Essay / Theology

Nine Mighty Acts of God (Christoph Barth’s OT Theology)

Chrstoph-Barth-God-with-UsChristoph Barth’s 1991 “theological introduction to the Old Testament,” God With Us, organizes the theology of the Old Testament not around doctrines, but around divine acts. Christoph selects nine divine acts, to be specific. Here are my summaries of how he develops them. Not much commentary from me, just summary of what Barth selects under each heading.

1. God created heaven and earth. Creation is the first mighty act of God confessed, just as the Pentateuch and the Apostles’ Creed begin with it. The doctrine of creation is not fundamental to Jewish or Christian faith according toBarth; it is “secondary and complementary,” but it always gravitates to the front of any retelling because of its obvious chronological priority. In fact, election is the first of God’s deliverances of which His people are made aware, and only as the idea of election casts about for universal grounding does God’s identity as Creator become evident. It was thus with Israel as well as with the church, whose first creeds were strictly christological.

Barth takes care to show that creation, considered in any aspect, calls for praise of God. Creation is a miracle, a mighty victory of God over chaos and destruction, a deliverance of His people from threatening annihilation. In this context, Barth points out the double allusion contained in Ps. 74:14‑15 and Isa. 51:9‑10, which parallel creation with the deliverance from Egypt. God created heaven (that which is above mankind but under God‑‑once again, creation‑as‑deliverance) and earth, upon which He set humans.

Barth considers anthropology under four headings: 1) Humanity as soul, body, and spirit, 2) Humanity as man and woman in partnership, 3) Humanity as both “responsible lords and willing servants,” and 4) Humanity in the image of God, which Barth interprets solely along the lines of responsible exercise of delegated authority (along the lines of section 3, “lords and servants”). Finally, God’s active preservation of His creation from its self‑inflicted threats is seen to involve an extension of creative power into world‑history, a history which includes both amazing human creativity and the fall. God’s loving preservation ultimately necessitates nothing less than the creation of a new humanity through a chosen people (p. 36), prefigured in Abel, Enoch, and Noah.

2. God chose the Fathers of Israel. Just as with creation, Barth indicates that this article of faith is secondary and complementary to others (specifically, to the Exodus, which he’s saving his energy for). God chose the fathers, as individuals, from among the people of the earth, and challenged them personally to listen, obey, and believe, and to enter a new relationship with those around them. God revealed Himself in this election; He did not summon and direct His people from behind the scenes, but made Himself known. God’s revelation is more a matter of presence than appearance. He revealed a name to Israel, but He also confiscated the names (and temples) of surrounding deities, thus affirming that He is the one God. Barth emphasizes that while alien religions are usually portrayed negatively, this appropriation of pagan names allows the names to take on “a positive aspect as mirrors or reflections of God’s presence. A mirror is dark in itself but it can reflect light that falls upon it. This actually happened when God graciously revealed himself in the pluralistic religious world of the fathers.” God made a covenant with his people, swearing loyalty and making promises to them, which he faithfully keeps.

3. God brought Israel out of Egypt. This is the act of central significance which Barth took pains to keep creation and the election of the fathers from usurping. “Though we treat the topic third, it is first in importance.” God liberated his people, redeeming them and making them his own for the first time, in an important sense. Barth devotes a long section to establishing this deliverance as the foundation of the law, and linking it to the beginning of the nation’s worship. In the Exodus, God “made a name for himself,” in that He both handed over his inscrutable name, YHWH, and associated it with an act of deliverance which would serve as its context: Whatever else YHWH means, it means “He who brought you out of Egypt.” Next, Barth turns his attention to God’s defeat of Egypt, exploring its significance for the vanquished oppressors. Egypt was cast into the sea because of hardness of heart, and this is to be a sign to Israel and all nations. Ultimately God’s mercy will extend even to Egypt. Finally, the human role in Israel’s redemption is not overlooked: God brought Israel out of Egypt by means of a call to which they had to respond, and God’s chosen instruments were human leaders for his people.

4. God led his people through the wilderness. In the space between the exodus and the inheritance of the land, God and Israel had an extended encounter with each other in the desert. Israel was not chosen only once (at the exodus), but repeatedly, despite their stubborness, they were actively chosen and saved from a wasting death by their God. Complaints, revolutions, bitterness, and anger were Israel’s attitude toward God for most of the narrative. Manifesting his presence to them in many ways, God did not merely lead his people, he carried them. This pilgrimage marked all subsequent generations, even the inheritors of Canaan, as wayfarers forever, people seeking a home even when living a sedentary life.

5. God Revealed Himself at Sinai. This chapter wrestles with the proper placement of the Sinai topic. It is obviously an unparalleled moment of revelation, but it is not mentioned often in the Psalms and historical confessions which Barth uses as his guide in selecting materials. But it deserves special treatment because it “obviously determines Israel’s understanding of its existence no less and perhaps even more than the other topics.” At Sinai God concluded his covenant, summing up and formalizing the commitment with his people. His glory was revealed, and Israel learned how to prepare to serve him. He granted his Torah, to sanctify, liberate, and unite Israel, and to serve as the instrument of his own action among them. This is an exceptionally long chapter, owing to the minutiae which must be considered, but it is full of exceptionally rich analysis, reflections on the authority and purpose of individual laws, and the character of the temple worship system.

