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Of frameworks and Red Sea crossings

I’ve been thinking lately about how to read and preach the Old Testament. The richness and relevance of the OT was one of the great surprises for me in my time at college so I want to make sure that I’m equipped to teach it well to others. To that end, over the last few weeks I’ve been listening to the talks from The Gospel Coalition’s conference on Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.

Perhaps naively, I thought they would be talks about how to preach the Old Testament. What I discovered upon listening is that they’re talks about preaching Christ: they start in the Old Testament but most of the air time is taken up in the New Testament (normally Paul). I’ve been trying to work out what to make of that. This week, the talks were recommended for small groups to listen to at our church but we haven’t done that yet.

Take this talk by Tim Keller. He’s preaching on Exodus 14 and he tries to prove that salvation in the Old Testament is very similar to salvation in the New Testament:

  1. It’s God’s grace
  2. It’s about crossing over
  3. It’s brought by the mediator

All those things are true, but are they in this passage?

I think #1 is definitely there in Exodus 14. You can’t read it without being struck by the action of God – the helplessness of the people, Yahweh’s manipulation of the elements, the whole thing with the cloud and darkness. Of course, that’s a theological rather than christological point but obviously it is true to our salvation in Christ as well.

#2 is a little more interesting. At first I thought Keller was taking the crossing of the Red Sea as some sort of allegory for passing from death to life but he gets there by thinking about what was going on spiritually for the Israelites. He sees them as spiritually dead and enslaved in Egypt such that their crossing of the Red Sea is more than a political liberation. I think he’s on to something there though his language does sound pretty allegorical at times.

#3 I was much less convinced by. Keller argues that Moses is a mediator because he both represents the people (in their fear) to God and channels the power of God. This points to our better mediator who represents us but doesn’t just channel God’s power but actually is God. I have no doubt that Moses is the forerunner to Jesus in his mediatorial capacity but I just wasn’t sure that that was in this passage. Keller argues that God could have struck the Israelites down and the reason he didn’t was because they had a mediator but that doesn’t seem to be the nature of what Moses is acting out here – the Israelites aren’t in danger of God striking them down.

In terms of how the rest of the Bible interprets this passage, Keller’s right to point out that it looms large. The OT takes the Red Sea crossing as the symbol of the exodus and the great salvation God won for his people (see Deut 26:5-10, Psalm 78, 106, Isaiah 40-55). That theme comes up again in the NT (like in Matt 2:15) though it’s sometimes a little obscure (for example 1 Cor 10:1-4). God’s grace is definitely on view but the idea of ‘crossing over’ that Keller uses seems too narrow for the way the NT uses the paradigm and the mediatorial function doesn’t seem to be on view at all. So if you want to read something like mediation back in Exodus 14, you not only go beyond the flow of the passage but also how how the NT interprets it. You end up making a systematic point, not a biblical point.

That’s where I feel like the danger is. Keller’s points look neat on the surface and they totally say true things but they seem to be stretching the movement of this passage a bit. The emphasis is on preaching true things about Christ rather than about uncovering the meaning of Exodus 14.

I’m not against frameworks: I do expect to get to Christ from the Old Testament. But I think we have to be careful how far we push the framework. After all, even if you get the framework from the Bible in the first place, it will still be inadequate, needing reform at some level. The framework might help you to read the Bible but the Bible has to critique and re-shape the framework. That’s what I’m not sure is happening in this talk. The framework’s there and you can fit the passage to it but it seems that the points about Christ that Keller gets have their source in his framework rather than in this passage.

How do you preach the OT? How would you use this talk with your small group?

Categories: Bible Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

5 replies

  1. Preach it, sister! I share your concern to allow the content of the Old Testament passage itself to determine (within the interpretive paradigm laid out by the NT) how it testifies to Christ.

    Clearly, Moses is massively mediatorial for Israel, but why highlight that aspect of his work if that’s not in the OT passage? Why not leave it for the golden calf incident? In this, I’m soooo with you.

    To me, the dynamic that’s front and centre here is the consummation of Yhwh’s victory over Pharaoh. Two deities battle for glory (kbd) with one hardening (kbd-ing) the other, and winning the glory by not only taking them out, but finally destroying the other’s threat to his people.

    For me, crossing over could be conceptually there, to a degree. Egypt is really painted as an anti-Eden and Pharaoh as the anti-God. So this being the ‘final battle’ as it were and being a true leaving of the land of the influence of Pharaoh makes sense to me.

    How do I preach the OT? Christo-telic-ly as opposed to christocentric-ly, if that distinction makes sense. The OT points to Christ, but not in a way predetermined by the NT. Otherwise you wouldn’t need the OT. You first have to determine the rhetoric purpose of the text for its original readers in order to rightly appreciate its fulfilment in Christ. Otherwise, you just assumed you know how it goes and aren’t actually taught anything by it.

    I think that how pastors handle this issue has big implications, over time, for how congregations read the Bible. On a few levels.

  2. Hmm. I listened to this sermon, and liked it. But my comment is more general in nature.
    Not being at Bible College, nor even having that much experience in reading the Bible compared to most other Christians, what strikes me about sermons like this is that they make someone like me feel like listening to these great teachers is as important/more important than reading the Bible by myself, for myself. I’m sure that is not the intent of preachers like Keller.

    But when I begin listening to a sermons like these, I question my ability to “get the meaning” of the passage on my “own” – after all, look at the amazing, systematic and makes-perfect-sense meaning that this educated, celebrated teacher got from the passage! How must my own understanding be deficient!
    Responses such as yours, Tamie, that judge a sermon on a passage by what the passage actually says, encourages someone like me to question the messages I hear from preachers.
    Perhaps more importantly, it’s empowering in that it turns me back to reliance on the Holy Spirit in my personal Bible-reading. I may still struggle with understanding, but have confidence that God can, and does, speak to me through His word. :-)

    It does help too to see a woman doing what you’re doing – I grew up with the implied understanding that I would always need men, and male teachers, to interpret the Bible for me, because as a woman, my focus was obviously on other (usually domestic) matters. :-)

  3. I love Tim Keller, but he does have the habit of reducing passages to about three key points that people can take home with them. Each point is quite illuminating, but there is the tendency to force a passage of Scripture into a certain mould. I also wonder if trying to make every passage of Scripture point to the gospel is an exercise in distortion.

    That said, I think Keller’s second point is valid. The notion of “crossing over” is a powerful image for the process of salvation, in both the OT and the NT. Indeed, if we look at the gospels, we find that all four have John the Baptist quoting from Isaiah 40 as a way of justifying his preparatory ministry, making the way for the coming of Christ; that passages begins the great Isaianic discourses on a new salvation for God’s people, which looks back to the Exodus as an explicit model for future redemption.

    It’s also worth remembering that within Jewish cosmology, the waters stood for the forces of evil and chaos. Think Genesis 1, with God separating the waters. And think, too, of baptism, which could be seen as a Christian and personal parallel to the Jewish and corporate act of redemption when God took his people from death (subject to the forces of evil, slavery and so forth), through the chaos, and out the other side into new life.

    Hopefully, that’s not forcing a meaning on the text that isn’t actually there. But it’s certainly clear that all throughout Scripture, the Exodus serves as a model for the repeated acts of divine redemption we find within its pages – climaxing of course with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

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