Old Testament Theology that Preaches

In this excerpt, renowned biblical scholar John Goldingay explores the connection between love, commitment, and community. It’s an excellent demonstration of his ability to draw practical application from a technical analysis of the text.

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In the Septuagint, ḥesed usually appears as eleos, pity, and thus in the Vulgate as misericordia and in the KJV as “mercy,” but this misses the heart of the word’s meaning. The NRSV usually has “steadfast love” or “loyalty,” the TNIV “kindness” or “love,” sometimes qualified by a word such as “unfailing.” The word suggests a practice of generosity or goodwill or beneficence that is extraordinary because it takes place either when there is no particular prior relationship between people and thus no obligation, or when there is a prior relationship but there is some reason why ḥesed could not be expected (for instance, because the other person has let you down). The nearest English word is commitment. It is the Hebrew equivalent of agapē in the New Testament, the love that “can be thought of as a commitment of the will to the true good of another.” A ḥāsîd is someone who does more than the law requires. It is the opposite of falsehood (šeqer; Gen 21:23). Indeed, a ḥāsîd not only avoids deceiving a fellow human being (Lev 25:17); “he will not even deceive himself.” “Socrates taught us that a life without thinking is not worth living. . . . The Bible taught us that life without commitment is not worth living.” “The tendency of formulated law is to help establish a traditional order of life. Love is more flexible and can bring new solutions to new situations.” . . .

Being human involves both being an individual and being part of communities to which we are committed. It is a matter of both the corporate and the individual. We are responsible for making our own individual decisions and in some contexts for standing apart from the community, but more often for keeping a commitment to the community even though it goes against our preferences. Some contexts require a renewed emphasis on the importance of individual awareness and responsibility, such as the situation where people are inclined to overemphasize the way the children’s teeth are set on edge by the grapes the parents ate (Ezek 18). Some contexts require a renewed emphasis on the importance of corporate awareness and commitment to the community.

In the past, European and US culture held individual and community together, but in the late twentieth century, the individual came to dominate. A communitarian context emphasizes thinking in terms of “we,” an obligation to accept and abide by the decisions of the group, a focus on its success and achievement, a respect for its other members, an evaluation of one’s work on the basis of the way it contributes to the group, and a concern to preserve honor and respect within it. An individualistic context emphasizes thinking in terms of “I,” independence over against group decisions, a focus on individual success and achievement, self-respect, an evaluation of one’s work on the basis of what it means to oneself and a concern to preserve one’s own values. Habits of the Heart argues that the presumed right to individual fulfillment means other people have no ultimate claims on us; “individualism lies at the very core of American culture.”  Our only ultimate obligation is to our own well-being. But the divorce of the individual from the community has generated “the empty self.” A first fruit of God’s liberation of people is that we are “drawn out of solitariness into fellowship,” drawn into commitment.

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