Thursday, August 09, 2012

Learning from Dr Bruce Waltke

Dr Waltke during Q&A time
Last weekend was a real treat. For four sessions over three days (3-5 August 2012), my Church people sat under the very wise and experienced Bible teacher, Dr Bruce Waltke, currently a faculty member at Knox Theological Seminary. At 82 years of age, he continues to travel across the nation giving lectures, seminars, and talks to Churches and various Christian organizations. We were the beneficiaries of his travel last week. Giving a total of four sessions, Dr Waltke helps us with an insightful introduction to all 34 chapters of the book of Deuteronomy. Calling it the "most important book in the Old Testament," Waltke even goes to put on record his firm belief that "I'm convinced that Jesus memorized the book of Deuteronomy." It is really hard not to be swayed by Waltke's conviction. Especially when this man of God has spent a large part of his life, just studying the Bible, and researching the many ancient contexts. A brilliant Bible teacher and expositor, he patiently seeds the Word of God with humble but passionate love. With a pastoral heart, he affirms the faith without dissing people who are honestly puzzled with the Old Testament. With his personal stories, he shows us a part of him that many in the public do not get to see.

We feel so privileged. Here are some of the pointers I take home.

A) Deuteronomy is the Torah

I used to think that the Torah comprises the Pentateuch, which is the first five books of the Old Testament. Waltke ups the definition saying that it is the book of Deuteronomy that is the Torah. More specifically, Deuteronomy is the Book of the Law, the "capstone of the Pentateuch." It contains Moses's three addresses to Israel, and is the book that talks about Moses's history and composition of how the Ten Commandments come into play.

B) Jesus Quotes Deuteronomy Most

I appreciate the way Waltke goes back and forth between the Old and New Testament throughout the talks. He makes a convincing case about the place of Deuteronomy in the life of Jesus. For instance, Jesus resisted the devil's three quotations from this very book (Luke 4:1-13).  Jesus' first response comes straight out from Deuteronomy 8:3, which emphasizes the need to feed from the Word of the Lord. The second response is about fearing God only (Deuteronomy 6:13). The third is about not putting the Lord to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16). These straight off the head quotations strongly suggest that Deuteronomy is a major shaper of Jesus' theology. In the New Testament, Deuteronomy has been referred to more than 50 times.

C) Deuteronomy's Chief Concern: Sanctity of Human Life

Waltke asks the fundamental question: "Do you value life or do you value choice?" This one question forces us to reflect upon our modern society. During biblical times, the way the entire book of Deuteronomy is written is primarily to teach Israel about the sanctity of life. For example, in the sixth commandment, "Thou shall not kill," it is designed primarily to protect all human lives. Look at our modern world, where many are increasingly choosing self-preservation at the expense of others. Like couples who abort their children on the basis of personal rights. Have they ever thought about the personal rights of the very child they are aborting? By making a choice for self, they have also denied the choice of the little helpless ones. Another example is birth control or the desire to keep more money for self by denying others the privilege of that wealth.

D) Deuteronomy Honours the Three Fundamental Institutions of Life

The three institutions God have designed are the Home, the Church, and the State. In the Home, we celebrate the equality and beauty of husband and wife. In the first 12 years, the child is totally dependent on the parents. Thus, we are all products of the training given by our parents. That goes to say that the first years are formative years of how children becomes either an asset or a liability for society. Secondly, the Church needs to continue to promote the community of love. Israel having received the Law of the Lord has the responsibility to build this community. The laws in the Torah have this fundamental emphasis of love and preservation of godliness in the community. It seeks not so much on trying to enforce rules from outside, but to inculcate values from within. Thirdly, the State has the responsibility to uphold righteousness and honest judgment. Again, it promotes and preserves life and the basic societal values. While it cannot bring about salvation, it needs to play its part in executing justice fairly and justly. Otherwise, God will intervene. Waltke gives his take about homosexuality that is hurting society at large.  I think this very issue of homosexuality has also hurt the Church to the core. No one Church is immune from this debate.

E) God's Will in the Bible?

"The reason why you cannot find God's will in the Bible is because there is no such thing" (sic). This got us all laughing away. Recalling how he wrote a book in response to a student's query on God's will, Waltke goes on record to say that such questions reflect more on superstition in the magical realm rather than truth in the biblical contexts. The truth is that God's will is not something enshrined within the canon. It is something that we are constantly living out in obedience to God and his prompting. I thank the way God has chosen to keep the "answer key" outside the grasp of sinful people like you and me. He is wise enough to keep us on our toes to keep seeking God. Otherwise, once we have gotten hold of the magical potion of "God's will," we may go spiritually astray.

F) 9/11? It Could Have Been Worse

Here lies the lament of Dr Waltke. Seeing how Western society has deteriorated, he feels for the future of the West. He yearns for America to repent from their sinful ways. He sees 9/11 more as a wake up call for all. Instead of running and prosecuting the terrorists or the culprits responsible, has the US and other Western nations taken the step to look at their own backyards of sin and hypocrisy? It could have been worse. In some way, as far as 9/11 is concerned, while we are devastated by what has happened, we can also be thankful that it stopped at the four planes that crashed. It could have been much worse. Imagine if every state in the US were simultaneous targets on that fateful day? I think it will be much much more tragic. Who knows? That could have been the end of the world.

