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.

 

The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: A Review, Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part review of the Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the first part can be found here.

This post covers the nine chapters which cover the key subcollections and genres of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT).

Part IV: Subcollections and genres

Chapter 9: The Pentateuch and Israelite law (Thomas B. Dozeman, United Theological Seminary)

Dozeman begins by demarcating Genesis’ distinctiveness from the other four books of the Pentateuch and also noting the differences between Genesis 1‒11 and 12‒50. Deuteronomy is also distinguished from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers—the latter three concerning the first generation of Israelites and Deuteronomy the second generation. This provides a helpful orientation ahead of a survey of approaches to the Pentateuch which occupies most of this chapter. The need for critical interpretation to explain the repetition of narrative episodes and laws is flagged as a key goal.

The emergence of Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis is sensitively traced through Calvin, Spinoza, Astruc and de Wette. Challenges to the documentary hypothesis are examined and include a variety of issues such as the likely role of oral tradition and the antiquity of ancient Near Eastern legal traditions. Alternatives to the documentary hypothesis which can account for repetitions of narratives and laws in terms of literary devices are outlined. These include the idea that competing laws are actually placed in dialogue with each other. The chapter concludes with the emerging consensus that redactors, rather than identifiable sources, are the basis for an appropriate understanding the origin of the Pentateuch, or perhaps better still the Enneateuch—i.e. Genesis through to Kings).

Chapter 10: The Former Prophets and historiography (Richard D. Nelson, Southern Methodist University)

The point of departure for this chapter is a brief summary of the intertextuality between the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings with the book of Deuteronomy. Nelson explains that the interconnections reveal an overall unification between these books whilst at the same time each book still is very much a self-contained literary unit. This leads into a clear concise explanation of how scholars have explained the intertextuality of the Former Prophets and Deuteronomy in terms of a Deuteronomistic History. How this idea has evolved over some 80 years, or so, is sketched. This is done well, with a wealth of detailed information presented with a clarity that avoids overwhelming the reader. This chapter picks up on key aspects of earlier contributions regarding literary approaches and the nature of history. Nelson sketches four aspects of historiography which he argues mean that modern historians should use the former prophets with care. The chapter rounds off with a brief sketch of each of the four former prophets and Nelson’s judgement about each one’s veracity as a historical source. This chapter avoids discussion concerning the religious value of these texts.

Chapter 11: The Latter Prophets and prophecy (Marvin A. Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology)

The Latter Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve—are set in the context of the ancient Near East where prophets function by attempting ‘to persuade people to follow the divine will’ [p.233]. The ubiquity of prophets in this cultural milieu is outlined along with the various means by which they claimed to discern the divine will. Little is said of the relationship between the named prophets and the literary pieces that bear their names. Sweeney points out that recent scholarship has emphasised treating these texts synchronically, after earlier work which focused on their diachronic development. An example of the significance of this seed change is the different reading which arises from seeing Isaiah as a coherent piece rather than as three separate texts. A synchronic focus does not deny a complex textual series of events but seeks to give priority to the final form. In a similar way Sweeney argues for a synchronic reading of Ezekiel showing that attempts to separate chapters 40‒48 are ill conceived. Notwithstanding the challenge of the different order of The Twelve in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, Sweeney argues for the value of seeing The Twelve as a single text. In this way intertextual features take on greater depth, an example being Isaiah’s oracle from Isaiah 2:2‒4 which is echoed at the start (Joel 3:9‒11), the middle (Micah 4:1‒5) and end (Zechariah 8:20‒23) of The Twelve. This chapter concludes by recognising the importance of the Latter Prophets in sustaining both Jews and Christians in a world which serves up plenty of exile-like experiences.

