Typological reading of Scripture has been disfavored in modern Christianity. It should be restored to favor, not as an artsy riff on the literal meaning but as the fundamental frame for reading Scripture.
Jesus said that all Scripture was about the suffering and glory of Christ (Luke 24), and the rest of the New Testament fills out the details of that claim. As Thomas Aquinas said, God writes with things as well as words, and the history of the Old is full of foreshadowing of events of the New. Jesus is the last Adam, a new Abel, the seed of Abraham, and a dead-and-risen Isaac. He’s David’s son and thus a greater Solomon, a prophet like Jonah and Jeremiah. Jesus is the subject matter concealed in the Old, revealed in the New.
But we don’t fully grasp how the Bible fits together if we only collect isolated fragments of the mosaic of Jesus. The Old Testament isn’t a typological picture album but a movie. Its narrative pressure—that is, the pressure of history—moves toward incarnation.
Disappointment permeates the Old Testament. None of Israel’s heroes, heroic as they are, restore Israel, convert the nations, or renew creation. It’s not all bad news. As the curtain closes, Israel still exists; the Old Testament isn’t a tragedy. But it isn’t a comedy either. Post-exile, Israel isn’t brimful of buoyant joy. The Old Testament ends with the proverbial whimper, a sigh of longing for an ending.
This isn’t to say that the Old Testament ends in hopelessness. On the contrary: We’ve learned enough about Yahweh, the God of Israel, to be confident that he’ll tie up every loose end.
Yahweh has bound himself to Israel, his bride. When Moses asks his name, he doesn’t identify himself as “Being” or “The Nameless One” or “The Greatest Good” or “That than which nothing greater can be conceived.” He takes the name of his people into his own name: “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” also of Moses, David, Elijah, and Nehemiah.
As God of Israel, he’s God-for-Israel. By taking Israel’s name into his own, he stakes his reputation on fulfilling his promises to Israel. If Israel fails, his name will be dragged through the mud. He’s not going to put up with that. He won’t leave Israel in sackcloth.
God-for-Israel is God-with-Israel. He doesn’t pull levers and push buttons from a heavenly control room. He’s Emmanuel, the God who dwells among his people. That gives us an inkling of what he might do in the final act. Yahweh is enthroned behind curtains, but we suspect he won’t stay hidden forever. Someday he’ll show himself.
Israel’s God isn’t a Stoic unmoved by his people’s rebellion and failure. Yahweh suffers over and with his people. When Israel opposes him in the wilderness, he laments. “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness, and grieved him in the desert,” when they tempted God and “pained” the Holy One (Ps. 78:40–41). When Israel turns from him to other gods, he reacts with the fury of a wounded lover. In several passages in Jeremiah, the laments of the prophet shade off into laments of Yahweh himself. When the people of Judah go into exile, Yahweh leaves his temple to join them in Babylon.
If Israel’s God were “Being itself” or “That than which nothing greater can be conceived,” we’d have little clue about how he’d deal with the waste of the world. But that’s not Israel’s God. We can put the pieces together—Yahweh is God-of-Israel, God-for-Israel, God-with-Israel, the God who suffers over Israel—and ask again: What is this God going to do next?
We can begin to see how Jesus is the natural answer. It’s perfectly in character for Israel’s God to become Israel to save Israel, to go to the extremity of incarnation, cross, and tomb for the sake of his bride. It’s an Aristotelian surprise, a surprise ending that, in retrospect, has the feeling of inevitability. For of course this God makes Israel’s sigh his own so he can turn it into a conclusive shout of resurrection joy.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.