T is for Torah

The Hebrew word torah is frequently translated as law or The Law, meaning the Pentateuch. In Western culture law does not tend to have a semantic range which is entirely positive. Most people in stable countries are grateful to live in a society governed by the rule of law. In contrast, however, legalism, lawyers and judgement all have negative connotations. When we encounter the word law translating torah, as it does in so many translations, we can often think of a stereotype which eclipses the genuine nuance that the word torah has in Hebrew. The problem is especially acute for many Christian readers who may well be oblivious to the problem.

Many Christians will have heard repeated stark contrasts drawn between the freedom and grace of Christ contrasted with the rigid legalism of the Pharisees. Whilst the gospels abound with stories of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, a shrill opposition is not what the gospels reveal. The problem is that these stories are read from an ingrained perspective which originated in the Reformation. Luther, in reacting against the abuses of the Church, read into the Pharisees’ position all that he despised in the Church of his day. Read with an open mind the gospels reveal a Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees but also a Jesus who knows torah (cf. Matthew 4:1‒11) and speaks positively about it (Matthew 5:17‒20).

Returning to the Hebrew Bible we would do well to not read the word law in a negative sense and to also note that the literal meaning of torah is ‘instruction’, ‘teaching’ and ‘guidance’. We are likely to bring less baggage to the text with the word instruction. Such teaching and guidance takes many forms and sometimes this is law, i.e. written instruction which has some element of authority associated with it. When seen as instruction, teaching and guidance from God, even when encompassing law, a richer, thicker and more positive view is possible.

That the Hebrew Bible sees torah as positive is evident throughout. For example we read:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law
[=torah] of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law
[=torah] day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Psalm 1:1‒3 (NIV)

It is very likely here that the concept of torah or instruction is being deliberately extended from the first five books of the Hebrew Bible the torah to the five books of the Psalms.

It is interesting to note that a similar positive exhortation opens the Former Prophets too:

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law [=torah] my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law [=torah] always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

Joshua 1:7‒8 (NIV)

To be fair there is a sense in which law keeping is an important, indeed central, part of the Hebrew Bible. The above verses are picking up where Deuteronomy left of with its call to obedience so that covenant blessings would be maintained. A healthy respect for God’s instruction is to be expected if God is God. This does not have to equate to dry legalism. Readers are encouraged to read the Hebrew Bible and come to their own views as to what extent either Pharisaical Judaism, Early Christianity, contemporary Judaism or modern Christianity embody the serious intent and delight abounding in Yahweh’s torah.

 

R is for Rewritten History

The term rewritten history is a fairly recent one which captures what has been recognised for centuries, that the book of Chronicles is an alternative account of a history known from another source. The book of Chronicles itself acknowledges this, see1 Chronicles 9:1. Many scholars see the Hebrew Bible’s Ezra-Nehemiah as similar to Chronicles. These two books—Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah—do even more as will be explained below. In ‘D is for Deuteronomistic History’ the point was made that the account of the history of Israel found in the Former Prophets was not a neutral one. This is inevitable as all accounts of the past are to a greater or lesser sense reconstructions. As soon as a narrative is given to past events neutrality has gone. Whilst this seems to perplex some people of faith it is not fundamentally problematic. On the contrary appreciating this is essential for an appropriate understanding of the text. As noted in an earlier post we are always dealing with history interwoven with theology. Any attempt to separate the two is to apply modern categories anachronistically to ancient texts.

When Chronicles is compared to the Former Prophets it is not long before it becomes apparent that the author shows their ideological concerns. It should come as no surprise that a national history presents things from the perspective of the nation concerned. Being written at around the end of the Persian period or the beginning of the Greek period means that national identity focused on the city of Jerusalem is central to the author’s intent.

In Chronicles there is a strong focus on boundaries, or what it is that separates true Israel from those outside. This has perhaps less to do with exclusion per se and more to do with an exhortation to readers to commit to belonging. One of the puzzles is whether the writer or editors of Chronicles expected their account to supplant or to complement the Former Prophets. This is especially interesting given examples where on the face of it there is a discrepancy between the two stories. Space permits only one example in this post but it is an especially puzzling one.

2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 both recount the same story. In the story David angers God by counting the fighting men of Israel. God sees David as relying on the security of an army rather than trusting in him as a warrior God. Both stories commence in a very similar way except one vital detail which is remarkably different. This is best shown by comparing the two openings:

Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”

So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enrol the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”

But Joab replied to the king, “May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?”

2 Samuel 24:1‒3 (NIV)

 Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.  So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are.”

But Joab replied, “May the Lord multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord’s subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?”

1 Chronicles 21:1‒3 (NIV)

Now the sceptic will simply see this difference as a discrepancy—the author of Chronicles presenting alternative facts. There is however a richer theological potential here. Could it be that the author of Chronicles is recognising the authority of Satan operating beneath that of Yahweh. Some might be troubled about this and it certainly raises issues regarding the nature and origin of evil. If this is the case it is certainly coherent with the other famous account of the Satan in the book of Job. In a book which weaves together the question of suffering and evil it is again the case that in some sense the satan operates only under Yahweh’s authority. This perhaps disturbing situation is vitally important to the Hebrew understanding of the universe, because contrary to much modern cinematic myth, the universe is not home to an ongoing dualistic battle between good and evil. Rather, the Hebrew Bible portrays an uneven struggle in which good and God ultimately triumph.

