also tackles a subject that shows how the OT speaks to a very contemporary issue.

In the course of these lectures Davis shows us what it means to linger with a word or passage, especially uncomfortable ones, until connections come between the text and other texts, and more importantly, how texts connect with readers. These texts may turn back on us, showing a need for “repentance” on our part. “Repentance” is an important word in the OT and in her discussion of Job, Davis reminds us that the Hebrew verb underlying our translation can denote any mental or emotional reorientation, positive or negative. Davis is particularly adept at showing how these OT texts may ask us to reorient our thinking about our relationship with God, others, and the world.

For example, in the “cursing” psalms, we need to be reminded that we should be “outraged” by those who rupture our communities and violate trust. Yet, even as we pray to God to act in such situations, we also need to examine our lives for the failures of our own lifestyle that denies the needs of so many in our world or could deny the needs of our grandchildren. The two pieces on biblical ecology contain a passionate and theologically rich call for us to consider the consequences of our choices for future generations, if indeed not for our own selves. To read the Bible in this manner may entail looking at others and the world through “profoundly different eyes.”

Getting Involved With God is a gratifying and challenging read. I am not sure it would make God repent of one of his “OT” moods, but it should make us see that God’s “life is as complex as our own,” as Davis reminds us, and that is because God wants to be intimately involved with our lives, which means that God through the Scriptures urges us to “certain habits of heart and mind that ‘work’ in relationship with God.”

Ellen Davis is a quiet, eloquent voice for a sensible, sensitive reading of the OT, one that invites involvement with God by showing God’s deep involvement with us.

Posted Apr 01, 2004