The woman of valour (Proverbs 31)

A sermon peached by Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 September 2021.

I suggested last week that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to make suggestions as to how one might learn to live faithfully in everyday life. This passage (Proverbs 31:10–31) is no exception to this. Like other passages, it is meant to inspire moral ideals and guide people in living the best life possible.

If you are a woman and you know this passage, or were paying close attention to the reading, you might be thinking something like: is this even possible? how am supposed to live up to such an ideal? how is this meant to inspire wisdom in me?

And these are very good questions. The superwoman of Proverbs 31 has often been used to try and put women back into kitchens and keep them subservient to their husbands.

Today I am going to challenge this reading of Proverbs 31, and I am going to start by looking at how the first verse of this passage is translated. If you have a bible to hand feel free to look it up.

How do bible translations describe the woman of Proverbs 31? Generally, you will find that she is described as a noble, competent, capable, excellent, virtuous or good wife. Occasionally she is described as a woman, rather than a wife.

But is this actually what the Hebrew says? There are two primary issues in translation that shape how we interpret this text. The first is the status of the woman. Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “woman” and “wife”, so which is correct? The second issue is how the woman is described.

Let’s start at the beginning of the chapter. The claimed source for the words of this chapter is quite unique in the Old Testament. According to the text itself (31:1), a woman, the unnamed mother of the unknown King Lemuel, composed this poem describing a woman of worth and taught it to her son, who writes it down here. So it is a woman describing a woman. That might give us some clues. Secondly, the poem is an acrostic one, meaning the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession.

Like most of the wisdom literature, the purpose of this poem is to draw attention to the often-overlooked importance in one’s faith journey of doing everyday things. It is an acrostic so it is easier to remember, so obviously the ancient writers thought it was important enough to be memorised.

This poem is one of the most misunderstood passages in the bible, where it is seen as a list of virtues that form a job description for the ideal and faithful wife/woman. It has been trotted out on Mothers’ Days, weddings and in complementarian Christian circles where it stands as the pinnacle which woman should strive to emulate.

I am suggesting this is not the best way of understanding this passage, and that the purpose of Proverbs 31 purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not to instruct women everywhere to get married, have children, and take up weaving.

Let us go back to our translation issue. The Hebrew is eshet chayil, a ‘woman of valour or strength’ and this is how the opening verse should be translated. It has a male equivalent gibor chayil, or ‘man of valour’. It is a reminder to men (who are the intended audience of Proverbs) that as well as ‘men of valour’, there are also ‘women of valour’, the Hebrew emphasising the equality of the terms as applied to both genders.

 

The Hebrew word, chayil, has a primary meaning ranging from ‘military might/power’ and ‘(physical) strength.’ Its plural form designates warriors or an army. Translations that erase this woman’s physical strength and power create a construction of stereotypical “femininity” that is not present in the text. In verses3, 17 and 25 when chayil occurs translators nearly all translate it as strength. So why translate it as dutiful, capable, good noble or virtuous here?

Other language in the text points to the woman being strong, and we find a number of military terms to emphasise this. In verse 11, she provides ‘spoils’ (a term from war time plundering) for her Lord (no, it is not the word for husband (ish) as translations suggest).

In verse 17, she “girds her arms with strength and makes her arms strong”, again in military style. In verse 15 the Hebrew reads that she rises while it is still dark to provide “prey” for her household (this infers she is slaughtering the beasts, usually a man’s task). Verse 25 emphasises she is clothed in ‘strength and dignity’.

Professor Brent Strawn in an online article points out that the sentiments of verse 17 and verse 25 go far beyond both home and market: they are worthy of the mightiest of warriors (see Psalm 77:15; 83:8; Ezekiel 30:22; Nahum 2:1).

Like the feminine version, these gibor chayil, “men of valour”, have suggested military strength. We find the young David being described as a “gibor chayil ve-ish milchama,” a man of valor and a man of war (I Samuel 16:18). This is proved in his fight with Goliath, and becomes a central feature of David’s success as king. Later in 2 Samuel 23:8, David’s men are described as gibor chayil.

Gideon is described as a gibor chayil in the book of Judges (6:11), as is Joshua’s army as they prepare to take Jericho (Joshua 1:14). 1 Chronicles 5:18 identifies the sons of Reuben, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh as gibor chayil.

We have one other ‘woman of valour’ in the Hebrew bible, and she is found in the book of Ruth.

In this book, Ruth is presented as a destitute Moabite who followed her mother-in-law back to Jewish Bethlehem.  Once there, her daily work involved gleaning for barley and wheat. For over three chapters, she is neither a wife nor a mother. Her life looked nothing like the life of the woman depicted in Proverbs 31.

Ruth didn’t spend her days exchanging fine linens with merchants, running a home full of servants or buying fields.  Instead, she worked all day in the sun, gleaning leftovers from other people’s fields, which was a provision made for the poorest of the poor in Israel. 

And yet Boaz says of Ruth in chapter 3:11:  “all the assembly of my people know that you are an eshet chayil” (Ruth 3:11 NRSV).

Ruth is a woman of valour, not because she checked off the Proverbs 31 domestic goddess list, but because she lived her life with resourcefulness, compassion, courage, wisdom, and strength.  In other words, she lived her life with valour.

In the book of Ruth, Boaz is identified as gibor chayil, a man of valour. So when Boaz uses eshet chayil of Ruth, he clearly sees her as his equal.

The Proverbs woman is not defined by her husband or her children, particularly sons, as many other women in the Hebrew bible are. Rather, this woman is someone who is motivated, and she is defined by a string of verbs such as “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” “provides” and “makes.”

We are also not given much in the way of the woman’s appearance. Normally, unless they are judges or prophets, women are described in the Hebrew bible by their physical attributes such as beauty or gracefulness. Not here though – we have no clue as to her weight, height, shape, or clothes. Is she beautiful? Is she built like a tank?  We will never know – and it doesn’t matter.

So how does this woman of valour have relevance for us today as both woman and as church people? What message does she bring to a world where women are bombarded with messages about aging, body shape and beauty?  On Working Preacher, Professor Amy Oden suggests that

This passage offers a radical counter-cultural message in the profound silence about what she looks like. The closing verse reminds us that “beauty is vain,” not something women (or men) hear anywhere in the daily visual assault of airbrushed female bodies on billboards, magazine stands, and pop-up ads. The silence of Proverbs 31 on appearance is striking, and refreshing. She is praised for the content of her character and the excellence of her endeavors rather than the surface of her skin.

Oden also sees the subversive nature of the Proverbs woman as a “tangible expression“ of Lady Wisdom, who we met last week. Oden says the woman’s “virtue and worth are a result of her own agency, her actions and choices…she leads her own life rather than following someone else’s. She pursues her own ends rather than obeying orders. There is no hint that her industry is not her own, that she is demure or deferential, or that her pursuits are directed by others.”

In other words, the ‘woman of valour’ is as independent as Lady Wisdom, as clear on what her pursuits and her purposes are. Like Lady Wisdom, she is also operating in the male domain of buying and selling, and things occurring outside of the household.

When we see Proverbs 31 in the larger context of the book of Proverbs and the wisdom literature, and in the more immediate context of Lady Wisdom, the woman of Proverbs 31 could be understood not as an actual flesh and blood woman but as the ideal of Lady Wisdom herself.

Indeed, several verses pick up some of earlier depictions of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs – for example, she is far more precious than jewels (v10), opens her mouth with wisdom (1:20-21, 24; 31:26), both are strong (8:14 with 31:17, 25) and both “laugh at the time to come” (31:25; cf. 1:26).

The words eshet chayil, the ‘woman of valour’, is used by modern Jewish women as a way of cheering each other along. The say it to one another when they are celebrating things such as promotions, pregnancies, divorces, and battles with cancer. It is the Jewish equivalent of saying “you go girl” or acknowledging someone is wearing the ‘Wonder Woman tights’. In fact, Wonder Woman, on Israeli TV, is known as “Eshet Chayil.”

According to this Jewish practice, being a women of valour isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. Surely this is the message to us today, men and women. This isn’t about being a dutiful wife excelling in housewifery, though that is OK if you do it with valour. It isn’t about how we look, or about meeting the expectations of others on how we look.  It is about how we do things, our motivations, our faith and our inner qualities.

If you if you are retired, do it with valour. If you are a nurse, be a nurse of valour. If you are a CEO, a pastor, a check out chick, mountain climber or a barista at Café Guru, if you are rich or poor, single or married—do it all with valour. And if you are a Christian, a person of faith, be counter-cultural, speak out about the superficiality of much of our society, show courage when facing injustice and support the equality of women.

For this is what makes us eshet chayil, ‘women of valour’.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/

In the squares she raises her voice: Lady Wisdom in Proverbs (Pentecost 16B)

A sermon by Elizabeth Raine, preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church (in the ACT, Canberra) on 12 September 2021

The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to guide us in learning how cope with life (Prov 1.2-6). It places an emphasis on teachings gathered from tradition of the elders (e.g., 4.1-4) and from experience (e.g., 6.6-11). In contrast to many other books of the Hebrew Bible, major themes such as the Mosaic and Davidic covenants are absent; Temple worship and sacrifice are rarely mentioned.

Most of the sayings are meant to inspire moral ideals. Guided by the principle that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9.10; 1.7; 15.33), the authors emphasise values such as honesty, diligence, trustworthiness, self-restraint, and appropriate attitudes toward wealth and poverty.

This first chapter of Proverbs introduces us to Lady Wisdom, a mystical feminine aspect of God. She calls to us and invites us on an unexpected journey. She is a central character in many chapters in this book, and those who know her are seen as righteous people. She is offered as a role model for us, her teachings are a template for life, and she a pioneer who opens upa pathway to faith and obedience.

Lady Wisdom, by Sara Beth Baca,

Lady Wisdom, as she is known, has fascinated ecclesiasts and scholars since the inception of the Christian church. She has been described in many ways—as an aspect of God, as a divine entity existing in her own right, even as something approaching a feminine deity, as Proverbs 8 states that Wisdom was present at the beginning of creation, and was a co-creator with God, who delighted in her presence.

This personification of wisdom as a female in Proverbs is one of the most extraordinary portrayals of femininity in the Hebrew Bible. 

This very positive image of the feminine is a stark counterpoint to the very negative metaphorical depiction of women generally encountered in the Old Testament: for example, the whore with many lovers (Jer 3:1); the slaughterer of the Lord’s children (Ezek 16:21), and the adulterous woman in Proverbs itself (Prov 7).

Wisdom offers us a radical example of faithfulness yet she remains a disturbing presence. She transgresses boundaries by standing amidst the male elders at the city gates and presuming to teach them. She has a clear voice, a colourful personality, a dominant presence, and offers words of hope and the promise of life. She is a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, and grants knowledge of God to those who pursue her through scripture and learning.

Unlike most woman of her time, Wisdom occupies what was the domain of men, teachers and prophets. She stands on busy street corners, she is at the town gate; she sets her table at the crossroads where many pass by. Unlike her counterpart in Proverbs 31, there is nothing of the domestic goddess about her. She is counter cultural and subversive. She teaches knowledge and leads her people on their way through history. In a most unladylike way, she raises her voice in public places that are the domain of men and calls to everyone who would hear her. 

The prominent biblical scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, has written this about Wisdom:

“Divine Wisdom is a cosmic figure delighting in the dance of creation, a ‘master’ crafts wo/man and teacher of justice. She is a leader of Her people and accompanies them on their way through history. Very unladylike, she raises her voice in public places and calls everyone who would hear her. She transgresses boundaries, celebrates life, and nourishes those who will become her friends. Her cosmic house is without walls and her table is set for all.”

In short, the biblical figure of Wisdom represents a spirituality of roads and journeys, of public places and open borders, of nourishment and celebration, of justice and equality – rather than a spirituality of categories, doctrines, closed systems and ideologies.

Her dramatic modus operandi stands in striking contrast to the slow and methodical way of operating that we see in the classic formulations of Christendom, doctrines that have come to define the church in the eyes of those outside of it.

Wisdom calls us to work together, for the common good, with others in our society. She is not a figure bound to books and writing; she is out in the community seeking relationships with people, engaging wholeheartedly in public discourse, and living by example the key elements of a faith-filled life.

The church fathers, the male patriarchs of the church, loved making categories; they articulated their doctrines by amassing data, analysing the information, systematising the component parts and categorising the key dogmas. From this intensely rational approach to faith, we have inherited works such as the Congessions of Augustine, the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, the institutes of the Christian Life by Jean Calvin, the string of creeds and confessions from the Westminster Confession onwards, and the massive Church Dogmatics of Karl Barth.

By contrast to these closed systems of knowledge, the biblical figure of Wisdom asks for a relational faith and invites us to develop a wide openness in the way we approach others and God. She requires of us that we really listen to others, including those we don’t agree with … she calls us to listen, to understand, to speak in ways that connect with others and ways that build productive and fruitful relationships across the differences that separate us.

I think that Wisdom is precisely the kind of person who would have relished the invitation, once offered to his disciples by Jesus, to push out to sea again and fish on the other side of the boat. She would value the opportunity to look in a different direction, to reconsider the task at hand and seek a new way of undertaking it. She would jump at the chance to explore a new arena, to pioneer a new task and to reshape her missional engagement so that it was fresh, invigorating, and creative. What a role model that is for us today!

So, the question that I invite you to ponder at this moment is: Where will we find Wisdom? Are we open to the exploration and discoveries that the biblical figure of Wisdom invites us to pursue?

Are we content with repeating our tried and true traditions from the past? Are we content with staying in our familiar comfort zone? Will our mission be simply no more than wishing people to walk through the door, as we remain in our comfortable, self-contained space?

Or will we choose the way of the rather unladylike Wisdom, the radical at the street corner, crying out to all who pass by? Can we understand Wisdom’s model as invitation to the church today? Should we be more concerned with ‘raising our voices’ in the public arena than confining ourselves to church buildings?

Hopefully we will choose to follow the path which offers us the potential to transform contemporary situations of injustice, brokenness and violence into communities that truly reflect the love of God, and we will take our stance in the marketplace in ways that show our deep and profound relationship with God. Hopefully we will follow Wisdom out of our enclosed gatherings to the space where social and spiritual change can take place.

*****

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/19/the-woman-of-valour-proverbs-31/

and also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/08/wisdom-cries-in-the-streets-proverbs-1-pentecost-16b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/15/the-wisdom-from-above-james-3-pentecost-17b/

Wisdom cries in the streets (Proverbs 1; Pentecost 16B)

The lectionary is currently providing selections of Hebrew Scripture texts which focus on Wisdom. This focus started some weeks back, with the account, in 1 Kings 3:9–12, of Solomon praying for wisdom and discernment, and God responding by promising to deliver this gift.

After then recounting the prayer of Solomon at the opening of the Temple (1 Kings 8:22–43), we were offered a small section (2:8–13) from the Song of Songs. This work is attributed to King Solomon 1:1), but most likely it was not actually written by him. (It is also known as the Song of Solomon).

The following three Sundays provide selections from Proverbs, another work attributed to Solomon (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1)—although, once again, most likely not written or compiled by him. The book contains a series of short, pithy proverbs (thus, its name), an example of which is provided in the excerpts from chapter 22 (verses 1–2, 8–9, 22–23; a most curious collection of unrelated sayings!).

Wisdom accosts her audience as “simple ones” (1:22, 32) and accuses them of ignoring all that she offers (1:24–25, 30). Wisdom therefore mocks the panic-stricken and laughs at the calamities they experience (1:26), “because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29). This is full-on rhetoric, uncompromising speech, from a very feisty female character.

The figure of Wisdom is described in some detail in the passage that is offered this Sunday, in which Wisdom is portrayed in dramatic fashion. She “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice; at the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates, she speaks” (Prov 1:20–21). The city gates, of course, is the place where the (male) elders of the town would sit, to receive matters for judgement, to apply the details of the Law, day after day.

