An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
• Matthew 1:1
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I have argued elsewhere that the overarching story of the Bible is about God establishing his Kingdom in this world. “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as in heaven” is the heartbeat of biblical faith and expectation.
Why then, should anyone be surprised to discover what Pete Enns has reminded us of this week: that the focus of the Hebrew Bible (and the book of Genesis as the particular case we’ve been looking at) would be on royal, kingly matters?
When we recall that it was the southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judah that survived the Babylonian exile and returned to the land and put the Old Testament as we know it together, and when we remember that the story of Judah culminated in the greatest era of kingship the nation had ever known, under King David, why then should it surprise us if they looked to a brighter future by framing it in Davidic terms?
Ah, but all this requires us to understand something basic about the Hebrew Bible. It was collected, compiled, composed, and edited for those exiles. What we hold in our hands and call the Old Testament is the end result of a long process of passing down traditions and stories and sayings and songs from generation to generation. Most of that process is opaque to us, and the Bible itself doesn’t help us by saying, “So and so wrote this book.” The authors and editors remain anonymous. Nevertheless, whoever they were, they put together (I believe under the inspiration of the Spirit) a finished product, a Book that tells an overall Story.
For sure, it is a long book, a messy book, and a book of alternative voices debating with one another throughout the history of Israel.
- The book of Joshua presents a much different view of the conquest than the book of Judges.
- Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy set forth a variety of laws that often don’t mesh with one another.
- The history books of Kings and Chronicles present contrasting views of Israel’s kings, especially David.
- A book like Ruth takes a much different view of intermarriage than Ezra or Malachi.
- Jonah and Nahum argue with each other about how God views nations like Assyria.
- The pious book of Proverbs is challenged by the alternative wisdom of Ecclesiastes and Job.
But, as Pete Enns has reminded us this week, there is an overall shaping of all this diverse, multivalent material. It starts in the book of Genesis, which I think Enns has persuasively shown points the reader toward the expectation of a king to come from the tribe of Judah who will rule over the nations.
The story begins with a depiction of a royal humanity (adam), formed in the image of God to rule as stewards of creation, and at the start of the story proper, Abraham receives God’s promise that his seed will produce kings. Jacob’s speech at the end of the book promises that the scepter shall find its home among the descendants of Judah.
The Torah ends with Deuteronomy, a book that is characterized more by the scribal Torah interpretive tradition than by royal ideology. That is, its focus is more upon the Word than the King. However, even this book ends with remarkable Mosaic speeches and poems that speak clearly of the eventual exile and hope of return.
The first book in the second section of the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets, contains the oracles of Isaiah, who served in the royal court at Jerusalem, speaking God’s Word to her kings and the nation. Isaiah is, of course, famous for its eschatological message, its promises of a royal figure to come and a new creation.
The Hebrew Bible’s third section, the Writings, is book-ended by Psalms and Chronicles. I have argued elsewhere that the message of the Psalms is designed to encourage faithful anticipation of an ideal King, a ruler for whom the exilic community was waiting, looking, and hoping: the son of David, the ultimate king.
The book of Chronicles, the climax of the Hebrew Bible, provides a sweeping review from Adam to the post-exilic community, with special attention given to David and Solomon and giving a dramatically different portrayal of their reign than we see in the book of Kings. The subsequent history of the kings that followed Solomon ignores the northern kingdom entirely (unlike I-II Kings) and focuses on Judah alone.
Thus, at the least, the major books in each section of the Tanakh (Torah/Prophets/Writings) are eschatological in orientation, and most lead the reader to focus on Judah and God’s royal promises to her.
I would argue that the post-exilic community has shaped the Hebrew Bible in response to the Exile. That post-exilic community that survived and returned to the land was the remnant of the southern nation of Judah. The Hebrew Bible is Judah’s Bible. Those from that community who put these scriptures together, collecting Israel’s sacred traditions, composing new materials, editing them together and shaping them into a “book” did so in order ultimately to bring a message of hope and expectation to those who had returned from exile but who were now searching for national identity and hope for the future.
The New Testament opens as it does because the first Christians saw Jesus as the answer to that search: Jesus the Messiah (the promised king), the son of Abraham (the father of Israel), and the son of David (the model king who suffered yet triumphed).