The Rest of the Sabbath Story

It is said the Sabbath is a bride. Her groom

is darkness risen. She never marries,

is never jilted. Like Penelope at her loom

she weaves and unweaves her weekly sorrows.

 

Her dowry is the fading light.

She lets down her hair as a hive lets loose its bees.

Her hair is dark as anthracite.

At her second day of dusk she flees.

 

She snuffs the candles out, she pours the wine.

She is conversant with angels.

She is the last flower left on the vine.

Before evening is over all fall to her spell.

 

She has been to Babylon and back year by year—

you must bury your face in her long black hair.

 

— “Sabbath,” by Valerie Wohlfeld

The idea of Sabbath was prominent in my Christian upbringing. Getting stressed out at work? That’s because you’re slaving away to conform to societal norms – take a Sabbath, says the Church. Always on your smartphone, always connected – take a technology Sabbath. Need rest and rejuvenation, take a Sabbath.

Sabbath does not have to be a certain day of the week either, I was taught. It just has to be a time of rest from work. But, obviously, there’s Sunday, which is like Christian Sabbath (just ask Chick-fil-a). I mean, God rested from creation on day seven, right?

So where does the idea of Sabbath come from? What was its function? Was it really a day for rest, and why? This post will explore these questions on the basis of Exodus 16. But first, some background.

The Sabbath is, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, a central idea for the Priestly Writer. It is a sign of Yahweh’s covenant with all of Israel. This covenant, according to Bandstra, “marks the last defining moment of divine-human bonding in the Priestly history” (Bandstra, 29). It is through this covenant that all of Israel is designated as Yahweh’s chosen people.

The Sabbath, as a sign of the covenant, is of special importance if we accept that the Priestly source was created in the exilic or postexilic periods (Bandstra, 29). In the absence of political sovereignty and the Jerusalem temple, the Sabbath was one practice available to the Judeans under Babylonian or Persian occupation that set them apart from other religious and ethnic groups, preserving their distinct identity (Stanley, 296).

Exodus 31:12-17 introduces the Sabbath law, and is the passage I most associated with the Sabbath based on my early Christian education. As an aside, there is some question as to whether this passage is attributable to the Priestly Writer or to another source. The Holiness Code (Lev 17-26), which was possibly from a separate “Holiness” source and later incorporated into the Priestly writings by the final redactors (not the Priestly Writer, in this case), contains reference to the Sabbath in Leviticus 23:3. On this basis, some have tied the Exodus 31:12-17 passage to the Holiness source rather than to the Priestly source (Olyan, 202). In any case, it is still appropriate to evaluate the material through a postexilic lens because the final redaction of the Torah took place during this timeframe (Stanley, 296).

But Exodus 31 is not the first mention of Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible. For that, we have to turn to Exodus 16, specifically verse 23:

“he [Moses] said to them [the Israelites], “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’”

This passage puts the Sabbath in a weekly context, as the seventh day of the week, and apparently specifies rest. But let’s back up and look at the chapter as a whole, in conjunction with Geller’s article interpreting the Sabbath, to get a better idea of what’s gong on.

Exodus 16 appears to be a combination of the Deuteronomic and Priestly sources. Each of these sources has a different objective, which will be explored further below.

To the Deuteronomic source, Exodus 16 shows Yahweh giving the Israelites a novel law as a test of their ability to remain loyal (Geller, 9). In response to their complaining, Yahweh provides manna for the Israelites to eat, but commands that they gather twice as much on the sixth day and rest on the seventh day. The goal of the Deuteronomic source is to demonstrate the testing of the Israelites. Would they remain loyal to Yahweh, trusting Yahweh to provide and thus not going out to collect manna on the seventh day? From the perspective of the Deuteronomic source, the primary meaning of the Sabbath in Exodus 16 is testing, rather than resting (Geller, 10). “Loyalty to the Sabbath is loyalty to God, and disloyalty to the Sabbath is apostasy and breach of the covenant” (Geller, 11). In the postexilic context, the Judeans could take hold of the Sabbath as a sign of their covenantal loyalty to Yahweh.

The Priestly source, however, is concerned with a different message. Sabbath in Exodus 16 is linked, through delicate word choice, with the seventh day, thus recalling the creation story of Genesis 1-2 (Geller, 13). Reading the Genesis account and Exodus 16 together reveal that the Priestly source is looking “forward to the establishment of a cult that does not exist yet but which is foreshadowed at creation” (Geller, 13). In other words, Exodus 16 is not necessarily linking Sabbath with “rest” as we might think of it, and its linkage with the seventh day is for the purpose of paralleling the creation story.

It is not necessary for the Israelites to cease gathering manna on the seventh day because Yahweh does not provide manna on that day anyway. Geller argues that the real theological meaning of the Sabbath in Exodus 16, according to the Priestly source, is to link human inactivity (ceasing to gather manna) with divine inaction (not providing manna) (Geller, 14). Therefore, the true purpose of the Israelites’ “rest” on the Sabbath is to imitate the divine: “be holy, for I [Yahweh] am holy” (Lev 11:44). In Geller’s words, the Priestly source “is aiming not at recreation but at re-creation. Observant humanity makes each Sabbath a shared act of creation with God [emphasis added].” What a profound and radically different interpretation than merely a day of rest from life’s business!

For me, the modern reader, this interpretation revolutionizes the idea of Sabbath rest. I can now view Sabbath not simply as a break from my daily labor, but also as a comfortingly stable connection to the divine and an invitation into the re-creation cycle.

The summary above elucidates some of Geller’s main points, but also sweeps past a lot of deep analysis in the interest of brevity. I highly recommend checking out his article, which can be accessed through the United Library system for Garrett students (see the bibliography below).

Let’s look at some of our big ideas to round this one out.

“The Bible is a library of composite texts that are substantively diverse in their understandings of God and the world.” This was thoroughly demonstrated in the analysis above, where we can see the Deuteronomic source’s emphasis on Yahweh’s testing of Israel’s covenantal loyalty vs. the Priestly source’s desire to link the cultic aspects of Israelite religion to the Sabbath.

“Can conflicting narratives or claims both be true?” Deuteronomy 5:12-15 clearly links the Sabbath with humanitarian purposes: “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you” (v 14). But our reading of Exodus 16 yielded a much deeper theological perspective. Which is correct? Why not both? It makes sense, based on the character of Yahweh, to desire a day of rest for laborers as well as to link the unit of time known as a “week” with the divine act of creation. In this way, both can certainly be true.

I hope this blog has shed some light on the idea of Sabbath rest. I chose the topic because, for me, it has been a concept that I simply accepted but never really understood. I have no doubt that there are many more gems hiding amid the rich text of the Hebrew Bible, and am excited to uncover them as I continue my faith journey!

Bibliography

Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.

Geller, Stephen A. “Manna and sabbath: a literary-theological reading of Exodus 16.” Interpretation 59, no. 1 (January 2005): 5-16. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 5, 2016).

Olyan, Saul M. “Exodus 31:12-17: the Sabbath according to H, or the Sabbath according to P and H?.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 124, no. 2 (2005 2005): 201-209. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 5, 2016).

Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

Wohlfeld, Valerie. “Sabbath.” Christianity And Literature 60, no. 4 (2011): 612. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 5, 2016).

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Blessing and Self-Image

This week’s make answers one of Bandstra’s discussion questions, specifically:

Blessing. What is the meaning and the role of blessing in the Ancestral Story? In what ways are all people dependent on the blessing, encouragement, and support of others in order to develop constructive self-images and productive attitudes? Were the ancestors positive or negative role models of how to respond to blessing? Have you found encouragement and blessing from anyone in particular, and if so, what effect has that had on your life? (Bandstra, 112)

This blog will delve into a number of ancestral stories that demonstrate the concept of blessing, explore the response of the ancestors to that blessing, then circle back to look at the role of blessing and address some of the modern response    questions that Bandstra poses.

This is a dense subject, and before we explore it, we should define the key term, blessing. According to Bandstra, blessing is “divine favor and approval; blessing is a mark of God’s grace and evidence of his protecting and prospering presence; in return people can bless God as a display of gratitude for his goodness” (Bandstra, 503). It’s important to note in the definition that blessing is a mark, given by God, and realized through protection and good fortune (prospering). We can see, in the physical here and now, the blessings of God on God’s chosen. Having this definition behind us, let us turn to a couple important scriptures that deal with blessing and the ancestors.

Abraham. Genesis 12:1-3 contains the divine promise speech, which is, according to Bandstra, “crucial for understanding the theological intention of the Yahwist source” (Bandstra, 82). The text reads:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

(Gen 12:1-3) [emphasis added]

Note the prominence of “bless” and “blessing” in the text. Bandstra proposes that through this, the Yahwist source is linking the Davidic royal line to the divine blessings of the ancestors (Bandstra, 83).

Abraham’s response to God’s promise of blessing is mixed. On the one hand, he followed Yahweh’s commandment to travel to Canaan, and stopped to build alters to Yahweh at Shechem and Bethel. On the other, he was later forced to travel to Egypt to avoid famine, and was so afraid of Pharaoh that he passed his wife off as his sister. The former demonstrated devotion to Yahweh while the latter demonstrated a lack of faith. It seems that Abraham would have to adopt trusting Yahweh’s blessing (i.e., trusting Yahweh to make good on Yahweh’s promises) as a way of life versus a one-time action.

The ultimate culmination of this is in Genesis 22, where Abraham demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice even his son, Isaac, to Yahweh. By this point in the story, Abraham has developed an absolute trust in Yahweh, and Yahweh confirms Yahweh’s blessing to Abraham for it (see Gen 22:15-18). It is important to notice here that Yahweh’s blessing is in response to Abraham’s obedience (Harrelson, 43). The Yahwist was keen to develop this blessing-for-obedience principle (Bandstra, 93).

Above all, I think Abraham’s response to Yahweh’s blessing can be said to be human. In this regard, he serves as a role model as well as an encouragement. At times, he showed a lack of faith; at other times, he showed a profound dependence on and trust in God. This would have spoken to the ancient Israelites just as it speaks to us today. It demonstrates God’s faithfulness and willingness to stand by us when we are less than stellar role models, and speaks of God’s transforming power, which is a key feature in the ancestral stories (Stanley, 227).

Joseph. The story of Joseph is unique in that it does not make frequent mention of God except to highlight God’s role in the overall shaping of history (Bandstra, 107). In other words, God’s blessing of Joseph is seen in the way his story played out. Looking at Joseph’s story, we can see that he was blessed from the beginning with prophetic dreams; but then his brothers got jealous and sold him into slavery. He was blessed as a servant in Potiphar’s household, but then he was thrown in jail. Finally, he was blessed as an interpreter of dreams, and was raised to a position of power in Egypt. It was from this position that he was able to extend God’s blessing to his family, rescuing the tribe of Israel from famine.

Joseph’s response to blessing and hardship is characterized by trust in God. It seems that Joseph was given blessings and trials, like his ancestors, to develop his character. By faithfully responding to God’s blessing and trials, he receives the opportunity to bring Israel to Egypt, where they can multiply and prosper, at least for a time.

I believe the Joseph story teaches us, and the ancient Israelites, that God’s blessing is a “long game.” The Israelites, in the midst of exile in Babylon, would certainly have identified with the trials of Joseph. But, in the end, they can be sure that God has not forgotten them, and that God is the architect of history. We too can trust that, if we persevere in our faith, that God will be faithful to God’s promises. This raises the interesting question of, “what if we’re not faithful to God?” Will God still extend God’s blessing to us? Before tackling this, let’s look at the role of blessing in the ancestral stories.

The Role of Blessing. There are a number of roles for blessing in these stories. Two of them that seem most prominent to me are obedience and identity. If we take for granted that the Priestly Writer, who wrote in the 5th or 6th century BCE, complied the Pentateuch, it makes sense that he would place emphasis on the Yahwist’s message of obedience. Coming out of the exile, and having the development of the Deuteronomic History in the recent past, he may have felt it proper to dovetail the Pentateuch into the message of punishment for sin/blessing for obedience.

According to Bandstra, “telling the story of their [the Israelites’] ancestors was the way that the tellers came to understand their own being” (Bandstra, 78). In other words, the identity of the Israelites as a nation was rooted in their understanding of their past. These stories provided a unique identity for the nation – they were not just another group of people in ancient Palestine, they were God’s chosen people (Stanley, 224). This can have both positive and negative implications, but, in any case, I believe it is part of human nature.

In his blog post, “Why Some People (Maybe Even Us) Think They’re So Special,” Dr. Jeremy Sherman introduces the term “pseudo-exceptionalism” as “the unearned conviction that we are exceptional, superior to others because we were born…us” (Sherman). Sherman goes on to talk about passive-exploitive behavior, basically defining it as taking whatever we can get because we think we’re special. This correlates well with Stanley’s thoughts on the dark side of ethnocentrism, which he claims the ancient Israelites may have used to justify their pursuit of ethnic self-interest and rule over / repression of the original inhabitants of Canaan (Stanley, 225).

There is a difference between what Sherman and Stanley are talking about though, and while subtle, it is important. Sherman is discussing pseudo-exceptionalism at the individual level, while Stanley is describing ethnocentrism at the national level. Certainly, in both conversations, there is room for exceptions – those individuals that exhibit self-less, altruistic behavior. But, that being said, I’m wondering as this blog post evolves if all nations, regardless of the individuals, exhibit ethnocentrism / pseudo-exceptionalism on the national level. I can see it in my own experience as an American. What do you think? Let’s get something going on this in the comments please!

Blessing and Self-Image. Time for the final question. I know this is a long post – hang with me here! As a refresher, here’s the question: “In what ways are all people dependent on the blessing, encouragement, and support of others in order to develop constructive self-images and productive attitudes” (Bandstra, 112)?

Firstly, I’ll make the disclaimer that I took one introductory level psychology class 12 years ago, so I’m definitely not writing from a position of academic knowledge. You’ve been warned. Let’s go.

If we look back at Bandstra’s question, we see that he connected three concepts – blessing, encouragement, and support. I would actually separate blessing from the other two in that list when talking about developing a constructive self-image. Without going too deeply into concepts with which I am only passingly familiar, self-image is developed and can fluctuate throughout one’s life, especially during childhood. There are lots of factors that go into this development process, of which encouragement and support are two (McLeod). I believe it’s well worth your time to check out this summary article on the topic.

But what of blessing? Based on the definition we get from Bandstra, that blessing is a mark of God’s grace, melded with the concept we get from the Yahwist’s ancestral stories, that blessing results from obedience and is actualized in the physical here and now, perhaps we can look at blessing as good things happening to those who are obedient to God’s will. To me, this sounds a bit like Prosperity Theology. But wait! That’s not always our experience of life. And it turns out that wasn’t always the ancient Israelites’ experience as well – see the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. So what is the role of blessing in our lives then?

I’d like to propose that divine blessing is, if we allow it to be, a constant part of our modern identity. I could describe myself a number of ways – as a man, a student, a professional, a terrible artist (think stick figures), and a child of God. Only the last of these is inherently unchangeable (if you’re thinking about the unchangability of the first item on the list, let’s save that conversation for another blog post). No matter where I go, or what I do in life, I can positively identify with my “made-in-the-image-of-God-ness” (St. Athanasius’ logikos). And so can everyone else. It abolishes ethnocentrism because, all of a sudden, everyone is the “in group.” In this sense, blessing, not of others but divine, is crucial to our self-image and, indeed, our entire worldview.

That being said, I have been blessed by a number of my friends and my family. They love me, and will continue to love me, despite my shortcomings. And vice versa. This is, I believe, Christianity at its finest, when we extend the unconditional love of God to those around us simply because they too, are children of God.

Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings. Let’s round this already-too-long post out with a brief look at some of our essential questions and enduring understandings. Here’s one that immediately jumps to mind: “Can fictional narratives have authority for people?” If nothing else, we’ve explored in this post how pivotal Israel’s understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people was to their national identity, so we can certainly answer this question in the affirmative.

And it’s worth looking at the related enduring understanding: “The ‘world behind the text’ differs substantively from the ‘world in the text.’” Again we see that the final editor of the Pentateuch as well as the various sources had agendas beyond historical reporting. The world behind the text was one that cried for national unity, be it under the Davidic monarchy (Yahwist) or in the aftermath of Babylonian exile (Priestly Writer).

Concluding Thoughts. I actually wrote this post twice. The first time, I just sat down and started typing. I quickly found myself lost and a little confused among a jumble of thoughts. I realized that marrying the ideas of blessing, ancestral narrative and individual psychology (in the form of self-image, in this case) is not necessarily a simple task. People are complicated. Nations are complicated. Life is complicated. Yet our experience of God and our divine identity doesn’t have to be. And that’s a pretty amazing blessing.

 

Bibliography

St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011. (ed. and trans. John Behr)

Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.

Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003.

McLeod, S. A. “Self Concept.” Simply Psychology. Accessed April 27, 2016. http://www.simplypsychology.org/self-concept.html.

Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

Sherman, Jeremy. “Why Some People (Maybe Even Us) Think They’re So Special…And What to Do About It.” Psychology Today. Accessed April 26, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ambigamy/201501/why-some-people-maybe-even-us-think-theyre-so-special.

Let There Be Different Stories

Stanley states that “most of the stories in Genesis 1-11 are not mentioned anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. This suggests that they were either not well known or were created later than most of the other biblical materials. The Hebrew Bible also contains references to the origins of the universe that differ substantially from the Genesis stories” (Stanley, 215).

But wait. Just what stories is Stanley referring to? What are the points of difference? Why would there be alternate creation accounts apart from the pages of Genesis? And, assuming Stanley is correct, what story might these other accounts tell? This post sets out to answer those questions and more, starting with a review of the biblical passages and then constructing an alternate creation story from the details therein.

The Texts

Isaiah 51:9 calls on the LORD to “awake” for battle. The key text as it relates to the creation story is, “was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon” (Isa 51:9b)? Rahab, also known as Leviathan, was the “primordial dragon of chaos waters” that was defeated by god in the creation of the world (Harrelson, 1028). This language recalls the Canaanite creation myth, in which Baal defeats Yamm, the sea god (Harrelson, 1028).

Job 9:4-14 also references God’s subduing of the chaotic water creature, Rahab: “the helpers of Rahab bowed beneath him” (Job 9:13b).

Job 26:7-14, similar to the passages above, recalls God as the subduer of the chaotic water serpent, Rahab (Harrelson, 730). It also describes the “pillars of heaven (v. 11),” which were understood to support the firmament.

Job 38:1-11 is God’s answer to Job, in which God recounts God’s creation of the world. Verses 8-11, in particular, speak of God shutting in the sea (understood to be the primordial chaos waters) around the world. This section, as a whole, also provides a glimpse of how the ancient Israelites understood the world and the universe. God’s laying of the foundations of the earth and its cornerstones in this passage recall the firmament of Genesis, supported by the pillars, which holds the waters above the earth at bay. This is consistent with how the surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East understood the world as well (Stanley, 147).

Psalms 8:1-9 is a praise hymn to God that celebrates God’s creation of the universe. It displays an understanding of creation consistent with the Ancient Near East. First, the hymn speaks of heaven (v. 3a), then of the moon and stars (v. 3b), and finally of the earth below (v. 4-8).

Psalms 74:12-17 again recalls God’s defeat of the chaotic waters, here referred to as Leviathan. It also shows how the people of the Ancient Near East understood water to surround the earth, both below and above. “You cut openings for springs and torrents” (Psa 74:15a) implies that God created windows in the firmament through which the water above the earth can enter, thus providing rain.

Psalms 89:8-10 also recalls God’s defeat of Rahab, and does so in militaristic language. God “crushed” Rahab and “scattered” God’s enemies. This language of battle is not found in the Genesis creation myths, but is present in the creation mythology of the Ancient Near East.

Psalms 104:1-9 makes no mention of Rahab or Leviathan, though it does speak to God’s rebuke of the waters of chaos (v. 7). This passage summarizes the creation account. God created the firmament (v. 2b), “set the earth on its foundation” (v. 5) [i.e., the pillars of the earth/heaven], and carved out a space amid the waters of chaos for the earth (v. 6-9).

Psalms 136:1-9 recalls God’s creation of dry land on the face of the waters (v. 6), which, again, shows the Ancient Near East understanding of the earth as an island surrounded by water.

Proverbs 8:22-31 is curious compared to the abovementioned passages. Here, the writer talks about a being created before the beginning of the earth. This has been interpreted by later Christians as Christ, God’s wisdom or Logos. Latter interpretations aside, a significant point to see in this passage is how God existed and created “when thee were no depths” (v. 24). The Genesis account does not mention this, time before the chaotic waters existed.

Comparison to the Enuma Elish

The alternate creation mythology seen in the texts has strong parallels with the creation myths of other Mesopotamian nations, particularly the Enuma Elish, which was the Babylonian creation story. In this story, the chaotic water goddess, Tiamat and the god of the freshwater oceans, Apsu, comingled to form the other gods.

“When in the height heaven was not named,

And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,

And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,

And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both

Their waters were mingled together” (King)

But they regretted their decision, because of the evil deeds of the other gods, and so waged war against their children with a serpent army. Eventually, the god Marduk, joined battle with Tiamat and defeated her.

“She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu” (King)

“He overcame her and cut off her life;

He cast down her body and stood upon it.” (King)

Note here the similarities between the Enuma Elish and passages like Isaiah 51:9 and Job 9:4-14 in their portrayal of a chaotic water creature and God’s triumph over it. So, while the Genesis text does not explicitly narrate a battle between God, who brings order, and chaos, it is clear from the other texts in the Hebrew Bible that this was the understanding of the Israelites, or at least some of them (Bandstra, 57).

In addition to the language of battling against chaos, the Enuma Elish suggests that chaos existed in the beginning.

“When in the height heaven was not named,

And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,

And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,

And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both

Their waters were mingled together” (King)

This is consistent with the Genesis account, which when properly translated reveals that, in the beginning, God created from the waters of chaos (Carr). Except for the account in Proverbs 8:22-31, this is consistent with the rest of the Hebrew Bible texts reviewed in this post as well.

An Alternate Creation Story

Here’s my attempt to tell an alternate creation story of the Hebrew Bible:

In the beginning, the earth was covered by the chaotic waters of Rahab (Gen 1:1). Then God, who desired to create the universe, joined battle with this chaotic dragon (Isa 51:9). God defeated Rahab with God’s wind (Job 26:13), trampling her underfoot, cutting her into pieces (Isa 51:9) and splitting her in two. God brought dry land from the waters below (Psa 136:6), and erected the firmament to hold back the waters above. God set it on mighty pillars, and from them it shall never be shaken.

A Modern Perspective

As modern readers, what can we get from this alternate account of creation? Firstly, we can see that God has created an orderly universe. God defeated chaos to to bring about order. This certainly informed the penal atonement theology of St. Anselm and others who advocate for a repayment by humans of an offence against God’s good universe.

But this also differs from some of life’s experiences. We can see in Job that some ancient Israelites thought so too. While it is comforting to think of the universe as a “fair” and orderly place, where God has a plan and is in control, sometimes that’s not how we experience it. Even still, we can take solace in the knowledge that the world, with all its ups and downs, is “very good” (Carr).

Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions

Let’s hit some of our enduring understandings and essential questions to close out this post. First, I note that, “the Bible is a library of composite texts that are substantively diverse in their understandings of God and of the world.” This is obvious having reviewed various passages in the Hebrew Bible and finding in them a different perspective on the creation account. It’s important to mine the Bible for context and conflicting/corroborating opinions to better understand how and why a certain text came to be.

And here’s an interesting question: “can fictional narratives have authority for people? Can you think of examples (outside the Bible)?” I think fictional narratives can most definitely have authority for people. Going back to one of our essential questions from the Former Prophets, which asked, “is every history a narrative fiction,” we can see that many of our historical accounts are indeed themselves fiction, of a sort at least. And it’s certainly accurate to say that our understanding of history helps shape our response to the present. Take, for example, the stories of the Mormon church, which some would consider far fetched, but which have broad acceptance and meaning for Mormons. Or , in a non-religious sense, look at the impact of stories of lineage – often how a person understands his or her past influences the choices / affiliations he or she makes in the present.

 

Bibliography

Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.

Carr, David. ” The First Creation (Gen 1:1-2:3).” Bible Odyssey. Accessed April 23, 2016. http://bibleodyssey.org/passages/main-articles/first-creation.aspx

Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003.

King, J. W. “Enuma Elish.” Accessed April 23, 2016. http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/enuma.htm.

Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

Everybody Gets a Temple!

Introduction

This post examines the founding of the Jerusalem Temple and the alternative cultic sites of Bethel and Dan. It uses four biblical texts as well as commentary to establish the reasons for their founding as well as their significance in the overarching narrative of Israel.

The Texts

2 Samuel 7:1-17 describes the establishment of the Davidic house and explains why David did not build a temple to Yahweh during his reign. Arguably the most important verses in the Hebrew Bible are found in this chapter, specifically 2 Samuel 7:16, in which Yahweh commits to an everlasting covenant with the house of David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” Regarding the founding of the Jerusalem temple, this text portrays David in a positive light as the obedient servant of the Lord. It seems logical that David would, after all the blessings he had received from the hand of Yahweh, endeavor to build a temple for Yahweh. Nathan the prophet agrees, at least initially, until a divine revelation changes his mind. The real importance of this passage, as it relates to the temple, is that it connects the eventual founding of the Jerusalem temple with the Davidic house and thus Judean Royal Theology. Not only has Yahweh chosen the house of David in eternity, Yahweh has chosen the city of Jerusalem, Zion, as Yahweh’s earthly home. Hence the beliefs that (1) the house of David could not fail and (2) Jerusalem could not be conquered, say, by Assyrians or Babylonians.

1 Kings 12:1-33 portrays a series of events that led to the establishment of the sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel. The first section, verses 1 – 19, describe the splitting of Israel into the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah). One interesting note is how the ‘old’ and the ‘young’ men are compared. The advice of the older men seems wise, and perhaps would have preserved a united Israel whilst the advice of the younger men seems brash, and led to division of the nation. This, perhaps, reinforces the ancient concept that ‘older is better,’ which is generally opposite to our modern views. While we would say, ‘newer is better’ (e.g., the iPhone 6 is superior to the iPhone 5), the ancient Israelites would have prized the time-tested wisdom of tradition. This was one of the criteria used to create the New Testament cannon – had the writing stood the test of time? Perhaps here, the Deuteronomistic Historian is commenting on his own time. Were there, perhaps, young people in the pre-exilic and exilic time periods advocating brashly for resistance to the Babylonians?

The next section of import is found in verses 25 – 33. Jeroboam, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, was worried that the people would turn against him if they continued to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices (1 Kgs 12:27). Therefore, he established worship centers at both the northern and southern boundaries of Israel – Bethel and Dan, respectively. In doing so, he ensured that the people of the northern kingdom would have neither religious obligation nor practical reason to travel to Jerusalem – why would they want to go out of their way in a time when travel was difficult (Bandstra, 272)?

King Jeroboam set up two golden calves, one each at Bethel and Dan, likely in a well-meaning attempt to replace the arc of the covenant and provide a throne for Yahweh (Harrelson, 504). However, the Deuteronomistic Historian was not sympathetic to this action, and draws a comparison between the calves and the idol worship of the Israelites at Sinai (Exod 32:4). He condemns the establishment of alternative worship centers, with non-Levite priests and different festival days as a sin (1 Kgs 12:30). Furthermore, he accuses Jeroboam of establishing “high places,” presumably for the worship of other gods (1 Kgs 12:31). This of course, justifies the later defeat of Israel by the Assyrians (Greer).

1 Kings 16:29-33 describes the unfaithful actions of King Ahab, who built a temple to Baal and established the practice of Baal and Astarte worship in Israel. This, the Deuteronomistic Historian claims, was a sin, which made Ahab the worst of the kings of Israel (1 Kgs 16:33). These practices, however, would have been consistent with other religious practices in the region. Baal was the chief god of the Canaanites, and Astarte was his female counterpart (Harrelson, 511). This implies a more syncretic system of worship in the northern kingdom.

2 Chronicles 3:1-5:14 describes, in great detail, the building of the Temple by king Solomon. The Chronicler draws parallels between the Temple and the Tabernacle (tent) through both literary means (e.g., fourteen repetitions of “he [Solomon] made” correspond to the telling of the tabernacle construction in Exodus 36:1 – 39:32; Harrelson, 613) as well as structural details (e.g., the “nails” in the temple vs. the “hooks” in the tabernacle; Harrelson, 613). The dedication ceremony following completion of the Temple is reminiscent of David’s ceremony when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem (Harrelson, 614). Chr 5:14b shows the approval of Yahweh (and the Chronicler) by the filling of the Temple with Yahweh’s presence: “for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God.”

Credibility

We are presented with two competing worship centers in the text – Dan/Bethel and Jerusalem. The reason for establishing the former is presented as political safeguarding of the state of Israel, attempting to ensure that Judah does not gain influence over its people by way of religion. This seems credible to me; it’s a make-sense move for Jeroboam. And the archeological records, at least those at Dan, support this (Greer). So I think we can be reasonable sure that alternative worship center(s) were established. However, the question of the author’s bias still remains.

Author’s Bias

The Deuteronomistic Historian takes a negative view of the northern shrines at Bethel and Dan. However, it appears that Jeroboam was at least attempting to honor traditional Yahwism. The calves, which would later be labeled as the ‘sin of Jeroboam,’ were most likely comparable to the cherubim of the Jerusalem Temple, which provided vehicle for the enthroned Yahweh. The alternative festival dates may have been allowable based on traditional Yahwism, and the priests may have included Levites (Greer). Thus, the Deuteronomistic Historian, trying to make his point after the fall of Samaria in 722 but prior to the fall of Jerusalem, may have crafted the narrative in a way that casts the “northern cult as syncretic, if not idolatrous” (Greer). This would, of course, explain why they were defeated by the Assyrians.

Stanley argues that, “prior to the Exile, only a minority of the population of Judah would have thought that there was anything wrong with honoring other gods alongside or instead of Yahweh” (Stanley, 252). If this is true, it makes sense that the Deuteronomistic Historian would enhance these elements of other-then-Yahweh worship in his narrative to justify the eventual outcome. The idea of a gradual progression to monotheism is also found in Rollston’s work.

Conclusion

So what are we supposed to get from all of this? I suppose that, first of all, the modern reader can take the Deuteronomic History with a grain of salt, and, for that matter, perhaps all history with a grain of salt. One of our essential questions is: is every history a narrative fiction? I balk at the notion that every history is narrative fiction, but perhaps we can say that every history contains a does of narrative fiction. Did the events of the Boston Tea Party actually happen as recorded? Certainly there were details left out! One interesting question to think about is, ‘are we getting more objective with our history-writing?’ Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

Let’s look at an enduring understanding: the past might not change, but histories change. This is clearly exhibited in these texts as the Deuteronomistic Historian weaves the tale such that it promotes what may have been, according to Stanley, a minority viewpoint at the time. Do our histories change? What do we tell ourselves, for instance, about the Vietnam War? Having lived in Asia, I had the opportunity to visit some museums in Ho Chi Minh city, and I saw a retelling of the war in a way that I had not previously.

Even looking at our Christian history, many seem to have forgotten (or disregarded) the long evolution of modern Christianity. The influence of Rome and the Early Church Fathers, the canonization of the New Testament (and the Old Testament!), etc. Perhaps we should be more careful to preserve the past objectively so that we can learn from it, embracing the parts we don’t understand or that don’t correlate with what we think of the world.

 

Bibliography

Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.

Greer, Jonathan. “The Sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel.” Bible Odyssey. Accessed April 10, 2016. http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/sanctuaries-at-dan-and-bethel.aspx.

Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Rollston, Christopher. “The Rise of Monotheism in ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence.” Stone-Campbell Journal 6, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 95-115.

Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

Well That’s Poetic

I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about a people that you may be familiar with. It’s a story of victory. But there is also a story behind the story. Sometimes an artist is said to have “put herself into her work.” We can see elements of that clearly in the Song of Deborah. It’s short, so have a quick read through here, then have a look at the analysis below. Does this ring true for you also? Did you see something different?

