Learning from the Book of Exodus

Professor Dennis Olson reflects on the relevancy of the Old Testament in today’s world
News Dennis Olson

Regardless of how many times he’s been published (four books, 60 essays and articles) or how many years he’s been teaching (34), Dennis T. Olson, is still learning and writing new things about the Old Testament.

Olson, the Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology and chair of Biblical Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, shares that his current research is on the nature of God and God’s interactions with Israel, other nations, and non-human creation in the book of Exodus. “Three things fascinate me about the portrait of God in Exodus,” Olson says, speaking to the relevancy of his research to today’s world.

“Exodus is about building a community of God’s people out of diversity. Conflicting and even contradictory traditions about God are allowed to stand side by side in Exodus without harmonizing the differences.” Olson explains. “These polarized voices and traditions come together in service to a larger shared unity in one God, one story of deliverance, and one covenant of community that delicately balanced love and law, judgment and mercy.”

Equally intriguing, Olson says, is that God’s revealing of God’s own character in Exodus is an “ongoing and never-ending process.”

“Throughout Exodus, God gradually reveals new dimensions of Godself in a series of self-declarations that lead ever more deeply into knowing God more truly. God’s ultimate mystery remains in the end, but the reader comes to know God much more profoundly by the conclusion of Exodus,” he says.

“These varied ways in which God interacts with people of other nations and with nature in Exodus provide resources for thinking about a whole range of topics with contemporary implications,” Olson says. “These include systemic oppression rooted in an irrational fear of immigrants and ethnic Others (Pharaoh’s enslaving of the Israelites), nature’s capacity to bring ecological judgment on human agents of injustice (the ten plagues), the limits and possibilities of cooperation across diverse cultures and religions, and the countercultural practice of sabbath rest as an antidote to an anxious and frenzied economy of scarcity.”

Olson is deeply entrenched in the Book of Exodus, writing a manuscript for a book titled The Theology of the Book of Exodus for Cambridge University Press as well as a fuller commentary for Abingdon Press. He also is putting into book form a collection of essays and articles written over the years.

Reflecting on his teaching, Olson says he learns new things every day, thanks to the insights and questions that come up in the classroom.

“Students in a given class come with deep formation in many different Christian traditions, but we all share the same Bible,” Olson says. “When we sit down with a rich or challenging Old Testament text, you never know exactly where the conversation will go or what detour we might take.”

These detours come as a delight to Olson.

“The consistently high quality of students, their wide diversity of religious traditions and cultural experiences, and their eager curiosity and willingness to grow and deepen their knowledge and faith in God bring me great joy as a teacher,” Olson says.

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