A Homiletical Spiral for Preaching Old Testament Narratives
- Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Preaching Old Testament narratives can be a very difficult, even frustrating experience. Ministers come across seemingly obscure passages and find themselves asking, "How in the world am I supposed to get a sermon out of that?" Take I Kings 13.1-6, for example. It relates a story where an unnamed prophet confronts Jeroboam in Bethel and proclaims that in light of what Jeroboam is attempting, YHWH will raise up a future king who will reverse Jeroboam's religious reforms and exact YHWH's judgment. The story seems an exciting one, but how is a minister "this side of Christ" to preach it? Bearing in mind the danger of forcing passages to "speak to me where I am", let us take a closer look at I Kgs 13.1-6, setting out to not only attach personal significance to the passage, but perhaps learn more about preaching OT narratives in general.
I. Establish a Context
A very important first step to making a section of Old Testament narrative "preach-able" is to read it in relation to its immediate context, the larger narrative within of which a given pericope is a part. For our purposes, we might note that there is an intriguing development in the Kings narrative wherein Jeroboam is appointed by Solomon himself to be the one who oversees the men whom Solomon had compelled to labor. Soon after, as I Kgs 11.29-39 informs us, the prophet Ahijah from Shiloh goes out with Jeroboam from Jerusalem to tell him that YHWH has decided to tear the kingdom from Solomon and make Jeroboam king over ten tribes. In the space of about one chapter we learn that Jeroboam has gone from a man who had been "taken" by God and given all Israel to rule to a man against whom YHWH had sent his prophet in judgment.
What could bring about such a turn in fortune? What had Jeroboam done that turned him from God's appointed and approved king to God's enemy? Surely I Kgs 13.1-6 gives its own implicit explanation, but we will endeavor to show that one way to feast upon Old Testament narrative is to take cues from its interplay with prominent themes that have been traditionally associated with memorable portions of other biblical narratives. Our second step, then, will be to discern any literary and cultural motifs that the writer may have woven into his work and filled with theological significance.
II. The Egypt Motif
According to the Pentateuch YHWH had made known to Abram long ago that Israel would be enslaved in a land "not theirs". The people would be slaves for four hundred years at the end of which "the sin of the Amorites" would "be complete." (Gen 15.16) Israelites, being of the Shem-ite line, were clearly not destined to be slaves; however, YHWH is said to have explained to Abram that they would be slaves temporarily, at least until "the sin of the Amorites was complete." The expression 'Amorites' has been understood by many as "the collective term for the pre-Israelite population." 1 In other words, one would not alter the meaning of the text by reading "the sin of the Canaanites was complete." With this information, the reader is somewhat prepared to eventually find the Israelites in Egypt on account of severe famine and the summons of an Egyptian ruler. At the time, unbeknownst to them, an Israelite, Joseph, one of Jacob's sons, had arisen in Egypt whom the pharaoh had set "over all the land of Egypt". (Gen 41.41) He eventually made known his identity to his brothers and invited all of Israel to Egypt for refuge from the famine. The Israelites enjoyed great favor on account of him; nevertheless, on his death bed, he is said to have encouraged his brothers with these words: "God will surely graciously visit you and bring you up from this land to the land that he had sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (Gen 50.24) Before this, the majority of Israelites had already gone up from Egypt to Canaan to bury Isaac there. The Israelites, then, while in Egypt, were not cut off per se from the land of Canaan, but were rather awaiting the right opportunity (e.g., the end of famine conditions) to venture back into the land. 2 In later biblical narrative, then, we might expect Egypt to be associated with temporary refuge. 3
The opening chapter of Exodus reports that the Israelites were subject to harsh treatment in Egypt some time after Joseph had passed away. Enlisted in compulsory labor, they became the victims of an unnamed pharaoh's ambition. The conditions of the servitude became so severe that Ex 3.9 relates how YHWH had "seen the oppression with which the Egyptians were oppressing them." YHWH eventually brings Israel out of Egypt through the leadership of Moses with "an out-stretched arm" and defeats the Egyptian gods, chariots, and king after demonstrating his awesome power. Upon making a show of the Egyptian gods in particular, the Israelites (and the Egyptians) would have understood that YHWH was indeed the God above all gods. However, the Pentateuch highlights how the people's hearts were stubborn and how, immediately after meeting YHWH at his appointed mountain, they made a molten calf and worshipped it as the god who had freed them from Egypt. It is curious, though, that Aaron then announces "a festival to YHWH" (Ex 32.5). It may not be the case that the people rejected YHWH as the God above all gods or as the God to whom they were forever indebted. Even so we can maintain that the people proceeded to worship YHWH in a way that YHWH did not condone, especially since portions of the Pentateuch itself purport to be the very 'manual of worship' that YHWH had prescribed (notably Ex 20.1-6). In light of the book of Exodus, then, we might also expect Egypt to appear in other narratives in association with false worship.
