Wednesday, February 10, 2010

God's Faithfulness to God's People: Exploring the Hebrew Scriptures

The Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, is divided roughly into three kinds of books:

* Histories
* Prophetic proclamations
* Wisdom advice

Let’s admit upfront Old Testament is difficult for modern readers to access, and hard to take, with a God often portrayed as wrathful, vengeful, and a book full of rules – minute rules about everything from what to eat, how to cook it, how to slaughter animals, how to dress, how oxen should cross the road.

Christians generally ignore the Old Testament whether they admit it or not. Only Hasidic Jews even try to follow all these laws, and to the rest of our world it is essentially an archaic curiosity at best.

So is there anything we can get out of it?

Do we ignore the rules we don’t like and enforce the rules we do? That seems to be the approach of many fundamentalist Christians.

We could also say that the Old Testament is so bound to the culture of an ancient world gone by that it means nothing to us now.

Another way of viewing the Old Testament is through the perspective of the Protestant Reformation – to see the Hebrew book as a stern set of laws that are completely repealed by Jesus.

* That is a very attractive way to look at the OT, and gets us out of having to follow all those rules
* But Paul would not have agreed with that, either.

Paul stated the purpose of Scriptures: to give us hope (Romans 15:4).

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another…”

By that Paul meant that Scriptures – and the Hebrew Scriptures were the only Scriptures there were for him – there is no New Testament – were given to us to help us connect with God by leading a holy life. And that should give us hope for a better life and world to come. Paul was not trying to write a second set of rules but explain the purpose of the first set.

So look for the principles behind the Scripture:

For us to understand why the Old Testament is a document of HOPE we need to understand how it was developed; if we can read it even a little through the eyes of those who heard God’s Spirit and wrote it down, we might understand why it has HOPE.

That HOPE test may also give us a way in to seeing how the Old Testament can speak to us as a holy book rather than as an outmoded, culturally-laden rule book.

Old Testament Development:

* The OT is not a single integrated document with a single literary style. It doesn’t claim to be. Contains histories, hymns, proverbs, an allegorical novel or two, and sometimes scolding accounts from people deemed prophets.

* It has wisdom and arguments about wisdom and arguments about the nature of God.

* Although most references to God are in male-dominate language, God is also female, particularly in the wisdom literature: Sophia is the Hebrew word for wisdom, and denotes a female embodiment of God.

* Hebrew Scriptures developed for 2,000 years or more.

* Think of it as a library of Israelite holy literature.

* We also know the Hebrew Scriptures were heavily edited – you will see in some scholarly books references to the “priestly source” or “P” and the Elohim source or “E” for a particular way of referring to God. You’ll also hear about “D” or the “deuteronomist,” shorthand for a group of editors and their cast on much of the scriptures. Don’t get too confused by all that. Understand the Old Testament as a rich accumulation of books.

* What we get scholars believe is about 10% of the Hebrew literature. Much was left out and long since disappeared. The Old Testament itself refers to its many sources:

The important point is God didn’t write the Bible – and there is no claim by the Scriptures that God did.

Principles for understanding the Old Testament context:

* The Scripturess came together during the exile of the Jews in Babylon; Need to keep that history in mind as a backdrop: North was invaded in 722 BC – Israel as a united kingdom ceases to exist; people flee south; Jerusalem Temple destroyed, exile 586 BC.

People in exile have some issues:

How did we get here? Will this mess end?
* Much of OT is a lament – asking God to stop being angry with us. For example, Psalm 85: 4-6:

“Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us
Will you be displeased with us forever? Will you prolong your anger from age to age?
Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

* Identity – who are we? What makes us different – more holy – than our captors? What connects us to God in ways others aren’t? How do we maintain our religion?

* James Sanders: “Her very survival was predicated on nothing more substantial than a memory, a story carried with her to prison.”

* How do we worship? The Temple is destroyed, and we are in exile?
* How do we keep this from happening again?
* The way we live, our rules for being holy will keep us whole.
* How do we explain the evil that has befallen us?
* Why does God put up with evil? The scholarly word for that isTheodicy.
* So what is most important to our identity? Torah – the story of creation and exile of our ancestors and their deliverance and the rules that keep them connected to God. Those stories and rules give us HOPE.
* First five books are TORAH, which is an abbreviation in Hebrew
* At the core, our idea of One God creator of all – not all these Gods of the sea and rain that the Babylonians have.

It’s all about Abraham

For the Jews and early Christians, the story of paramount importance is Abraham and his covenant with God. The later exile in Egypt and Moses’s deliverance echoes the Abraham story. The stories of wandering, exile and God taking care of people no matter what befalls them is at the core of the Hebrew religion. That is the Covenant:

The story of Abraham (Abram) and his family: They journey from their homeland into the unknown; it appears first in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and is repeated again in many forms. The story has numerous twists and turns, subplots, intrigue, sex and violence, cowardice (by Abraham), faith by Sarah, and a close call for Abraham’s son, Isaac.

