An interview with Marty Alan Michelson
Marty Michelson has served as Professor of Old Testament at Southern Nazarene University since 1998. He calls himself an “Oregonian in Oklahoma.” Such a designation seems fitting for a scholar familiar with terms like “exodus” and “exile,” yet for Marty, his move to the Okie state was self-imposed. After several years in local church ministry, he felt called to academic work and classroom teaching. He frequently speaks to civic and faith-based groups and is deeply involved in his inner city church. Currently, he is finishing work on a commentary on Numbers for the New Beacon Bible Commentary Series. Grace and Peace Magazine took some time to ask Marty a few questions about the Old Testament. For those wondering, Marty wasn’t wearing a yarmulke during the interview session.
Grace & Peace Magazine: What influenced your desire to study the Old Testament?
Marty Alan Michelson: One book and one professor have largely influenced my thinking on the Old Testament.
The professor was Dr. Frank Carver, who taught Old Testament at Point Loma Nazarene University (he’s retired now and serves as scholar in residence at the Wesley Center). For one of his classes on reading Hebrew texts, we had to read Robert Alter’s, The Art of Biblical Narrative. As suggested by the title, one of the things Alter does is talk about the unique interplay of the creative imagination and the wordplays (even the puns) that go on in biblical texts. I remember while both reading this textbook, and participating in Carver’s class, that the Old Testament came alive. It wasn’t just a series of isolated stories about historical events or the stereotypical kind of Sunday school stories you hear. It was this playful, imaginative, fun text that had textures to it and things to explore. I credit my desire to study the Old Testament to that class and professor.
G&P: How do you see the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?
Michelson: We need to be careful when summarizing something as large as the Old Testament. I use three words when considering how to connect the Old and New Testaments. Each of these words emerges out of a Christian and biblical understanding that help tie the testaments together. The three words are the exodus (the event of the exodus), the exile (the event of the exile), and Easter (all the events associated with Jesus, and specifically, his death and resurrection). Many people know the story of the exodus. It has been popularized in movies where the story typically focuses on Moses, and what Moses does. Very few people know the story of the exile well (which is the time Israel and Judah spent under captivity in Assyria and Babylon). Most people know the story of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection, but I think each of these events is connected more profoundly than we realize theologically. You can’t truly understand Easter, unless you understand the middle part of the equation, mainly the exile. I won’t go into a whole explanation here, but essentially the exodus is not just about Moses; it is about the
The exodus is not just about Moses; it is about the creation of a certain kind of people to be the people of God.
creation of a certain kind of people to be the people of God. Specifically, Exodus 19:5 and 6 speak about Israel’s call to become a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
You must be familiar with the story of the Old Testament to understand Israel’s successes and failures at living this out—their success and failure to honor the law, and their failure to have a monarchy and governmental leadership completely committed to this ideal. A loss of community identity results from the people losing their land and their territory (where the temple is destroyed). Here we find some of the most poignant texts in the Old Testament, such as Lamentations, where the people lament their loss of identity, or Haggai and Zechariah, which talk about what it means to re-constitute their identity, and what it means to be God’s priestly people again.
There is a great passage at the end of Zechariah 8, which says something like this: “We are supposed to become the people God wants us to be so that 10 men from every nation will lay hold of a believer and say, ‘let us go with you for we have heard that God is with you.’” The exile and what happens there shapes our understanding of what Jesus came to do, because what Jesus came to do isn’t different from what God had been doing through the entire story of the Bible. It is a new means of God’s revelation and a new embodiment of it, but you have to understand the exodus as the call of a people, and the exile as the loss of that call, in order to understand how Jesus reinstitutes the same call. Finally, I would say when Jesus talks about the kingdom in Matthew 4:11, the first words of his public proclamation are “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” When Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, he is talking about the same priestly kingdom/holy nation that is exemplified in Exodus 19. We have to understand this is all part of the creation of a theological community that is intended to worship God.
G&P: What can we learn from the Old Testament prophets? How do you see the prophets functioning for us today?
