Interpreting the Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School

Word of Walter Kim’s appointment as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals could have an upside if Dr. Kim studied with Harvard’s Jon Levenson. The pastor at Trinity PCA in Charlottesville completed a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, which would put him in the vicinity of Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, is one of the foremost voices in the study of Hebrew Scriptures. Heck, even Pete Enns studied with Levenson.

The positive influence from Levinson on Kim could be interpreting the Old Testament and not letting it become a proof text for social justice. Consider the following:

Liberation theology has long had a problem with Jewish particularism. Consider the liberationists’ penchant for interpreting the poor and oppressed as the beneficiaries of one of their favorite biblical events, the Exodus. That the God of Israel is especially concerned with the vulnerable and eager to protect them is exceedingly easy to document from the many biblical passages that enjoin Israel to show special solicitude for the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the (landless) Levite and that depict God as their special protector. Nor is it out of bounds to argue that such concern plays a role in the biblical account of the Exodus.

The problem is that what links the beneficiaries of God’s intervention in the Exodus is something very different: descent from a common ancestor. Those delivered from Pharaoh and his regime are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and it is explicitly God’s memory of his covenant with the patriarchs that galvanizes him into action in Egypt. Had the motivation instead been concern for the poor and oppressed, the story would have taken a very different shape. Not just Israel but all the slaves of Egypt would have been freed, and slavery, explicitly allowed in biblical law (including the possibility of lifetime enslavement in the case of foreign bondsmen), would have been abolished.

When the poor and oppressed replace the people Israel as the beneficiaries of the Exodus, an idea, or social norm, has replaced a flesh-and-blood people. It then becomes possible for any group that can be made to fit into that idea or to benefit from that social norm to be the new Jews. This is the replacement theology secularized, or supersessionism without the church—and it swiftly opens the door for the old anti-Judaism to reappear in a post-Christian culture—not in the mouths of theocratic reactionaries but in those of free-thinking progressives.

Imagine what that kind rigor would do to one of Kim’s colleagues’ handling of seeking the welfare of the city.

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