The Word of God is synonymous with the Bible for most Christians today, but that isn’t how it began. As William Schniedewind demonstrates in How the Bible Became a Book, in the biblical literature prior to Chronicles “the word of Yahweh” has little or nothing to do with written documents. Neither is the expression “the word of the Lord” used to refer to the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses. The term instead applies to the oral proclamation of the prophets.
An intriguing illustration of this can be found in Jeremiah 8:7-9. The text speaks of those who have rejected the word of the Lord (v.9) in the same breath as “the lying pen of the scribes” (v.8). Jeremiah was bemoaning the fruits of literacy: authority was shifting from oral tradition to the written word. Where should authority lie, with the text or teacher? Schniedewind observes: "Once authority resides in the text, the teacher can be dismissed..." It is only in the late book of Chronicles that torah is understood as the written word rather than the oral word spoken through the prophets.
Even the word “prophecy” (nevu’ah) is a late innovation. It hadn’t been needed until the textualization process was well advanced, but once the word of Yahweh was understood as corresponding to the Pentateuch, a new term was needed for the proclamation of the prophets.
The growing authority of the text, which advanced along with the growth of literacy, put paid to the ability of opinionated individuals to rise up and speak as God’s mouthpiece: the prophets disappear from Israel. Their niche is filled in part by apocalyptic speculation with a focus on the future rather than the needs of the moment. Amos’ cry for justice in the here-and-now is drowned out by Daniel’s lurid fantasies of the future.
The word of the Lord is still spoken by troublesome individuals who speak fearlessly, but rarely by religious professionals: priest and prophet rarely complement each other. Interestingly, Jesus was remembered “as one having authority”, not like the scribes of his day (Matthew 7:28). In fact, it’s remarkable how little exegesis Jesus seemed to bother with. Needless to say, he wasn’t popular with the clergy of his day either. In Matthew's "great commission" (28:18-20) Jesus passes his authority on to his disciples, he does not infuse it into a text. Even Paul, that prolific letter writer, stresses that he was called to preach: he makes no claims for his writings.
To tie oneself up in knots over the interpretation of obscure passages has nothing in common with the genius of Israel’s faith in its formative period, or of Jesus for that matter. That’s not to say that scholars shouldn’t dig deep to understand them, or that Christians shouldn’t respect them as markers on the road taken and a source for reflection and inspiration. But to regard them with idolatrous “bible-believing” superstition - in effect a paper pope - is likely to miss the whole point. If we’re busy attempting to distill precise doctrine from ancient text, chances are we’ll miss hearing the authentic word of the Lord that engages us in everyday life.
This post can also be found on WordPress while I decide whether to migrate across or stay here on Blogspot.