Old Testament Cross-Culturalism: Paradigmatic Or Enigmatic? -- By: Elmer B. Smick

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 32:1 (Mar 1989)
Article: Old Testament Cross-Culturalism: Paradigmatic Or Enigmatic?
Author: Elmer B. Smick

Old Testament Cross-Culturalism: Paradigmatic Or Enigmatic?

Elmer B. Smick*

“Paradigmatic or enigmatic” is simply scholarly jargon for whether or not there is a theological message in cross-culturalism as evidenced in the OT. The Archbishop of Canterbury is reported to have said recently that the only reason for the Church to send missionaries is to dialogue with world religions. From that standpoint the OT would be the last place to go to learn something theologically about cross-culturalism since Israel started with a command to exterminate her neighbors and eventually was almost exterminated by them. Yet, as a believing community, Israel in its various stages had to interact and communicate with diverse peoples and cultures. Scripture posits a supernatural origin to account for the uniqueness of Israel’s religion, but it also informs us that the nation was pressured and sometimes shaped by peoples who had mores—especially religious mores—that were contrary to Israel’s divinely-revealed oracles. Through the prophetic office the nation was continually warned about syncretism, which eventually brought about its demise.

But the OT also tells about a positive aspect of Israel’s relationship to surrounding cultures. A simple but often neglected truth about OT Israel is that it was a community with a worldwide vision. Mosaic legislation provided for the care and proselytizing of the resident alien within the gates. M. Dahood thinks certain of the Psalms reflect the words of converts from polytheism. Israel was constantly reminded that their calling as God’s chosen people was not an end in itself but a means of bringing all nations to praise the name of the Lord. Although this was most often put into an eschatological setting, proselytism was expected and regulated. Provision was made for the resident alien to celebrate the Lord’s Passover by converting, after which no distinction was to be made between the native-born and the alien living among them (Exod 12:48–49).

The Hebrews as Semites had their closest cultural connections with the Asian Near East, but they lived at a cultural crossroad often ruled and constantly influenced by non-Semitic peoples such as Egyptians, Hittites, Hurrians, Sea Peoples and eventually Persians. The Egyptian Journey of Wenarnun to Phoenicia presents a view of cross-culturalism at the time of the disintegration of the New Kingdom (c. 1100 B.c.). The

*Elmer Smick, professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, delivered this presidential address at the 40th annual meeting of ETS on November 18, 1988.

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