III. Connecting Egypt to the Monarchy
The editors of DTR present Deut 17.14-20 as if it anticipated the Israelite monarchy. The Israelites were permitted by YHWH to install a king, provided that it is one that YHWH himself chooses. A key prohibition imposed upon the king, interestingly enough, is that he was not to go back to Egypt. The prohibition may refer to Ex 13.17 where the narrator explains why God did not lead the people through the land of the Philistines: because he did not want the people to consider going back to Egypt under threat of war. Notwithstanding, as soon as Ex 14.12 the Israelites express their desire to "serve the Egyptians". The lure of Egypt repeatedly manifests itself in the complaints of the Israelites throughout the wilderness narrative. Deut 17 specifically warns a hypothetical, future king of yielding to this very temptation. What does "go back to Egypt" mean? How would a king go back to Egypt? Deut 17 specifically warns of strengthening the Israelite army in any way that relies on Egypt's power, but there may be more in mind than strictly military affairs.
David's son Solomon built the first temple as YHWH had promised. However, before he accomplishes this (in fact, immediately after the narrator explains how the "kingdom had been established in Solomon's hand"), the narrative recounts how Solomon "became son-in-law to pharaoh, king of Egypt" (I Kgs 2.46-3.1). Next, he recalls how "Solomon loved YHWH by walking in the statutes of David his father, though he sacrificed and offered sacrifices in the high places." Very early in his career, the narrator relates the beginning of the end of Solomon. Though Solomon fortified the army through Egypt, it was the matter of worship that ultimately troubled the biblical writer. It is not too much to suggest that the monarchy had been established by YHWH as a concession. The monarchy was thought to have somehow posed a threat to the proper worship of YHWH and to foster a false reliance upon the king or upon sheer military might during times of war, but, despite obvious flaws, David had been donned with a legendary status with regard to his right worship of YHWH as well as his military success. Only with such a king at its head could Israel be in a position to rightly order its worship of God under peaceful conditions in the land. Though much more could be said with respect to the monarchy, our third step will be to integrate these observations with the pericope at hand.
IV. Returning to the Context
In I Kgs 12.32-13.1, the phrase "in front of the altar" appears four times (three times with the verb, "to ascend") in reference to Jeroboam's proximity to the altar and his intention to offer sacrifices upon it. The narrator is certainly drawing readers' attention to the fact that Jeroboam is about to offer the sacrifices at the shrine at Bethel. "Can you believe what he is about to do?" is the sense with which these verses read. "Can you believe how far he has gone?" Perhaps, the repetitions in verses 32 and 33 serve to build the suspense. "Will Jeroboam actually get away with what he has set out to do?" At least we can say that the postulation of a contrived emphasis upon the altar is confirmed by the fact that the unnamed prophet — who appears seemingly seconds before Jeroboam is about to sacrifice — speaks out "against the altar" and not against Jeroboam. The same phrase that was used for "in front of the altar" is used again here, except now clearly with the sense of 'against' and not 'in front of.' This seems to suggest that whereby Jeroboam was obviously very much in favor of the reform that he had implemented, YHWH was diametrically 'against' it. For by the word of YHWH the man of God cried, "Altar! O Altar! Thus says YHWH, Look! A son will be born to the house of David, Josiah his name, and he will sacrifice the priests of the high places upon you, the ones who are offering sacrifices upon you" (I Kgs 13.2). Though Jeroboam had now installed a new religio-political system for worship, YHWH would some day raise up a king who would bring it to an end. The system was such an affront to YHWH that he addressed it directly and pronounced its termination. Why was YHWH so appalled at Jeroboam's reform that he would have the priests themselves sacrificed upon the altar? The answer lies in the preceding chapter of Kings and in its usage of the above motifs.
