Why so much Apostasy in the Old Dispensation?

There are a number of themes throughout the Old Testament, but some are more easily seen than others. One reason that certain themes gain more attention than others is because of their reputation through the history of the Old Testament. Major themes that are easily seen include: covenant, grace, man, sin, atonement, redemption, exodus, exile, land, worship, Law, kingdom, and Messiah. However, there is one theme that is weaved in and out of God’s covenants with mankind, like that of the other major themes, yet is not treated the same. Apostasy in the Old Testament may not be one of the most popular themes, let alone even a fully devolved theme, but it was the theme of Israel time and time again. Looking back through the lens that the New Testament[1] gives us on the theme of apostasy, one can easily see Israel’s apostasy over and over both corporately and individually throughout all of the Old Testament.

When seeking the theme/doctrine of apostasy (or any theme/doctrine) in the Old Testament, which is a theme fully developed in the New Testament, it is unwise for one to try to force Old Testament texts to answer New Testament questions. In order to stay away from doing so, when one comes to the Old Testament text, it is better to see what questions one can come up with from the text itself. Doing so will allow one to maintain the meaning of text, answer the questions which the readers were asking, and most importantly, to see how exactly this particular passage fits into the history of the theme’s progression. This is where biblical theology must place an importance on the historiographical and the theological concern of the author’s intent. The typical systematic or confessional approach simply does no justice in this area; besides helping to spiritualize Old Testament texts so see one’s confessional beliefs, and not God’s breath through the authors of the Old Testament at the given time.

Although the theme of apostasy finds its fullness in the New Testament, one simply cannot leave out the development and examples of it in the Old Testament. Sadly, the Old Testament gives constant examples of both corporate and individual apostasy.  These are seen all throughout the Old Testament covenants. There is one exception, however, which is found in the covenant of creation in Genesis 2; for Adam was not an apostate. But from that point on—after the fall of mankind in Genesis 3—it seems as if God came into covenant with man, and man came into covenant with apostasy. From Adam in Genesis 3:15, to David and the kingdom in 2 Samuel 7, each of the next five covenants in the Old Testament have apostates that played a prominent role in the history of mankind—namely Israel—cursing their lineage throughout history.

Edenic Covenant

Adam

Cain the Apostate, Land of Nod apostasy

Noahic Covenant

Noah

Ham the Apostate, Land of Canaan apostasy

Abrahamic Covenant

Abraham

Esau

Mosaic Covenant

Moses

Israel in the Wilderness apostasy

Davidic Covenant

David

Jeroboam the Apostate & the 10-tribes apostasy

Although these examples are commonly known Bible stories that most learn during Sunday School, they bring quite a unique play of events, as every single covenant has both those that take part of, and in, the covenant, and those that apostatize from the covenant. What seems to be right there in plain sight is something that some scholars somehow do not see throughout the Old Testament. On this issue, scholars such as Drs. Gary Herion and Gary Knoppers,[2] try to look deeper into the text for reasoning, or blame it on something other than the apostate’s own fault. For example, Dr. Herion, in his article “Why God Rejected Cain’s Offering,”[3] defends his view that God did not accept Cain’s offering because it was taken from the cursed ground, which was not as acceptable to God as Abel’s animal sacrifice was. It is clear that Dr. Herion did not take into consideration the words of Hebrews chapter 11 at all, which tells us: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.” Instead, Dr. Herion reads the Old Testament by itself, neglecting to use the number one Old Testament commentary with it—the New Testament. This hurts Dr. Herion’s understanding of theology, and as such, blinds him from understanding that Cain was the first apostate from the Edenic covenant, and therefore the first apostate out of all history. Another example is Dr. Knoppers’ article on comparing the biblical narratives of “Aaron’s Calf and Jeroboam’s Calves.”[4] Dr. Knoppers writes about how there are a number of similarities between the stories of Exodus 32 and 1 Kings 12; however, instead of seeing how Jeroboam leads the 10-tribes into apostasy and away from the Lord, Dr. Knoppers says that the only reason that Jeroboam is portrayed as a bad-guy is because the author of 1 Kings is “unkind to the northern kingdom.”[5] Thus he ends his article completely missing the point of Jeroboam’s apostasy.