Chapter 12: The Psalms and Hebrew poetry (William P. Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary)

After a brief nod to the magnitude of the challenge of exploring the Psalter in a short chapter, let alone all Hebrew poetry, Brown captures the key features of Hebrew verse. He helpfully rehearses the immense challenge of (i) The Psalms’ preference for terseness, and (ii) the difficulty that scholars have had in defining the nature of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Brown uses Lowth’s three-fold terminology of synonymous, antithetical and synthetic parallelism, but concludes with today’s consensus that there is more artistry and beauty to parallelism that this system can capture. Brown is judicious in his treatment of the various scholarly shifts that have taken place in how best to handle the psalms. He points to the value and limits of form-critical work and neatly captures the important performative nature of the psalms by sketching Mowinckel’s and Brueggemann’s very different but monumental contributions to scholarship on the function of the psalms. This is followed by a similarly concise but highly instructive presentation of the collections of psalms found within the Psalter. This is a prelude to asking about the shape and shaping of the final Book of Psalms. The final sections look at the anthropological and theological dimensions of the Psalter.

Chapter 13: Wisdom (Samuel E. Balentine, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, VA)

Wisdom is defined as the effort of Israel’s sages to pursue a ‘pragmatic quest for knowledge through rational inquiry and human reason’ [p.274]. Proverbs is chosen as an appropriate starting point. Its development over time is outlined. Whilst the details of this process are the subject of conjecture there can be little doubt about the length and complexity of the process—unlike much of the NB/OT this book is open about its composite nature. Lowth’s three-fold terminology of parallelism, introduced in the previous chapter, is shown to be at work in different parts of the Proverbs—for example, antithetical parallelism dominates Proverbs 10‒15. The twin settings of family and royal court are examined as backgrounds for the origin of various sayings and collections. These two settings cohere with the conservative nature of the book of Proverbs.

The book of Job is shown to reflect the conventional notion that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” whilst also questioning the status quo. Ecclesiastes is shown to go further in its questioning, both more vigorously and with a greater variety of approaches. This highly distinctive dynamic is demonstrated by considering Qoheleth’s terminology of “vanity” and “fate” as well as the language used to refer to the deity that portrays God as veiled and secret. This chapter succeeds in that a reader of any of these three books would be oriented rapidly for a fruitful engagement with these texts.

Chapter 14: Late historical books and rewritten history (Ehud Ben Zvi, University of Alberta)

National histories were apparently a unique feature of ancient Israel. In the two books with which this chapter is concerned—Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah—as well as those considered in earlier chapters, it is Israel and YHWH who are the two central characters. For Ben Zvi this first character is a theologically conceived Israel, with the implied author/s and readers being insiders. Both Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are explored as national histories which create boundaries between those whose outlook coheres with the implied author/s and those hostile to their worldview. Despite this similarity and others, the two books differ markedly on the issue of boundaries with those outside the ‘lineage of Israel’. Specifically, Ezra-Nehemiah repeatedly invokes an argument centred on a holiness ideal which is hostile to ‘mixed marriage’. Ben Zvi considers why a tiny literate elite would want a second history. Various answers are given although none are especially compelling. What is clear is that scholars of a previous generation had unhelpfully marginalised Chronicles because of misplaced negativity about its inferiority as a historical source, a theological document and as literature. Although much less space is given to Ezra-Nehemiah an intriguing picture is painted of how this singular yet bifurcated text still puzzles scholars.

Chapter 15: The biblical short story (Lawrence M. Wills, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA)

This chapter examines Genesis 37‒50 (the story of Joseph), Ruth, Jonah, the prose frame of Job, Esther, Daniel 1‒6, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Judith, Tobit and what Wills terms ‘the international Story of Ahikar’ (an Egyptian ‘novella’). To the reader unfamiliar with recent scholarship on biblical short stories this might seem a strangely eclectic mix. Wills quickly illustrates the rationale and value in considering these stories together. He provides a compelling sketch of the themes and the form that unites them. If Wills is correct in his analysis then many readings of these texts, both contemporary and historical, have failed to capture their most fundamental dynamics. The simple observation that they all operate on a theme of ‘innocents abroad’ [p.315] immediately indicates that there is a literary movement here. A key aspect of these novellas for Wills is that they are meant to be taken as fictional. He shows the evidence of this for each story. For Ruth he highlights features such as the artificial time (i.e. when the judges ruled), most names having a meaning critical to the story, coincidence plays a key role and the unusual role for dialogue. The case for the fictional dynamic of most of the other stories is even more compelling. He helpfully argues against the notion that character development is an innovation of the modern novel by showing its clear presence in Esther. For Wills the fictional dynamic is central, as is the downplaying of the direct role of God, to the entire purpose of these texts: ‘divine providence is not apparent in real life but is true nevertheless’ [p.326]. Whatever the reader makes of this chapter they will find it engaging and stimulating.