Let us return to consider how Solomon had set Jeroboam as the man who was to be over those who were compelled to labor. The mention compulsory labor can be understood as a parallel to the bondage of Egypt. After Solomon had passed away, Rehoboam had become king, saying, "Now my father set a heavy yoke upon you, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions" (I Kgs 12.14). It is not hard to see that, at least with respect to slavery, the Israelites had symbolically found themselves back in Egypt. The narrator does not stop here, however. He continues to capitalize on the Egypt motif in I Kgs 12.25-31. Here, Jeroboam considers how he might perpetuate the division that had obtained between Israel and "the house of David". He reasoned that if he could somehow prevent the people from worshiping in Jerusalem (i.e., the district of his rival) then he would fare a better chance of maintaining power. In order to accomplish this, Jeroboam, astoundingly, made two calves of gold and proclaimed, "Look! Your God O Israel who brought you up from the land of Egypt!" It should be noted that I Kgs 12.28 differs with respect to only one word to that of Ex 32.4. This is clearly an explicit reference to what took place soon after the Israelites' departure from Egypt. The exclamation was so important in the context of the book of Exodus that YHWH repeats these very words to Moses in Ex 32.8. In that narrative, the Levites are called upon to slay about three thousand people; moreover, YHWH afflicted the people with a plague. The plague had been sent "because they had made the calf that Aaron had made" (Ex 32.35). Although the precise meaning of this verse remains uncertain, it is clear that the plague was YHWH's response to the calf. By means of Jeroboam's religio-political reforms, then, the Israelites had in a second sense been brought back to Egypt.
"Altar! O Altar!" cried the man of God who had come from Judah. In I Kgs 12.30, the narrator had explained in retrospect how Jeroboam's schemes had so entrapped the Israelites, causing them to "sin" by diverting their worship from Jerusalem. The man of God was from Judah, the province that contained Jerusalem, and he proclaimed that a king from Judah would burn Jeroboam's illegitimate priests upon the illegitimate altar. The word of YHWH spoke of a coming king and was attested by a sign. The man explained that as proof that what he had proclaimed was true, the altar would tear apart and the wood and fatty ashes be spilled. When Jeroboam tries to stop this by stretching out his arm and ordering the prophet's capture, his arm 'withered' to such an extant that he could bring it back to his body. The king, about to offer sacrifices to YHWH, had been miraculously enfeebled! Just then the altar tore apart and the ashes spilled as the words of YHWH had declared.
It is very easy to see that the king was reckoning with a power greater than he. The withering of the king's arm served at least two purposes in the narrative. First, readers would undoubtedly have recalled how a similar spontaneous affliction had been a sign that was given to Moses in order to authenticate his call and mission. The man of God was thus able to prove to Jeroboam and to those in attendance (and let's not forget the reader) that he was a genuine prophet of YHWH. However, if Jeroboam had not raised his arm, then it seems unlikely that his arm would have been so afflicted. The man of God did not need to legitimate himself in this way since he had already offered a sign that would validate his word. The altar had split and the ashes had been spilled immediately after the withering of Jeroboam's hand. Therefore, the narrator may have had a second purpose in mind.
In Ex 3.20, YHWH declares that he would stretch out his hand and strike down the Egyptians. The IVP Background Bible Commentary explains that an outstretched arm was an "Egyptian metaphor" that symbolized the power and might, especially of the king, in ancient Egypt. 4 In addition, then, to the frequency with which the phrase appears in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the image of an outstretched arm was culturally and politically significant beyond the biblical story. Jeroboam's outstretched arm is yet another figurative pointer to the Egypt motif, but it also signifies something more. The Israelite king's outstretched arm was impotent to thwart God. The writer of Deut 17 understood that with the advent of the monarchy came much power to the person who was installed as king, but his power was understood to be derivative and subject to that of YHWH.
At the end of the Solomon story, the narrator mentions how Solomon had not served YHWH like his father David did. As a result, YHWH appointed an "adversary" for Solomon who had taken refuge in Egypt. Jeroboam, too, fled to Egypt when he had fled from Solomon and was given refuge there. One might say that in spite of YHWH's defeat of the Egyptians (and their gods) long ago and his more recent promise to David regarding the establishment of his throne, Egypt continued to pose a serious threat to the Davidic monarchy (and by implication, to the people's well being). That Jeroboam's outstretched arm had instantaneously withered as he reached toward the prophet reminds the reader that Egypt (metaphorically, of course 5 ) would not ultimately succeed in its endeavor to recapture the Israelites.