The Story

The Song of Deborah in Judges 5 is set after the Israelite’s victory over King Jabin of Canaan, who ruled from the city of Hazor. After the death of Ehud, the left-handed assassin judge who rescued the Israelites from King Eglon of Moab, the people again sinned against Yahweh (Judg 4:1). Yahweh in turn gave them over to King Jabin and his army commander, Sisera (Judg 4:2). Following the Deuteronomic model of sin > punishment > repentance > deliverance (see Figure 7.4, Bandstra, 228), the Israelites cried out to Yahweh for deliverance, and received it in the form of the judge Deborah (Judg 4:3-4). Deborah summoned Barak, who led ten thousand warriors from Zebulun and Naphtali to defeat Sisera (Judg 4:4-23).

Step 1: Time and Place

According to Bandstra, the Song of Deborah found in Judges 5 may be one of the oldest pieces of poetry in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps written close to the time that the event actually took place (Bandstra, 231). If that were the case, this passage would have been written sometime in the 12th century BCE (Harrelson, 353). The “victory hymn” was a well-known genre during that time period, as evidenced by “Egyptian and Assyrian sources dating to the 15th through 12th centuries BCE” (Harrelson, 353). Therefore, based on knowledge of contemporaneous sources from the surrounding cultures and the style of its language, it is reasonable to conclude that this poem was written in the 12th century BCE.

Hazor was located north of the Dead Sea, close to the Jordan River. It was in the geographic area of the tribe of Naphtali, which was bordered by Asher to the west, Zebulun and Issachar to the south, and Bashan and the Arameans to the east (see the link to the 12 tribes of Israel map in the bibliography). Although the location from which the poem originated is not specified in the text, it is reasonable to assume, based on the content (celebrating victory over the oppressing Canaanites), that it was written in the north, because those are the tribes most likely to have been oppressed by Jabin based on geographic proximity, and also stated to have fought the battle (Judg 5:12-15).

800px-12_tribes_of_israel_map-svg

With these assumptions, first that the poem was written relatively close in time to the actual events, and second that it was written near the location the events occurred, we can be confident that it reliably expresses the situation at that specific time and place.

Step 2: Bias

Similar to the location of writing, it is not possible to determine exactly who wrote the victory hymn. Based on its content, however, it is reasonable to assume that it was a member of one of the six tribes that participated in the battle against the Canaanites. Much of the population at that time would have been illiterate, so it is also reasonable to assume that the author was a member of the elite class who had both the time and skill to put the poem down in writing (Stanley, 4).

Having made these assumptions about the author, we can now look for bias in the poem. One obvious bias is Yahwism – the author attributes the victory to Yahweh (Judg 5:3-5). In fact, the purpose of the hymn seems to be to testify “to other kings about the power of the divine king of Israel” (Harrelson, 353; Judg 5:3). We can also see bias in the criticism of five tribes that did not respond to the call to arms (Reuben, Gilead, Dan, Asher and Meroz; Judg 5:14-18).

Step 3: Audience

Who was the author directing his writing or art to, and why? Was this source only meant to be seen by the author, or by a wider public? Would this affect how the source was created and what message it is intended to send? (Kinney)

As previously discussed, the poem was written in the genre of ‘victory hymn,’ celebrating Israel’s victory over the Canaanites. Therefore, the Song of Deborah was written to be shared with the population (or at least the victorious parts of it), and possibly to be used in public celebration. It documents a high point for that generation.

This being the case, we can also infer that the poem serves to remind the six victorious tribes of Israel of the help they did not receive from the other tribes. The poem does not deal kindly with, for instance, Meroz: “curse Meroz, says the angel of the LORD, curse bitterly its inhabitants, because they did not come to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty” (Judg 5:23). In this way, the people can remember who their true allies are. Note the implication here that the tribes of Israel are far from a unified nation at this point in history.

Step 4: Symbolism and Metaphor

Is there any symbolism or metaphor? What is this symbolism or metaphor trying to convey? What does the author’s word choice or subject choice tell you about the primary source? How was the source created, and what physical elements do you notice about it? (Kinney)

The poem, being a victory hymn, is rich in imagery and symbolism. There is too much to address concisely in this post, so only those passages most important to understanding the source are treated below. Additionally, it is recognized that what appears as imagery and symbolism to the modern reader may have, in fact, been plain to the ancient reader.

The first image encountered in the poem is of Yahweh as a Divine Warrior (Judg 5:4). Yahweh’s presence is manifested in a mighty rainstorm, similar to how it is portrayed in Exodus 19:16-19 (Harrelson, 354). The image of Yahweh as a warrior surfaces numerous times in the Hebrew Bible – see Exodus 15:3, “The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.” This reminds the Israelites that it is Yahweh who fights and wins victories (one possible interpretation of Proverbs 21:31).

Another image given later in the poem is that of the stars fighting – “the stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera” (Judg 5:20). This is another case of Yahweh, the Divine Warrior, fighting the battle. The stars were thought to be the source of the rain (Harrelson, 355), because, not understanding the natural processes that produce rain or storms, the ancient Israelites would have attributed these phenomenon to the supernatural (Stanley, 145).

Step 5: Your Historical Context

What does this source contribute to your study of history? What information or discoveries can you glean from this primary source, and what does this information or discovery add to your understanding of the historical period you’re studying? (Kinney)

So, having gone through all this analysis, we return to the original question: “What can you surmise of a society from a single poem?” For me, the answer is as follows:

I can surmise that defeating Sisera and the Canaanites was a significant event in the life of this generation of Israelites. In fact, it secured peace for them until the next generation (Judg 5:31).

I can also determine something of the political state of the Israelites. At this time, they were far from a united people. Each tribe appears to have tended to its own interests, sometimes banding together to support another tribe, sometimes spurning each other’s call for assistance.

The image of Yahweh as Divine Warrior is also informative. It tells me that the Israelites attributed their victories to Yahweh rather than to their own efforts. The modern reader will note that this worldview is different from our current worldview, by and large. Think of the difference between the idea of the ‘American Dream’ and a sovereign God. Do we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, so to speak, or does God give us our victories?

Back to the Israelites, it is obvious from the poem that they started with a bias of Yahwism. However, it is not obvious that Yahweh was the only god they worshiped. Note Judges 5:8, which says, “when new gods were chosen…” This could refer to the inability of former gods to protect treaty agreements (Harrelson, 354). If this is the case, it in part validates Rollston’s position that the concept of the Israelite god, Yahweh, evolved over time from a local deity to the only deity.

Finally, why would the Deuteronomic Historian include this ancient poem in the Deuteronomistic History? I can only guess, but it makes sense to me to include this celebration of Yahweh’s victory over Israel’s enemies while those very same people, generations later, are living in exile in Babylon. Perhaps they are wondering when Yahweh will come and save them from the Babylonians. And while the Song of Deborah does not directly answer that question, it does provide reassurance that Yahweh, the Divine Warrior, fights and wins battles.

