Afterword or After Z

I hope that readers of this blog have found the recent posts on the Hebrew Bible interesting and informative. My aim was twofold.

Firstly, for Christian readers of the Old Testament my aim was to highlight how the Old Testament is not in some senses the same as the Hebrew Bible. Although the texts are the same, they are arranged differently and even more importantly our presuppositions as a reader transform the texts in terms of their meaning and significance. In this way I regard the Old Testament as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible—in seeing it as such an already initiated trajectory for the texts is continued. This is because, even before Christ the very process of collecting the texts necessitated they be re-read.

Secondly, for the more casual reader with little familiarity with the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament I was hoping that the posts might point to the richness of the Hebrew Bible and the various writings found within. In this way I would be delighted if the reader left my blog in favour of the object which it hopefully signifies.

I hope that the above aims will have worked for some readers of this blog. Like all such enterprises it has various weaknesses. I am sure that the posts betray some of my idiosyncrasies. What is a bigger concern for me, and one I can see all too evidently, is what has been omitted. In putting together the posts with the rather poetic constraint of the A to Z motif, I was conscious that the Hebrew Bible’s Latter Prophets were largely absent. It is possible that I might attempt to remedy the absence of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve at a later date—perhaps another A to Z challenge beckons? For the coming months, however, this blog will return to the more infrequent and normal occasional posting of short contributions centered on the Psalter and the occasional pertinent book review.

 

 

Z is for Zion

Journey’s End

Zion is journey’s end. This is true for this A to Z project but also true for pilgrims of old who equated Zion with Jerusalem. It is also true today for pilgrims of a different sort who see life as ‘the life of faith’. For such modern day pilgrims, Zion is where God is and captures the hope and anticipation of resurrection and eternal life. As our journey’s end Zion is wholly positive. How could this be otherwise when Yahweh is there awaiting the pilgrim or disciple? The word Zion and especially the word Zionist, however, can have other more difficult connotations. The word Zionist and how one uses it can quickly be seen as taking sides in the complex issues of the Middle-East.

In this post Zion refers to (i) Jerusalem during the time of biblical events and the writing of the Hebrew Bible, and (ii) the eschatological destination mentioned above. Below we look at both of these in turn by considering the use of the word Zion in the fifteen psalms known as the Psalms of Ascents.

Psalms of Ascents and Zion

The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Psalms, or Psalter, has 150 psalms arranged in five books. For many years scholarship on the psalms focused so hard on the genre of the psalms that this led to the conclusion that the psalms were an anthology. More than that, it was assumed that little, if any, care had been given to the arrangement of the psalms for the editor or editors of the Psalter. This conclusion was odd for a number of reasons. One of the more obvious contradictions was the apparent existence of prior collections of psalms now demarcated by headings or opening phrases. These include:

  • The Asaph Psalms (50, 73–83).
  • The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88).
  • The Psalms of Ascents (120–134).
  • The Hallel Psalms (113–118, 146–150).
  • The ‘YHWH Malak’ Psalms (47, 93, 96–99).

The Psalms of Ascents stand out in particular as they are all consecutive and have a remarkable number of features that draw them together as not only as a collection but as a highly structured whole. Mitchell [1] helpfully explores the interconnectedness of these fifteen psalms.

The fifteen Psalms of Ascents have a strong focus on Zion. The words Zion and Jerusalem occur twelve times. The connection with Zion is greater than this word count, as the collection can be seen to be consistent with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In this way even those Psalms of Ascents which do not mention Zion or Jerusalem have this connection—and of course the very name Ascents refers either to the fifteen temple steps or the ascent into Jerusalem on ‘its holy hill’ (Mitchell [1] argues persuasively that it is both of these).

Zion and the Life of Faith

The Christian tradition has seen pilgrimage as a point of continuity with its Jewish roots. Sometimes this is a very physical reality analogous to travelling by foot to Jerusalem. For many Christians however pilgrimage is a powerful metaphor of what it means to be sojourners on the earth and travelling to a life in the hereafter with Yahweh. The Psalms of Ascents take on a different dynamic when seen from this perspective. Of course it is not just the nature of this journey that differs to that made by pilgrims to the earthy Zion. For the Christian journeying to the heavenly Zion, the Hebrew Bible itself is changed because of the new post-Easter lens. The Hebrew Bible is still the Hebrew Bible and yet as precious Scripture which points to Easter it becomes part of the Christian Bible. This Old Testament is not old in terms of being outmoded or surpassed but is old only in terms of chronology. Unless this First Testament is recognised fully as the Hebrew Bible there is a danger we damage that which to the pilgrim is God-breathed.