Hope, according to the man of God, lay in a future Judahite king who would overturn Jeroboam's religio-political reforms and restore truer forms of YHWH-worship. Josiah is mentioned by name in I Kgs 13.2, but his story is not told until II Kgs 22. Significant for our purposes is how the unnamed man of God of I Kgs 13 announced that Josiah would slaughter the illegitimate priests upon the altar and burn human bones on it. Bones apparently played a significant role in Josiah's reform according to II Kgs 23. He time and again "defiled" shrines throughout the land by pouring or burning bones on them. One would think that such a permanent way of rendering the high places unfit for worship would prevent the people from ever returning to Egypt; however, Josiah in the end was killed by (of all people) the king of Egypt himself (II Kgs 23.29). The question is raised, then, if Josiah did not accomplish what the man of God said he would, what becomes of the word of YHWH that he proclaimed? In posing an answer we should note how with the death of Josiah, the Israelites became subjects of Egypt, but they were soon turned over to Babylon. In light of our examination of the Egypt motif, it is especially interesting to recall II Kgs 24.7: "The king of Egypt did not venture out of his country again, for the king of Babylon had seized all the land that had belonged to the king of Egypt, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates." (NJPS) Though we shall not be able to further explore the idea, it seems that the Egypt motif has been replaced by Babylon and that henceforth the Israelites no longer need to concern themselves with Egypt.
V. Going to the New Testament for Help
A fourth step to take is to see if an Old Testament passage can be further illuminated by the New Testament. Though there is mention of the golden calf of Egypt in the New Testament, there is no explicit reference to our passage. When looking to connect I Kings 13.1-6 to the New Testament, one would be hard pressed to find another incident that involved the confrontation of a spiritually wayward king of Israel by an unnamed 'man of God' who is able to pray to YHWH in order to remove a plague that had been sent by him. That's the whole problem in a nutshell; however, there are other connections to make. We shall suggest two of them below.
John 2.13-22 is about as close as one might come to finding a New Testament parallel to I Kgs 13.1-6. Here, Jesus goes into the Temple in Jerusalem and drives out the sheep and cattle and all that were involved in the sale of animals. These men were in the temple for a seemingly acceptable reason: to provide animals for worshippers to sacrifice; nevertheless, Jesus contested, "Do not make my Father's house a market-house!" (John 2.16) Some Jews who were present asked him for a sign, and Jesus responded, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it again." John's retelling of this incident closely approximates the Jeroboam incident in many ways. First, the issue at hand regards worship. Modifications had been made to worship procedures for what seemed to be legitimate, practical reasons, 6 but were nevertheless interpreted by God as despicable and unconscionable. Second, a prophet appears and violently makes a scene in order to affect reform. Third, there is mention of a sign that would authenticate the prophet's words. Fourth, the prophet's words look forward to a future person or event that would somehow bear upon the present situation. These four general descriptions apply to both the Temple scene and the Jeroboam incident. Still, in spite of the prophet's presentation of Josiah as one who would restore the Israelites from Jeroboam's religio-political system, Josiah was not as successful as the man of God's prophecy seems to have predicted. Jesus, on the contrary, by his death and resurrection, virtually demolished the existing religio-political system and instigated a new covenant around which proper worship would revolve. In other words, Jesus did raise the temple again in three days — so long as one understands that by 'temple' Jesus spoke of his body (John 2.21). In addition, it could be argued that Jesus' reforms were continuous with those of Josiah at least in terms of their both originating within the same Davidic line (both were 'sons of David') and that both were directed at restoring true worship of YHWH in Jerusalem. However, the adversary, i.e., the king of Egypt, eventually killed Josiah; Jesus, by contrast, decisively defeated the adversary when he approached (Matt 4.1-11 par.) and went on to conquer even death itself by his resurrection in accordance with the word that he himself had spoken in John 2.19. Perhaps more could be said by way of comparison with respect to these two passages; however, we shall content ourselves with these remarks.
