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.

H is for Hebrew Bible

The term Hebrew Bible denotes a collection of texts. These are the same texts that comprise the Old Testament recognised by Protestants as Scripture. The Hebrew Bible is however meaningfully distinct from the Old Testament in two ways. Firstly, the title Hebrew Bible is necessary because the designation Old Testament is unhelpfully loaded for Jews. How can a Jew be expected to use the term Old Testament which necessarily implies that there is more scripture and, even more problematically, intimates that the ‘Old’ has been superseded in some sense. The delineation of Hebrew Bible from Old Testament is however important for a second reason—an comparison will reveal the same texts but arranged in a different order. I hope to have time in a later post to explore how the ordering of such texts makes a real difference. In this post there is only space to explore the structure of the Hebrew Bible.

The differences between The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are summarised in the Table below. The Hebrew Bible organises the various books into three categories. The first is torah, sometimes termed the books of Moses or Pentateuch (the five). These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy. In the Old Testament these five are also found at the outset grouped and categorised in the same order fashion and are often termed the Law. A later post will explore that equating the Hebrew word torah with law is unhelpful at a number of levels.

HB table

After the torah comes the second division known as the nevi’im or prophets. These prophets are further subdivided into Former and Latter prophets. The first four of these become the first six of the Christian historical books—both Samuel and Kings being split in half so as to create 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings. The Latter Prophets are what Christians designate the prophetic books, although in the Old Testament Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve are joined by some other books which the Hebrew Bible categorise as Writings or khetuvim. This third division can seem rather hotchpotch to those used to the fourfold Protestant classification. It is however helpful to see these books in a different light to the other two divisions. The torah and nevi’im tell a continuous narrative, whereas the khetuvim are analogous to the commentaries and extras on a DVD. This has important consequences for interpretation. It leads to genres such as Rewritten History (e.g. Chronicles) [1] and Novellas (e.g. Jonah) [2]. Two later posts will explore how recognition of such genres can have important implications for interpreting and understanding these books.

In the Christian Bible the Writings are placed in very different places. Some of them join the historical books, and five become a new group sometimes termed the Wisdom books or literature. The remaining two, Lamentations and Daniel, join the prophetic books.

Whilst the above is a concise but complete account of the differences between the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant Old Testament, there are further complications when a comparison is made with the Orthodox and Catholic Bibles. Both have additional books as well as a small number of additions to the books mentioned above. In short these additions originate with Greek texts that the Jews of the Diaspora added to their religious corpus. These additions were important to the first Greek Speaking Christians as they used a collection of texts known as the Septuagint (sometimes designated LXX for seventy). The Orthodox and Catholic churches do not entirely agree on either the scope or the nature of these additions. All I am doing here is flagging up this complexity; there is insufficient space to unpack it further, the interested reader will have to look elsewhere [3].

 

References

  1. See, for example, Ehud Ben Zvi, ‘Late historical books and rewritten history’, pp.292–313 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  2. See, for example, 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.
  3. See, for example, John Barton, ‘The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament’, pp.2‒23 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016 and Stephen B. Chapman, ‘Collections, canons, and communities’, pp.28‒54 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

G is for Genesis 12–50

We have already met the opening three chapters of the book of Genesis in the earlier posts on Creation and Fall. The book of Genesis falls into two unequal halves. Chapter 12 initiates a new turn of events in the book as it follows on from the flood narrative. Up to this point Genesis reads very much like a prehistory which accounts for the way things are in the world. In chapter 12 the concern with origins continues but at a much more specific level—it is with Abram that the story of the nation of Israel starts. In this chapter the founding father of the nation of Israel is introduced. Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, hears the voice of God and embarks obediently on a journey from his home of Ur of the Chaldees to what will become Israel. This is the start of God’s dealings with Abram which indicates that he is chosen by God to be the first of the Patriarchs. His son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, later renamed Israel, are the foundation of a people who will become the nation of Israel.