Michelson: The language of justice vocalized by the prophets is missing in our Church. We tend to see prophets
The prophets do a lot more forth-telling when they speak about issues of justice in their local communities.
primarily as foretellers of Jesus and his coming. In fact, the prophets do a lot more forth-telling when they speak about issues of justice in their local communities. I have the privilege of working at an inner city church, where the congregation is comprised of people of various ethnic backgrounds, and what we call the urban poor. It has been such a delight to preach routinely from the Old Testament and help both our pastoral staff and people understand that Jesus’ message of the kingdom as a reality that establishes equity and kindness to others and welcomes the sinners, has a precursor in the Old Testament. God’s concern for issues of justice is a part of the salvation story of God’s work in history. The Church of the Nazarene would benefit from seeing this strand in the full context of what the Old Testament story has to offer.
G&P: It’s not hard for pastors to self-identify with Jesus as a model of leadership. What can pastors learn from the Old Testament to nurture their understanding of leadership?
For starters, leadership is not simple—that is evident and clear in the stories of the Old Testament!
Michelson: For starters, leadership is not simple—that is evident and clear in the stories of the Old Testament! And I do not mean that in a trifling kind of way, leadership is difficult, and we see and read that in story after story in the Bible. While we may learn about leadership from persons in the Old Testament, we should avoid isolating simple patterns anyone can copy.
Occasionally, I watch American Idol with my family. Quite often, a contestant will advance and say, “This just proves anyone can do this.” And I joke with my family, “I could never do it. I’m tone deaf.”
Certain people possess certain qualities others do not. Therefore, we can learn from the Bible that certain—and different—kinds of leaders emerge in different situations. No specific leader is good for all tasks of leadership. Rather, there are certain traits and practices, which certain leaders possess, which fit certain situations. Moses was a leader who, despite his misgivings, made bold speeches, both to Pharaoh and to Israelites. David was bold too, but he seemed to possess great skill in drawing other strong, military characters around him, who took action with him in shared leadership. Nehemiah, though, is not described so much for his bold speeches, and certainly not for military skill, he led by “blue-collar” example with a trowel in his hand.
Pastors would do well to recognize that whoever they are—and whatever their personality traits—they have leadership potential.
Pastors would do well to recognize that whoever they are—and whatever their personality traits—they have leadership potential. Different leaders with different leadership skills are needed in different contexts. Pastors can learn from the Old Testament that they have been called with their natural leadership abilities. They should own their strengths, instead of trying to become a “leader like (insert Bible character name here).”
In the end, I would say: don’t try to become a Moses- David-Nehemiah-and-every-other-leader wrapped into one. But, if you are naturally like a Moses or David or Nehemiah, nurture those specific, God-given leadership abilities. God has called you as you are, because God needs you to lead with your skills.
G&P: Would you mind commenting on Old Testament preaching resources?
Michelson: Students ask me about buying biblical commentaries. I never tell them to buy a set or series. Instead, I recommend they find a book they will preach and teach on over a period of time, whether that is two months, six months, or a year. Go buy several really good books or commentaries and study, teach, and preach in an invested way for a period of time. There are 39 books in the Old Testament, and there are various genres and perspectives that operate in each of those books, given the historical circumstances and the time each was written. If preachers or pastors get really invested in a book, and the informative literature that helps them understand it, they will come to a much greater appreciation of not only that book, but of the Old (or New) Testament.
If you are going to take the Old Testament seriously, you have to get into the book of Psalms.
More specifically, if you are going to take the Old Testament seriously, you have to get into the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms has so much to offer in its poetic language about God, but also its accurate description about the difficulties of living life in the real world. It is an excellent book to preach from, because it reflects a humanness and honesty in the questions we ask about God, the community, and our faith.
A helpful book is Walter Brueggemann’s Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology. He lays out a framework for understanding what he calls Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of renewed orientation/reorientation. It is a fantastic book for understanding how the Psalms operate, how they call us to be people of praise, but also how we are called to be people who worship God, even in the low points of our lives.
I would also suggest reading literature on the stories of the Old Testament (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings). A lot goes on in that body of material, and it can be pretty daunting. A good place to start would be 1 Samuel, which introduces us to Samuel and the monarchy, so we get to find out what is going on not only with King Saul, but with Saul’s extended family, and with King David and David’s extended family. If I had to choose, I would say Psalms and 1 Samuel would be excellent places to get solid preaching content and material that our churches need to hear.
MARTY ALAN MICHELSON serves as Professor of Old Testament at Southern Nazarene University