Conclusion

The analysis presented above validates, in my mind, one of our enduring understandings: “Histories use the same tools as other storytelling: characterization, plot, point-of-view, analepsis and prolepsis, rhetorical strategies, etc.” By paying attention to the way in which the biblical authors used these literary techniques, we can glean information about their time, their disposition, and their message.

I believe it also provides something of an answer to the essential question: “to what is a written history accountable, if anything?” In this case, the ‘history’ is not a history at all, but rather a biased, poetic retelling of a significant event in the history of the ancient Israelites. But, then again, isn’t that what all histories are (less the poetic elements, sometime)? Perhaps the one and only thing a history is accountable to is time. If it stands the test of time, it is history. Otherwise, it is just forgotten, and therefore nothing.

 

Bibliography

“12 Tribus De Israel.” Wikipedia. July 11, 2010. Accessed April 03, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israelites#/media/File:12_Tribes_of_Israel_Map.svg.

Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.

Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Kinney, Alissa. “How to Do Primary Source Analysis.” Synonym. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://classroom.synonym.com/primary-source-analysis-4046.html.

Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

Warning: This is not how the world works

Prompt:

Read the following passages from the Hebrew Bible:

  • Deuteronomy 28:1-68
  • Joshua 23:1-16
  • 1 Samuel 12:1-25
  • 2 Kings 17:5-18
  • 2 Chronicles 36:11-21

Summarize what each passage says or implies about the relationship between a) faithfulness to Yahweh and his covenant, and b) the events of social and political history.

Then, assess for yourself the credibility of the positions taken in these texts. Do you find these claims coherent with other biblical witness? Are they intelligible in light of the way we understand the world today? Are they moral? How or how not? What if they are not?

Summary of Key Passages

Deuteronomy 28:1-68

Overview of the Text

This passage can be divided into three parts: blessings, curses and the importance of the written law.

It begins by enumerating the blessings that will be given to Israel if they follow the commandments of Yahweh (Deu. 28:1-14). The blessings include good harvests (v. 4), military victory over enemies (v. 7) and wealth (v. 12). All this is contingent on following Yahweh’s law (v. 14).

Next, it spells out the curses that will befall Israel should she turn away from the words of Yahweh (Deu. 28:15-57). The curses include natural disaster and plagues (v. 20-24), defeat by Israel’s enemies (v. 25), and so forth.

The section of curses from verse 47 through 57 mirrors Israel’s defeat and captivity by the Assyrians/Babylonians in the 8th through 6th centuries BCE. The “nation from far away…whose language you do not understand (Deu. 28:49),” is undoubtedly a reference to the Assyrians and Babylonians.

Finally, there is a section that gives the command to specifically follow the book of the law (i.e., Deuteronomy), and enumerates even more curses for failing to do so (Deu. 28:58-68). Of special interest is the threat that Israel will be returned to slavery in Egypt, essentially negating God’s deliverance of their ancestors, for breaking God’s laws (Harrelson, 290).

Analysis

Deuteronomy chapter 28 lays out the basic premise of the Deuteronomic theology: if Israel obeys the law, Yahweh will bless them; if Israel disobeys the law, Yahweh will curse or punish them (Stanley, 256). As Dr. Lester points out in his lecture, the gift of the land from Yahweh rests on Yahweh’s grace and is contingent on the people’s obedience to Yahweh’s law.

The fact that most of the punishments involve defeat by foreign armies (Stanley, 254) speaks to Israel’s historical experience of being stuck between Ancient Near East superpowers. Using this passage of the ‘book of the law,’ the Deuteronomists in Babylonian captivity would have been able to make sense of the events that led to the exile in a way that does not jeopardize their beliefs about Yahweh (Stanley, 259).

Joshua 23:1-16

Overview of the Text

This passage starts by describing the victories Yahweh has given Israel over her enemies (Jos. 23:1-5). The Deuteronomistic Historian then goes on to enjoin the Israelites to obey the written book of the law (Jos. 23:6). This includes obtaining from intermarriage with the surrounding or conquered peoples and not worshiping foreign gods (Jos. 23:7, 12, 16). If the Israelites do transgress the law in this way, Yahweh will punish them, evicting them from the land Yahweh has given them (Jos. 23:13, 15-16). One interesting note is that, in verse 11, the reference to “love the LORD your God,” can also be interpreted as “obey,” based on the common meaning of the word “love” in deuteronomistic theology (Harrelson, 338).

Analysis

Much like the previous passage, this section of Joshua suggests that Yahweh will honor Yahweh’s covenant, and will administrate it consistent with the terms. Specifically, this means that if Israel obeys Yahweh’s law, she will be blessed, but if she transgresses Yahweh’s law, she will be punished. We can see that the covenant is indeed like a treaty made between two nations of unequal power (Stanley, 258; Bandstra, 176). Yahweh, the more powerful party, enforces the covenant independent of Israel’s acceptance of it.

Note that verse 7 lists a number of sins related to intermarrying with other cultures and worshiping foreign gods. From the point of view of the exilic authors, these were sins committed that landed the Israelites in their current state of exile (Harrelson, 338).

1 Samuel 12:1-25

Overview of the Text

After a brief introduction defending his service to Israel (1 Sam. 12:1-5), Samuel details the saving acts of Yahweh by retelling the exodus story (1 Sam. 12:6-8) and then going on to tell of Israel’s disobedience. The result of this disobedience was defeat by foreign nations (1 Sam. 12:9). The people then cry out to Yahweh, repenting of their worship of foreign gods (“the Baals and the Astartes”), and Yahweh saves them by sending Judges (1 Sam. 12:10-11). The passage concludes by describing the people’s request for a king, the appointment of the king, and how this request was a sin against Yahweh (1 Sam. 12:12-18). In two sections, verses 14-15 and 24-25, Samuel repeats the deuteronomistic theology of ‘obedience yields blessing; disobedience yields punishment.’ Note that verse 14 establishes the requirement for the people and the king to heed the commandments of Yahweh.

Analysis

This section is more of the same. It reflects the core deuteronomistic theology. Note that here, there is an emphasis on the king. Stanley argues that, because the Deuteronomist and the Deuteronomistic Historian were likely from the elite class, the books give an unbalanced view, focusing more on political and military history and the upper class than the common Israelite people (Stanley, 252).

2 Kings 17:5-18

Overview of the Text

This passage is focused on the capture of Samaria by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the reasons for said defeat. The Deuteronomistic Historian describes the sins of Israel which led up to this point: worship in places other than Jerusalem (v. 9-10), idol worship (v. 12) and spurning the words of the prophets (v. 13-14).