A large part of the story of Abram is the covenant that God makes with him. This covenant takes place in two stages. The first stage in chapter 15 takes place whilst Abram is facing the challenge of being childless. This is ironic in that a key part of the covenant promise that God describes is that that Abram’s descendant will inherit what is often termed the promised land—God says ‘on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’ (Genesis 15:18). In the second stage, Abraham has a son but one born not to his wife Sarah but to Hagar, an Egyptian slave. As part of this more detailed unfolding of the covenant promises, God promises that Abraham will have a son by Sarah, and that it is this son from who his numerous descendants will come.

The stories involving Abram are just as foundational to the biblical story as the earlier chapters of Genesis but now we see that God is unfolding a complex plan. The promises of Land, along with descendants beyond counting, and the ultimate blessing of the nations are clearly long-term in nature. In many ways this covenant is a prelude to the covenant with Moses mentioned above in the post on the Deuteronomic History. Genesis a key religious marker, male circumcision, is introduced. The act of cutting foreskin is a literal echo of the cutting of a covenant in Genesis chapter 17.

The stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob contain similar elements to those of Abraham himself. Like most biblical narratives they are open to interpretation. The Hebrew Bible presents the story but often leaves readers unclear as to what to do with the story.

F is for Fall

Right on the heels of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 there follows the story of what is often termed ‘The Fall’. This familiar story of the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve and the serpent poses an interpretive challenge. Just as with the Creation accounts, translating Genesis 3 into straightforward propositional truth tends to pit science against the Bible. We should also note that seeing this story as in some sense symbolic or mythical poses different challenges. It is however this latter approach that I find sensible.

There are a number of reasons why this approach seems necessary to me. One example will serve for this post. What are we to make of the cursing of the serpent by God? What else is going on in this account about why snakes have no legs, and crawl on their bellies? Surely this has to be mythopoetic language and if so, the whole story must function in the same way. The challenge of seeing the narrative as imagery does however beg the question ‘How do we equate the symbolic language with the theological concept of the fallen nature of humanity?’ Throughout much of Church History theologians have taken Genesis 3 at face value and have built ontological arguments on it—the most famous of these being Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.

In contrast a more mythical interpretive paradigm does not provide a cause-and-effect account of how it is that human beings have collectively chosen their own path and have a broken relationship with God. For some this lack of mechanism is unnerving as it leaves unanswered questions. And yet more positively the very lack of a mechanical account resonates with the wonderful mystery, that though science can explain much about biology, including genetic evolution, it cannot provide a metaphysical account of ‘the world’ except for the singular possibility that there is no purpose to ‘creation’. Is ‘The Fall’ an account of the first two people making a bad choice that echoes through eternity—accounting for the broken relationship between man-and-man, man-and-woman, humanity-and-creation, humanity-and-God? Or is it a mythic statement of the way things are, a state of affairs which it is difficult to refute?

One way of looking at Genesis 3 is to note that it sounds like something of a prequel to Exile. The account of Genesis 3 concludes with Adam and Eve being exiled from Eden. When viewed in this way the history of exile, the mythopoetic imagery of Fall are mutually enriching and the common experience of human beings cohere into a theology of being strangers in a strange land. We are all lovers of those who share our humanity and yet we are unable to live this out with consistency; simultaneously in awe of the world around us and yet sowing the seeds of its destruction; day-by-day seeking self-fulfilment but discerning that something is absent.

Opening ourselves to a rich nuanced interpretation of The Fall (and Creation) is the start of a journey to a new worldview and this possibility turns into a exilic pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the heavenly Eden. It does this in a way that asks as many questions as it provides answers.

E is for Exile

The exile is a key event in the biblical account of the history of God’s people. It is the conclusion of the story recounted by the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) as well as the ‘climax’ of the parallel account in the Book of Chronicles. It is so important to the overall story of the Hebrew Bible that the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve so-called Minor Prophets) are often categorised in the threefold grouping of (i) pre-exilic, (ii) exilic and (iii) post-exilic. The pre-exilic prophets warn of the possibility of exile as punishment for the nation and the post-exilic prophets the consequences of exile.

