“The whole Bible is based on the claim that God has spoken.” This conviction is the unifying thread that binds together the sermons collected in Fleming Rutledge’s And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament. For Rutledge, the Episcopal priest, author, and celebrated preacher, it is impossible to understand the “talkative God”¹ that Christians confess without the Old Testament. If the One who has spoken definitively in Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-4) is the selfsame One who first spoke to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, then we neglect Israel’s scriptures at our own peril. Rutledge sets a high standard for faithful Christian engagement with the Old Testament, taking pains to read the text it in its canonical context, alongside critical scholarship, and alongside her forebears in the Christian tradition, resulting in sermons that are spiritually nourishing and resolutely set forth the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of the features of Rutledge’s sermons that quickly becomes obvious is her firm commitment to reading the text within the entire canon of Christian scripture. As she is fond of saying, “The Old Testament is the operating system of the New.” The result of this canonical hermeneutic is that the majority of her sermons have a distinctly Christological focus. For instance, in the sermon “The Power that Gives up Power,” Elijah’s encounter with the “still, small voice” of the LORD serves as the basis for understanding how in the incarnation, the Son steps lovingly into human suffering instead of grasping at glory. But rather than forcing Jesus into the Hebrew scriptures, she draws artful parallels between the Old and New Testaments to show how both consistently present a God who is active in mercy and judgement, who is always the one that is seeking humanity first.
Rutledge also shows herself to be a careful reader of contemporary biblical scholarship, skillfully weaving insights from biblical studies into her sermons in a way that is always illuminating and never pedantic. One of the most thrilling illustrations of Rutledge’s scholarly acumen is the sermon “The Bloody Passageway,” based on the text of Genesis 15, where God cuts the covenant with Abraham. In a mere six pages, Rutledge manages to pull background details from numerous scholars and even delves into the text’s composition history. But there is no scholarly hand-waving going on here; it is all to the purpose of crafting a sermon that is unabashedly evangelical in tone and content. “Here is the news today,” Rutledge announces in her bold conclusion that connects the covenant ceremony to the cross of Christ:
It is precisely to us in our affliction that the Lord comes, blazing his way with galaxies across the sky, trailing clouds of glory, writing his name in fire… He comes down from heaven into the bloody mess of history, laying himself open to the worst that we can do, taking the curse of our condition upon himself. He takes it and he carries it all away.
Furthermore, Rutledge does an exceptional job of balancing modern critical perspectives with the perspectives of premodern exegetes such as John Donne, John Calvin, and St. Augustine. In “Love against the Odds,” a sermon preached on the Song of Songs, Rutledge recruits the Venerable Bede and medieval theologian William of St. Thierry to aid her in explaining how a faithful reading of the Song must simultaneously recognize it as ancient erotic love poetry and as an allegory of God’s love for Israel and the church. Only when these different levels of meaning are held in tension does the Song truly hit home for its readers.
Another of the book’s delightful features is the way that Rutledge frequently draws from a diverse array of sources both within and without the church. Of these, one of Rutledge’s recurring favorites is the rich theological tradition of the Black church in America and the witness of the civil rights movement to which it gave birth. The testimony of the Black church and civil rights foot soldiers serves not just to explicate Israel’s experience of the Exodus, but is illustrative of an even broader theme running through the Hebrew Bible: God is always the active agent in bringing rescue and establishing justice, the one who makes a way out of no way.
While Rutledge’s collected sermons cover a remarkably broad swath of the Old Testament, the book is not comprehensive. It leaves one longing for more, and it is tempting to imagine how her distinct style might shed light on other passages. There are no sermons, for instance, on Leviticus – a book that makes for challenging preaching but one to which Rutledge’s well rounded exegetical approach seems particularly well suited. Rutledge also omits any discussion of the Old Testament’s “texts of terror,” such as the rape, murder, and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. Although such omissions are understandable (especially when one considers that a Sunday morning sermon may not be the ideal setting to engage with such thorny passages), these do feel like unfortunate lacunae in an otherwise exceptional book. It is especially hard not to feel some disappointment when one considers the skill that she shows in elucidating other difficult parts of scripture. If Rutledge were to engage these texts she would doubtless prove to be an invaluable model of how to read and expound them with care and faithfulness.
But all told, And God Spoke to Abraham is an exemplary model of how Christians should engage the text of Hebrew scripture. Readers coming to the book from a confessional perspective will find Rutledge’s sermons to be a veritable goldmine, full of priceless insights into how the world of the Old Testament connects to our own and how it reveals the merciful character of the triune God we meet in Jesus Christ. Skeptical readers may leave the book a bit unsatisfied, but it is simply the case that Rutledge has not attempted to write a book that pleases every critic. Instead, she has a written a book that is meant serve a single purpose: to stir readers’ hearts to wonder at the mighty works of God and to invite them into a lively faith that stakes everything on the God of Abraham. Insofar as this is her end, Rutledge succeeds resoundingly.
1. This phrase is borrowed from Robert Jenson’s A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? ed. Adam Eitel, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 15.
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