S is for Song of Songs

Perhaps one of the last things the person new to the Hebrew Bible might expect to find is a book of erotic poetry. This is, however, exactly what the Song of Songs appears to be at face value—eight chapters of poetic episodes that speak of the intimate sexual relationship between a man and a woman. This erotic poetry has traditionally been seen as the work of King Solomon and the text itself mentions him several times. It is likely, however, that he is the deliberate subject of the book rather than its author. The clearest evidence of this is that once we have appreciated the obvious erotic nature of this book, it becomes clear that there is more going on than just love and sex. In particular it becomes apparent that the sexual relationship between King Solomon and his many wives is contrary to the rich mutuality intended by God for the relationship between a man and a woman.

In this way the broad nature of Song of Songs dismisses any idea that the Bible is prudish or rejects the importance of, and positive aspects of, human sexuality. For here in the Hebrew Bible we see the sexual union of man and woman celebrated joyfully. The more subtle agenda is however a critique of the all too commonplace corrupted sexual relationships in which the relationship is uneven.

A large number of interpreters of the Song of Songs have supressed both of these perspectives by either dismissing or at least subordinating the eroticism of this poetry beneath an allegorical interpretation. To be fair, allegorical interpretations abounded from early on in the history of the interpretation of this book. It is likely that for cultural reasons both within Judaism and early Christianity that the allegorical interpretation eclipsed the literal one because of a wider cultural disdain for sex—gnostic influences sought to separate the supposedly corrupt body from the purity of the spirit. This is not to say that there is no intention of allegory in these poems. It is very much the case that the collectors of the texts that now make up the Hebrew Bible saw not only erotic poetry but also a connection between the love between man and woman with that of the love between Yahweh and Israel. In this way it is vital that an allegorical interpretive dynamic should neither overshadow the literal celebration of the sexual union of man and woman, nor should it become fanciful, as allegory can so easily become. Rather than using the term allegorical, the term parable is probably a more appropriate one. Viewing these poems as parables implies that they have an analogical function in connecting the erotic relationship of love with that of God for his people. Allegory would attempt to interpret every detail in a fashion that is clearly forced and alien to any authorial or editorial intent.

A lot of attention has focused on identifying the narrative of the Song of Songs. Some see a simple story of lover and beloved. Others have seen a more complex narrative in which the shepherd and the king are two separate male characters. In this latter interpretation, followed by Iain Provain [1] for example, a contrast emerges between the true love between the women and the peasant shepherd with that of a forced relationship between the women and Solomon. I am more persuaded by Tremper Longmann III [2] who sees the book as an anthology of erotic poems. Free from an imposed storyline these poems speak of the delight of sexual intimacy and carry an analogical insight into the love of God for humanity and the possibility of its reciprocation. There is also within the poem an implied criticism of the still prevalent practice of powerful males purchasing women as commodities. In all of these ways it really is a Song of Songs.

 

References / Further Reading

  1. Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs: An NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
  2. Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs: New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Downers Gove: Eerdmans, 2001.

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.

 

 

Q is for Quelle

Quelle is the German word for source and is used as a technical term by scholars who advocate source criticism. This approach to biblical texts was introduced briefly in an earlier post and the basic idea is a simple one. Its implications however are far from simple and raise a lot of questions.  Source criticism assumes that behind many of the Hebrew Bible’s books there are previous documents or sources. This is neither controversial nor even surprising. Many biblical books even refer to their sources as we shall see in the next post. What can be more complex, and sometimes controversial, is the quest to recover these sources and what might be done with the results of such an exercise. In the Hebrew Bible the most famous example of source criticism is that applied to the torah/Pentateuch.

It was Julius Wellhausen (1844‒1918) who provided the first detailed hypothesis about the textual origins of the Pentateuch. He suggested that there had been four separate sources, or documents, which all originated centuries after the time of Moses, hence it became known as the documentary hypothesis. This is the first complication of source criticism: it challenges traditional views of authorship. The four-document hypothesis came to be generally accepted in the early twentieth century although like all scholarly proposals of this nature there are many rival variations on the theme. In its classic expression the four hypothesised sources were designated:

  • J—a document which names God as Yahweh. The German for Yahweh is Jahweh hence the use of the letter J.
  • E—a document which refers to God as Elohim.
  • D—for essentially the book of Deuteronomy.
  • P—for a document with a priestly outlook.