Our concern in this post is the 6th Century BCE when the Babylonian armies captured the land of Judah and sacked the city of Jerusalem. This was not a singular event and the military violence culminated in several deportations. At a literal level the term exile refers to these deportations but in reality the exile was bigger than this. It embodies much more than the experience of those who were deported to a foreign land, like those by the rivers of Babylon in Psalm 137. The bigger picture includes those left behind and the impact of events seen as God’s judgement by the returning Judahites. Exile is a complex nexus of history and theology, like so much else we find the in the Hebrew Bible.

The Latter Prophet Jeremiah speaks of two deportations and other sources indicate there were three; in 597 BCE (Jeremiah 39:1), 586 BCE (Jeremiah 52:29) and 582/581 BCE (mentioned in Josephus’ Antiquities X. ix. 7). There is no reason to doubt the broad historicity of these events—as well as the wider narrative in Kings. Many of the features of the biblical record cohere well with Josephus and also Babylonian accounts. The latter include both narrative texts and the details found on monuments and artefacts.

The theological implication of God’s people suffering defeat, humiliation, violence and deportation is crystallised in all of its unpleasant rawness in the book of Lamentations. We will return to this short book of laments in a later post. For now we note that the exile raised the same type of questions that the more recent events of the Holocaust raise. The ‘exile experience’ is not something confined to past history as an event; it pre-empts later experiences of God’s people and the experience of individuals too. This is one of the reasons why laments are a key feature of the Hebrew Bible and why their use should not be confined to the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Of course the story did not end with exile—although for those in its midst it would have felt like it had. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, a single book in the Hebrew Bible, give accounts of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The return from exile was not a straightforward return to the way things had been. The return was followed by centuries of turmoil as the Jewish nation took on a new shape without a proper monarch. During this reshaping there was ongoing oppression by the Persians, Greeks and Romans. It was during this time that much of the Hebrew Bible was written and other parts edited.

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.

C is for Creation

There is no escaping the centrality of the theme of Creation in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is it encountered on numerous occasions, both explicitly and implicitly, but it is also the point of departure of the book of Genesis and therefore the whole Hebrew Bible.

In the previous post we considered two polar opposite approaches to the Hebrew Bible and their respective presuppositions. These were scientific atheism and highly conservative Christianity. Both conservative Christian approaches and militant atheism share a tendency to translate the two accounts of creation found in Genesis 1–2 into propositional truth. In this way the outcome is either:

  1. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that the biblical account is false, or
  2. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that these sciences are wrong.

Of course there are alternatives. These alternatives centre on considering what these texts are—i.e. they are not a series of straightforward propositional truths. This is not to question their potential for conveying truth but rather to recognise that there is something more complex at work in these texts and that their interpretation is richer than a series of true/false statements. I want to suggest that an initial reading of the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1–2 which recognises their cultural milieu indicates two useful starting points.

Firstly, there is a poetic dynamic to the accounts:

  • They are highly rhythmic and stylised—for example the six fold refrain of ‘. . . and there was evening, and there was morning . . .’ (see 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23 and 31).
  • There is word play—for example the use of ‘adamah as earth (as in topsoil) in 1:25 and 2:6 and the use of ‘adam as the first man (earth creature) in 2:7.

Some poetic features are lost in translation but the rhythm and form are readily apparent.

Secondly, the two creation accounts in Genesis and other elements of Genesis 1–11 are part of a number of Ancient Near-Eastern texts which deal with origins. They arose in a context which saw a number of accounts for the origin of the world and explanations of the way things are. For example, there are Akkadian, Egyptian and Babylonian creation stories. These Hebrew accounts provide their own unique answers to the questions being asked at that time.

Of course even when such considerations are handled sympathetically these texts can still be dismissed as wrongheaded, but the way we can dismiss or embrace them is richer than polarising modern science against ancient text as propositional statements which capture timeless truth. The possible ‘thicker’ readings lack the simplicity and closure of the ‘thinner’ alternatives. They raise questions as well as provide answers. The central claims of Genesis 1–2 provide the presuppositions underpinning the whole of the Hebrew Bible—that the Hebrew God, Yahweh, created the universe and that humankind are, at some level, special within this creation. There is no scientific proposal here which can be tested. Rather, this is elegant use of the possibilities of poetry to populate the imagination with rich theological images. This thicker possibility leads us to wonder and perhaps argue about how we interpret the account—how do Adam and Eve fit with the scientific consensus? As a Christian who is also a scientist I welcome the fact that neither scientific consensus nor the Bible trumps the other at the outset of a process of critical evaluation and consideration.

