By Cameron B.R. Howard
The Old Testament is an indispensable companion for the work of innovation in the Christian church. You probably aren’t surprised that someone who teaches the Old Testament for a living would argue for the continuing relevance of the Hebrew scriptures, even on a church leadership blog. But I imagine that many of you are also skeptical of this claim. After all, the Old Testament has a reputation for being, well, old, in the worst senses of the word: outdated, alien, impenetrable, even frightening. When churches are striving for new ways of discipleship in a changing world, why would anyone ever turn to the Old Testament?
It turns out, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The diverse texts of the Old Testament arose in times of momentous cultural, political, and social change. Control of ancient Israel and Judah passed through the hands of several different ancient empires, and with every new ruler, God’s people had to find a “new normal”—a way to flourish in their culture and their faith amid the particular demands of a singular power.
While the circumstances that drove change in ancient Israel may differ from our current context, the effects were strikingly similar—people of faith had to adjust their worship practices, their sense of community, identity, and even their theology, to account for seismic shifts in the world around them.
Scholars have shown that the Persian period of biblical history, spanning the late sixth through fourth centuries, was the most productive era for the composition and compilation of Old Testament texts. The book of Ezra gives us a window into the tumult of this time through its depiction of the laying of the foundation of the second Jerusalem temple. The first temple had been destroyed in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, who had besieged the city, captured Judah’s king, and sent into exile the nation’s elites, some of whom were forced into servitude for their foreign rulers.
The fall of Jerusalem shook the foundations of Israel’s faith. God’s promises to David of an eternal kingdom seemed broken, and the ruins of the temple—understood to be God’s dwelling place—led even the most faithful Israelites to question whether God had abandoned God’s people altogether. But then, in 539 B.C.E. King Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and instructed the exiles to return to Judah and rebuild the Jerusalem temple. Hope surged.
Jeshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabbel, the governor, began rebuilding the life of corporate worship in Judah by setting up the altar for burnt offerings and observing the festival calendar. Eventually they procured supplies to begin construction on the temple itself. Like many ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies today, the laying of the foundation was accompanied by a festive atmosphere with certain ritual observances. The book of Ezra describes the scene:
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the LORD with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD,Ezra 3:10-13 (NRSV)
“For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
This is what change sounds like! The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping. Ezra describes for us the visceral anguish of those who mourn the loss of the way things used to be. Yet their cries intermingle with the abundant joy of those who celebrate the new possibilities in the community’s restored and renewed worship life. Grief and hope, devastation and promise, old and new: they all collide in this scene, and the leaders of the returnee community must navigate the fullness of this emotion, charting a course for a faithful future.
At the center of all this tumult is the question of how the people of Israel can live in faithful relationship to their God amid conflict and change. It is a question that haunts not just Ezra, but most of the pages of the Old Testament, spanning many centuries of ancient Israelite history.
Remarkably, not every book of the Bible arrives at the same answer to this question. The Old Testament does not necessarily model what communities and the leaders need to do to be effective in times of upheaval. Instead, it offers deep and abiding hope: people of faith have always walked the road of conflict and change.
Life with God has never been smooth sailing, and the world has never been static. Yet, in the midst of all of our shouting, God remains ever-present and ever-faithful.
About the Author
Cameron B. R. Howard is associate professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Among her publications are contributions to the twentieth-anniversary edition of the Women’s Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012), Connections: A Lectionary Commentary Resource (Westminster John Knox, 2018), Presbyterians Today magazine, and the journal Word & World. She is also a frequent contributor to WorkingPreacher.org. Her upcoming book, Faithful Innovation: How the Old Testament Points to New Life for the Church, will be published in 2020.