Chapter 16: Apocalyptic writings (Stephen L. Cook, Virginia Theological Seminary)

Cook opens with a working definition of apocalypticism and quickly moves on to establish the limited extent of such texts in the HB/OT. The texts which can be labelled as such are essentially early apocalyptic or protoapocalyptic. A helpful distinction is made between apocalyptic thinking and more mythological thought. The latter tends to be concerned with explaining the status quo whereas the former is expecting radical change and an ‘invasion by otherness’ [p.332]. Because of the limited corpus with which this contribution is concerned, Cook has more space and freedom than some other contributors in which to explore his specific scholarly insights. In particular he argues that a simplistic two-way connection between millennial groups and apocalyptic is not entirely helpful as apocalyptic thinking can be promoted in many diverse literary ways. He makes a compelling case that some scholars have been too hasty in equating apocalypticism as simply importing Persian thought. He shows that whilst there is an influence, it is a much more nuanced and the biblical authors and editors have made it their own. Building on this, he explores the idea of bodily resurrection at some length. He argues that this idea was present from at least 580 BCE, noting Ezekiel 37’s albeit metaphorical use of the idea. This is presented as a challenge to those who propose that resurrection is a late and foreign idea for the apocalyptic (and prophetic) biblical corpus.

Chapter 17: Deuterocanonical/apocryphal books (Sharon Pace, Marquette University)

This chapter opens with a reminder of the complexity surrounding these books. They have very different designations within Judaism, the Orthodox churches, the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. The different terms by which these books are known arises from the different roles and level of authority ascribed to them in these four broad religious traditions. The notion of canon is briefly revisited so as to explain the date and relationship of these various texts with the Hebrew Bible main corpus. In detail this is done by revisiting the earliest testimonies to the number of books in the Hebrew Bible. The rest of the chapter paints a brief portrait of each of these various writings. In my view, this chapter will function best as a quick reference guide rather than reading in a single setting.

 

Together these nine chapters provide an excellent overview of the Subcollections and literary types found in the HB/OT. For me there are three chapters which stand out for the simple reason that they made me want to go and read the respective parts of the HB/OT. These are Brown on The Psalms and Hebrew poetry, Balentine on Wisdom and Wills on The biblical short story.

 

 

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

The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney (editors), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 540pp. pb. £21.99, ISBN 978-0-521-70965-1.

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I should declare at the outset that I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher. This post is the first of three which review The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at length. Each post looks at around one third of the volume.

Introduction

This review follows the five-fold structure of this edited volume. Each of the twenty-three contributed chapters is reviewed. In the book’s introduction the two editors sketch the intended nature of the work around two main aims. The first aim is to show how a neutral interpretative stance is impossible given the nature of the object being explored. This explains the book’s title which sets side-by-side two different designations for the object of this study. The second aim, which coheres with the first, is to demonstrate that collaborative possibilities exist between scholars who have different presuppositions.

The editors seem a little defensive regarding this work’s diversity [p.3] and it is rather disappointing to discover that only three of the twenty-three contributors are women. The editors also acknowledge the lack of coverage of advocacy approaches. This deficit seems at odds with the second aim of the work. This said the editors clearly faced a challenge in ensuring the contributions would fit the one-volume format necessitated by the series.

Part I: Text and canon

The two chapters in this short opening Part work well together in laying out the challenges posed by the subject matter: Which texts are the subject of this book? How were they transmitted and preserved? What label should they be given?

Chapter 1: Texts, titles, and translations (James C. Vanderkam, University of Notre Dame)

The outline of textual sources follows the expected survey of the nature, age and veracity of the Masoretic Text (Hebrew), the Septuagint (Greek), the Samaritan Pentateuch (Hebrew consonantal text), the Peshitta (Syriac), the Vulgate (Latin) and the Targums (Aramaic). More recent sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the questions they raise regarding the existence of minor and major textual variants are also explored. The almost universal privileging of the Masoretic Text is outlined by surveying the principles of textual criticism behind five major English language translations. This issue is crystallised in the handling of the two rival textual traditions of the book of Jeremiah—in Church tradition the longer but more recent text is preferred. This contradicts normal text-critical rules which favour age when establishing textual reliability.