 

Further reading

For a stimulating scholarly exploration of the centrality of creation in the Hebrew Bible see Herman Spieckermann, ‘Creation: God and World’, pp. 271‒292 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016

B is for Bible

The word Bible derives from the Greek word biblion which originally meant scroll. Over time the word Bible came to mean a collection of books of religious significance. In modern English the word tends to have a wider meaning as a massive tome providing comprehensive coverage of a topic. The object considered in this series of posts defies any simple attempt at classification. A key background issue to this series of posts is the differences of opinion on just what the Hebrew Bible is.

When we read the Hebrew Bible we interpret what is says having already made a decision as to what it is. This is the classic conundrum of interpreting any text—interpretation requires a starting point or to put it formally, presuppositions. The challenge of good reading is to allow the object to challenge these presuppositions.

Two polar presuppositions are worth considering in order to illustrate this point. The most conservative Christian readings perceive the Bible as the final word on matters beyond those of religion or doctrine to include history and science. Such a stance does not invite the possibility of reading the Bible and expecting to have this view challenged, modified or refined. Any apparent tensions or contradictions with secular accounts of history, geology, physics, psychology, etc. are explained in terms of the failings of the alternatives not as either limitations of the Bible or the possibility that the Bible has been interpreted inappropriately. At the other end of the presuppositional spectrum, the convinced atheist will tend to read the Bible in a similar but opposite fashion—such a reading reveals numerous discrepancies within the Bible. Such ‘discrpencies’ are especially apparent if the Hebrew Bible is read as a mechanical propositional account of the universe. I am not suggesting that either atheists or conservative Christians are deliberately closed to critical thinking or changing their minds, rather I am suggesting that these polar positions mean that the Bible is understood in a rigid way that resists adaption to a new understanding.

Both approaches have a tendency to flatten the Bible into propositional truth and ignore the poetic devices, literary forms and the nuances invited by the different genres of literature which comprise the Hebrew Bible. To make matters worse, some who read in this manner describe their readings as ‘literal’ when in fact they have removed the Bible a priori from the realm of literature.

My view of the Bible (either the whole Christian Bible or the Hebrew Bible) is that it is neither (i)  the product of cultures who imagined a God and sought to collect writings to testify to this claim in a haphazard and unconvincing manner, nor (ii) handed down from heaven as the final word on faith, science and history. This series of posts starts with the premise that this is a thoroughly human book—written over centuries, subject to editing and selection, diverse in genre and resistant to definition. This premise does not preclude either of the views mentioned above being correct in their judgement of the Bible’s veracity. It is, however, a starting point for what could in principle a more open journey to either theism or atheism. I have spent more than thirty years reading the Bible and am still ‘happy’ with the messy human premise but equally convinced that God was at work in the events that inspired the biblical authors, and working providentially in the authorship, collecting and editing of the constituent parts of the Bible. Year-on-year I find myself revising the details of my understanding of the nature of scripture and want to remain open to finding out from the Bible itself, just what it actually is. Perhaps this latter point is still an act of faith—believing that the Bible can change readers, can teach, can transform. But it can also be seen as a working hypothesis which is constantly being tested.

 

A is for aleph to tav

The Hebrew alphabet seems an ideal way to start an A to Z series of posts on the Hebrew Bible. In this way we can celebrate the English language and the Hebrew Bible simultaneously. The Hebrew alphabet begins with aleph and ends with tav. We shall see that the Hebrew Bible invented the idea of an A to Z before the English alphabet even existed. The alphabet is a good place to start for other reasons too. It is a helpful reminder that when most of us read the Hebrew Bible we read it in translation. Even the act of picking up a copy of the Hebrew Bible is a choice—a choice of one rendering into English over another (I hope any Hebrew readers will forgive my presumption). Rather than seeing the need to read in translation as a problem however, its positive dimensions should be noted. The very necessity of translation makes us appreciate head-on the nature of the task of reading this profoundly important cultural object. As we read it we will find it is not just the language that we find alien.

