Jerry Hwang, author of Contextualization and the Old Testament and co-editor of Exploring the Old Testament in Asia, reflects on the importance and impact of contextualizing the Old Testament.
Years ago, several friends who are Old Testament professors independently asked me to recommend teaching resources that examine the OT from Asian cultural perspectives. I thought it shouldn’t be too difficult to locate some since I am an Old Testament faculty member at Singapore Bible College, a seminary with faculty and students from 20+ Asian countries for me to consult. The seminary library also has an excellent collection of both English and Chinese works.
To my surprise, the Asian-themed resources that I found didn’t take the Old Testament seriously enough as God’s authoritative truth, while those that did were thoroughly Western in their cultural orientation. So the challenge was on—I had been telling my students at Singapore Bible College for a decade that the ancient Near Eastern background of the Old Testament was closer to their cultures than to the West. But now it was time to prove it! Contextualization and the Old Testament is my long answer to the simple question that my OT scholarly friends asked me.
Let me give an example of how rereading with more “Asian eyes” can help Christians from any culture to understand the Old Testament better than with solely “Western eyes.” The passage that I typically use to illustrate this is Psalm 121, one of my favourite passages in the Old Testament. Even though I am ethnic Chinese, my upbringing has been in America and my academic training in Western institutions. These influences had long hampered my understanding of the familiar question-and-answer which opens the psalm: “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (vv. 1–2). Without knowing it, I had come under the influence of the standard view in Western theology and culture that passages such as Psalm 121 are about nature as a reminder of God’s help (a theme made popular by The Sound of Music). As further reflection allowed me to regain a pair of “Asian eyes,” I came to see that the beginning of this psalm is a rhetorical question which actually expects a negative answer—no, not from the mountains!
Psalm 121 is one of many biblical examples
in which Asian Christians can draw on their experiences
of constant anxiety about the supernatural.
For if it were true that Yahweh shows his special presence in the mountains (v. 1), the psalmist would not proceed to challenge themselves that Yahweh is the “Maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2). Modern people who are weary of noise and congestion tend to regard mountains as places of rest and refuge, but this clashes with the view of people in ancient West Asia that they were instead the place where fearful powers dwelled. The Arameans harboured just such a superstition about Yahweh (1 Kgs 20:27–29). Israel had its own version of a similar syncretism in attempting to worship Yahweh at the “high places” (e.g., Deut 12:2; 1 Kgs 3:2–4; 2 Kgs 17:7–12). These were the Canaanite sites that were formerly used to venerate nature deities such as Baal and Asherah. In such a context with more similarities to non-Western than Western cultures, Psalm 121’s beginning is a declaration about Yahweh’s rule over a polytheistic world of nature gods and mythological powers. It would be mistaken to see the sort of contrast between an invisible, spiritual God and visible, physical objects that a Western-style monotheist would naturally draw.
The rest of the psalm continues with this keen awareness of other spiritual forces and powers which have physical manifestations. Unlike other Canaanite nature deities, Yahweh is alert enough to keep the psalmist from falling because He does not slumber and sleep (vv. 3–4). In this regard he contrasts with Baal, who needs to die annually in “sleep” and “wake” again as part of regenerating the created order. It was for this reason that Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal by accusing their god of being either too drowsy or dead to hear their cries, despite their self-inflicted wounds (1 Kgs 18:27). And adding a Mesopotamian accent to its critique, Psalm 121 identifies Yahweh as Israel’s real guardian (v. 5) by proclaiming that “the sun [shemesh] will not harm you by day, nor the moon [yareah] by night” (v. 6). The Hebrew terms used here are cognates to the names for the Mesopotamian sun-god Shamash and Ugaritic moon-god Yarikh. This echo lends these verses a supernatural thrust that tends to be lost on modern people who view the “natural” sun and moon as merely balls of gas and rock in the sky. Average Israelites felt a real temptation to worship the heavenly bodies in Israel’s popular religion, as seen in the OT’s many warnings against venerating them (e.g., Deut 4:19; 2 Kgs 23:5, 11; Ezek 8:16).
For these reasons, Psalm 121 is one of many biblical examples in which Asian Christians can draw on their experiences of constant anxiety about the supernatural. The solution to such fear lies not so much in emphasising the theological distinction between Creator and creature (as more Western Christians would do), but in seeing that Yahweh is the best of all deities and powers. Unlike Baal, the sun, the moon, and other forces, Yahweh is uniquely dependable to “guard” (shamar) his people throughout all time and space: “The Lord will keep [shamar] you from all harm—he will watch [šmr] over your life; the Lord will watch over [shamar] your coming and going both now and forevermore” (vv. 7–8). He exercises constant care for his people that no other deity can provide, but to experience this blessing requires the kind of repentance that turns away from all other powers and toward Yahweh alone. In the process of doing so, biblical faith can become good news indeed when it is seen more clearly Between Asian and Western Perspectives (the subtitle of my book).
My hope for Contextualization and the Old Testament is that Christians from all backgrounds would come to a clearer understanding of how culture can both help and hinder our understanding of the Bible. The book explores many other questions with Old Testament roots that Christians in all places are wrestling with: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? What’s the proper response to prosperity theology? Where do more non-Western concepts like patronage, honour, and shame fit into our missiology? And how can Asian Christians find help from the Old Testament in overcoming the frequent perception that Christianity is a Western religion? I can hardly claim to have the last word on these important issues. So I will be more than content if substantive conversations in both Old Testament scholarship and missiology can be generated around them!