For this and other reasons, the rewritten history that is Chronicles adds something to what might have been thought to be a finished story about Israel and her God Yahweh.

 

 

I is for Israel

Introducing Israel

The use of the word Israel is complicated in the Hebrew Bible because its meaning varies throughout the unfolding story that this collection of texts narrates. This post will briefly consider four key meanings of the term Israel. The next post returns to some specific issues mentioned in this post in a little more detail.

Jacob become Israel

The word Israel is first encountered in the biblical narrative when Jacob is renamed Israel in Genesis 32:28. In this story it is Yahweh, in the form of a sparring partner who does the renaming—the name Israel is thought to mean ‘he struggles with God’. Jacob is the father of many sons, who the book of Genesis explains are the founders of the tribes of Israel. We meet Jacob’s fourth son Judah in the next post. For now we note that it seems apposite that Jacob as Israel is the father of the tribes of the people of Israel.

The Tribes of Israel

During the first three of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges and Samuel) the tribes of Israel emerge from a forty-year wandering in the desert to conqueror the Promised Land. Their leader Joshua heads up this conquest—an event which raises difficult questions because of the genocidal activities described. The book of Judges deals with ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of the events which surround the tribes of Israel. In this context, Israel refers to the collection of tribes. It means something closer to a people than a geographical nation. These people are also fragmented. This is clear in the stories which unfold in the book of Judges: the various episodes tend to be local, concerning a single tribe and are not in chronological. Some editorial is at work, as an effort has been made to be selective, so as to ensure that each tribe gets a mention. The events of the Book of Samuel move the story into a new phase as the people press God to have a king like the other nations (see I Samuel 8:5). It is here we see the move from Israel meaning ‘a people’ to ‘a nation’. This meaning takes a new turn further on in the story after God permits them to have a king.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel

Under the kingship of Saul, David and Solomon we see a period known as the united monarchy. This state of affairs was unfortunately short lived, lasting only 75 years. The death of Solomon (1 Kings 12) provided enough of a power vacuum for the relatively newly formed nation of Israel to become two nations. This is where matters become confusing in that the Northern Kingdom becomes known as Israel whilst the Southern Kingdom was known as Judah. It is in this time that the term Israel took on the very specific meaning of a nation, but no longer the nation of all of God’s people.

The people of Israel

This new state of affairs was also only temporary although it lasted rather longer than 75 years. Both of the new nations were to suffer military defeat and exile as we saw some posts ago. The Northern Kingdom of Israel came to an end in 722 BCE when Samaria, its capital city, was destroyed by the Assyrians. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, suffered a similar fate in 586 BCE. After the restoration of the nation (as people returned from exile), the Hebrew Bible uses the term Israel in a new way. The words Israel and Judah are now both used. The word Israel tends to refer to the people of Judah and the word Judah refers to what is a province within wider empires.

D is for Deuteronomistic History

Perhaps the choice of topic for the letter ‘D’ is a surprise. Many readers may not have heard of this theory. This idea seeks to explain the observation that the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings tell a coherent story. The coherency of the story is explained in a variety of ways all of which centre on the strong literary relationship of the book of Deuteronomy and what in the Hebrew Bible are termed the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). The earliest explanations of this literary relationship which were made well over one hundred years ago proposed that the Former Prophets were edited by someone who was committed to the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy. Later the German scholar Martin Noth (1902–1968) suggested that Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets had such strong similarities in terms of themes and literary style that they were at some level a single literary work. This work was dated to the exilic period (the exile will be our next topic). Like all intriguing theories it has been revised and refuted by other scholars.

It is likely that no overall theory will ever be recognised as the consensus but what is clear is the base data—anyone reading from Deuteronomy through the books of Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings and II Kings (the Hebrew Bible’s books of Samuel and Kings were each split in two for the Christian canon) will find they are carried forward in a compelling account spanning the Israelites poised to conquer the promised land to their exile from the land. The story is a complex ‘Game of Thrones’ history with strong theological claims and themes throughout. In the English-speaking world Joshua to Kings are seen as historical books whilst in Hebrew their theological freight is to the fore in their designation as Former Prophets. We would do well to note that history meets theology here in a complex and rich tapestry, for as we shall see the Hebrew Bible resists our modern categories that would separate the marriage of history and theology asunder.

By way of conclusion it is worth noting a central aspect of the book of Deuteronomy. The book displays many of the characteristics of an ancient near-eastern legal document. Read in this light it represents a legal covenant between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the nation of Israel. In keeping with such treaties it uses the language of blessings and curse. The former the result of keeping the agreement and the latter the consequences of breaking the terms of covenant. In short if Israel serves Yahweh faithfully then they will know the blessings of peace and prosperity in the Land that they have been given by God. If, on the other hand, they follow the other deities of the ancient near-east or are led astray by idols they will lose the land and the peace and prosperity granted by Yahweh. The Former Prophets unfold the story of the gaining of the Land and the complex journey which leads to its loss in the midst of war, calamity and exile.