If we read the Hebrew Bible out of interest and genuine enquiry we must address not only the linguistic challenge but also recognise that this is only the first rung on the ladder to understanding these texts. Whilst one alphabet and language can be rendered into another it is perhaps a more proscribed process than connecting the modern reader’s cultural perspective with those of the authors, editors and characters of the Hebrew Bible.

This blog aims to provide a starting point for the journey of both understanding and appreciation needed to bridge the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Despite some thinker’s scepticism about the possibility of bridging what has been termed an ‘ugly broad ditch’ [1], I am writing from a conviction that a ‘fusion of horizons’ [2] is a genuine possibility. More than that, that reading the Hebrew Bible is a fruitful and rewarding venture. At the outset, I must point out that I am writing from the vantage point of Christian faith. This stance is inevitably founded on presuppositions although of course there is no truly neutral viewing gallery alternative. I hope that anyone reading from a different perspective will see that my attempt is at least honest in its presuppositions and able to display critical judgement.

The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet turn out to be linguistically richer than the English alphabet—they are strictly speaking consonantal phonemes rather than letters. Each of them can have vowels appended to them. Despite this, these twenty-two consonantal phonemes often function in ways analogous to the English alphabet. This is especially true in terms of the A–Z motif so familiar to fellow April A–Z bloggers. In fact the Hebrew Bible takes the concepts of completeness and organisation that an A–Z motif implies and utilises it time and again. Some of the poetic parts of the Hebrew Bible, as we shall see, embrace aleph to tav as a profoundly meaningful literary device.

 

Notes

  1. Gotthold Lessing (1729–81) was a German Enlightenment philosopher. He famously (or infamously) used an image of “the ugly broad ditch” (der garstige breite Graben) to describe the problem of historical distance between the present and past historical events.
  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) was a German philosopher. He was a proponent of a rich idea of “the fusion of horizons” (horizontverschmelzung). The concept involves a connection between a modern vantage point, or horizon, and an ancient one. When a proper connection or fusion, is established the contemporary observer understands from a new vantage point. This approach has had an impact on modern hermeneutics (theories of interpretation).

The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review, Part 3

This is the third and final part of my review of the Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The fifth and final part of the book which looks at the reception and use of the HB/OT is the most uneven part of this volume. The first three chapters sit together well, although all three authors are tightly constrained in their respective efforts to capture the significance of the HB/OT to a major world religion. The next two essays, which focus on two aspects of cultural reception, are even more limited by the required chapter length. Despite this, all five of these contributions are engaging and highly informative. It is, in my view, Goldingay’s closing chapter which is the real gem in this section—this essay is excellent in its own right as well as providing an appropriate conclusion to the volume.

Each of the final six chapters is reviewed below. By way of conclusion some final comments are made about the book as a whole.

 

Part V: Reception and use

Chapter 18: The Hebrew Bible in Judaism (Frederick E. Greenspahn, Florida Atlantic University)

The centrality of the Hebrew Bible to Jewish liturgy and the key annual Jewish festivals is outlined. The centrality of the HB in everyday life is also helpfully unpacked. Greenspahn goes on to argue that despite this centrality many Jewish practices are not derived from the Bible. Because much Jewish practice originated with rabbinic traditions that took shape centuries after the writing of the HB texts, the ‘relationship between Judaism and the Bible is therefore more complicated than we usually acknowledge’ [p.377]. Interestingly Goldingay explores a similar point in the final chapter. The rabbis explained the origin of much of their praxis with reference to an ‘Oral Torah’ which existed in parallel with the Pentateuch (the written Torah). This ‘Oral Torah’ is identified as the source of some of the Talmud (comprising the Mishna and discussions of the Mishna). Greenspahn explores the changing understanding of the nature of the authority of the HB and traditions surrounding the origin and nature of the Torah. The chapter concludes with the recognition that in recent decades many Jewish scholars have joined the academic field of biblical studies. This development is central to the core aim of collaboration stated at the outset of this volume.