These four hypothesised documents were said to date from the mid-9th century BCE, mid-8th century BCE, mid-7th century BCE and around 500 BCE respectively. Despite its original popularity this model is no longer the consensus view. This is not to say that the idea of sources is wrong. Rather it is recognised that the use of sources and the subsequent editing processes will never be reliably recovered. To complicate matters further some of the features of the Hebrew Bible which were said to provide evidence supporting the fourfold documentary approach are quite possibly literary devices. For example the two accounts of creation are said by some source critics to be contradictory accounts. It is possible however that there is a deliberate theological point behind the two accounts—they are designed to be complementary since one conveys the story of creation from a transcendent perspective (1:1‒2:3) and the other from an immanent one (2:4‒25).

Robert Alter in his brilliant book The Art of Biblical Narrative [1] looks at type scenes and explores how similar events in a book are actually a reflection of literary artistry rather than an indication of a patchwork quilt of sources. He uses the conventions of Hollywood Westerns as a masterful illustration of how conventions can be misunderstood. In this way he shows just how wide of the mark some biblical source criticism is. His concerns it should be noted are not whether the events are true but simply squashing the hegemony of sources as the explanation of similar stories and narrative motifs.

From a stance of faith there is no sense in awaiting a final outcome of such critical work as this will never arrive. Instead the question must be faced: given that there are some complex editing processes and source texts behind the Pentateuch (as well as other parts of the Hebrew Bible), does this invalidate the possibility that we have Scripture, i.e. an authoritative religious text? If the Pentateuch is understood as Scripture, then even if some original texts could be recovered what would be done with them?

 

Reference / Further Reading

  1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York: Basic Books, 1981.

 

P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

O is for Old Testament

A few posts ago the term Hebrew Bible was explored with a view to appreciating why the label is more than just an alternative to the Christian term of ‘Old Testament’. In this post the idea that the existence of the Old Testament can be understood as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible is considered. In order to appreciate this idea two other points need to be introduced:

  1. The relationship between a community and its authoritative texts will be outlined.
  2. The idea of re-reading will be considered and shown to have been part of the Hebrew Bible before there ever was an Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible was not handed down from heaven although the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, were written by God, according to Deuteronomy 5:22.  The majority of the Hebrew Bible is the result of selecting texts and by corollary not choosing others.

In recent times, scholars have given a lot of attention to how a religious community arrives at an authoritative set of texts that they know as Scripture. With the Hebrew Bible there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the texts of the Hebrew Bible grew gradually over time. This is not just about adding books one-by-one, but even some of the books went through a process of addition and editing. Critical scholarship has attempted to discern the earlier literary units of biblical texts (source criticism) and the work of those who combined sources and edited them (redaction criticism). Much of these efforts are today viewed with some scepticism. This is not to suggest that such things did not happen, but rather the hope of unpicking such a complex literary history with any certainty is unrealistic. Even if earlier texts could be recovered and later additions identified, it is far from clear what a Jewish or Christian believer would do with such information. Whilst, such scholarship is of interest for historical, religious and cultural reasons, those who believe these texts have abiding religious significance look to the texts in their final form. In the last two decades, scholarship has also tended to focus on the received text too.

Despite this focus on the final form of such texts, it is still necessary to see how the text could have been read differently over time. This change in understanding and significance of a text can be termed re-reading. Psalm 2 provides an interesting example. It can be quite instructive to imagine an enthronement ceremony in which the various sections of this psalm were read by different people as part of a ritual act. That such a use was the origin of this psalm is especially clear in sentences like these:

“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”  
(verse 6)

And

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
(verse 7)

When we consider that this psalm was collected and preserved as part of a collection of praises, i.e. songs used in wider contexts of worship, it can be appreciated that its original reading cannot have been fossilised. A sobering way to reflect on this is to imagine what singing this as a song would have meant in a time after the Fall of Jerusalem when there was no king at all, let alone one with the full power and majesty of God behind him. In this way the collection and later use of Psalms, and other texts too, means that they are read in a new context. It can be argued that it is likely that texts that can be re-read are more likely to be preserved as their current value is more evident.

This idea means that the jump from Hebrew Bible to Old Testament is nothing like the giant leap that might otherwise be imagined. Psalm 2 is again a case in point as four stages in re-reading can be discerned, from the perspective of Christian faith:

  • Living liturgy for the coronation of a new king.
  • Historical liturgy remembering God’s promises of old.
  • Prophetic word regarding a messiah (anointed one) who will come from the line of David to restore the nation.
  • Christological statement fulfilled in part by Christ’s incarnation and to be completed at his second coming.