 

Reference

  1. David C. Mitchell, The Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem’s Temples, Newton Mearns: Campbell Publications, 2015.

Further Reading on the Structure of the Psalms

 

 

 

Y is for YHWH

When devout Jews read the word YHWH (or YHVH) in the biblical texts they read the word as Adonai. In doing this they are showing a reticence to use the divine name. The word Yahweh is one way of rendering the four letters YHWH, or YHVH, known as the Tetragrammaton. The reticence to vocalise the divine name has left some uncertainty as to how to pronounce YHWH when vowels are added. Hence the uncertainty about whether we should use Jehovah or Yahweh. Pronunciation depends on how vowels are added. The latter results if the vowels associated with Adonai, translated Lord, are used as in some manuscripts. As is evident by now to readers of this blog, I prefer the rendering Yahweh.

Although the name Yahweh is ‘revealed’ by God in the book of Exodus the name is used before this point in the biblical story. In Exodus 3:13‒15, Moses encounters a burning bush which is not consumed by fire. The story is full of imagery typical of a theophany, or divine encounter. In the narrative, God reveals himself as Yahweh.  Because, as we have seen, the necessary vowels for vocalisation are not present the name might mean a range of things. These include: ‘he is’; ‘he becomes’; ‘he will be’; ‘he causes to be’; etc. Semantically this can sound very profound but also rather abstract. It is therefore important to note that the burning bush account indicates that Yahweh is anything but remote. The story makes it clear that Yahweh’s presence and his relationship with Israel are central to the story that is being presented:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am [YHWH] has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13‒15 (NRSV)

The name Yahweh has immensely important implications for the Bible story and also for our understanding of the psalms. What we find in this name is the idea of a special relationship between God and Israel. Yahweh is the God of Israel; the nation of Israel are the people of Yahweh. This is a startling claim and raises profound issues for interfaith dialogue and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity with their rival truth claims. Questions are raised as to how we go from a special revelation, to a single people, to a universal religion open to all. This challenging issue is sometimes termed the scandal of particularity.

It has been suggested that the longer name (technically an appellation), Yahweh Sebaoth is the solemn cultic name of the God of Israel.  This is based on the use of the appellation in Psalm 24 which can be seen as a special psalm used in an enthronement ceremony of Israel’s God:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts [i.e. Yahweh Sebaoth],

    he is the King of glory. Selah

Psalm 24:9‒10 (NRSV)

Given that the Hebrew Bible so clearly presents Yahweh as the revealed name of God and that he has other appellations too, why are people of faith today reticent to name him? Most Christians will call Yahweh, God for much of the time. It is certainly not due to the sense of fear and awe that made scribes omit the vowels from the divine name.

 

W is for Wisdom

The wisdom material in the Hebrew Bible represents a sizeable amount of content. Although the precise definition of wisdom literature is disputed, the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are usually recognised as sharing this label, albeit in different styles and forms. Some of the psalms are also said to be wisdom psalms and many others contain phrases or concepts which are similar to those in the three books identified above.

There are some basic hurdles that need to be overcome if wisdom literature and ideas are to be treated in context. A basic challenge at the outset is that by definition much of the material that is identified as wisdom is collected and passed on as a multi-generational dialogue. The proverbs, aphorisms, images and arguments originated, not as divinely dictated texts, but rather as the distillation of the reflections of the wise. The sages, as they are known, who did this reflection and writing, observed the world and made hypotheses. These proposals were then considered by the next generation of sages. Over time those sayings, principles and ideas that appeared most useful and proved true were collected and others discarded. Proverbs within the book of the same name are the most obvious example of this idea. By their nature biblical proverbs are not infallible; they function as wise sayings not as rules for the universe. The two proverbs below provide a helpful illustration of this. Their value and truth is in their application by the wise person:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.