The name “Abram” means “exalted father,” and God eventually renames him “Abraham,” which means “father of a multitude.” Indeed, Abraham is the common ancestor for three living religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The story serves to explain many ancient Hebrew rituals (animal sacrifices, circumcision, etc.) and the identity of various non-Hebrew peoples. Scholars disagree on the origin of the Abraham saga, and whether it is one story or a collection of stories. There is general agreement the story dates from about 2000 BC.

At the heart of the story is Abraham’s journey, and God’s promise to protect him and his offspring against all odds. The Abraham story is a central theme in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

Abraham and the New Testament:

God’s promise to Abraham echoes even in the story of Christ’s birth. When Mary learns she is to be the mother of Jesus, she proclaims: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendents forever.” (Luke 1:54-55)

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the apostle Paul argues for the legitimacy of the new Christian religion by claiming the followers of Jesus are authentic heirs to Abraham and his covenant (Romans 4:13-25). Paul saw in Abraham’s story the same journey of adversity that Christians were then encountering – and the same promise of God’s saving Grace. Christians throughout the centuries have viewed the life of faith as a journey of discovery, and look to Abraham and his family as the first to walk along that path.

Back to the Old Testament and Abraham

That basic story of exile and God’s promise is told and retold throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Much of the OT sounds highly nationalistic – the conquest of alien peoples, the unification of Israel and Judah (north and south) into a unified kingdom, and its demise.

Beneath all that nationalistic stuff: Contract that God will take care of his chosen people if they will follow his law. The Bible is the story of how all that goes through thick and thin. God will keep faith with us – God has favored us and will take care of us: Redemption.

Encapsulated in the Shema: Deut 6:4-9

When Jesus is asked by lawyers trying to trip him up what is the greatest commandment, he recites this, the Shema (See below).

How do we get right with God?

Keep Torah

Worship turns to homes; Deuteronomy pervades the Old Testament – how to keep law and live a holy life. Living in the law should be joyful, not onerous. It is the same concept as sacrament. Underlying it is that God created everything and everything is holy.

“Law” is meant as more than rules, but living by the revelation of God to God’s people. God will speak to his people if only they listen. Hear the revelation and live accordingly. God will take care of us somehow – have HOPE – that is the ultimate meaning of God’s redemption.


  1. We need to spend more time with Abraham and his descendants. Thank you, so much, for raising the story, again, for us to think about some more! We do all have common roots...

    Keep these ancestor stories coming!

    Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  2. We've rightly emphasized the Hebraism of the Hebrew scriptures -- but if the question is, "How are we to read these in the Year of Our Lord 2010?" we haven't spoken a great deal about the Old Testament as preparation. Yet of course John is going to say, quoting Isaiah, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord." Christ is going to say that John is Elijah. And Jesus is going to recall Jacob's ladder, saying that "you shall see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (Jn 1:51). David's eating the shewbread appears to be a type of the Eucharist; etc., etc. So perhaps in the future we'll want to say more about this prophetical dimension of the O.T.? Might such a way of reading help us to "take seriously" some of the more outlandish verses? We don't want to ignore the their historical contexts, of course; on the contrary. But even humane literature is always more than a mere historical artifact -- and surely the Holy Scriptures are.

  3. For example -- in the Deuteronomy volume of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, edited by Joseph Leinhard, S. J. --
    Origen says that the manicure/rape thing in Deut 21 expresses how we should treat unchristian learning: "I also intellectually have 'gone out to war against my enemies, and I saw there' in the plunder 'a woman with a beautiful figure.' Whatever we find said well and reasonably among our philosophical enemies, we must cleanse it. We must remove and cut off all that is dead or worthless. It is as if one were trimming the hairs and the nails" (309).
    Or again, when we are told that the robe of the priest is to have, "on its skirts, pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet cloth," Pope St. Gregory asks, "what else is symbolized but the unity of faith? For as in the pomegranate many seeds within are protected by one outer rind, so unity in faith comprehends numberless people of holy church, who, though varying in merits, are retained within it" (132).

  4. One of the recent devotions in Forward Day by Day dealt with the difficulties modern Christians have with the Old Testament. The writer of the devotion looked at the troubling story of Jacob and Esau where the future Israel flatout steal's his brother's birthright at the direction of their mother. The writer suggests that rather than ordaining this horrible action, God makes goodness out of badness. He uses the underhanded actions of Jacob to eventually bring about our redemption. And that is powerful!

    The Old Testament shows a lot of people at the worst, backbiting, genocidal, adulterating, and so forth. But through it all, God makes our salvation possible. I'd never thought of the Old Testament in these terms, but looking at it in that way now, I really see what Paul is talking about when he refers to the hope we find in Scripture.

  5. Please have a look at my main blog Saturday; the entry is by a Jewish friend of mine explaining Sabbath. I like what he writes a lot. The link is:

  6. I came across this article in the Washington Post today. It reminded me of our discussion of Hebrew laws in the Old Testament:


    Essentially, it is about a woman who at first refused a lung transplant because she is a Jehovah's Witness. In the end, she decided that a loving God did not want her to die and leave her two children as orphans. I agree with her, that love triumphs over law.

  7. One more note on Deuteronomy 21, of manicure fame: