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Seminary professor holds an online Old Testament treasure hunt

The Rev. Dr. Dennis Olson is the most recent guest on the Synod of the Covenant’s ‘Equipping Preachers’ series

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Mick Haupt via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — “Rediscovering Lost Treasure: Old Testament Resources for Christian Faith and Life” is the title the Rev. Dr. Dennis Olson gave to an online talk he delivered earlier this month as part of the Synod of the Covenant’s “Equipping Preachers” series. Watch Olson’s talk encouraging preachers to engage Old Testament texts in their sermons — especially those passages that aren’t part of the lectionary — by clicking here.

Olson is the Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology and Chair of the Biblical Studies Department at Princeton Theological Seminary. He lamented that some preachers and faith communities “don’t know the history and background of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament.”

“It’s a crowded and complex history,” Olson said of the Old Testament, “and it’s sometimes hard for us to get our arms around it.”

Some of the Old Testament “seems useless or even repugnant to the modern Christian,” Olson said. Preachers are “sometimes repelled by a God portrayed as an angry judge or divine warrior,” as in Psalm 137:9, another verse often censored by lectionary committees.

Less than 30% of the Old Testament is read in worship among churches following the Revised Common Lectionary in worship, Olson noted, adding, “What happens when we strip down the Old Testament to 30% of its full voice?”

We can miss lessons on the stewardship of Creation, as Leviticus 25 provides. “The theology of the land and its care reflected in Leviticus 25 is actually quite profound,” Olson said. “It reminds us we humans do not own the land or other resources that make life possible. Rather, we are temporary stewards of the Earth.”

One professor calls Psalm 148 “a theological argument for the Endangered Species Act, the independent praise of God by non-human Creation,” Olson said. “The symphony of praise is lessened when a species goes extinct.”

Not only does the Old Testament speak of God and other complicated topics, it tells us about ordinary life too. “The Old Testament affirms God’s ongoing and blessing activity that often works in hidden, quiet, but no less real ways,” Olson said.

Just last summer, Olson was teaching a group of pastors in South Africa. Thirty years before, they’d celebrated the fall of apartheid. But the nation continues to struggle with economic inequality, crime and the influx of refugees who are even poorer than many South Africans. “These pastors find great resonance with Old Testament stories about … Israel’s struggles in the post-exilic period … but also profound hope and trust that God is still working in these difficult circumstances, and, in the end, God will be faithful,” Olson said. Congregations that are “going through these struggles and difficult times can also find a place that echoes and resonates to them in these texts,” he said.

Answering a webinar participant’s point that if some people in worship “don’t hear about Jesus, they haven’t been to church,” Olson advised letting the exegesis of the Old Testament passage “take you to resonance in the New Testament.”

The Rev. Dr. Dennis Olson

“They may complement one another or contradict one another, or they may supplement each other in some sort of way,” he said. “There’s no one easy answer how they speak to each other. It takes discernment and exegesis, and it’s hard work.”

Another said he’s heard from people who tell him, “I’ve never heard that about God’s love in the Old Testament. I have found that very affirming and transformative for a lot of people,” this preacher said.

“Ultimately, it’s God working,” Olson said. “It’s not dependent solely on us.”

“It’s helpful to share a critical reading of Scripture with our congregations. We may not think they’re ready for it, but they are, and they welcome it,” Olson said. “I have heard stories about congregations telling the pastor, ‘Why hasn’t anyone else told us about understanding the Bible as an ancient document and yet a powerful document that continues to speak to us as well?”

The Old Testament includes responses to human suffering, both the why — the intellectual response — and the how, the survival response. On occasion, the Old Testament talks about good coming out of suffering, like Joseph becoming what Olson called “the vice president of food distribution” in Egypt for his starving brothers who’d earlier sold him into slavery.

Expressing one’s feelings in the face of suffering “is an important aspect of the Old Testament witness,” Olson said, especially in lament psalms such as this one. When he was in ministry, Olson used to visit a parishioner dying of cancer who was, at the same time, losing his business. “Whenever I visited, he asked me to read me some of ‘those psalms,’ psalms of complaint and lament,” Olson said. “That’s what he needed to survive another day and keep his connection to God open.”

Old Testament accounts including the spy story of Israel coming into the land of Canaan help illustrate theological tensions of faith, Olson said, such as “God as righteous judge and merciful deliverer at the same time.”

“Faith is leaning into the future but remembering the past,” he said, the “unsettledness of being on the way and yet never quite home.”

If you’re looking for “pensive, balancing, dialectic metaphors for God,” look no further than the book of Hosea, where God is compared to, among other things, a spouse whose partner has been unfaithful, the parent of a rebellious teenager, a hiker in the wilderness, a bird-catcher, a tree providing shade and protection, maggots in a wound, an angry lion, a mother lion gently bringing her cubs back home, dry rot destroying a house, and a soothing spring shower.

“Some of Hosea’s opponents called him a crazy man,” Olson said. “But no one ever called his preaching boring.”

A “particularly strong contribution” in the Old Testament is its ethical and moral concern, Olson said. In Amos 5, the prophet seeks to have justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

“The Old Testament provides ethical food for thought on a wide variety of issues — marriage and family, sexuality and intimacy, the pitfalls of adultery,” relationships, “the theology of the city, the ethics of nations and politics, issues of war and peace. All of these themes and issues can provide a broad basis for preaching on issues of justice and ethics,” Olson said. “This is just a sample of the rich treasure for those willing to blow the dust off previously unused Old Testament texts.”

“As with any study of the Bible, the more you will explore, the more you will discover.”

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