OT Audiences: Ring of Truth (Clarity of the Bible III)

Never have a fake phone conversation. When you are in the middle of sounding impressive and charismatic, when your phone will really ring and you’ll be caught out. This is a lesson I have learned from sitcoms.

Sitcoms also illustrate how fake phone conversations are often one-dimensional. The entire ‘conversation’ reflects what the pretender wants to be true. There is no encounter with the complex and independent will of another human being.

By contrast, the Old Testament authors portray their audiences as complex and independent people. Not only did the authors write to them in a way that hints at their interaction (see last post), the authors also wrote about them in convincing detail.

Two features of Old Testament audiences stand out.

First, they changed. Granted, the Bible is famous for showing the consistency of human nature – people sin all the way through. Yet there is also variation. Israel was a very new nation under Moses, Joshua and the judges, easily influenced by the idolatry of more established cultures and often failing to pass on its distinctive heritage of the Law. Later, under the monarchy, worship – both of Yahweh and of foreign gods – was more organised and came under the influence of political marriages and alliances. Later still, when the Exile confirmed Yahweh’s prophets, Jews more than ever took for granted that they would only worship the God of their fathers and looked back longingly on the best of the monarchy. Prophets now had to emphasise that, in spite of the Exile, God was still relevant and in charge and cared. That overview is very simplified. The point is, the audiences were varied, like real people are. The different generations’ changing responses to the Law, Prophets and so on makes historical sense.

Second, though the authors celebrate their supporters and push back against the haters, they do so with reason and restraint. We do not see cookie-cutter haters. The authors help us to make sense of their faults in light of natural motivations and pressures. For example, there is Moses’ generation’s habit of being slaves, clumsy in their use of freedom. Again, the judges period showed a nation still immature, while some of the kings, like Solomon, naturally showed national pride and political diplomacy – and took them in some bad directions. Conversely, even heroes are often weak, like Abraham lying about his wife and King David committing adultery. Pretty much any character who the authors go into detail about has both sympathetic and ugly qualities.

This balance is remarkable coming from an Ancient Near Eastern culture. It was normal to write down exclusively positive versions of your own history. The Annals of Sennacherib are a good example; they record a string of Assyrian victories, though cross-checking with Babylonian records indicates some defeats.

Keep in mind that, to varying extents, the Old Testament authors claim to deliver a perfect message from God. Yet they frequently admit that the message failed to transform people. That’s one sign of honesty – admitting things that must be embarrassing. Prophets report being called offensively negative (perhaps jinxers), over-strict, and even unpatriotic. Historians such as the authors of Samuel and Kings record the achievement of priests teaching the Law of Moses in very modest terms. Tacitly, they admit a huge amount of ignorance, illiteracy, and lack of interest – within Israel!

This is either honesty or cunning fiction. People today are quick to suggest it is fiction; we are familiar with very sophisticated historical fiction. This is because we live two hundred years after pioneering historical fiction author Sir Walter Scott. But sophistication like Scott’s doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t magically appear from the pen of every writer spinning a story. It is a very specific craft which was alien to the Ancient Near East. So when a skeptic takes the subtle touches of realism throughout the Old Testament and tries to explain them away as fiction, it is quite a strain.

It makes much more sense to take the Old Testament’s portraits of its audiences as at least mostly true, even if you don’t think the Bible is God’s Word. And those portraits of the audiences, with all their responses and nuances, shed a huge amount of light on the authors’ message.

In the next post, I’ll look at sources which give us some of the audiences’ voices directly.