She accosts her audience as “simple ones” (1:22, 32) and accuses them of ignoring all that she offers (1:24–25, 30). Wisdom therefore mocks the panic-stricken and laughs at the calamities they experience (1:26), “because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29). This is full-on rhetoric, uncompromising speech, from a very feisty female character.

The lectionary also provides the full section of text from the last chapter of Proverbs (31:10–(31), where the eshet hayil (the woman of valour) is praised. While “her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (31:23)—to spend hours each day, no doubt, debating the finer points of the Law—this woman is energetically running her household, undertaking multiple daily tasks (spinning, making clothing, preparing meals), as well as overseeing the vineyard and the animals, assisting the poor and needy, running a successful merchandise business, undertaking commercial transactions—and, apparently, keeping her husband happy. “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all”, he says, admiringly (31:29).

There is more to her than is revealed in this initial portrayal, however. Wisdom is highlighted in Proverbs 8, which affirms that Wisdom was present with God at creation. In a clear retelling of the creation narrative of Genesis 1, Wisdom declares, “the Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago … when he established the heavens, I was there … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov 8:22–31). Wisdom was the key creative force at work beside God, in conjunction with God, in creation the world.

The woman of valour is to be praised, for she is “a woman who fears the Lord” (31:30). And in the midst of all of this, “she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (31:26).

“The fear of the Lord”, of course, is the central feature of the teachings of Wisdom, both in Proverbs (1:7, 29; 2:5; 9:10; 14:26–27; 15:33; 19:23; 23:17), and also in other works of wisdom literature (Eccles 5:7; 8:12–13; Job 28:28; 37:23–24; Sir 1:11–20, 27; 19:20; 21:11).

The lectionary continues on with further works drawn from the wisdom literature, part of the third main section of Hebrew Scripture (what the Jews call Kethuvim, or “the writings”). There are excerpts from Esther, Job, and Ruth over the ensuing seven Sundays.

Wisdom plays a key role in two further works, not included in the Protestant canon, but recognised as scripture within Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Wisdom appears in the book of Sirach, attributed to one Jesus, son of Eleanor, son of Sirach, of Jerusalem (50:27). In this book, Wisdom gives knowledge, makes demands of those seeking instruction from her, imposes her yoke and fetters on her students, and then offers rest.

Early in the book, the invitation is extended to engage with Wisdom. “Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.” (Sir 6:24–28).

At the very end of the book, Wisdom extends her invitation: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction. Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why do you endure such great thirst? I opened my mouth and said, ‘Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by’.” (Sir 51:23–26).

In Sirach 24, Wisdom is portrayed as the intermediary assisting God at creation and throughout salvation history. “Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory: ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss” (Sir 24:1–4). Wisdom played a crucial role in creation, surveying the whole scope of the created order for God.

She continues with a description of how she became connected specifically with Israel. “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’” (Sir 24:1–8). He link with the chosen people was secured.

Another document which highlights the role of Wisdom is the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon—a work which the anonymous author tells of his own search for Wisdom. “I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me”, the author declares (Wis Sol 7:7), a passage which echoes the plea of King Solomon, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great peoples” (1 Kings 3:9).

The description of Wisdom that is given in this book is more philosophical than biblical; it owes much to the developing middle platonic philosophy of the late Hellenistic period. Wisdom is described as being “more mobile than any motion, because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things” (7:24).

Furthermore, it is said that “she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” (7:25). She reflects a most dazzling sequence of attributes: “there is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle” (Wis Sol 7:22–24). The work continues for chapter upon chapter, extolling the virtues of Wisdom, praising her glory and insight and knowledge.

The book ends with an extended recitation of the role that Wisdom played in the mighty acts of God, beginning with Adam (10:1-2), and moving through Noah (10:4), Moses and the Exodus (10:15), across the Red Sea. Through Wisdom, God has “exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places” (19:22).

And, of course, Wisdom, the teacher of understanding and the co-worker of God in creation, appears in another form in the New Testament: in the figure of Jesus, Teacher supreme, Word of God present and active from the very moment of creation. She is an important figure to understand.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/

Rosh Hashanah: Jewish New Year

For Jews, last night, today, tonight and tomorrow during daylight hours forms Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: ראש השנה). It begins at sundown on Monday 6 September and ends at sundown on Wednesday 8 September. The best translation of Rosh Hashanah is “head of the year”, meaning that this is the Jewish New Year. It begins Hebrew Year 5782.

Rosh Hashanah is the first of the High Holidays, a series of ten “Days of Awe”. These ten days provide a period when observant Jews devote themselves to prayer, good deeds, reflection on the mistakes of the past year, and making amends with those whom they have hurt. It culminates with Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, which this year will fall on Thursday 16 September.

In Jewish tradition, so I understand, there is a belief that God spends these ten days determining whether to give life or death to all creatures during the coming year. Jewish law teaches that God inscribes the names of the righteous in the “book of life” and condemns the wicked to death on Rosh Hashanah; people who fall between the two categories have until Yom Kippur to perform teshuvah, or repentance.

This concept is clearly reflected in the scriptures of Christianity. At the final judgment in Revelation 20:15, we read that “anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.” That “Book of Life” reflects Jewish tradition, as the place where God records the names of those people adjudged as worthy of life in the coming year. In Revelation, the book is “the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27). Paul exhorts his “loyal companion” to help Euodia and Syntyche, noting that “they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Phil 4: 2–3).

Is this what Jesus is alluding to when he tells the 70 disciples to rejoice because “your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20)? For the person writing “to Timothy” in the name of Paul towards the end of the first century, it is in fact Jesus himself who will carry out the judgement about this matter (2 Tim 4:1, “Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead”).

Rosh Hashanah is observed on the first two days of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. It is described in the Torah as יום תרועה (Yom Teru’ah, a day of sounding [the shofar]). The day begins with the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn, and then during the service a trumpet is blown 100 times. The festival, not surprisingly, is called The Feast of Trumpets.

That festival is described in Leviticus 23:24–25: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the LORD’s offering by fire.”

There is a similar description in Numbers 29:1, although that passage then continues with detailed descriptions of the burnt offering (involving nine animals) and grain offerings associated with each burnt offering, which provide “a pleasing odour to the Lord”, offered “to make atonement for you” (Num 29:2–5).

These texts are priestly prescriptions, contained in books written after the return from exile in Babylon from the 520s BCE onwards, presenting as requirements for the people of Israel centuries before, when the Temple built in Jerusalem under Solomon was the focus of religious life.

After five decades of living in a foreign land, the priests are reinforcing these sets of laws for use in the rededicated Temple in the rebuilt Jerusalem in the time of Ezra, as the governor of the city, Nehemiah, reports (Neh 7:73–8:3). This is clear from the way the date is specified (“when the seventh month came—the people of Israel being settled in their towns—all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate”, 7:73–8:1). What follows is an account of a covenant renewal ceremony, as the Law is read, and explained, to all the people (Neh 8:1–12).

In this way, the traditions of centuries past are revitalised for a new situation. Jewish traditions relating to the Festival of Trumpets continue to be revitalised in subsequent centuries. Philo of Alexandria, the first‑century BCE Jewish philosopher, describes the first day of the seventh month as the great “Trumpet Feast”. He connects it with the sounding of the horn at Mount Sinai when revelation took place (Exod 19:13–16).

Philo interprets the trumpet as an instrument and symbol of war, and reinterprets the festival as relating to peace and abundance: “Therefore the law instituted this feast figured by that instrument of war the trumpet, which gives it its name, to be as a thank offering to God the peace‑maker and peace‑keeper, who destroys faction both in cities and in the various parts of the universe and creates plenty and fertility and abundance of other good things” (Philo, Special Laws, 2:188-192).

The significance of the festival is being reinterpreted and re-applied in the city of Alexandria in the decades prior to the time of Jesus. There is no reference to the festival signifying the new year. Had this dimension of the festival been dropped, at least in Alexandria, five centuries after Nehemiah? Or was it simply assumed, and not mentioned because it was common knowledge at the time?

