Between September of 2018 and May of 2019, the diaconal aspirant group of the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado engaged in eight three hour online sessions devoted to the study of the Old Testament. Each session consisted of two participants giving one hour dialogical presentations of assigned chapters of the book Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction by Lawrence Boadt, and revised and updated by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington. Each session closed with a dialogical presentation on a topic related to scriptural exegesis and/or pastoral ministry by the group moderator/facilitator.
What follows are some of the highlight-takeaways from those presentations and from materials consulted in the preparations of those presentations.
THE IMPACT OF THE EXILE ON OLD TESTAMENT FORMATION
History is written within and from the perspective of the historian and the groups to which the historian belongs. Imagine the history of that portion of the Americas called The United States, written exclusively by native Americans.
Just so, the Bible is a product of the perspective of the Babylonian Exile and Captivity and the Persian Restoration. The experience of the exile and captivity, and the events which followed upon the Persian restoration, influenced much of what was written in the Old Testament, influenced what would be included in the canon of the Old Testament, and influenced how the writings of the Old Testament were arranged and organized. The Old Testament we have today is seen through the filter of the exile and restoration.
The word inerrancy is used qualify the meaning of the word “true” when it is said that “the words of the Bible are true”. By inerrancy is meant that the texts of sacred scriptures can guide one to salvation. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation states “…since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”
Some parts of sacred scripture are factual. Other parts are not, Regardless, all of these parts play a role in guiding the reader to salvation.
A thing or person or action is called holy when, in accord with God’s will, it is dedicated to God’s use. Holiness means to be set aside for God’s use.
Modern day discourse considers the words goodness, morality, and ethics to be the primary meanings/metaphors for the word holiness. At best, these concepts are secondary to, constitutive to, or dependent on the primary sense of holiness which is a thing or person or action dedicated to God’s use.
PROPHETIC (BOOK) STYLE
The style of many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament has the prophet beginning by severely criticizing the behaviors and attitudes of the intended audience, and ending on an hope filled upbeat message.
This pattern distinguishes the real prophets of Israel from false prophets and from those who manage cults. Cults and false prophets act in an opposite manner. These first speak in hope filled and upbeat ways. However, over time, the words of the false prophet or cult leader become more demanding, demeaning, and strange; as the person or group is sucked deeper into the cult or sway of the false prophet.
PROPHETIC (PERSON) STYLE
Some of the prophetic books, such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Amos and Hosea, present a good deal of the prophet’s personality and style of thought, speech, and action. In some cases, the prophets’ speech and behaviors are “over the top”. They might be highly offensive. Sometimes they appear mentally unbalanced.
Mental imbalance, and rhetorical styles which are otherwise outré, may be necessary or constitutive aspects of the means by which the prophetic messages are delivered to the intended audiences. Consider for a moment the possibility that the prophet may be mentally ill. Such a condition would, in itself, not negate the prophetic power of the messages delivered by the prophets. On the one hand, the dismissible behaviors of the prophet may be a necessary tool for clearing-the-chaff; that is, for providing an excuse for those who would discount the prophetic message in any case, to so discount and dismiss the message. On another hand, the person disposed to hearing the prophetic message might in fact be empowered and emboldened by the somewhat unbalanced delivery of the prophetic message. This person might begin to consider that if God could use this seemingly limited person to assume the prophetic task; that God might well also select her or him to be an instrument of His word and will in both action and speech.
TRADITION AND TRANSLATION
Sometimes, the beliefs of a Church, impact and influence how biblical passages are translated into a modern vernacular language.
The doctrinal beliefs of the institutional authority responsible for creating vernacular translations of biblical texts, sometimes, when presented with a number of possibly accurate translation options; will choose a translation which mirrors or supports the doctrinal views of that ecclesial community.
A biblical text can have different meanings, for the author’s intended audience and for persons/communities reading the same passage much later in history. The meaning for the intended audience can be inerrant and useful and meaningful. At the same time, it can be the case that God desires a meaning to be communicated which will be more important and intended for audiences not known to the original author. Further, it is sometimes the case that the original important intended meaning, takes on a new and fuller sense when read and understood within the context of a later historical period. The Latin phrase for “fuller sense” is sensus plenior.
Those former and original events to which and of which the author speaks can be seen as a means for preparing over long stretches of time, the imagination of a faith community so that they will be able to recognize and understand the divinely intended significance and meaning of future events as they happen.
A possible meaning of the word Israel is “one who struggles with God”. This name was given to Jacob who struggled with God’s angel. A pastoral application of this word and its etiology is that struggling, or getting upset with God, or even resisting God, can be an important and necessary element for one to establish a close covenantal relationship with God.
CREATION STORIES: THEODICY
The first creation story, also known as the seven day creation story, was written by a “Priestly author” present in Babylon, experiencing the Babylonian Exile and Captivity. In addition to being an acknowledgement of God’s creation of all things good and of God as caring and loving, the first creation story reveals a conflicted author asking how an all loving all powerful God could let terribly bad things happen to oneself, one’s family, and one’s people. The harsh words used by the Priestly author to describe the process of creation, and the obsessive controlling style of the writing, reveal a person traumatized by the terrible aspects of the Babylonian Exile and Captivity happen to His Chosen People.