Chapter 2: Collections, canons, and communities (Stephen B. Chapman, Duke University)

The second introductory chapter gives attention to the difficult question of just what the texts in question should be named. The various options—Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, First Testament, Jewish Scripture, Tanakh—are introduced at the outset so as to set out the nature of the challenge. The lack of any consensus on the meaning of terms such as scripture and canon is also rehearsed. After examining the difficulty of establishing anything approaching a consensus regarding the canon’s formation, the question of the name for these writings is considered as fully as space allows. Chapman sensitively outlines the value of the various terms as well as the potential for anachronism and sociological insensitivity. He defends the dual designation reflected in the volumes title. He also advocates faith-based scholarly reading but is aware of the possibility of sectarianism and urges the pursuit of dialogue. This chapter closes with a clear and helpful survey of the differences over which individual literary units are in the Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament (hereafter HB/OT) and the diverse order of these units in the Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions.

Part II: Historical background

The three chapters in this section have been carefully demarcated so as to provide a clear development from history via religion to text. The clarity of this threefold content is welcome at one level—at another this section seems to continually hint at interpretative complexity and challenges without ever stating them.

Chapter 3: The ancient Near Eastern context (Kenton L. Sparks, Eastern University)

This chapter opens with an explanation of how scholarship has understood the relationship between the HB/OT and Near Eastern cultures, especially those of Mesopotamia. This has changed over two centuries, largely because of the shift in consensus regarding the dating of the writing of the HB/OT. The bulk of the chapter covers five time periods over which the ancient Near Eastern context had different influences upon Israel and the HB/OT:

  • 3000‒1200 BCE
  • 1200‒1000 BCE
  • 1000‒722 BCE
  • 722‒586 BCE
  • 586‒331 BCE.

The year 1200 BCE is around the time that archaeology reveals Israelite settlement in Palestine and the Transjordan and 1000 BCE is around the date of the reigns of Saul and David. The next two key dates are known with precision: 722 BCE is the date of the Assyrian conquest of the north and 586 BCE the date of Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians. 331 BCE marks Alexander’s conquest of Palestine and its neighbours. The highlighting of 331 BCE is puzzling as the fifth section also explores the subsequent Maccabean period. Given the considerable differences between the five time periods, this chapter seems to bite off more than it can fully chew.

Chapter 4: The history of Israelite religion (Brent A. Strawn, Emory University)

Strawn opens by unpacking the paradigm shift caused by modern archaeological work—in a few decades there has been a reversal from biblical privilege to a situation in which ‘ancient texts and cultures are now the source and judge of the Hebrew Bible’ [p.89]. Strawn then considers three fundamental questions about Israelite religion: What are its sources? What is its locus? What is its content? He explains that despite the paradigm shift a new consensus on how to handle the sources has not emerged. Much work still can be seen as either archaeological or ‘tradition historical’. He argues that the challenge is to make the ‘or’ an ‘and’. On the matter of content, Strawn explains that increasingly two complementary loci are considered: the ‘official’ religion and ‘popular’ religion. Though framed in different ways as evolutionary (folk to cult) or as a result of societal power play, the modern interpreter faces a complex hermeneutical task. Strawn advocates the recognition of multiple loci which requires even more nuance and care. Closely related to these considerations is the question of the place occupied by theology and practice/ritual in defining the content of Israelite religion. Strawn concludes with a plea to unite belief and practice as an approach coherent with the nature of the Hebrew Bible itself.

Chapter 5: The Hebrew Bible and history (Marc Zvi Brettler, Duke University)

In this contribution history is defined as ‘a depiction of the past’ [p.109]. This helpfully prevents the clash between recent critical definitions of history with the more complex goals of ancient historians. When it comes to the Bible specifically its account of history is, according to Brettler, ‘a narrative that presents a past’ [p.110]. Brettler proceeds to demonstrate the importance of the past to the biblical authors. This interest in how things were different in the past and how this affects the present is shown to be present throughout the whole HB/OT. Although this reflection on the past is pervasive the different types of literature depict the past differently. The challenge of prose accounts of the past is that they differ immensely in nature, and the reason for their preservation is often opaque. Some poetic texts do indicate why they are referring to the past, for example Psalm 78 explains that the Exodus is recounted so that future generations might have confidence in God.

This contribution concludes with an exploration of how the diverse accounts of the past function. These include explaining the present, justifying a specific political position and for religious purposes. Because of the uncertainty of authorial/editorial intention/s and the frequently large distance between events and text, Brettler concludes that caution is needed in using the HB/OT as a historical source. The implications of this for the contemporary religious reader is beyond the scope of this chapter.

Part III: Methods and approaches

In this third Part of the book it is clear that the contributors though experts within a specific methodology, are committed to a broad approach which uses the best historical-critical, sociological and literary approaches in tandem.

Chapter 6: Historical-critical methods (John J. Collins, Yale Divinity School)

The origin and breadth of historical-critical methods are explored at the outset. Much of the chapter then explores the principle of criticism, the principle of analogy and the principle of correlation, after Ernst Troeltsch. The principle of autonomy—assumed in historical-critical enquiry post-Kant—is added as a fourth principle which typifies these methods. The nature of historical-critical enquiry is appraised by considering its limits and its critics. Collins concludes that the rather individualistic principle of autonomy must take account of the social nature of knowledge. More significantly the principle of analogy ‘should be understood as a pragmatic guide rather than a metaphysical dogma’ [p.143]. Collins rounds off his contribution by indicating how literary approaches have enriched historical-critical methods in recent and contemporary scholarship.

Chapter 7: Social science models (Victor H. Matthews, Missouri State University)

Matthews explains the multifaceted nature of such approaches as including sociolinguistic, rhetorical, economic, political and social aspects. He argues that such approaches are an asset to interpretation for recovering what life was like in ancient times. The themes of ‘identity and kinship’ and ‘honor and shame’ are explored with numerous insightful nuggets used to illustrate the meaning and value of sociological approaches. The concept of spatiality, in terms of a culture’s recognised places in which society’s members function or conceptualise things is explored. The brevity of this section is frustrating; although the basic idea is explained well the specific concepts of Firstspace, Secondspace and Thirdspace remain less clearly developed. The chapter ends very abruptly with an outline of the nature of discourse analysis.

Chapter 8: Literary approaches to the Hebrew Bible (Adele Berlin, University of Maryland)

Berlin opens her essay in a lively and engaging way by recapitulating what might now be viewed as three ‘puzzles’. The first puzzle is the peculiar fact that scholars ‘forgot’ that the Bible was literature for such a prolonged period. Berlin points to the convergence of the work of diverse scholars as the foundation for the rediscovery of the Bible as literature. This introduces the second puzzle which is the length of time over which scholars focused almost exclusively on narrative at the expense of other forms, especially poetry and legal texts. Berlin highlights a third puzzle, the initial antipathy between literary and historical critical enquiry. Having established the contemporary acceptance of literary approaches, Berlin helpfully focuses on the events of Genesis 34 for the rest of the chapter. The difficulty in providing a valid title to the events of this chapter hints at the fruitfulness of approaching this text as literature. This fruitfulness is clearly illustrated in the remaining pages.

Of the opening eight chapters, this is the one that contributes to the whole and sparkles in its own right. All of the previous chapters are solid helpful contributions but it is Berlin’s which has a freshness and vitality which takes it beyond the tight constraints of this edited volume.

In the next post the nine chapters which cover Subcollections and genres will be reviewed.

 

What’s in a Name: Psalter or ‘the Psalms’

The words psalm and Psalter derive from the Greek word, psalmos, which refers to the playing of stringed instruments in support of singing. In the Septuagint translation of the Psalms this word translates the Hebrew word mizmor, which means a song accompanied by music. The Psalter tends to be referred to in Hebrew by the term tehillim which originated from the verbal root for praise (hll). Thus, Sefer Tehillim, used in Rabbinic literature means book of praises.