Proverbs 26:4 (NIV)


Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:5 (NIV)

These two biblical proverbs echo more starkly the polarity of these two very well-known English proverbs:

Many hands make light work.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

A popular misreading of much wisdom literature is to see it as promises. Whilst the God of the Hebrew Bible is a God who makes promises, the proverbial literature and wider wisdom material are not to be read in this way. This is in part due to the issue of context indicated in the example above of two otherwise contradictory proverbs. A further aspect to bear in mind is that sometimes alternatives are put forward and there is an obvious dialogue; sometimes the reader is expected to question the text. This can be demanding. The Book of Job for example, is largely a series of dialogues. These dialogues are never intellectually resolved. Instead the reader is left enriched and but with deeper questions—the definition of wisdom perhaps?

In the closing dialogue (Job 38:1‒42:4) Yahweh appears and effectively trumps wisdom by contrasting Job, as fragile mortal creature, with his own awesome transcendent majesty. This conclusion to Job provides a helpful pointer to the limits of the Wisdom endeavour: Yahweh’s glory remains a step beyond human reason, although reflecting on the divine person and the created order is an essential exercise for anyone who would want to merit the label of wise.

V is for Vengeance

A Vengeful People

The Hebrew Bible is often said to be a book of violence and vengeance. The question is then asked as to how an attitude of vengeance can fit with an ethic of love? This post will look at two specific texts which helpfully crystallise what for some people seems to be genuine problem. One of these texts is from the torah, the other is poetic and from the Writings:

 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. . .”

Exodus 21:22‒25 (NIV)

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:8‒9 (NIV)

We shall look at each of these texts in turn. The aim of this short post is to offer a pointer as to how these texts might not be so out of kilter with our modern sensibilities as is often supposed.

Seeing beyond an eye-for-an-eye

The passage from Exodus 21 is not unique within the Hebrew Bible. Both Leviticus 24:18‒20 and Deuteronomy 19:21 contain the same retaliatory idea. This principle is often termed the lex talionis which literally means law of retaliation. There is no doubting the question that this principle gives rise to. Many of the concerns, however, can quickly be alleviated by considering the context of this legal literature:

  1. At this time in the Ancient Near-East the sorts of issues for which this law was intended could give rise to civil strife because of disproportionate retaliation. In this way some people recognise the lex talionis as limiting the meeting out of justice, i.e. focusing on like-for-like rather than escalation into a feud.
  2. Also in this period, as in so many others, the richer more powerful classes could often escape justice. In other legal codes, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, similar laws are aimed at protecting those of inferior social standing [1]. That this legislation might especially relate to slaves and their masters in the torah is seen by the content of Exodus 21:26‒27 which explains that a slave must be set free if they lose an eye or a tooth.
  3. One of the dynamics of law in the Hebrew Bible is that like all law it is subject to change. We would not see UK law of, say, 1949 being a once for all finished law. Neither should what we have preserved in the torah be seen as a singular finished article.

None of these three points deals with all the questions we might have about the lex talionis and the ethic of love. The goal has been to show that the text is not either as stark or as simple as it first appears. As Beaton [2] says:

. . . regardless of which interpretation one finds most convincing, these explanations are unified by their endorsement of the principle of proportionality: the talion was about restraint, not vengeance.

On Babies and Rocks

Beatitudes are sometimes referred to as beautiful attitudes. Notwithstanding this unhelpful definition, no one can rightly claim that wanting real babies to be dashed against actual rocks is anything like a beautiful attitude. So why does such an ugly beatitude have a place in the Hebrew Bible?

The context of Psalm 137 is made very clear in its opening verses. These words were made famous by Boney M.’s song Rivers of Babylon. At this time, as we saw in ‘E is for Exile’ and ‘L is for Lamentations’, the nation of Judah had been devastated by war, Jerusalem had been sacked and the people deported into Exile. Remembering this context and noting that Psalm 137 is poetry can go some way to lessening the shock of these words. This is not a legal text which says how justice should be done, although given the fate of many women and children in Jerusalem it might appear to echo a crude wish for the application of a lex talionis. But we still have a big question: why is it appropriate to use poetry and song to articulate vengeance?