Two centuries later, well after the Second Temple built under Nehemiah had been destroyed, Rabbi Judah ha-Nazi drew together the many oral traditions about the Law in a document we know as the Mishnah. The title is a Hebrew word which comes from a root word meaning “repetition”. The Mishnah contains the teachings of rabbis from centuries past, which were learnt by male Jewish students by study and repetition.

In the Mishnah, the eighth tractate (Rosh Hashanah) in the second order (Moed, meaning Festivals) deals with this festival. It provides the description, “On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before [the Lord] as troops, as it is said, ‘the Lord looks down from heaven, He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings’ (quoting Ps 33:13–15)” (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1.2).

Other sections deal with the various stages of the festival, and provide a set of laws relating to the shofar, the trumpet sounded to give the festival its name.

In the Talmud, a later expansion of the discussions found in the Mishnah, further expositions are provided, including a detailed set of provisions relating to the shofar, which is to be blown on two occasions on Rosh Hashana: once while “sitting” (before the Mussaf, the additional prayer to be said on a festival day), and once while “standing” (during the Mussaf prayer). This increased the number of blasts from the basic requirement of 30, to 60.

An even later rabbi, Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome (1035–1106), provided for 100 blasts: 30 before Mussaf, 30 during the Mussaf silent prayer, 30 during the cantor’s loud repetition of Mussaf, and 10 more after Mussaf. And so the development and re-interpretation of the festival continued.

I found a good page on the history.com website that explains a number of the customs currently associated with Rosh Hashanah.

Apples and honey: One of the most popular Rosh Hashanah customs involves eating apple slices dipped in honey, sometimes after saying a special prayer. Ancient Jews believed apples had healing properties, and the honey signifies the hope that the new year will be sweet. Rosh Hashanah meals usually include an assortment of sweet treats for the same reason.

Round challah: On Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) and other holidays, Jews eat loaves of the traditional braided bread known as challah. On Rosh Hashanah, the challah is often baked in a round shape to symbolize either the cyclical nature of life or the crown of God. Raisins are sometimes added to the dough for a sweet new year.

Tashlich: On Rosh Hashanah, some Jews practice a custom known as tashlich (“casting off”), in which they throw pieces of bread into a flowing body of water while reciting prayers. As the bread, which symbolize the sins of the past year, is swept away, those who embrace this tradition are spiritually cleansed and renewed.

“L’shana tovah”: Jews greet each other on Rosh Hashanah with the Hebrew phrase “L’shana tovah,” which translates to “for a good year.” This is a shortened version of the Rosh Hashanah salutation “L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”).

See https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/rosh-hashanah-history and https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/rosh-hashanah-customs/

My friend Peta Jones Pellach has written a lovely blog for Rosh Hashanah at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/storytelling-for-the-new-year/

In order that all the peoples of earth may know your name (1 Kings 8; Pentecost 13B)

This week I am taking leave of my consideration of New Testament passages in the lectionary, to turn to the Hebrew Scripture passage offered by the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 8.

If you have been following the Old Testament readings offered by the lectionary since Pentecost, you will know we have encountered some fascinating characters. We started way back in May with Hannah, mother of Samuel, offering her prayer of thanks (1 Sam 2).

We saw the adult Samuel, arguing with the people of Israel about whether they should have a king (1 Sam 8). Not everyone was supportive of the idea.

The first king of Israel was Saul; the lectionary offered us the passage where David was chosen as the successor of Saul—the young shepherd who “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (1 Sam 16). Then came the account of David’s encounter with the giant from Gath, the Philistine named Goliath (1 Sam 17), and the telling of David’s love for Jonathan (2 Sam 1). After the death of Saul, the tribes gathered at Hebron, to make a covenant together supporting David as the new king (2 Sam 5).

The following week we had the story of Michal, daughter of Saul, looking out of the window, watching King David leaping and dancing before the ark, dressed only, we are told, in a linen ephod (2 Sam 6).

The ephod is basically a very loose fitting outer garment; given that David was leaping and dancing, we can only surmise that it left little, if anything, to the imagination of onlookers, as it flapped and swirled.

And then, in a dramatic change of mood, we heard Nathan receiving the word of the Lord instructing David to build a house—a temple, no less (2 Sam 7).

The following Sunday provided another insight into the character of David—not only was he a scantily-clad dancer, but an adulterer and murderer as well, as we learn in the well-known story that involves Uriah, his wife Bathsheba, and the king’s officer Joab (2 Sam 11).

This was followed by the gory account of the death of Absalom, the third of David’s 21 children (yes, that’s correct: from his eight wives and ten concubines, David bore at least 21 children!)

Poor long-haired Absalom was murdered after his hair got caught in the branches of an oak tree, and he was left swinging, until ten of the king’s soldiers butchered him. And all of this took place after a battle which was marked by the slaughter of 20,000 Israelites (2 Sam 18).

David, we are told, was grief-stricken. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!”, we are told he lamented. “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” That is a sardonic reflection, however, on the faux-love of David for his estranged son and his faux-grief on Absalom’s death.

All of these stories reveal to us the character of the leaders in Israel. All of these stories have featured in our lectionary over the last three months—have a look at what has been offered and read those stories, I encourage you. Leaders are human, after all, we find in these stories, and life in those days was tough, rugged, challenging.

The leaders whom we encounter in these stories are devious, unscrupulous, scheming, manipulative, emotional, hard-headed, self-serving, and deeply flawed. All of this. From these ancient texts—as if we didn’t already know this from our own observations of leaders in our own situation!

Which brings us, through these sagas of violence, conflict, betrayal, and drama, to Solomon, son of David, installed as king of Israel after the death of his father (1 Kings 2). God made a promise to Solomon: “I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12).

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Then we come to the passage set for this coming Sunday, where all the stops are pulled out, as Solomon gathers people for the opening of the Temple (1 Kings 8).

This journey through the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures reaches it climactic point in this passage, where the greatest king of Israel, Solomon, prays to dedicate the grand religious building, the Temple, on the top of the highest hill in Jerusalem, the capital city of the kingdom at the point of its greatest influence and power. (The readings in following weeks will move into the literature attributed to and inspired by Solomon, the wisdom literature.)

So, we hear the account of this moment of dedication: “Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherub. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8:1–10).

Man, this is serious stuff: heavy, important, serious. The king. All the elders. The heads of each of the 12 tribes. And the priests, with the ark of the covenant. All assembled at the place where Solomon, king in all his majesty and power, had arranged for a temple to be built. “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven” (1 Kings 8:22), and prays a long prayer of blessing for the new edifice.

Now, Solomon, I am sure you are thinking, is remembered as the wise one. “The wisdom of Solomon”, we say. Jesus relates how “the Queen of the south [the Queen of Sheba] came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (Matt 12:42).

In 2 Chronicles 1, God says to Solomon, “because you have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself … wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chron 1:11–12).

And later, King Solomon is said to have “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of [those kings] brought his present, articles of silver and of gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year.” (2 Chron 9:22–24).

This wonderfully wise, insightful, discerning man, Solomon—bearing a name derived from the Hebrew for peace, “shalom”—became a powerhouse in the ancient world. But he did not always live as a man of peace. “Solomon”, the text continues, “had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots, and 12,000 horsemen, whom he stationed in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.” (2 Chron 9:25). Solomon had amassed a great army, exercising great power, imposing his rule across the region.

And Solomon, the tenth son of David, the second child of Bathsheba, came to the throne by devious means. It was Adonijah, son of David’s fifth wife Haggith, who sought to succeed his father on his death; Solomon, however, had Adonijah murdered, as well as dispatching the henchmen of Adonijah—Joab the general, who was executed, and Abiathar the priest, who was murdered. This paved the way for Solomon to succeed to the throne. He did not come with clean hands.

But he became a powerful ruler. More is said of Solomon: “he ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt.” (2 Chron 9:26). Solomon was remembered as king over the greatest expanse of land claimed by Israel in all of history. That’s a claim that is still held by the hardest of fundamentalist right-wing Israelis in the modern state of Israel today—claiming that God gave all this land to Israel under Solomon, and that is the extent of the land that should be under the control of the government of modern Israel. Which is not going to happen, given the realities of Middle Eastern politics on our times.

And we see the utilisation of this power by Solomon, the man of peace, in the Chronicler’s comment that “the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah; and horses were imported for Solomon from Egypt and from all lands.” (2 Chron 9:27–28).

So Solomon was a warrior. And warrior-kings were powerful, tyrannical in their exercise of power, ruthless in the way that they disposed of rivals for the throne and enemies on the battlefield alike. Think Alexander the Great. Think Charlemagne. Think Genghis Khan. Think William the Conqueror. Solomon reigned for 40 years—a long, wealthy successful time.

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Yet in the passage set for this Sunday, Solomon appears not as a powerful king. Rather, he is a humble person of faith. He stands before all the people, raises his arms, and prays to the God who is to be worshipped in the Temple that he had erected. He is a person of faith, in the presence of his God, expressing his faith, exuding his piety.

Now, the prayer of Solomon goes for thirty solid verses; there are eight different sections in this prayer. The lectionary has mercy on us this Sunday; we are offered just two of those sections, eleven of the thirty verses. We have heard the shortened version! In these two sections of this prayer, Solomon identifies two important features of the newly-erected Temple. The first is that the fundamental reason for erecting this building is to provide a focal point, where people of faith can gather to pray to God (1 Ki 8:23–30).

Perhaps we may be used to hearing about the Temple in Jerusalem in fairly negative terms. Jesus cleared the Temple of the money changers and dove sellers who were exploring the people. He predicted the destruction of the Temple during the cataclysmic last days. For centuries, people from all over Israel were required to bring their sacrifices to the priests in the Temple, to offer up the firstborn of their animals and the firstfruits of their harvest. The Temple cult was a harsh, primitive religious duty, imposing hardships on the people. The priests, the elites who ran the Temple, lived well off the benefits of all of these offerings.

I could offer you a counter argument to each of these criticisms; but today I simply want to note that Solomon, in his prayer of dedication, makes it clear that the fundamental purpose of the Temple was to provide a house of prayer, a place where the people of God could gather, knowing that they were in the presence of God, knowing that the prayers that they offer would be heard by God and would lead to God’s offering of grace, forgiving them for their inadequacies and failures.

The Temple was to be a place of piety for the people. It was to foster the sense of connection with God. It was to deepen the life of faith of the people. It was to strengthen their covenant relationship with the Lord God.

All of which can be said for us, today, about the building that we come to each Sunday, to worship. The church—this church—is a place of piety for us, the people of God. It is to foster the sense of connection with God. It is to deepen the life of faith of each of us, the people of God. It is to strengthen our covenant relationship with the Lord God through the new covenant offered in grace by Jesus. That’s what the church—this church, your church—is to be.

So we read in the first part of Solomon’s Temple prayer. For the people of ancient Israel, standing in the shadow of this wonderful new building, the prayer might encourage a strong sense of self identity, blessed to be part of the people of God. Of course, it could also develop narrow nationalism, a jingoistic praising of the greatness of Israel, extolling their identity as the chosen nation, the holy people, the elect of God.

The Temple invited the people of God to meet the God of the people, to pray, to sing, to offer signs of gratitude and bring pleas and petitions—in short, to keep the covenant, to show that they are keeping the covenant, to be satisfied that they are keeping the covenant, as they worship. It had a strong, positive purpose for the people.

But that is not where the prayer ends. The second key element of Solomon’s prayer that the lectionary offers us today (1 Ki 8:41–43) is striking. It also relates to prayer. But it is not the prayer of the people of God, covenant partners with the Lord God. It is about the prayer of “a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, [who] comes from a distant land because of your name”. This is a striking and dramatic element to include in this dedication prayer before all the people.

Solomon prays to God, imploring God to “hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.”

Now that is an incredible prayer for the King of Israel to pray! It reflects an openness to the world beyond the nation, an engagement with the wider geopolitical and social relatives of the world at that time. Solomon was not an isolationist. He was not inward focussed on his nation. He had an outwards orientation. He did not want the Temple to foster a holy huddle, shut off from the world. He had other intentions. He wanted the Temple to be a holy place, open to people from across the region, from far beyond the territory of Israel—a gathering place for all the peoples.

That was the vision that Solomon set forth for his people. That was not always the way that the Temple actually did function, we know. But that was the foundational vision—articulated by Solomon, remembered by the scribes, included in the narrative account of the kings, placed in a strategic position at the opening and dedication of the Temple. It is a vision which speaks, both to the people of Israel, but also to people of faith today, in the 21st century world.

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On the temple of Solomon, see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/first-temple

How can we preach on passages in the Bible that are myths?

In our course on Exploring the Old Testament, we spent some sessions dealing with texts that we characterised as myths. These are narrative sections of the Bible that look, on the surface, to be historical reports—but, in fact, we have come to the conclusion that there is little, or no, evidence from outside the Bible to support our reading them as history.

In fact, in some cases, we decided that these narratives are more like myths. We defined a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons”, or as “a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, paradigmatic significance for the society in which it is told”. Some of the passages that we saw as fitting into this category were the Creation Stories in Genesis 1–3; the story of The Flood in Genesis 6–9; the account of The Exodus in Exodus 14–15; and the period of Wanderings in the Wilderness that is recounted in parts of Exodus and Numbers.

What do we make of these mythological passages, which so many people take as straightforward historical accounts? How do we preach on mythological passages in ways that assist our listeners to be open to the interpretations and applications that we offer them? It takes skill to find ways that connect and engage at depth with people, offering them a new or different point of view, without antagonising them or causing them to shut off from what you are saying.

Myths are invitations for us to engage our imagination, to enter into the story, to put aside the notion that “this really happened”, “this is a fact”, “this is the truth”. Myths invite us to step out of the world that we inhabit day by day, to step into another world that is created within the story. That invitation to step and and then step in can open up all manner of possibilities in understanding life and faith.

We do this every time we reread a children’s story to our children, or grandchildren, or tell a story as the “children’s address” in worship. We do this whenever we go to the theatre and watch a play, created by a playwright, set in an imaginary location at another time. We do this when we listen to music that enriches our spirits, that takes us “out of ourselves” into a different place. The saints of the Celtic church talk about “thin places” where the environment can invite us to pause, reflect, imagine, and as we move out of ourselves and gain a deeper sense of God, present with us.

So we know the dynamic of stepping out of the concrete, specific, material, historical realm, and entering into a deeper, expanded, transcendent dimension. We can do that in the ways noted above (and more); why not also in the times that we read scripture? We can perhaps do this when we listen to one of the parables of Jesus, knowing that they are stories, not historical accounts. Can the same be done for other, longer, narrative sections of scripture?

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer writes about “a fusion of horizons” that can take place when we step out of our familiar world, into the world of the story, the myth, which has its own dynamics and patterns. The basic premise of this understanding is that the familiar world that we inhabit in daily life has its own horizon; we see all of life encompassed within the overarching framework that is provided by the furthest horizon of our culture. We instinctively operate within that horizon. We have our own understanding of the world; we operate within our own experiences, our own received traditions, our own expectations and patterns of living.

Myth that is offered in a biblical text has another horizon, a different horizon. The patterns of behaving, the structures of relationships, the ethos of the culture, are each set in a different way by the different horizon of that text. Stories that are myths offer us alternative experiences and patterns of living, and different traditions and customs. These patterns and experiences shape a different horizon within the story. Recognising the extent of that horizon—how it is broader, or how it is closer, than our familiar everyday horizon—is a part of the process of interpretation.

When we provide an interpretation—when we start to think and talk about how “that text” relates to “our context”—we are fusing the horizon of the text with the horizon of our life. Our everyday horizon incorporates what we have been taught, what we have experienced for ourselves, and thus what resonates in the depths of our soul. These are the prejudices (the pre-judgments) that we bring into the process of interpretation. Those prejudices need to be named and acknowledged. They are not barriers to interpretation; they are factors that facilitate our interpretation.

