My first blog entry on “points of convergence” in study of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was focused on ways that scholars are talking about the composition of the Pentateuch, the books of Genesis-Deuteronomy. I will be returning to that issue in a week or two with more explanation and examples, but I want to put a few more major subjects on the table first.
For a couple of centuries, scholars have identified a subject called Old Testament theology or theology of the Hebrew Scriptures. There has long been some difficulty defining this area of study in relation to other area of academic study of the Bible. Basically, it has been an attempt to move beyond treatment of individual texts toward a more synthetic treatment of the entire literary collection. The earliest efforts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to use the categories of Christian theology and search for an Old Testament perspective on issues like the nature of revelation, humanity, sin, and salvation. This gave way to approaches based on historical reconstructions of Israelite religion, which either examined how traditions changed and developed over time, or looked for a central theme that remained relatively unchanged. When these historical reconstructions crashed under their own weight a few decades ago, the field entered into its period of fragmentation.
In my own recent book, Portraits of a Mature God: Choices in Old Testament Theology, I claimed, with a little bit of apprehension that the fragmented field of Old Testament theology was beginning to converge again, in terms of its primary task. I identified that task as “to describe the character called God in the Hebrew Scriptures and to observe how that character relates to other characters in the text….” I was ninety-some percent sure I was correct about this convergence of purpose, but I have anxiously awaited any response to that claim. So, I was pleased when I attended a session at the 2013 Society of Biblical Literature meeting sponsored by the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures Section called “What is Biblical Theology?,” and heard several times that the primary task was to examine the ways the Bible portrays the divine character. One other point of common agreement is that the biblical portrayals of God are diverse and multi-faceted. This is where the consensus does and should end, however, because this task requires a variety of methods.
One general category of methodological approaches can be called dialogical, because it takes varied portrayals of the divine character and places them in a state of tension and debate with each other. The challenge for these approaches is how to organize the diverse portrayals. My own approach is narrative in character, organizing texts around the biblical plot that moves from creation to the Persian restoration of Judah and the concurrent Diaspora. Another interesting possibility that emerged in the session was a careful examination of the metaphorical images for God. While there is significant diversity among these approaches, because they are seeking the same purpose in describing the biblical portrayal of God, there is great potential for productive communication among them.