I Kgs 13.1-6 may seem an odd little story to include in Scripture and a difficult one to connect with the broader contours of the Israelite story, the Jesus story and our personal stories. We attempted four steps that sought to extract bits of meaning from the passage's context, its relation to other OT motifs, the context again and the NT. Expositional exegesis, so commonly encouraged, was purposefully neglected in order to highlight the spiraled-ness of the enterprise of preparing biblical narratives for sermons. Our first interaction with the text sought to place the passage in its immediate context. Second, we searched for underlying literary and cultural motifs. Third, we reexamined the context of the pericope in light of the motifs. Then we deferred to the NT for any available insights. The reason for all the jumping around is that expository study of biblical narratives will prove less effective unless creatively conducted in spiraled phases.
The sermon can now seize upon points that can be made with regard to the application of the passage. The above work was only preliminary; the sermon will probably not be as involved. However, it would not hurt to once and again cover both a text and one of its subtexts in a single sermon. This may enrich the depth of the sermon as well as (re-)familiarize congregants with other biblical narratives. Even so, the pericope is not to be abandoned to a cultural or literary motif (Egypt in our example). Rather, points can be made in light of these motifs.
For example, in light of the Egypt motif, one can say that the prophet's pronouncement in the above pericope cautions contemporary believers against turning away from God with respect to their worship and against making decisions that are against God's broader purposes for his people. Jeroboam had essentially brought the people back to Egypt, both in terms of temporary refuge and false worship. God is always bent on redeeming his people; even when they are subject to bondage, his ultimate intent is to redeem them. The idea of temporary refuge, then, is not ungodly in itself; neither is, I would argue, false worship. 7 However, if the spiritual state of believers is such that temporary refuge or false worship can destroy the spiritual vitality and redeemed-ness of God's people, they become abominable. False worship can lead to apostasy and temporary refuge to false reliance. Given the guilt attributed to Jeroboam in Scripture, religious leaders especially should be warned of causing their congregations to sin by implementing worship reforms or offering means of temporary refuge that have deleterious consequences. Should such a thing occur, there is always forgiveness available through repentance; however, undoing the damage can be an inestimable task. In Jeroboam's case, it took the installation of an anointed king who would centuries later rid the land of Jeroboam's institution, but even this reform could not erase Jeroboam's mark.
In Christ, believers have their every sin forgiven and have an unprecedented relation to God the Father. Christ accomplished a reform far greater than Josiah's; therefore, the idea that the prophecy of Josiah applies to Jesus by extension is suggestive. The fact still remains, though, that religious leaders especially, be they ministers or lay, should beware of leading their flocks back to Egypt for therein lies the double danger of false reliance and false worship. Egypt should be a thing of the past; it is no longer part of God's plan for his people. Put another way, it is something that God's people should outgrow. Once the four hundred years were up, God had no desire for his people to return. Not only did he say so explicitly in Deut 17, but the notion is intimated throughout the Pentateuch. 8 God alone is our eternally true refuge; believers should take care to trust in him and offer him true worship. What these two practically entail cannot be determined by law; they will differ from situation to situation, community to community, person to person. Specifics can then be adduced in accord with the preaching moment and in line with the preacher's convictions.
Just by scratching the surface, then, we see that Old Testament narratives can speak mountains to us today. We have used I Kgs 13.1-6 as our example, but the same can be said for almost every other narrative in the Old Testament. Some will be more difficult than other and motifs will differ from pericope to pericope and preacher to preacher, but by preparing sermons in spiraled phases, as I have called them, ministers may develop a facility with the narrative portions of the Old Testament by taking advantage of the macro-structures of Old Testament texts that expository preaching can so often depreciate.
1. E. A. Speiser, Genesis. AB 1. (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 113.
2. The fact that the Israelites were able to bury Jacob's bones in Canaan offered hope to the people. See Jack N. Lightstone, Society, the Sacred, and Scripture in Ancient Judaism: A Sociology of Knowledge. Studies in Christianity and Judaism 3. (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988), 31-35.
3. Cf. Gen 12.10; 26.1; 41.53ff.
4. John H. Walton and Victor Matthews, The IVP Background Bible Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 260.
5. Although, in II Chron 12.1-12 Egypt is both metaphorical and actual.
6. That the historical incident of Aaron's golden calf was probably more ambiguous than the narrator of Exodus makes it out to be is judiciously suggested by Brevard S. Childs (The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1974). Perhaps, the same could be said for Jeroboam's reforms (at least from Jeroboam's point of view) and more plausibly for the Temple "market".
7. Based on the previously mentioned ambiguity of Ex 32 and on I Cor 8-9.
8. The Prophets, too, capitalize on this Egypt motif.
Original publication date: July 29, 2009
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