In this way a Christian reading of Psalm 2 is a continuation of a trajectory begun during its selection, editing and inclusion in the Psalter. This can be a useful perspective in understanding the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament.

N is for Novellas

The term novella is clearly a modern genre of literature, and yet this term is used by some scholars to refer to the books of Ruth, Jonah and Esther. The Joseph narrative (Genesis 37‒50), the narrative elements of the Book of Job (Job 1‒2 and 42:7‒17) and Daniel 1‒6 are also seen as being part of the same genre. Other writings which belong to the Apocrypha, such as Judith, Tobit and Susanna are also similar, see [1]. Lawrence Mills [1] helpfully points out that these stories are united to some extent by ‘the theme of innocents abroad’. In this sense whether the term novella is appropriate or not, there is evidence in terms of content to suggest that they belong to the same category.

There is, however, more that unites these stories than just the lone ‘Jewish’ protagonist facing the problem of how to cope with diverse challenges posed by Gentiles. There is often a sense of parody to these stories. This is sometimes seen in the use of these stories, for example, the book of Esther is used during the Jewish feast of Purim in a manner that is closer to a pantomime performance than a period drama. More often than not, religious readings of these books tend to suppress what is very likely deliberate humour and exaggeration. In this post we don’t have time to explore this fully. Instead we will briefly consider the book of Jonah as an example. Various oddities in the story will be highlighted and in conclusion the significance of these strange narrative elements will be outlined.

If possible pause here and read the four short chapters of the Book of Jonah and jot down all the things that stand out as odd.

Here is a list of some of the strange things mentioned in Jonah:

  • Jonah’s response at the start of the story seems nothing less than theatrical (Jonah 1:3).
  • All the Gentiles seem very godly compared to Jonah. This includes the god-fearing sailors (Jonah 1:14) and the entire 120,000 population of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5).
  • There is no getting away from the fact that someone being swallowed by a fish and surviving for three days and three nights is highly implausible (Jonah 1:17).
  • The story indirectly implies that the fish coughs Jonah up near Nineveh, but this city is several hundred miles from the sea (Jonah 2:10‒3:2).
  • Nineveh is said to be so large that it takes three days to walk across it (Jonah 3:3).
  • Even the livestock wear sackcloth in the story (Jonah 3:5).
  • The plant that shades Jonah grows with fairy-tale speed (Jonah 4:6) only to be matched by its rapid demise because of a very hungry caterpillar (Jonah 4:7).

There is every reason to think that this story is a literary fiction, based on these exaggerations and oddities. Rather than its fictional nature being a problem there is a clear intent at instruction and a challenge for self-reflection. For example, there seems to be a deliberate contrast between God-fearing Gentiles and a prophet who knows his Scriptures—Jonah’s prayer is a complex restatement of many verses from The Psalms—but he has no care for the Gentiles. There is also a theological tension between the mercy dealt out by God and the punishment desired by the Prophet. A final puzzle is that the audience of the book of Jonah would have known that Nineveh was destroyed utterly by the Babylonians centuries earlier.

The fact that this book might be a fiction or a satire of a real prophet (see 2 Kings 14:25) does not prevent it having religious value. On the contrary, it means that it functions much like a parable. The reader is challenged to think about the character of God and about their own character. Interestingly the broad teaching of the book of Jonah is broadly the same whether we see at a parable or as a serious historical account.

 

Reference / Further Reading

  1. Lawrence M. Wills, ‘The biblical short story’, pp.314-330, in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

M is for Moses

My first recollection of anything connected to the Hebrew Bible is watching the film The Ten Commandments. This was the 1956 version of the film although I was watching it around twenty years after its release. The director, Cecil B. DeMille, made two films with this name. The first film was a silent one released in 1923. Despite some commonality these two films are actually rather different to each other. The first film presented a relatively short account of the Exodus story in which, as its title suggests, the Ten Commandments are central. The narrative in which Moses is central is a prelude to a longer story concerning two brothers. The two brothers choose different paths in life. One chooses to live a life consistent with the Ten Commandments. The other brother pursues a life in which he breaks every commandment. The outcome comes as little surprise—Danny’s disdain for the commandments means that his sins eventually catch up with him, after a life of decadence.