6. God granted Israel the Land of Canaan.  Of course, the miraculous gift of the occupied promised land involved military conquest, and Barth emphasizes the unified effort made by Israel and its galvanizing effect. Once again, attention is given to the fates of the defeated enemies, the Canaanites, and the relation (sinfulness) which they had to the Lord. Israel was given the land for a purpose: To be God’s people, growing up in the midst of the nations as a witness to them, worshiping only the Lord, and living in unity. The fair and bountiful land was given to be Israel’s own possession, and yet this affirmation is in tension with the claims of YHWH’s ownership of Canaan. It seems that the land is the property of Israel by the power of the Lord’s word of promise, whereby the gift of the land becomes a historical event. The inheritance of the land is therefore closely linked to the faithfulness of YHWH in keeping promises, which is why the loss of the land in the captivity was a major challenge to Israel’s faith.

7. God raised up kings in Israel. Barth includes the election of judges under this heading. Generally, God anoints the king through his prophets. But the people also have the right to appoint a king, as they did with the disappointing Saul and Rehoboam. YHWH sits on a throne, and he delegates this authority to David. The kings of neighboring cultures exalted their own thrones, but in Israel only the original throne was magnified, the throne of David, a reminder of the divine establishment of kingship. Enthronement of a king meant that the king was granted a unique position at the right hand of YHWH. Israel’s king was to act as a son of God, a savior, liberator, judge, and bringer of peace. All of this is placed within the king’s clearly secular authority, separated from the authority of the temple. God took it upon himself also to personally assess each king of his people. The fate of Israel was linked to the worthiness of its kings. Those kings who stand under God’s favor are not necessarily ideal kings, and sometimes only a hair’s breadth separates the favored kings from the rejected ones. It is a great mystery why God chooses some and rejects others, and how he advances his purposes through the kings. As the history unfolds, the story of Israel’s monarchy seems to be swallowed in tragedy, but at this point the prophetic voice breaks in with the promise of a re‑established throne of David and a coming just king.

8. God chose Jerusalem.  Barth notes that Jerusalem is mentioned 669 times in the OT, and Zion is mentioned 200 times. Barth places the main emphasis on Jerusalem as God’s city, not David’s. Illustrative of this is the solo journey of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. God had Jerusalem in mind before he led Israel to it. By allowing it to become also the city of David he integrated his plan and his people, creating the center of a just society, from which righteous rulers would govern. Jerusalem was also ordained as school of Wisdom, and under Solomon’s reign it achieved this purpose. In these ways, Jerusalem was exalted as the home of righteousness. God also allowed his temple to be built in this city, thus making it the place of his presence in a unique way. Here and only here could his people meet with him and worship him. Deuteronomy and the literature surrounding Josiah’s reform bear witness to the exclusivity of this ordinance. Finally, the failure of the historical Jerusalem to live up to these high standards makes possible the prophetic promise of a new Jerusalem, Jerusalem the righteous to replace Jerusalem the forsaken.

This chapter is unusually long, containing 41 pages (creation took only 19, and even the Exodus took only 24). This apparent imbalance is explained, however, by Barth’s need to find a place to discuss several unwieldy segments of the OT witness. Barth establishes Zion as a “school of wisdom,” thus fitting the exposition of the wisdom literature into this otherwise sparse chapter. Then he reminds us that Zion is the home of the temple, thereby making possible the discussion of temple‑worship and various liturgical concerns. The choice is legitimate, but a bit strained. Coming as it does at the end of the book, it leaves the impression that Barth’s schema, the 9 mighty acts of YHWH, is guilty of suppressing some aspects of the OT witness, and these remaining materials must be crammed into the final chapters on any pretext necessary. But Christoph Barth is not the first to choose a framework for an OT theology, only to discover it is not an exact fit. There’s a tension at the heart of the discipline of OT theology: The OT is too diverse and multifaceted to fit any clear conceptual schema. This long, penultimate chapter is especially rich in exegetical insights, as Barth seems to break away from his format ever so slightly and expound more freely. All things considered, it is far better to have this material included, even awkwardly, than to have it left out simply because it has no proper home within the book’s framework.

9. God Sent His Prophets. God periodically made his will known secretly to certain individuals who were commissioned to proclaim this will. Being summoned and sent as a prophet involved the honor of being entrusted with the knowledge of God’s plans and purposes, and a guarantee of God’s presence to ensure that his message is heard. Barth distinguishes three main messages of the prophets: 1) God Uproots, 2) God Builds Up, and 3) God Reveals His Ultimate Salvation. Under these headings he treats the pre‑exilic, post‑exilic, and apocalyptic prophets, respectively.

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