The horizon of the text may introduce new factors, bring different awareness, invite fresh experiences. Those new and different factors need to be integrated into our familiar horizon. That process is the pathway of fusion, as the two horizons are brought into relationship with each other. The creativity and imagining that a myth offers, invites us to reshape our familiar patterns of interpretation as we enter into a framework with a different horizon of understanding. That is a great gift offered to us through this particular genre.

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Hans Georg Gadamer defines a horizon as follows:

Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential to the concept of situation is the concept of “horizon.” The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. … A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have an horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it. … [W]orking out the hermeneutical situation means acquiring the right horizon of inquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2013). Truth and Method. Translated by Weinsheimer, Joel; Marshall, Donald G. (revised 2nd ed.). London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-7809-3624-6.

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For earlier posts, see:

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

How should we read the Old Testament? Considering Genres.

Reading the Bible and reflecting on its message for us, is a fundamental activity for people of faith. Understanding the Biblical message and its application in our lives is the purpose of private meditation or devotion times, group studies, and preaching in worship. So thinking about how we undertake that process of interpretation is good to do, from time to time.

One of the issues that is raised, when we think about interpretation, relates to what we understand the biblical texts are. We need to appreciate the nature of the text we are reading; let it speak in its own right; let the kind of text that it is guide the way we go about reading it.

In our course on Exploring the Old Testament, we identified a number of different literary genres that are found within the Old Testament: narratives, laws, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic. We also noted that we think about the nature of these texts, that will shape and inform the way that we interpret and apply them.

(1) When we read passages that comprise lists of Laws, we probably begin to think about how these laws were relevant to the ancient society, where people had different customs and practices. Are they still relevant today? Do we still keep slaves or stone sinners or slaughter animals for sacrifice? Such matters have shifted over time, so we automatically start to sift and sort amongst the laws.

Some laws, we will want to keep, because they seem to apply across time and space, or because they contain fundamental principles (“love your neighbour as yourself”, for instance). Other laws, we will classify as no longer relevant. Some will sit in between and we need to think further about them. We happily engage in this process of sorting and sifting when we read Laws in the books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy).

(2) Other parts of the Pentateuch contain extended Narratives, telling stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs (in Genesis) and of the origins of Israel as the people left Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and entered into the land of Canaan (Exodus and Numbers, Joshua and Judges, and Ruth). Then follows a series of narrative books telling of the kings and the prophets (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) and then, later, of the return to the land (Ezra and Nehemiah).

These Narratives have the appearance of historical accounts—they are organised chronologically, the have a series of key characters, and they focus on developments, challenges, and changes in society. Indeed, we label the main stream of these books with the term The Deuteronomic History, laying claim to their character as history.

Nevertheless, careful study of these books indicates that this is not always history as we know it in the contemporary world. We have other expectations and patterns in our modern histories. And we certainly should not consider these to be “objective history”; they are not, as the biases and prejudices of the authors are evident. (And, besides, is there actually any such thing as “objective history”? Are not all accounts told from a particular perspective with a specific agenda in kind?) These narratives are history-like, but not exactly history per se.

So as we read these history-like texts, we can have a number of questions in mind, that help us to enter into the story, understand the dynamics at work, and identify with or against the various key characters. As we do this, we may well develop an understanding of how God is portrayed as being active in the story as we have it.

(3) In fact, in some cases, we decided that these narratives are more like Myths. We defined a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons”, or as “a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, paradigmatic significance for the society in which it is told”. The passages that we saw as fitting into this category are the Creation Stories in Genesis 1–3; the story of The Flood in Genesis 6–9; the account of The Exodus in Exodus 14–15; and the period of Wanderings in the Wilderness that is recounted in parts of Exodus and Numbers.

What do we make of these mythological passages, which so many people take as straightforward historical accounts? How do we preach on mythological passages in ways that assist our listeners to be open to the interpretations and applications that we offer them? It takes skill to find ways that connect and engage at depth with people, offering them a new or different point of view, without antagonising them or causing them to shut off from what you are saying.

Myths are invitations for us to engage our imagination, to enter into the story, to put aside the notion that “this really happened”, “this is a fact”, “this is the truth”. Myths invite us to step out of the world that we inhabit day by day, to step into another world that is created within the story. That invitation to step and and then step in can open up all manner of possibilities in understanding life and faith. Seeing certain narrative texts as myths may well open up new insights when we allow the text to engage us in a quite different way.

(4) When we come to Poetry, we bring with us an assumption that we will be reading words that have been carefully chosen, artistically arranged, and designed to create specific feelings in us as readers. We don’t come expecting the poetry to apply directly in the way that some of the Laws apply. Nor do we expect that poetry needs to be read as objective factual accounts of things that happened. Rather, we accept that the creativity of the author is designed to inspire our own imaginations.

So we bring a different method of interpretation to this kind of literature. We appreciate the structure of the songs in the book of Psalms, or of the oracles of various Prophets, enjoying the skill of the wordplays and imagery employed for their own sake, as well as for what insights they offer into the human condition and how we relate to God. The love poetry of the Song of Songs and the wistful poems of The Preacher in Ecclesiastes

(5) Wisdom sayings such as we find in Proverbs are different again, and we read them with a different set of expectations in mind, asking a different set of questions, with another bunch of conclusions emerging from our consideration of them. By their nature, proverbs are quoted without any specific context—they look just like “general sayings”—and are strung together to form longer sections of text which actually have no sense of plot, character, development, and so on.

We can perhaps happily extract individual proverbs from their biblical context and talk about how they apply to us today, with apparent relative ease. Perhaps there is a place for this, although gaining understanding of the social and historical contexts in which the proverbs were created and passed on, can offer different insights and deeper understandings 9f what is being said in such texts.

(6) Prophetic words are found largely in the books named after individual prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the twelve grouped together as “minor prophets” (Amos, Joel, Hosea, Jonah, etc …). Some prophetic words are embedded in the history-like narratives noted above; this relates to figures such as Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha.

The classic way to approach prophetic texts has been to scout these books looking for “words that have been fulfilled by Jesus”. That is a very narrow way to approach such texts. For one thing, it actually discounts many of the verses in each of these books. For another, it discounts the political, cultural, social and religious contexts in which the prophetic oracles were delivered.

Prophecy, in its fundamental character, is not fore-telling, oriented to the future. Rather, it is more naturally understood as forth-telling, proclaiming a word of the Lord into the current circumstances of the prophet. So understanding the original context assumes a greater significance in the way we approach prophetic writings. Likewise, exploring both the impact of the poetic language and the reasons for the literary ordering and shaping of the oracles merit careful attention.

(7) In some of the books of the prophets, we find sections that are characterised as Apocalyptic (Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 38-39, Joel, Zechariah, and Daniel). These are passages which paint a picture of a time and a place that is differs from the time and place of the author. They are texts which claim to reveal how God is going to act in the future, to judge the wickedness that exists and bring about the kingdom of justice and peace on the earth.

The word Apocalyptic is a transliteration of a Greek word that means “unveil” or “revealing”. An Apocalypse is usually presented as a message that has come through a dream or a vision, in which a messenger from God speaks about what is yet to come. It most often contains vivid, dramatic scenes that we cannot interpret as literal scenes; Apocalyptic is thoroughly symbolic.

Apocalyptic literature was written in situations where the people of Israel felt oppressed, dominated by a foreign power, forced into compromises in their religious and cultural practices. The vision or dream portrayed life in a positive, hopeful manner. It was offered as an encouragement to people of faith to hold fast to their faith and look to the promised future, when God would act in their favour.

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In each of these genres, the questions we have in mind, the presuppositions we bring, the reading tools that we have honed and developed, will inform amd guide how we interpret each form of literature. There is no general, overarching, blanket set of rules. Each text needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/how-can-we-preach-on-passages-in-the-bible-that-are-myths/

and see earlier posts at

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

Reading Old and New Testaments together (3): Redemption and Hope

Why should Christians bother to read the Old Testament? Why should we have passages from Hebrew Scripture read in services of Christian worship. And why should anyone bother to preach on an Old Testament text in a service of Christian worship?

I have already suggested that the church, as a whole, needs these books, and values these scriptures; that they shape, inform, and enrich our lives as Christians. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

There are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!

Thus far, we have explored themes of the people of God, in covenant with God, who offers love and mercy, through the gift of the Law, as well as the worship offered to God and the justice demanded by God. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

In this post, we continue with to further themes: redemption, and hope.

In the story about Israel that was told and retold by the people over centuries, the theme of Redemption holds centre stage. God is the one who Redeems Israel (Exod 6:6; 2 Sam 7:22–24; Ps 19:14, 78:35; Job 19:25; Isa 41:14, 43:14, 44:6, 24, etc) and who brings salvation to Israel (Exod 14:13–14, 15:1–2; 1 Sam 2:1–2; 1 Chr 16:8–36; Isa 12:2–3; 33:22, 35:4, 63:1; Jer 30:8–11, 42:11; and in many psalms).

The story of the Passover (Exod 14) and the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15) becomes the central and all-informing narrative for the people of Israel, regularly repeated in brief assertions (Exod 19:4, 20:2; Lev 11:45, 25:38; 26:13; Num 15:41; Deut 5:6; Judg 2:1, 6:8; 1 Sam 8:8, 10:18) and extended credal affirmations (Deut 26:5–9; Josh 24:2–8), as well as sung in psalms (Ps 78:9–72; 80:8–14, 136:10–22; and see Hosea 11:1–4).

Indeed, it was the experience of Exile from the land, and the yearning to return to the land of Israel, that brought the story of the Exodus from Egypt to the centre of the identity of the people of Israel. Much of Hebrew Scripture was collated and constructed as a literary whole during this period of return to the land, with the rebuilding of the city and the restoration of the worship life of Israel in Jerusalem.

The Passover was retold and remembered, not only in the annual festival, but also in the psalms and stories of the people. Looking back, from the perspective of being once more back in the land, meant that the power of this story of leaving behind and moving ahead, took a stronger grip on the collective psyche of the people.

This Passover focus then shapes the story of Jesus and defines the central purpose of Christian faith. Jesus is described as the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), the Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7). It is Jesus who effects salvation (Luke 2:29–32, 3:3–6, 19:9–10; Acts 4:8–12, 13:26–31, 28:28; Rom 1:16–17; 1 Thess 5:9; Eph 1:11–14). It is Jesus who brings redemption (Luke 2:38, 21:28, 24:21; Rom 3:21–26; Gal 4:4–7; Eph 1:7–10; Titus 2:11–14; Heb 9:11–14) for the people of God.

Finally, the theme of Hope is articulated in the Old Testament. The theme can be found in the stories of Israel wandering in the desert, searching hopefully for the promised land. Hope is articulated most clearly in the prophetic stream of writings. The prophets decry the infidelity of Israel and proclaim God’s judgement. They proclaim that judgement will fall on the people on the Day of the Lord (Isa 2:12–22, 13:6–16; Jer 46:10; Joel 2:1–11; Amos 5:18–24; Zeph 1:7–18; Mal 4:1–5). Yet they also look with hope to a time when peace will reign and justice will be done (Isa 2:1–4, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 28:16–17, 42:1–9, 52:9–10, 66:12; Ezek 34:25; Hag 2:9; Zech 8:12).

Under the weight of oppression by foreign powers—initially Assyria and Babylon, and then after the Macedonian expansion under Alexander the Great—this prophetic Hope transforms into apocalyptic literature (Isa 24–27, 33-35; Ezek 38–39; Dan 7–12; Zech 12–14). Given the grim circumstances of daily life, the vision of a new era continues to motivate and inspire the people with hope grounded in a deep trust that God would overcome evil and institute a new era. Writers beyond the Old Testament continue to articulate this hope (1 Enoch; Testament of Moses; 2 Baruch; 4 Ezra; and a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The theme of Hope also informs Christian faith. Jesus offers a vision of the Kingdom of God which has been influenced by Jewish ideas (Mark 1:14–15; Matt 4:17–20, 5:3–10; Luke 4:43, 17:20–21; John 3:1–8). So many of the parables of Jesus focus on this kingdom (Mark 4:10–34; Matt 13:24–52, 25:1–46). This vision of Jesus had clearly been sharpened by the yearnings for freedom that had percolated within Israel over centuries under the extended rule of foreign powers (the Seleucids and then the Romans).

Paul articulates a sense that “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor 7:29). He writes “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13), affirming that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2), that is, it will be very soon that the kingdom will come. The groaning of this creation yearn for that time to come soon (Rom 8:18–25).

The very last book of the New Testament, the Revelation attributed to John, portrays the dramatic events which lead to the ultimate instituting of “a new heaven and a new earth”, here on this earth (Rev 21:1–4). In the final chapter of this book, Jesus declares, “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12), and invites believers to respond, simply, “come” (Rev 22:17). So it is that Hope, a central Old Testament theme, continues unabated right throughout the New Testament.

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We have thus reviewed a number of key themes, which indicate how the Old Testament connects with the New Testament, informing the faith of Jesus and his followers, shaping the beliefs of the emerging movement and the way that communities of faith lived out their discipleship. As a major influence for those times, so the Old Testament continues to provide guidance, nourishment, challenge, and inspiration, for faithful followers of Jesus in the 21st century.

So that’s why we should read, study, and preach from the Old Testament!!

Reading Old and New Testaments together (2): Worship and Justice.

Why should Christians bother to read the Old Testament? Why should we have passages from Hebrew Scripture read in services of Christian worship. And why should anyone bother to preach on an Old Testament text in a service of Christian worship?

I have suggested that there are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church that is told in the New Testament.

We explored a cluster of these themes in the previous post: the people of God, in covenant with God, who offers love and mercy, through the gift of the Law. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

In this post, we continue with two more themes: worship, and justice.

Worship sits at the heart of the people in the Old Testament, and this theme continues through into the New Testament. Alongside the focus on the giving of the Law (Exodus 24) as the people were travelling through the wilderness (Exod 15:22 to Num 33:49), there are detailed instructions about building the Tabernacle (Exod 26–31) and about the liturgical functionings associated with it (Leviticus, and Num 3–11). Later, the building of the Temple becomes prominent (1 Kings 5–8) and the collection of Psalms is made as a rich resource for this liturgical life.

All of these passages, quite clearly, relate directly to the customs and practices of another time and place, far removed from current times, and also distant from the times in which many of the New Testament documents were written. Nevertheless, the Psalms continued to inform the spiritual life of Jesus and his followers (to the point of his death, Mark 15:34 quoting Ps 22:1), and the language of temple is taken up in a spiritualised form (1 Cor 3:16–17, 6:19; Eph 2:19–22; and see the cultic language of Phil 4:18).

Likewise, the death of Jesus is understood to be a spiritualised sacrifice (Gal 1:4; Eph 5:2; 1 Tim 2:6; Titus 2:14; and much of Hebrews), and his followers are encouraged to offer “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1-2) even whilst they sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).

However, within the books of the Old Testament, there are many passages critical of the worship practices of the people of Israel. Although the intricate details of prayers, sacrifices and offerings were commanded by the Lord (Lev 1–7; Num 15; Deut 12), many of the prophets are critical of the excessive focus on sacrifices and prayers.

Speaking on behalf of God, Amos thunders a clear denunciation of worship gatherings: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21–27). Isaiah berates the people with God’s diatribe, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams … I do not delight in the blood of bulls or lambs or goats” (Isa 1:10–17), reinforced by Jeremiah (Jer 6:20) and the Psalmists (Ps 40:6).

Various passages juxtapose the rituals of sacrifice with the divine demand for ethical behaviour. Justice and righteousness is preferred to burnt offerings and noisy songs, says the prophet (Amos 5:21–43) and the sage (Prov 21:3). Another prophet declares that God “desires steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6).

