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Archive for the ‘Old Testament – General’ Category

I found a 1549 translation of 1 Maccabees online (The volume of the bokes called Apocripha translated by Taverner, edited by Becke ). This is how one of my favourite parts of 1 Maccabees (6:43-46) reads in the text:

Wherefore he ran wyth a corage unto the Elephante in the myddest of the hoste, smytynge them doune of bothe the sydes, and slewe manye aboute hym. So wente he to the Elephantes feete, and gatte him under him, and slew hym: then fel the Elephant down upon him, and ther he died.

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I had the great privilege of attending a mini-conference on the 6th commandment last Friday & Saturday. (“Thou shalt not kill … ” ) Although I found all the papers read quite brilliant, one that really stood out for me was a paper read by Prof Ed Noort of Groningen University. (Now, I’m not sure if I understood everything correctly, so what follows is my reception of his paper.) The part that interested me most was his analysis (and my understanding thereof) of the book of Job. Especially the following, very vital information: we, as readers, know what is happening in the heavenly court, while poor Job is quite oblivious in all his suffering down on earth. He remains faithful throughout, while quite frankly, God and the devil is betting up there! This is almost ironic. In a  way, we can speak about the Darker Side of God. (One could add to this a whole host of other texts in the Old Testament, but that is not quite my point here.)

The really interesting part surfaced in the Q&A session. A comment was put out there that, unlike the other (Greek and Roman) traditions, which simply relegated tough questions like why pain and suffering exists to the realm of myth*, the book of Job actively levels critique and asks questions. Even more to the point: the book of Job spills into the “real world” by challenging the reader – if one is confronted by pain and suffering, is it simply God and the devil betting up there? The book challenges our interpretation in the interaction that we have with the real, physical world every day. The first scenes in the book open the possibility for us, the readers, to doubt the intention of God – in real life!

Perhaps this discovery is not new. In fact, to me, it seems very akin to Walter Brueggemann’s “core testimony” and “countertestimony“, as he developed it in Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. (Again, how I understood / remember it – I’m no old testament theologian.) Perhaps, too, Prof Noort’s paper especially struck me because of recent discussions and a recent blog post by a friend of mine on why we read the Bible. To summarise (and probably do violence to) his conclusions: one should be willing to disagree with the Bible.

In fact, to  do exegesis and always “agree” with the biblical text is simply dishonest. This would in many cases actually imply that one disrespects the author(s)’s intentions** and misuses the Bible to suit one’s own purposes. Sometimes, the best way to respect the text is to disagree with it – just as one can only be a true friend to someone if one is willing to also level respectful critique*** (and be willing to take the same – NB!). In reflecting on our tradition, this might be called an outside argument for reading the Bible – to honestly, honestly, honestly and respectfully read our tradition, and also point out how we disagree with it. Although it is still part of us.

In reflecting on the exposition of the book of Job with which I started this post, I would like to supply too an inside argument for reading and disagreeing with the Bible: the aspect of debate has been part of our tradition since – well, since time immemorial. In this we discover ourselves and are, again, formed by our tradition – even as we are shaping it.

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FOOTNOTES

*With myth, in this case, I mean mythological language and stories about the Gods. One might argue that this is also the case with Job – that it is a mythical telling of a heavenly scene. This argument has some merit; but my focus here is on the implicit critique that goes along with the narration.

** Yes, I know the “author’s intentions” is impossible to determine. But there are some cases where we can be pretty sure that what the author meant is not how we understand it today. To me, this also underlines the importance of historical-critical studies of the Bible. One should at least attempt to understand the intentions of the author(s); otherwise, one is misusing the text.

*** I thank all my friends for their past and future critique; also on this blogpost.

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Reading the Bible is like looking into a pond. In some places, the water is all murky; in other places, the water is quite clear. In yet some other places, the rocks and pebbles at the bottom of the pond have shifted.

More importantly, when one looks into the pond, one sees a reflection of oneself. This reflection is surely not the only thing one sees, but it is there. An excessive case of narcissisim can lead one to read into the Bible exactly what one would like to read. If one is aware of one’s reflection, one could try and counterbalance it – to look beyond it – but it will always be there.

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While reading Joshua 3 with some of my Hebrew students, I drew a bit more complicated version of the picture below on the whiteboard:

Hermeneutics of Joshua 3

Hermeneutics of Joshua 3

This shows the complicated nature of this text in Joshua. An original event occurred long ago; the story of this event was probably handed down via oral tradition; the story was written down from at least two perspectives (in the case of Joshua 3, from the perspective of a writer focussing on the ark and priests, while another focussed on the crossing of the river); a redactor put these stories together to more or less form the story as we now have it in the Masoretic text tradition. Each of these “retellings” of what happened at the original event was penned in a specific time, with a message for that time. The story of the redactor was then handed over via the textual tradition – which adds a few twists and turns. Finally, we have the text as we know it today – mostly read in different translations.

When looking back into the past, then, from today’s perspective, one can hardly speak with absolute certainty about the original event – removed from our context by quite a few steps. In any case, which of these contexts are the legitimate one? Is it the redactor’s that should be taken as the context – the one with authorial intent? Is it the event itself? Why then is it told from a certain perspective? Doesn’t Author 1 and Author 2 also deserve some attention? Finally, what does this text mean for today?

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