The 1956 version is often termed a remake but it is a very different film. The newer film is wholly concerned with the life of Moses. This story is covered at length with the film having an epic running of time of 3 hours and 40 minutes, if the original intermission is included. Much of the later parts of the film are a straightforward, even faithful account of the life of Moses. The opening hour of the film fills in a lot of ‘the blanks’. From a cinematic point of view this is quite understandable. Modern sensibilities expect a film to be about the main protagonist, and not the titular Ten Commandments. Readers of the life of Moses in Exodus realise, because of the gaps in the story, that this is more than a story about Moses. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, silence often surrounds the questions we want to ask. This is arguably driven by a deliberate literary device rather than any authorial lack of information. The additions to DeMille’s film, to be fair make for a number of intriguing plot developments. The biggest departure concerns Moses falling for Nefretiri, who as a princess is expected to marry the next Pharaoh. The film also portrays Moses as a General. He defeats the Ethiopian army and the country then agrees an alliance with Egypt.

How would Cecil B. DeMille feel I wonder if he knew that in his effort to bring a key element of the biblical canon to life he had made other elements of the story achieve canonical status? The childhood of Moses is again a key feature of DreamWorks’ 1998 Prince of Egypt. Moses’ military prowess is central to Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings. By 2014 something has changed with regard to the basic commitment to the story however. Cecil B. DeMille wanted to celebrate the Ten Commandments, not only as a story but as a tenet of faith. Scott and presumably his studio are keen to explain the miraculous in terms of implausible coincidence. All this said, all of these retellings are in a sense legitimated by the original—the narrative terseness of the Hebrew Bible invites retelling—retelling is central to the very purpose of this story:

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” 

Exodus 12:24‒7

 

L is for Lamentations

A reader new to the Hebrew Bible might well be puzzled by just how much of its content seems to rail against God. The prophet Jeremiah and the book of Job are riddled with cries to God from a place of anger. The Book of Psalms which has provided a template for Jewish and Christian prayer over the centuries is made up of a great variety of songs and poems, but by any reckoning at least one third are cries to God. This Hebraic style of calling out to God is often termed Lament. No matter how provocative and desperate this language of lament gets it is always said (or cried) from a stance of faith—these are no cries into the empty void, but they are desperate pleas to a God who can and from the psalmists standpoint, should deliver.

However profound the anger and suffering found in the Psalms of Lament there is a place that goes further still into the depths of dark experience, the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations deals with the horror of events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the immediate aftermath. Its nature, as a collection of distinct literary units means that there is a recapitulation of key themes like abandonment by Yahweh, suffering, judgement and confession. Given the desperate context we might expect that the laments of Lamentations would be crude spontaneous prayers. The truth could not be further away from this, for despite the terrible nature of the event as a whole, and the specific grim details, all of Lamentations is intricately-crafted poetry. It is not only poetic but has all the hallmarks of meticulous care and attention in its design. All five chapters use an acrostic device—in each separate lament each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This device quickly explains why chapters 1,2, 4 and 5 all have 22 verses and why the central chapter 3 has 66, see the table below.

Lamentations Structure

Although there is no over-arching narrative to the book, there is a certain symmetry about its structure, with the larger chapter three lying at its heart. Some scholars hesitate in identifying chapter 5 as an implied acrostic. Recently, however, attention has been drawn to the existence of implied acrostics, or quasi-acrostics, in the Psalter too, see [1]. Although chapter 5 of Lamentations clearly differs from the other chapters—it is not an acrostic, but it has 22 verses and is by association an implied acrostic. Quite why it has been composed free of the normal constraint of an acrostic will probably remain a mystery. Perhaps the book has finally freed itself of the constraint necessary to contain grief?

Why would the author or editors of the book of Lamentations choose such a dominant  literary form as the acrostic device? It is perhaps an attempt to bring poetic order to what appears to be so thoroughly disordered. It is as if the poet is trying what is almost impossible, voicing the most profound questions, and in doing so has found that the order imposed by the acrostic device gives a framework to hold on to. The existence of the five literary units highlights the ongoing nature of attempting to ask the right questions whilst dealing with acute pain and grief. It is possible that the constraints of poetry provide a way to structure and shape the work of the poet, to enable processing of the terrors experienced and seen. This type of catharsis is certainly part of the preservation of this text. It is thoroughly human to rehearse tragedy and reiterate injustice. How much more appropriate when events have challenged the very core belief of your people, that Yahweh shows his people irrevocable covenant faithfulness?

 

  1. O. Palmer Robertson, ‘The Alphabetic Acrostic in Book I of the Psalms: An Overlooked Element of Psalter Structure’, pp.225-238, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 2015, p.236.

K is for King David

K is for King David

This post will take some lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s legendary song Hallelujah as its framework. The second verse of Hallelujah reflects on an infamous scene of adultery:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

The second verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

These verses, either coincidentally or intentionally, highlight a couple of highly distinctive features of the Hebrew Bible which Christian interpreters have often failed to handle appropriately. The first of these is the tendency to portray heroes of the faith with painful honesty. Despite David being someone after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) he is portrayed as someone who does terrible things. One of the most memorable is his lust for Bathsheba which causes him to immediately commit adultery with her (2 Samuel 11:2‒4). To make matters worse David successfully conspires to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:15‒17). There is little interest in whitewashing the stories concerning the heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible—although we will consider in a later post why this story is absent from the account of David’s reign in Chronicles. All of the key figures in the life of Israel fail spectacularly at various points.

David’s failure regarding Bathsheba has captured the imagination of artists over hundreds of years, see [1] for an examination of this in religious painting. Cohen is not alone in finding this episode worthy of consideration. The way he does this is reminiscent of a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible known as midrash. One of the features of midrash, and there are many others, is looking for parallels between diverse biblical narratives. In the verse quoted above it appears that Cohen is drawing a parallel between Bathsheba’s impact on David and the impact of Delilah on Samson—she famously seduced him and cut his hair in events which lead to his death (Judges Chapter 16). Cohen’s midrash perhaps implies that it was lust for a woman which led to both David’s problems and to Samson’s.  The story of David’s life makes it clear that the conflict in his house was a result of God’s displeasure with his adultery and ‘murder’—poetically Bathsheba broke his throne, although the biblical narrative lays this firmly at David’s feet. That lust and sexual desire are the uniting thread between the stories of broken thrones and cut hair is echoed in the reference to sex later in the verse: ‘from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’.

 

  1. David Lyle Jeffrey, ‘The Hebrew Bible in art and literature’, pp.426‒446 in The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

J is for Judah

We met Judah a few posts ago as the 4th Son of Jacob. The sons of Jacob are the founders of the tribes of Israel. Despite being the 4th son of Jacob, Judah founded the tribe that ultimately gave its name to the people of God at the end of the story of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Jews. We saw in the last post that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was ravaged by a destructive war in the 8th Century BCE—a war that it never really recovered from in a tangible way. This saw the loss of ten tribes whose descendants, in part at least, gave rise to the Samaritans. The Southern Kingdom took its name from the dominant tribe of Judah although it incorporated the territory of the tribe of Benjamin and also included some Levites as they lived scattered among the other tribes.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible various events prefigure the dominant role of tribe of Judah. The earliest of these is the Joseph narrative in the book of Genesis. Judah leads the way in suggesting that he and his brothers rid themselves of the irksome Joseph by selling him to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:26‒28). Much later when Joseph has risen to a position of power and influence in Egypt, it is Judah who plays a lead role. Joseph turns on the emotional blackmail which will really test his brothers by holding Simeon, Judah’s full brother, hostage until the absent younger brother Benjamin is brought to Egypt. Judah offers himself to his father Jacob as surety of Benjamin’s return, thus persuading Jacob that Benjamin can go to Egypt. After Joseph enslaves Benjamin in a ruse it is Judah who pleads for Benjamin’s life. It is at this point that Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.

Very much later in the story of the people of God, King David from the tribe of Judah arises as a replacement for the failed King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. The foundation of a kingly dynasty from the tribe of Judah is prefigured in Genesis 49 where each of the sons, and thereby the tribes of Israel, are prophesied over by their father Jacob. The kingly motifs are rich when Jacob speaks of Judah:

‘Judah, your brothers will praise you;

    your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;

    your father’s sons will bow down to you.

You are a lion’s cub, Judah;

    you return from the prey, my son.

Like a lion he crouches and lies down,

    like a lioness – who dares to rouse him?

The sceptre will not depart from Judah,

    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until he to whom it belongs shall come

    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

Genesis 49:8‒10 (NIV)

We will see in the next post that similar language is used in the psalms to speak of King David and his line. As we have seen, the nation of Judah was the surviving nation and on return from exile the people of God took their name from the tribe which gave its name to the nation and they became Jews. One of the challenges in interpreting the role of Judah in the earlier narratives is to what extent this might be viewed as reconstructed history. To put it another way how much of the later history of Israel/Judah is read back into the earlier story? We will look at this issue in a later post.