A contrite heart, doing the will of God, is preferred to sacrifice and offering, says the Psalmist (Ps 40:6–8, 51:16–17). “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools”, says the Preacher (Eccles 5:1). The sacrifice of thanksgiving is what God really requires (Ps 54:6, 116:17). And so the critical dialectic is prosecuted.

A central focus in the Hebrew Scriptures is the commitment to Justice, articulated (as we have seen) by Amos. This is the key quality of the prophetic messages given to Israel over a number of centuries. Moses and the elders he appointed had a responsibility to judge the people (Exod 18:13–27). This was continued by men and women designated as judges in the book of Judges.

Over time, the role of the prophet arose, as judges gave way to kings; the prophet was called to hold the king to account (for instance, Nathan at 2 Sam 12). This then expands so that the prophetic voice speaks truth to all the people, persistently calling out for justice (Amos 5:18–24; Micah 6:6–8; Isa 1:10–17, 5:1–7, 9:6–7, 42:1–4; Jer 21:12, 22:3, 33:15; Ezek 18:5–9, 34:11–16; Zeph 3:5).

This prophetic cry continues into the New Testament, as justice is placed at the centre. Jesus calls for justice (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42, 18:1–8)—at times, we find it rendered as “righteousness” in his sayings (Matt 5:1-12, 20; 6:33, 21:28–32). This, of course, is the way that it appears in the letters of Paul, where the righteousness of God is the action that we experience when God implements justice in our lives (Rom 3:21–26, 4:1–25; 2 Cor 5:16–21).

Both the manifesto for mission that Luke highlights at the start of the public activity of Jesus (Luke 4:18–21) and the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats that Matthew places at the end of the public teaching of Jesus (Matt 25:31–46) draw strongly from Old Testament insights. Both demonstrate the priority that Jesus gave to practical actions of support, care, and advocacy within ordinary life—precisely what justice is!

Jesus highlights the judgement executed by God (Matt 8:10–12; Luke 13:28–30) and told a number of parables of judgement—particularly those collected in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 13:36–43, 47–50, 22:1–14, 24:44–25:46). These stories use the threat of divine judgement as a warning against sinful injustice and as a spur to righteous living. Underlying these warnings is the fundamental principle that God’s justice undergirds all (Matt 12:17–20; Luke 18:1–8).

So in the ways that worship is described and criticised, and in the ways that justice is advocated, we see clear lines of continuity and connection between Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament texts.

Reading Old and New Testaments together (1): People, Covenant, Law

Why should Christians bother to read the Old Testament? Why should we have passages from Hebrew Scripture read in services of Christian worship. And why should anyone bother to preach on an Old Testament text in a service of Christian worship?

I have already suggested that the church, as a whole, needs these books, and values these scriptures. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/24/why-read-study-or-preach-from-the-old-testament/

Now, I want to explain in some detail exactly how the 39 books of the Old Testament shape, inform, and enrich our lives as Christians.

There are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!

An understanding of the People of God is the first key theme of the Old Testament. The whole saga that is told in the historical narratives derives from the promise of God to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), to make of him a people, to gift him with many descendants, and to give them a land (from which we get the phrase “the promised land”).

The people remain as a focus right through the long-running saga that is told in the sequence of narrative books, from Genesis through to Ezra—Nehemiah. Israel is assured that the whole nation is a “chosen people” (Deut 7:6–8, 14:2; Ps 33:12; Isa 41:8–10, 65:9), set apart as “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exod 19:4–6), called to be “a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:6).

The notion of Christians as “the people of God” is picked up in the New Testament (Rom 9:25–26; 1 Pet 2:9–10; Heb 4:9, 11:25; Rev 21:3). In particular, Paul grapples with this matter in three long chapters in his letter to the Romans (chs. 9–11), concluding that Jews are joined by the Gentiles, “grafted on” to the existing branches (Rom 11:11–24) to form the continuation of “the people of God”.

The language of being “God’s people” and “a holy nation” is mirrored in 1 Peter 2:9–10, whilst the imagery of the “light to the nations” resonates in Acts (13:47, 26:23; and see Luke 2:32). The sense of being God’s people continues in “the people of the way” (Acts 18:25, 19:23, 24:22) and in various letters (Rom 9:25–26; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 1:13–14; Heb 4:9–10, 8:10; and Rev 22:1–4).

The people of God enter into relationship with God through the Covenant that is offered to them. This is the second key theme of the Old Testament books: a commitment to Covenant. The Covenant provides an understanding of the deep and abiding relationship between God and God’s people. The Covenant is offered initially to Noah, and to all living creatures (Gen 9), before it is subsequently renewed (and reshaped) by being offered to Abraham (Gen 15, 17), to Jacob (Israel) (Gen 35), to Moses and the whole people (Exod 19), and later to the people again through Jeremiah (Jer 31).

Renewing the Covenant, of course, is the way that various New Testament writers understand the purpose of Jesus’ life and death (Mark 14:24; Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:1–6; Heb 7:22, 8:10–13, 12:24). And the very title ‘New Testament’ is itself a variant of ‘New Covenant’ (the same Greek word can be translated as covenant or testament).

Underlying the Covenant is the clear understanding that God is a loving God, filled with steadfast love. A regular refrain in the Hebrew Scriptures is this clear affirmation: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6–8; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; see also 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9).

The Lord affirms to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exod 33:19), and Moses offers Aaron and his sons the prayer, “the Lord bless you and keep you … and be gracious to you” (Num 6:22–27)—a ancient prayer which lives on in Christian spirituality and liturgy! The Psalmist knows that graciousness is a key characteristic of God, for there are regular calls throughout this book for God to demonstrate divine graciousness (Ps 4:1, 6:2, 9:13, 25:16, 31:9, 41:10, 56:1, 67:1, and many more times).

However, the juxtaposition of punishment and steadfast love is clearly stated (Exod 20:5–6), signalling that the complexity of God’s nature is clearly understood. The offer of divine graciousness and the demands of divine justice co-exist within the Lord God. And that will be the focus in the next blog post.

Flowing out as a consequence of the Covenant is a further key theme, that of the Law. For Israel, the Law provides clear practical guidance to faithful people, setting out the various ways they are to maintain their obedience to God and thereby uphold the Covenant. The Covenant is not an idealised or abstract idea; it is known and expressed in each of the 613 laws contained within the Hebrew Scriptures. So the Law was considered to be a gift to the people, to be celebrated and valued as much as to be kept (Ps 19:7–11, 40:8, 119:97–104, 169–176).

Paul reveals great angst about the Law in Rom 7, and his words in Rom 10:4 are cited as a proof—texting argument that the Law was rendered obsolete. However, he ultimately can’t let go of the Law. He continues to claim that Israel is part of God’s people (Rom 9–11), and he maintains that “love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Rom 13:10). Christians have all too often seized on the passages which provide a negative perspective on the Law, but the actual situation in scripture is more complex and nuanced.

The mission of Jesus was to fulfil the Law (Matt 5:17–20), to reach into the very heart of the Law and apply it in a completely radical way (Matt 5:21–48), to focus primarily on renewing Israel (Matt 10:5–6, 15:24). With that fundamental commitment, Jesus often disputes vigorously with those who interpreted and applied the Law in ways that he saw as contrary to God’s intentions (Matt 23:1–10; Mark 2:23–28, 7:1–23).

The bottom line for Jesus, however, is that the Law sits as the bedrock of his ethical outlook. His central commandment of love–to “love one another” (John 13:34), to “love your neighbour” (Matt 19:19), even to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:43; Luke 6:27)–rests firmly on “the two greatest commandments” from the Law. With this clarity drawn from his Jewish faith, he urges his followers to “love God” (Deut 6:4–5) and to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18).

So, in the ways that the people of God is described, in God’s covenant relationship with that people, and in the ways that God’s graciousness is offered in the gift of the Law, we see clear lines of continuity and connection between Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament texts.