God B.C.: The Inside Story

Added about 5 months ago by Anthony Phillips

GUEST BLOG: Anthony Phillips reveals the story behind his love for the Hebrew Scriptures and what prompted him to write this second edition of God B.C.

From the moment I started studying theology at university, I was hooked on the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament. They were so full of life and had a basic earthiness about them. Added to that, they contain some of the finest literature ever written: stories like Jacob pulling a fast one on his older brother Esau, only to have his father in law do the same to him—for which both Jacob and his wife retaliate in kind—or David attempting to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba by getting her husband bumped off. And then there was the unimaginable beauty of Hebrew poetry found in the prophets and psalms. And what other holy writing is so daring as to take God on in the way Job does, in no way mincing his words over the injustice of his plight? It is all so immediate and alive.

Yet for me the sad thing is that so few people know anything about this literary treasure chest. This is partly because the Old Testament is such an unwieldy book that it is difficult to know where to begin, and partly because its contents have been edited and added to over centuries. So, for example, the first chapter of Genesis, which describes the creation of the world in seven days, has, some five hundred years later, been placed before the much older story of Adam and Eve, though both probably have their antecedents in other cultures! And although the much shorter New Testament is better known, its true meaning cannot be grasped without knowledge of the Old on which it depends. After all, much of it was Jesus’s Bible.

It was to make the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures better known—the God whom Jesus called Father—that in 1977 I wrote God B.C., which I dedicated to my two-year-old daughter (who later also studied theology at university) and was chosen by the Bishop of London as his Lent Book for that year. I wanted to show how the Hebrews’ understanding of the nature of their God developed over the centuries, starting with their first entry into the land of Canaan and culminating in the Christ event. I thought that there was a gradual development from a more primitive position, in which they believed that God could cut them off for good for their disobedience, to one in which he could not let his people go no matter what they did, as Jesus’s ministry confirmed. While the conclusion remains the same, I now realise that how it was reached was more tortuous than I first thought.

This is not surprising, for—as in any discipline—Old Testament studies have gone through many twists and turns since I first wrote God B.C. Many ideas have been very negative, with a reluctance to say much about the early history of the Hebrews before they were conquered by the Babylonians and led off into exile. While some of these new insights have (unsurprisingly) affected some of the conclusions I drew in God B.C., I none the less believe that I can offer a coherent account of Israel’s origins and the development of her thought about the nature of her God and his relationship with humankind, as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and confirmed in the Christian ones.

From my own experience I know that my understanding of God has been directly affected by events which have happened to me from outside, some wonderful and enhancing, others hideous and soul destroying. Each time I have had to come to terms with them in relation to my faith.

So, I believe, it was for the Hebrews. Reacting to what happened to them historically, the authors of their Scriptures assessed anew their relationship to their God, editing and adding to earlier writings. Rather than a gradual development from a more primitive understanding of their God to a more mature one, I believe that two events, the Assyrian invasion of 721 BC and the Babylonian conquest of 586 BC, led to mistaken conclusions that limited their initial understanding of their position as God’s chosen people and recipients of his love. Instead, they saw themselves like a vassal to the ruler of a great empire, always at risk of annihilation should they stray for total allegiance to him. As with our own lives, it is always a temptation to faith in the love of God to draw wrong conclusions when faced with adversity and abandon him, particularly in the face of the inexplicable or the apparent absence of his love.

But the experience of the exile in Babylon and their return to their own land made them realise that God’s love was not conditional. In the end he could not, would not let them go, as for Christians was even more generously confirmed in the Christ event. Like the father of the prodigal son, the Hebrews recognised that God was always running out to embrace them. Finally, I argue with unashamed passion how all this affects the believer, concluding that we do not have to make a choice between God and the world, but instead affirm both, and in fellowship with the Creator enjoy his creation whose true order is ours to discover and proclaim.

I have dedicated this much expanded revision of God B.C. to my daughter’s four-year-old son, whom I hope will, like his grandfather and mother, embrace the Hebrew Scriptures, and make them his own. It would be a joy to me if, through this book, I have enabled others to do the same.

Anthony Phillips was Dean and Chaplain of Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he taught Old Testament Studies. During this time he presented documentaries for BBC Radio 3 and undertook television work. Later he moved to be Chaplain of St John’s College, Oxford where he continued to teach Old Testament studies. For ten years before he retired, Anthony was Headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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