 

Chapter 19: The Old Testament in Christianity (R. W. L. Moberly, Durham University)

Moberly opens by recognising the impossibility of the task to resolve the precise role of the OT within Christianity. This difficulty is, according to Moberly, all the more reason to wrestle with the complex issues which converge on interpreting the very nature of these texts, as well as their relationship to the New Testament. Much of the complexity arises because of the need to account for the difference that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes to appropriating the OT. Over two millennia, Christian interpreters have had very different approaches. Harnack, for example, wanted the OT to be given the same status as the Apocrypha. This has never been a major view—most churches and theologians have favoured a more nuanced relationship which preserves the OT’s canonical status. It is noted that some more programmatic solutions, such as Bultmann’s, produce a very ‘thin’ Christianity.

Moberly helpfully points out that the consequences of re-reading the OT were a central development of Christianity from the outset. This is helpfully illustrated in the very distinct way that Matthew reports Jesus words about the OT compared with his own ideas regarding the Hebrew Scriptures. In a similar way, early Christians appropriated the Shema as a central text as it is in Judaism but made it their own by focusing on its theological claim (Deut. 6:4‒5) rather than the praxis which it promotes (Deut. 6:6‒9). Moberly concludes with a sensitive and constructive reflection on Jesus-centred hermeneutics.

 

Chapter 20: The Hebrew Bible in Islam (Walid A. Saleh, University of Toronto)

Saleh’s point of departure is the earliest Islamic creed preserved in the Qur’an which asks Muslims to uphold the Scripture of Judaism. What this upholding might mean in detail proves to be a complex story. An initial complication is just how much of the Hebrew Bible might be in mind—the Torah and beyond? Only the Torah? Part of the Torah? There is also something of a duality in that the Qur’an also claims that the Jews have tampered with their Scripture. The Qur’an is frequently delimited with reference to the Torah (and the gospels)—Jews have the Torah, Christians have the Gospel and in the Qur’an Arabs have their Scripture [p.410]. The whole picture is, however, more complex given the Qur’an’s doubt about veracity of the HB—an example is the claim that the HB foretold Mohammad but these references have been tampered with.

In the medieval period, four positions emerged as to the nature and extent of this tampering with the Torah. One extreme is that the whole Torah is falsified and it has nothing of its divine character left. The opposite view is that it is only the hermeneutical lens through which the Torah is interpreted which is the problem. Despite this debate, the HB became very much part of the Islamic tradition as the Qur’an contains stories of key figures such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Islam has traditionally looked to the HB’s accounts, for example the ‘Israelite material’ filled in background matters with reference to the Torah. Saleh refers to the work of al-Biqa’i c.1457 CE who demonstrated critical textual skills ahead of his time in using the Hebrew original to inform criticism of three Arabic versions. This is an example of a highly positive approach to the HB in which the Muslim scholar can use it, albeit under the authority of the Qur’an. More recent scholarship has sometimes taken Christian higher criticism and used it to cast doubt on the integrity of the HB.

 

Chapter 21: The Hebrew Bible in art and literature (David Lyle Jeffrey, Baylor University)

The point of departure for this essay is the tension between the prohibition concerning ‘graven’ images (Exodus 20:4) and the positive recognition of various artistic endeavours as God-inspired (Exodus 31:1‒5). The implications have been felt in the cultures influenced by Jewish and Christian thought. Although nothing survives of the earliest synagogues, from the fourth century ornate mosaic floors are known and from later still manuscripts survive which are highly ornate. These testify to the importance of aesthetics in Jewish worship, although the detail is informed by a mixing of both the HB and other cultures. The extent of medieval Christian art is so large that if defies succinct summary but numerous scenes from the HB are used extensively, often in a distinctively Christian manner. For example, Abraham’s three visitors frequently echo the doctrine of the Trinity.

The HB has had a major influence on poetry from the medieval period onwards. In the medieval period many poems retold classic biblical narratives. Later poetry, such as that of Milton, went further in developing not just the biblical stories but supplying new narrative to more fully develop a theology. The HB was very prominent in Renaissance painting onwards. Over the centuries the artist’s use of the subject matter of the HB has shifted. For example, paintings of Bathsheba bathing can make any number of theological or moral points and can result in pieces of work which are beautiful (Rembrandt’s 1654 Bathsheba) or plainly erotic (Rubens 1635 Bathsheba at the Fountain). The chapter rounds off with an appropriate celebration of the work of Marc Chagall.