In the English language, the 150 songs and poems that we find in the Bible are known as ‘the book of Psalms, shortened to ‘the Psalms’ or alternatively as the Psalter. In many modern church contexts the term Psalter is either seen as redundant or archaic. Yet is has something to commend it. Its singular meaning has the benefit of emphasising the unity and wholeness of this collection of 150 songs/poems. Why is this important? Until recently scholarship tended to see the psalms as individual compositions, the canonical order of which was inconsequential. However, more recently it has become apparent in scholarly circles that this collection is ordered and organised with intent. This scholarly move has simply rediscovered what many people of faith have appreciated for more than two millennia, that there is purpose here; the Psalter has a beginning, a developing ‘story’ and an end.

With this in mind I think the word Psalter has much to commend it in reflecting what the Psalter actually is. The longer term ‘the book of Psalms’ conveys the unity but in a more cumbersome manner. The shorthand ‘Psalms’ inadvertently highlights plurality. The term Psalter coheres with the value of the individual psalms as Scripture as it echoes, not just their individual value but also, the thought and purpose that went into collecting and ordering them. In this way the word Psalter, despite its conciseness fits with the remarkable claim, that these 150 songs and poems are Scripture. As Scripture they are in some sense complete and definitive.

David and the Psalms

This short post was inspired by some tweets I stumbled across which jarred with me. They implied either that David wrote all the Psalms or expressed surprise at the claim that he did not. No scholar has, to my knowledge, defended Davidic authorship of all 150 canonical psalms for well over one hundred years. Not all scholars are hard-nosed critics, there are many who serve Christ and hold the Bible as Scripture; if Davidic authorship of the whole collection could be defended someone would have done so recently. So why do so many Christians want to hold onto the idea that David authored all of them, or even feel that the Bible is under attack if this view is questioned?

Jesus, of course, famously refers to David as the author of psalm 110 as recorded in Matthew 22:43-45 (paralleled in Mark 12:36-37 and Luke 20:42-44). This is one of the 73 psalms that are described in their heading as ‘of David’. We can note three points here:

1. ‘Of David’ does not necessarily imply authorship. It might imply some other type of connection with David.
2. Jesus does imply Davidic authorship of psalm 110.
3. Many psalms are not titled as being ‘of David’ and some are clearly associated with other people or groups of people.

At this very cursory level the Bible seems to claim that the Psalms are in some sense associated with David, with David being the author (some might suggest the implied author) of a number of them, for example note the historical episodes from David’s life in some 13 psalm titles (although again some would see this in different terms). Many individual psalms are, however, not directly associated with him. This does not contradict the label of the Psalter as the ‘Psalms of David’, but simply that the meaning of this description is more nuanced than wholesale authorship by King David.

The psalm headings, which are part of the transmitted and preserved text, give us this more complex picture. Strangely those of a more fundamentalist Christian view tend to ignore the subtlety of the titles and the more critical of scholars also dismiss them as late and unhelpful additions to the Psalms. As a Christian I am compelled to take the psalm titles seriously, but I don’t want to rule out the possibility of editing, including some title additions. One of the aims of this blog is to draw attention to the idea that editing of the Psalms, rather than being hostile to understanding the Psalter as Scripture, opens up an exciting and dynamic view of how these songs and poems were cherished and used by the community of faith and thus became Scripture. To use an old fashioned theological concept we have God’s providence at work in a process of authorship, collecting and editing. This is an exciting and indeed incarnational way in which God’s Spirit worked amongst his people over centuries. Such a work seems more naturally coherent with a God who became a man that we might know him more fully.

To say that David did not write all the Psalms still means he wrote some. Maybe all those that are described as ‘of David’ or a subset, opinions will vary. David’s situation within Israel as the second king, but in a sense the first true king in founding a dynasty, is unique. This together with his role in setting in motion the Temple and thus Temple worship in many senses make the Psalms Davidic. It is the case, I think, that this influence of David is much more theologically interesting than simple authorship of the Psalter!

Some of the psalms date from the time of the first ceremonies in the temple, such as the enthronement of the kings and other royal celebrations. These psalms are the Royal Psalms. Their significance has changed and perhaps this even encouraged editing. Words that celebrated the impressiveness of David and Solomon as they reigned over Israel become hollow words later in the time of the monarchy’s failure. Unbelievable claims about kings in the present became expectations of a new David, a new anointed king, or in other words the hope for a coming messiah. Words that spoke of the grandeur of earthly kings at their enthronement were preserved because they captured the prophetic expectation of God’s people that there would be a return of the king.

This Davidic, and ultimately messianic, thread within the Psalms is important for our understanding and use of the Psalms. There are some words within the Psalms that only make sense when seen as the words of a king of Israel and/or those of the coming king. David is also an ideal in some ways. Like us he is beloved of God, and also shares with us a frailty that can lead to actions abhorrent to God and contrary to His instruction (Torah). The fact that David retained God’s favour is encouraging to us. Similarly we have the good news that the Psalms contain so many words of the most diverse emotional nature. This fits with a king who lived a life before God to the full. The Psalms can serve us well as we attempt to live life to the full with all the potential for blessing on the one hand and the possibility of mistakes on the other. The way of righteousness that the Psalms take us on is not one of dead self-obsessed obedience, but a life lived in honesty before the God who both instructs and yet can also show mercy. The day-and-night meditation on God’s law, or instruction (psalm 1:2), is not legalism. Rather this is devotion to the one who leads and shelters us on a journey which ultimately leads to encounter with the messiah, Jesus Christ.

Psalms of Ascents as a Devotional Pilgrimage

There are times in the Life of Faith when, for a variety of reasons, our walk with God, and the associated discipline of reading Scripture, becomes a struggle. Once in this situation it can be difficult to find a way out of this bad routine. My personal reading through the Psalms of Ascents recently has made me think that these fifteen psalms, 120–134, might make a great way back into the blessing of reading Scripture. Why did I come to this conclusion?

Well, these psalms are very short and wonderfully straightforward in nature. If things have gone wrong with our daily devotions, setting the bar high to re-engage with the Bible is unlikely to help. Despite their shortness, they are packed with ideas, similes, images and truths worthy of meditation and reflection. Their short length also maximises the chance that we can remember them and take these words with us into our day.

These psalms are also built around the idea of pilgrimage, as explored in the previous post. More than that, as we read them we get a sense that they can be understood to capture a pilgrimage in words. Reading them daily is like a micro-pilgrimage, a journey without moving spatially. These short psalms, taken daily and meditated upon, will still give the experience of moving-on, but this is a moving on with God.

The first three, 120–122, give some sense of connection with a real spatial journey. Psalm 122 is all about the joy of arriving in Jerusalem. They can be used as a gentle way of coming back into the full presence of God as we set apart time to reflect on these words.

Having arrived in God’s presence Psalms 123–126 capture two aspects of the journey of faith: Lament and Confidence. As we go through life we will experience these two different, but related spiritual realities. True lament, crying out to God, comes from a point of trust. It is looking to God in trust and expectation, which transforms complaining into complaint. Complaining is what human beings do so easily and naturally. Whereas complaint is crying out to God, naming and articulating the troubles on our heart, with the knowledge that Yahweh certainly hears us and will intervene into our troubles.

Psalms 127–129 in different ways focus on how Yahweh pours out blessing from Zion. This is of course the consequence of a life of faith, a looking to the God who blesses in the midst of all the experiences of life. Such blessing as is poured on us now are a foretaste of what is ultimately to come when we move from receiving blessing from Zion, where God resides, to residing with God.

Psalms 130–131 focus on penitence and trusting God. If there is a single dominant problem with modern Western spirituality it is a lack of making space for penitence. The Medieval Church frequently over did this, but we have gone to the opposite extreme of cheapening God’s grace and making little or no space to explore what we need to acknowledge as wrong in our daily walk.Some see psalms 132–134 as a departure from Zion. I am not convinced. For me these psalms round off the Ascents but not decisively. The Psalms of Ascents reflect on pilgrimage, and pilgrimages end, but I hope that reading the Psalms of Ascents is the start of something rather than an end.