These are merely two examples of those that often overlook apostasy as just an event which had taken place at some point in history. Drs. Herion and Knoppers are only two of the many scholars who either try to find a hidden meaning in the Scriptures which have not been found yet over the past 6,000; or make excuses as to why one is not an apostate, blaming their situation on something completely different. What scholars like this miss, is the history of events of apostasy throughout the Old Testament. God Himself, time and time again, came into covenant with mankind and there were always both those that obeyed and followed Him, and those that broke off and lived according to their own desires, which God Himself allowed. Just as there were those who represented the covenant on mankind’s side—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus in the Nee Covenant—there were also covenant breakers for each. To look at it another way: just as the covenants were given to men whom God had planned, in order to progress the plan for redemption for God’s people, there were also men—whom God planned—that would break the covenant and fall away from the LORD into apostasy. This is one area of biblical theology that needs more attention; that is, the progression of the covenant breakers that apostatized from the LORD through the Old Dispensation.[6]


[1] Cf. The number of passages in the New Testament warning against and dealing with apostasy: Matthew 7:21-23; 10:33; 24:24; Luke 8:5-15; John 15: 1-8; Acts 5:5; 10; 8:13, 20-24; Romans 8:13; 11:20-22; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Colossians 1:21-23; 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 4:1; 5:8, 11-12; 2 Timothy 2:11-13, 17-19; Hebrews 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; James 5:19-20; 2 Peter 2:20-22; 1 John 5:16-17; Revelation 3:5; 22:18-19. It is through these passages the theme/doctrine of apostasy is fully built, which gives one a lens with which to look back through the Old Testament for apostasy. After seeing the full flow of apostasy, one can go back to the Old Testament and see the roots of apostasy in Israel’s history.

[2] Dr. Gary A. Herion is the Professor of Religious Studies in the Humanities Department at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. Herion teaches on a number of different levels at The Hartwick College Religion Department; ranging from Introduction courses such as Understanding Religion and Introduction to the Bible; Intermediate courses such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament and New Testament; to several Advanced courses like Jesus in Myth, Tradition and History, Hebrew Storytelling, The Prophets of Israel, and Paul’s New Testament Writings.

Dr. Gary Knoppers, since 2002, has been the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at The Pennsylvanian State University. Dr. Gary N. Knoppers studied Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on “”What Share Have We in David?”: The Division of the Kingdom in Kings and Chronicles” under the direction of Frank Moore Cross Jr. His most popular work is his 2-volume set in The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries on 1 Chronicles, which granted him the R. B. Y. Scott award in May of 2005 from the Canadian Biblical Studies. He has written, contributed to, and edited nine books and written over 75 articles dealing with issues on his numerous fields, such as: Ancient Historiography, Old Testament Biblical Theology, The Books of Kings and Chronicles, Comparative Ancient Near Eastern Religions, Inner Biblical Exegesis, and Northwest Semitic Epigraphy.

[3] Gary A. Herion “Why God Rejected Cain’s Offering: The Obvious Answer,*” Fortunate the Eyes that See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman In celebration of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Astrid B. Beck, Andrew H. Bartelt, Paul R. Raabe, and Chris A. Franke. (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1995), pp. 52-65.

[4] Gary N. Knoppers’ “Aaron’s Calf and Jeroboam’s Calves,” Fortunate the Eyes that See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman In celebration of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Astrid B. Beck, Andrew H. Bartelt, Paul R. Raabe, and Chris A. Franke. (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1995), pp. 92-104.

[5] Dr. Knoppers’ JEDP theory both robs the Scripture of its’ historical value, but worse, robs God of His authorship, allowing the author’s feelings and thoughts to override God’s intent of the Scripture. Cf. Dr. Knoppers’ concluding thoughts on why Jeroboam is looked down upon in Israel’s history pp. 102-4.

[6] Old Dispensation: meaning the Old Testament administration of the Covenant of Grace in the 5 Covenants given to mankind. Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic.

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