 

Chapter 22: The Old Testament in public: the Ten Commandments. Evolution, and Sabbath closing laws (Nancy J. Duff, Princeton Theological Seminary)

This chapter is especially focused on the USA. Whilst some of the issues surrounding the use of the OT in public are generic to other countries, much of the argument is concerned with the specific role of the US constitution in this regard. This essay has a limited appeal to those whose primary concern lies outside the US.

The essay opens with a concern about how well known the detailed content of either the OT or the US constitution is among the general populace. The First Amendment of the Constitution is outlined as key to understanding the three issues examined in this chapter. In particular the prohibition against the enactment of any law that seeks to establish a particular religion (The Establishment Clause) and the right for any citizen to exercise any religion freely (The Free Exercise Clause). The posting of the Ten Commandments in public is considered first. Duff urges caution about the value of the public display of the Ten Commandments in isolation from the prologue (Exodus 20:2) that makes their origin clear. The 1925 Scopes trial is used illustrate the way in which evolution has been handled in public debate in the US. The danger of seeing God primarily as an explanation for the scientifically inexplicable—the so-called god of the gaps—is lamented. There is a very real risk that this approach relegates God to the margins of life rather than showing his centrality to life. In the final section, Duff argues that Sabbath regulation risks undermining the spirit of freedom and joy which should accompany Sabbath. In fact strict Sabbath regulation makes people US citizens first and foremost and Christians second. Duff suggests that there should be greater emphasis on the issues of social justice; that all have a right to rest, and worship, if and when they wish.

 

Chapter 23: The Theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (John Goldingay, Fuller Theological Seminary)

This final chapter provides an appropriate conclusion to this volume. Goldingay’s effortless narrative introduces the theology of the HB/OT via key theologians of the past century but cuts to the chase about the challenge of handling the HB/OT with the care it deserves. Walter Eichrodt’s work is eloquently captured in terms of its promise but also its pitfalls. In this way a key element is established for the rest of the chapter—unlike Eichrodt we will look to view the big picture that emerges from the OT rather than any singular system which underlies it. Goldingay steps from Eichrodt to introduce YHWH, Israel and the World as a triptych within the OT narrative. Von Rad is introduced as the theologian who both emphasised the diversity of Israel’s faith and highlighted the gap between the OT and history. Goldingay then introduces two theologians who have handled von Rad’s legacy in distinctly different ways. Childs’ canonical approach is outlined—Childs not only wants to focus on the final form of the biblical books but wants their present religious value to be central to the hermeneutical endeavour. Brueggemann sees things differently, wanting to avoid any tendency of Christian assimilation of the OT. He does this by developing a thoroughgoing literary and rhetorical approach which pays special attention to the sociological implications of the HB/OT texts.

At one level Goldingay suggests that both Christian and Jewish interpreters have shared something in their respective use of the HB/OT—Christians see it through the lens of the New Testament and Jews see it through the Mishnah and Talmud. On the smaller scale of the individual too, even the most faithful interpreters have much to learn from others. How else can we hope to perceive our own all too prevalent myopia?

 

Final Comments on the Whole Volume

The twenty-three contributions in this volume come together well to provide a thoroughgoing introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I would have liked to have seen a broader and more balanced range of contributors in terms of both gender and cultural background—and like all books of this type it has the typical expected unevenness. This said all of the contributions broadly do what is expected from their respective titles and their place in the volume. As with all multivolume works some chapters stand out, but this can be in part due to the taste and interests of the reader. I have singled out what I judge to be the highlights.

Anyone using this volume as an ongoing reference will be pleased to known that the Index is highly comprehensive, running to some 43 pages. For many the faith stances of its authors will also make it attractive—virtually all of the contributors seem sympathetic to the ongoing religious role of the HB/OT rather than seeing it as only a cultural artefact. The quality and scope of this volume at what is a reasonable price make this hard to beat.

You might also be interested in my earlier review of John Barton’s (ed.) The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion. This edited volume which in many ways covers very similar ground has a broader range of contributors than he Cambridge Companion.