CREATION STORIES: TECHNOLOGY/ECOLOGY
- The first creation, story written about 550 B.C., was written by a person struggling to hang on; enduring the trauma of the Babylonian Exile and Captivity. The words this person uses are harsh words. This person, probably due to having few resources and options, was a very controlling ordered person; almost OCD. It stands to reason that this person would describe creation in terms of the compromised condition of the land and resources of Israel at this time. It speaks in terms of handling land and resources in the same controlling harsh manner in which the author was experiencing his captivity.
- The author of the second creation story, written about 400 years earlier, was writing during the prosperous stable secure period of the Davidic and Solomonic reigns when Israel was a unified nation and an international power. This story is upbeat. It describes handling creation in the same mindset in which it sees its own condition; an ability to easily reap benefits from land and resources which can be properly maintained and fostered and nurtered.
- The advent of modern technological science in the A.D. 1500s will see in the first creation story a paradigm and metaphor and justification for treating nature harshly and rapaciously. In the words of Rene Descartes’ six part (like the six days of the first creation story) Discours on Methode, “man will become the master and possessor of nature”.
- Later, the ecological movements of the twentieth and twenty first centuries A.D. will see in the second creation story a paradigmatic metaphor and ethic for treating nature in a gentle and nurturing and sustainable manner.
The historical context of the three parts of the book of the prophet Isaiah, lend itself to “generational” pastoral ministry.
- First Isaiah was written when Israel was still an independent nation but was beginning to wilt under the relentless pressure of external threats and internal demands. Parts of First Isaiah are, therefore, well suited to ministry to/with adults grappling with the familial demands and professional struggles common to those who have many responsibilities and who are beginning to see that their best days of accomplishment are possibly behind them.
- Second Isaiah was written when Israel was devastated by the effects of the Babylonian Exile and Captivity. As such, Second Isaiah can serve as a tool for speaking to the emotional and spiritual needs of the older adult who is beginning to find himself unable to meet the needs of those for whom he is responsible, and who has discovered she has no remaining marketable skills desired by others.
- Third Isaiah was written as a broken Israel returns to Israel following the Persian restoration. This is well suited to the aged person who has few responsibilities, few resources, mostly dreams of past glories, and no foreseeable excitements. This person has a sense of relief that many bad life events are now in the past. However, this person might see the future as promising a boredom and ennui of few opportunities and of limited usefulness to others.
HARDNESS OF HEART
The exodus events speaks over a dozen times of Pharoah’s hardness of heart. The Bible contains over fifty references to a hardness of heart. Consistently, these passages indicate that this hardness-of-heart-attitude is what stands in the way of a person attaining salvation, a right covenantal relationship with God as Father, a belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, a life of heavenly bliss.
CYCLE OF APOSTASY
The book of Judges depicts a pattern of behavior referred to as the Cycle of Apostasy, which consists of four movements: (1) things are going so well for the Chosen People (for the faithful, for us) we begin to become self-satisfied and think that this goodness is due to our own efforts, (2) things began to unravel/go bad, (3) things become so bad that we turn to God for help, (4) God sends a judge (angel, insight, etc.) which helps us get out of our downhill path and things begin to go well, (1) things begin to go so well that we begin to become self-satisfied and credit ourselves for these good results…..
This same type of cyclic apostasy appears in many other biblical passages and at various times throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity.
Biblical narratives which include miraculous events always contain the following elements; (1) getting what one needs, (2) when one needs to obtain it, (3) all of which happens in a way that evidences God’s involvement.
CONCERN FOR POOR
References can be found in the literature of cultures surrounding Israel during the Old Testament period advocating just and kind treatment for the poor and needy. However, with the prophets of Israel, the just and kind treatment of the poor and needy becomes a strongly recurring theme. With the prophets of Israel, care for the poor and needy becomes a defining national and cultural characteristic.
DEFINITION OF JUSTICE
There are many words describing and defining what justice means. These ideas come under the names of distributive justice, retributive justice, procedural justice, restorative justice, Rawlsian justice, social justice, a preferential option for the poor, and others. Many of these understandings of justice are found in the prophetic writings of Israel. However, all of these “other” understandings of justice are derived from or defined in terms of the central notion of justice found in the Old Testament which is “fidelity (faithfulness) to the covenant.”
The bans/dooms in which Israel participated, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges, entailed specific instructions from God to Israel. Primary among those instructions was that none of the possible benefits of war should accrue to any of the individuals of Israel. Specifically, they were not allowed to keep any victims of the conquests as slaves, nor to appropriate for personal gain and use any of the possessions of the conquered peoples. This instruction can be seen as a sensus plenior; an instruction which will take on a fuller meaning later in the histories of Judaism and Christianity.
Specifically, the Chosen People should not come to see war as a means of immediate and individual benefit. This instruction removes some of the attractiveness of engaging in war. In this limited sense only, the bans/dooms can be seen as a later-to-be-understood counter cultural instruction for advocating peace and the cessation of conflict.
FRIENDSHIPS/PARADIGMS OF COVENANT
The Old Testament highlights a number of close friendships; David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. In these stories can be found words or phrases characteristic of the definition of the word covenant; a bloodlike-familial relationship of loyalty and loving kindness between God and us; words such as bond, loyalty, loving kindness, caring for the other for the other’s own well being.