A good starting point is to observe that articulating emotion in poetry and song is an incredibly natural thing to do. At the same time we can observe that the participation in poetry and song, whether reading, reciting, hearing or singing, does not have to result in carrying out violence or even condoning it in a rational conversation. The psalms of the Hebrew Bible often deal with emotion and in many cases this can be negative emotion such as a desire for vengeance. Interestingly the language used; whilst unguarded in its frankness tends to leave the matter with God. Perhaps the need for candour with God and the need to entrust our foes to him are an emotional necessity ahead of loving our neighbour?

References

  1. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1974.
  2. James Daniel Beaton. ‘Find Justice in Ancient Israelite Law: A Survey of the Legal System of the Israelites during the Post-Exodus, Pre-Exilic Period’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 41.2, 139‒158, 2016.

U is for Ugaritic

Ugaritic is a Semitic language which shares many lexical and grammatical features with biblical Hebrew. 1929 saw the first of a long series of Ugaritic textual discoveries in the remains of the city of Ugarit, which was the capital of the kingdom of Ugarit in the second millennium BCE. To date, more than 1,300 texts in Ugaritic have been collected from the site of ancient Ugarit and its environs. These texts date from around the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. They provided a wealth of new information about the religious beliefs, mythology and culture of the inhabitants of Ugarit at this time. The discovery of this large range of Ugaritic texts has a number of implications for students of the Hebrew Bible. We will consider just two of them here:

  1. The close relationship between Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew has enabled some gaps in our understanding of Hebrew and Hebrew texts to be filled. Some scholars such as Mitchell Dahood, famous for his Anchor Bible commentary on the Psalms [1], have probably gone too far in amending the Hebrew Bible at thousands of points. Contemporary scholarship displays a more balanced assimilation of the new insights but they are valuable in bringing clarity to the meaning of obscure words and in some cases identifying minor textual errors.
  1. The Ugaritic texts provided fresh background information about the god Baal—the same Baal that features in the Hebrew Bible. There are many references to Baal in the Hebrew Bible which treat the worship of Baal as a serious temptation for the tribes settling in the land of Canaan. Some of the Ugaritic texts are known as the Baal-Anat cycle, although the term cycle is controversial as some scholars argue they are collection of disparate texts rather than a literary whole, see [2] for more information. In this ‘cycle’, Baal is clearly portrayed as god of the storm and Anat is both his sister and his wife. In the background of the ‘cycle’, playing no real narrative role is El, head of the Ugaritic pantheon, along with his wife Asherah.

To round off this post we consider a proposal about a psalm which brings these two threads together. It has been claimed that some of the most ancient of Psalms might be appropriated from outside of Israel. Psalm 29 is the classic case. Here are some verses from Psalm 29:

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;

    the God of glory thunders,

    the Lord, over mighty waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;

    the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;

    the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,

    and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.

Psalm 29:3‒7 (NRSV)

Some interpreters have noted that if the occurrences of ‘the Lord’ (i.e. Yahweh) are replaced by the name Baal then a number of alliterations appear. As Holladay says ‘the present Hebrew text of the psalm has so great a number of occurrences of the consonants b and l and of the syllable ‘al as to lead us to suspect that the original form of the psalm was a hymn to the god Baal’ (my emphasis, see [3]).  This possibility seems even more plausible when we note that the thunder, lightning and storm manifestations so central to this psalm are typical of those attributed to Baal in the Ugaritic texts.

Some people of faith find such proposals disturbing as it is far from the simple tradition of the psalms being inspired by David. Such an adaption of a pre-existing text can however be seen as Yahweh’s hand at work in a most remarkable and providential way—the worship of other gods is transient and Yahweh emerges triumphant as the true God of not only of the storm but of history too.

 

References

  1. Mitchell Dahood, Psalms I, II and III, The Anchor Bible Commentary, volumes 16, 17 and 17A, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966, 1968 and 1970.
  2. D. Pardee and Pierre Bordreuil, ‘Ugarit: Texts and Literature’, in volume 6, pp.760‒721 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed: David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  3. William L. Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

 

T is for Torah

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 1:1‒3 (NIV)

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

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

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

Joshua 1:7‒8 (NIV)

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

 

S is for Song of Songs

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

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

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

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

 

References / Further Reading

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

R is for Rewritten History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Samuel 24:1‒3 (NIV)

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

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

1 Chronicles 21:1‒3 (NIV)

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

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

 

 

Q is for Quelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reference / Further Reading

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