The Epic of Eden: Ordering your Dysfunctional Old Testament Closet.

Everyone has a dysfunctional closet somewhere in their lives. A closet where Jabba the Hut could be living, and no one would know it. The closet is crammed full of clothes slipping from their hangers, accessories dangling from the shelves, shoes piled in disarray on the floor. It is impossible to tell where one item stops and the next begins. You can’t find anything; you can’t use anything…

It has been my experience that the average Christian’s knowledge of the Old Testament is much the same. Dozens of stories, characters, dates and place names. Years of diligent acquisition. Yet these acquisitions all lie in a jumble on the metaphorical floor. A great deal of information is in there, but as none of it goes together, the reader doesn’t know how to use any of it. Rather, just like the dysfunctional closet, the dates, names and narratives lie in an inaccessible heap. Thus the information is too difficult, or too confusing, to use. So the typical student of the Old Testament closes the door and says, “Maybe next summer I’ll sort that out.”

Richter, Sandra L.. The Epic of Eden (p. 18). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

I’ve read plenty on the Old Testament over the years, and taught on it a lot too, but I really resonated with Dr. Richter’s idea of the ‘Dysfunctional Closet Syndrome.’ It felt like a perfect description, both of my house and my grasp of the Hebrew Bible!

This year I have been trying to sort out the closet, with the help of various books, podcasts, and online courses. I’ll review and recommend a few over the coming weeks. But if you are also looking to get to grips with the Old Testament, I can’t think of a better place to start than The Epic of Eden.

Dr. Sandra Richer is the Robert H. Gundry Chair of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, and I first heard her via this discussion with Preston Sprinkle on whether the Old Testament dehumanises women. It was a really insightful conversation, in which she laid out some principles for how to read the law in its original context, and unpacked some of the challenging passages that tend to make us wince.

Many Christians have gone Marie Kondo on the Old Testament. We touch bits that don’t ‘spark joy’ but rather leave us confused or repulsed. So we thank it for having been part of our lives and then swiftly bid it farewell. I feel the temptation of that, but I’ve never found it a satisfying approach, and hearing Dr. Richter speak, it struck me that she was the kind of teacher I needed to help me fix my Dysfunctional Closet Syndrome.

The Epic of Eden won’t help you deal with every uncomfortable passage, but it will give you some organising principles that don’t require you to throw a load of texts in the trash.

Richter begins by helping us understand a few things about the culture of the Old Testament. She writes,

As we open the Bible, we find that the God of history has chosen to reveal himself through a specific human culture. To be more accurate, he chose to reveal himself in several incarnations of the same culture. And, as the evolving cultural norms of Israel were not without flaw (rather, as above, there was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly), God did not canonize Israel’s culture. Rather, he simply used that culture as a vehicle through which to communicate the eternal truth of his character and his will for humanity.

Richter, Sandra L.. The Epic of Eden (p. 23). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

She unpacks three facets of Israelite culture (it is Patriarchal, Patrilineal and Patrilocal) and then demonstrates how understanding this helps us appreciate the theme of ‘Redemption’, particularly honing in on the stories of Lot and Abraham, Ruth and Boaz, Gomer and Hosea, and then Jesus’ own teaching.

The Old Testament is a story of Redemption. So with this understanding in place, she then lays out some key landmarks in time and space, which help us to organise the plot line.

Honestly, one of my biggest struggles with the Old Testament is simply remembering the details. My wife regularly laughs at me when I’m reading a novel or watching a TV show and cannot recall a single character’s name, only referring to them by what they wore, said or did. For some reason, I do not have a brain that easily retains dates, names and detail, and have always been jealous of people whose minds do work like that. So I really appreciated the simplicity of this framework. It is easily memorable.

In terms of time, Richter gives us five eras to memorise, each associated with one major character.

  1. Adam (Genesis 1-5)
  2. Noah (Genesis 6-11)
  3. Abraham (Genesis 12-50)
  4. Moses (Exodus – Judges)
  5. David (1 Samuel – Chronicles)

Remembering these characters and their stories gives you the basic order of the plot. Each of the five main characters was called to mediate a covenant between God and Humanity, so there’s a chapter on Covenant, which is probably the most technical chapter in the book, but really illuminating.

Added to these eras and characters are three spaces in which the main action takes place:

  1. Mesopotamia
  2. Canaan
  3. Egypt

The story of the Old Testament moves between these three spaces, beginning with Adam and Noah in Mesopotamia, before moving towards Canaan (which will become Israel and eventually be known as Palestine) with Abraham, and then into Egypt via Joseph and Moses. And of course, the story then returns to Canaan via Joshua, remains there under David, before being wrenched back into exile in Mesopotamia, and returning to Canaan/Israel for the rebuilding of the Temple.

With these eight milestones of people and places firmly established, we launch into the story itself with chapters on God’s Original Intent and God’s Final Intent (chapters 4 and 5 respectively.) These look at the bookends of Scripture – Eden and the New Creation, unpacking God’s plan for His world – ‘God’s people dwelling in God’s place with full access to his presence‘ – what went wrong, and how the story will be resolved. Dr. Richter writes,

redemptive history is all about fixing what went wrong in the garden. What went wrong in Eden is what must go right in redemption; what was done in the garden must be undone in Christ.

Richter, Sandra L.. The Epic of Eden (p. 134). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Chapters 6-8 then work through the rest of the chronology, looking at Noah and Abraham, Moses and the Tabernacle, and David and the Monarchy. Each chapter covers a lot of ground, but does so in a concise way, regularly reinforcing the key themes of Covenant and Redemption.

Of course, a book like this will need to leave out plenty of material. I found myself wanting a lot more on the Prophets for example, so am definitely keen to take Dr. Richter’s class on Isaiah in due course.

One of the challenges of writing a Christian book on the Hebrew Bible is that you also want to leap into the New Testament to show how Christ answers what the Old Testament leaves unresolved. You want to actually wear the clothes you’ve so neatly ordered. This was done through two appendices (on the Law and Israel) and a series of breakout boxes in the middle of chapters. I found these breakouts a little frustrating, as they often broke the flow of the chapter. But honestly, I’m not sure how it could have been done better, and it was only a minor gripe.

All in all, this was a fantastic book, and one I will return to regularly. Dr Richter has done a great job of distilling huge amounts of content and some tricky concepts into a short and accessible form. Whether you have read the Old Testament many times, and are looking to sort the jumble of knowledge you’ve accumulated, or are about to read it for the first time and want to get some good principles in place from the start, I highly recommend The Epic of Eden.

Photo by jordi pujadas on Unsplash

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