G) We are Pilgrims, Not Tourists

Waltke reminds us that the 38 years in the wilderness for Israel is a pilgrimage. This contrasts with comments that talk about this as an "aimless wandering."  He has three insights with regards to the functions of the land. Firstly, the chronological and historical record of Israel's time in the desert shapes the understanding of what pilgrimage means. He compares the slavery and death in Egypt to the modern struggles with Satan and the world; Passover blood with the Blood of Christ; Water from the Rock with Baptism in the water and Manna from heaven; Being tested in Deuteronomy 8 versus the struggles in the Church; and how Israel enters the promised land by faith, and how the Church sees fulfillment of God's Kingdom in the New Jerusalem. Secondly, "land" is an image for "in Christ." We enter the promised land as being a chosen people (Romans 8:29-30), receiving it as a divine gift (Romans 6:23), entering by faith (John 3:16), seeing rest (Hebrews 4:2-3), and being in God's presence (Deuteronomy 4:11-14). Thirdly, all creation is under God's rule (Deuteronomy 12:1-5).

H) On Violence in the Old Testament

A common concern surrounds the matter of violence. Why must God instruct Israel not just to destroy, but annihilate whole populations of the Canaanite people? Is that not a cruel act? Waltke gives us an idea of how evil and despicable the Canaanite society was at that time. He quotes from Albright's Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, which details the sins of sex and violence.
"With might she hewed down the people of the cities, she smote the folk of the seacoast, she slew the men of the sunrise (east). After filling her [Anat, Baal's mother] temple with men, she barred the gates so that none might escape, after which 'she hurled chairs at the youths, tables at the warriors, footstools at the men of might.' The blood was so deep that she waded in it up to her knees - nay, up to her neck. Under her feet were human heads, above her human hands flew like locusts. In her sensuous delight she decorated herself with suspended heads, while she attached hands to her girdle. Her joy at the butchery is described in even more sadistic language: 'Her liver swelled with laughter, her heart was full of joy, the liver of Anath (was full of) exultation.' Afterwards Anath 'was satisfied' and washed her hands in human gore before proceeding to other occupations."
Of course, we can all preach love and goodwill to the Canaanites at that time. The question is, will they have listened? Or before we even finish saying "L.O.V," heads will already have been lobbed off. Try preaching love and goodwill to the piranhas when you are in waters full of them. 

I) The Ten Commandments

The first commandment remind us that we need to know God through revelation and not reason. Otherwise, we will have a different god altogether. Know the Lord through the way God reveals himself. The second commandment warns us against all forms of idolatry. This is because matter has a form of spiritual power to become idols. We need to be on our guard against all forms of idolatry. The third commandment teaches us to revere the Name of God. We cannot misuse God's name and take the LORD's name in vain. For example, merely saying "God wants me to do this" can very well be making God an accomplice to our words (lies).

The fourth commandment is of particular interest to me, as my thesis is based on it. It is the longest commandment and brings forth a remembrance as well as an observance part. Waltke provides eight rationales for biblical sabbath keeping, and at the same time, asserts that it has been replaced by the Lord's Day for Jesus is the "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:8).

The fifth commandment is about honouring our parents, which essentially means to give our parents "social weight" and respect. We are to care for them. We are to honour them by default, but with a cavaet. When it comes to choosing between God and parents, we must make a choice for God. This is by no means disrespectful of parents. It is by learning to choose God, we see a better way to love and care for our parents. The sixth commandment warns us not to take innocent life. Waltke shares six different Hebrew words for kill.

  1. "harag" - to kill
  2. "qatal" - to slay
  3. "hemit" - put to death;
  4. "tabah" - butcher;
  5. "hikkah"- killing in war times;
  6. "rasah" - intentional murder or unintentional manslaughter.
The nuances are quite difficult to catch, and warrant further research.

The seventh commandment reminds us of the sanctity of marriage. The eighth command prohibits stealing, and instead promotes giving and generosity. The ninth commandment warns against bearing false witness. In a way, it keeps us from blaspheming against God. The tenth commandment tells us not to covet things not our own.

J) The Ten Commandments Frame the Entire Law

This one insight gives a fresh understanding of the Old Testament laws. The first three commandments frame our attitude toward God. The fourth commandment is the hinge to point us to be mindful of God, and to frame our reverence for God through benefiting other humans and animals. The final six commandments form a fundamental reference with regards to our relationships with fellow people. Though Waltke didn't have time to go through the details, I believe him. It makes the whole reading of Deuteronomy a lot more dynamic, seeing how the whole Law and the Prophets hang on the commandments to love God, and to love people.

K) Authentication with Personal Story

Waltke begins each session with a personal story about his faith journey.One of the most memorable ones is how he talks about his hitchhiking experience while sharing the gospel. On one rainy evening, after failing to get a hitchhike, he decides to take a bus. As he sit on Row #4, he sees someone he has met a while ago. It was the same stranger he was sharing the gospel with. Waltke decides to change his seat to Row #17.  During the journey, fog and weather conditions affected the driver's vision. The bus crashed. The front parts of the bus all the way to the first half of the vehicle were badly smashed up. Waltke and his friend survived. Is that not God protecting his life? Such an experience creates a deep impression on Waltke, to do his best to be thankful for life, and to respect the sanctity of life.

I am humbled by Dr Bruce Waltke. For his scholastic achievement. For his humble disposition. For his fervent conviction. For his wisdom and pastoral heart. I have been blessed.


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