Analysis

Again, more of the same, with a couple new points. This passage more heavily emphasizes the sin of worshiping foreign gods, specifically calling out Asherah, the goddess of fertility, and Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Because Israel did this, “the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of this sight” (2 Kgs 17:18). This is reinforcement that the covenant has terms and conditions, and that violation of those terms by the weaker party results in punishment, in this case withdrawing protection, by the stronger party.

Of specific interest is the mention of the “images of two calves” (2 Kgs 17:16). According to Dr. Lester’s lectures on the topic, these calves were part of the ‘sin of Jeroboam,’ who set up golden calves which were well intentioned at the time but were later viewed as idols which contributed to the downfall of Israel (Harrelson, 553). This connects the fate is Israel to Israel’s sin (specifically, Jeroboam’s sin – remember, kings count for a lot!), providing a reasonable explanation for the events of history that does not compromise Yahweh’s nature or character.

2 Chronicles 36:11-21

Overview of the Text

This passage describes how Zedekiah, king of Judah, was unfaithful to Yahweh and all the priests and people with him (2 Chr 36:12-14). They ignored the prophets (v. 15), and so were given over into the hands of the Babylonians (v. 17-20) until such time that they would be restored by the Persians (v. 20-21).

Analysis

This text has a little different view than those previously examined. While the other passages focused on worship of foreign gods or assimilation of foreign cultures, this passage links the destruction of Jerusalem with the people’s rejection of Yahweh’s messengers, the prophets (Harrelson, 651). However, the outcome is the same: the people violate the covenant and are punished.

Credibility of Key Passages

These passages are, obviously, coherent with the historical narrative books of the Hebrew Bible (they are the historical narrative books of the Hebrew Bible!). They also fit well with the prophets. One possible explanation for this is that the Deuteronomistic Historian had the core of the book of Deuteronomy when he wrote the narrative books (Stanley, 255). The book of Deuteronomy, which was supposedly rediscovered during the reign of king Josiah, may have been written by a Levite fleeing the northing kingdom of Israel during the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians (Bandstra, 182). This would explain why it is consistent with the message of the prophets.

As far as the wisdom literature is concerned, the deuteronomic theology concurs with the conventional wisdom and disagrees with the dissenting wisdom. Passages such as Proverbs 3:9-10 evidence the dualistic pattern.

“Honor the LORD with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce;

then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (Pro. 3:9-10).

And, of course, passages in Job and Ecclesiastes cast doubt on these claims:

“There is vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous” (Ecc. 8:14).

Having looked at coherence with the rest of Scripture, this is a good time to turn to one of our Enduring Understandings: “the past might not change, but histories change.” Indeed, this particular history was written not to factually report past events, but rather to demonstrate a theological point relevant for the audience in the present (the exilic and postexilic periods) by drawing on events from the past (Stanley, 254). Whether or not those past events actually happened in the manner in which they are now recorded seems to me to be irrelevant. What are salient are the beliefs (e.g., world view) of the people of Israel that allowed them to make sense of their present struggles.

So what does this say for the modern reader? First, I’d like to acknowledge that, even though many mainline Christians do not subscribe to deuteronomic theology, there are many Christians who do. Take a look at prosperity theology for more on that.

But what of our experience? Well, I don’t know about your experience, but mine is more like Ecclesiastes and less like Deuteronomy. Certainly, I see benefits from keeping God’s commandments. Loving my neighbor is a good example of this. Generally, when I show compassion and love to other people, I feel good about myself for having done so and they respond positively (that’s the Deuteronomy part). But not always (that’s the Ecclesiastes part). I also don’t see a direct correlation between faithfulness to the teachings of Christianity and, for instance, protection from natural disaster. Car accidents, miscarriages and cancer seem to happen without concern for one’s religious practices. It goes back to the timeless question, “why do bad things happen to good people?”

Let’s end this typically-too-long (never say in a well crafted sentence what can be summarized in a meandering paragraph!) blog post with a look at one of the Essential Questions: “what should a written history accomplish in its own time?” Firstly, what is meant by “own time?” Is that to mean the time for which it was written? If that’s the case, perhaps giving hope to the present generation and spurring them on to be better than the previous generation is the answer. Or, does “own time” mean at some indeterminate time in the future? If that’s what we’re talking about, why not say that its ultimate accomplishment would be to remind a people where they came from and how they got to where they are?

I have yet to quote John in this class, and I think it’s about time I did! Perhaps, in God’s own time, God’s history will show “a never ending aspiration for all of love’s perfecting fullness” (Outler, 69).

“Thus hath the Lord fulfilled the things he spake by his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: by Moses in particular, saying, ‘I will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul’ (Deut. 30:6); by David, crying out, ‘Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me’; and most remarkably by Ezekiel, in those words: ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. … Ye shall be my people, and I will be your God. I will also save you from all your uncleannesses. … Thus saith the Lord your God, In the day that I shall have cleansed you from all your iniquities…the heathen shall know that I the Lord build the ruined places; … I the Lord have spoken it, … and I will do it’ (Ezek. 36:25, etc.).

‘Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved,’ both in the law and in the prophets, and having the prophetic word confirmed unto us in the gospel by our blessed Lord and his apostles, ‘let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.’ ‘Let us fear, lest’ so many promises ‘being made us of entering into his rest’ (which he that hath entered into ‘is ceased from his own works’) ‘any of us should come short of it.’ ‘This one thing let us do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, let us press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’; crying unto him day and night till we also are ‘delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God!’” (Wesley, 84)

Bibliography

Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.

Harrelson, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Outler, Albert. Excerpt from An Introductory Comment to Christian Perfection. In John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, edited by Albert C. Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater, 69-84. Nashvile, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991.

Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

Wesley, John. Excerpt from Christian Perfection. In John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, edited by Albert C. Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater, 69-84. Nashvile, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991.

Context and Meaning

I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback on a phrase I used in my last blog post: “But that doesn’t mean that our interpretation of their words, based on our own modern experiences, is not true for us today.” When I re-read this phrase, I was reminded of a discussion I had on politics recently. A friend, playing the devil’s advocate, said of Trump’s proposal for a wall on the border between Mexico and the US: “the Israelites were encouraged to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem after their return from Exile. Being able to control your borders is a sign of national sovereignty.” Wow. That’s really different from my views on the subject, and yet, grounded in some logic from Scripture. So, I wonder what “tests” we could come up with to evaluate our interpretations of Scripture, similar to the tests for true prophets in the exilic and post exilic periods. Perhaps one good place to start is, does the interpretation agree with the larger body of Christian teaching and traditions? Thoughts?