Promise in the Old Testament

This morning was the second of a four-session Fall scripture study/prayer I am offering at Our Lady or Lourdes in Minneapolis. The series, titled from Creation to Annunciation is designed to help us prepare for our Christmas celebration of the coming of Christ. In our first session last week, we focused on Creation and Fall. My talk addressed the Genesis account of creation (and what it reveals about God’s plan), the entry of sin into the world, and God’s response to sin – the decision to incarnate.

This week’s session focused on The Promise of the Old Testament. That is, I spoke about the messages of three of the Old Testament prophets: Isaiah, Micah and Malachi, with an emphasis on Isaiah. Each of the three illustrates God’s promise: Though the people have wandered far from what God envisioned for them, God constantly invites them back. The repeated structure of the prophets is judgment and promise, judgment and hope. This is illustrated so well in the early part of the Book of Isaiah, which opens with the Book of Judgment. Yet, even as God is harshly castigating the people for their sins, God invites (as God does continually) “Come now, let us set things right.”

My talk also focused on our need to be active participants in “preparing the way of the Lord,” and on our call to be prophets.

Following my talk, we had a period of silent reflection, followed by some sharing. (That is not part of the recording.) I ended by encouraging the participants to spend time praying with the prophets this week. (Part of what we are trying to emphasize in this series is the value of praying with scripture and not just reading it as an intellectual exercise.)

You can access a recording of the my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 39:03.)


The Poor You Will Always Have With You

I’m reading a new book by Richard Hiers titled Women’s Rights and the Bible: Implications for Christian and Social Policy. Interestingly given the subtitle of the book, Hiers’ focus is on the Old Testament and what it teaches about the status of women and women’s rights. Hiers challenges the conventional wisdom that women in biblica times were considered inferior and subordinate to men. (I will be writing a book review on the book for the Journal of Law and Religion later this year.)

There is an interesting point that has nothing to do with women per se in the preface of the book. Illustrating that Christian ethicists draw on the New, but not the Old, Testament as a source of insight for moral and social policy matters, Hiers refers to the oft-quoted line in Matthew that “the poor you will always have with you.”

I have heard some people, as Hiers has, use this line as justification for indifference to (or at least minimizing our need to be concerned about) the needs of the poor. It is easy to do that when one looks at the line alone.

Very few people, if any, every pay attention to the Deuteronomic test from which Jesus was quoting, a text that makes it impossible to justify indifference. The passage reads

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand to him, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be…For the poor will never cease out of your land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.

Reading things like this reinforces in me the sense that I need to do more Old Testament study. Our understanding and interpretation of the New Testament would be greatly enhanced by that study.

The Need to Have Greater Appreciation for the Old Testament

Many Christians have a far greater knowledge of the New Testament than the Old Testament. I suspect for many Catholics, the Old Testament selection they hear as the first reading at Mass on Sundays is the only time during the week when they read from that part of the Bible. Some churches include books of the Old Testament as part of their Bible study classes for adults, but many more focus on the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles.

I’ve recently been reminded of the need to have a greater appreciation for the Old Testament, of the extent to which what is written in the New Testament can only be fully understood against the backdrop of the Old.

The first thing that prompted this thought: On the plane the other day, I was listening to a CD of talks on the Eucharist by Fr. Robert Barron. One of the things Fr. Barron talks about is the Eucharist as sacrifice. Talking about the Last Supper and Jesus’ language, he observes that first century Jews would have understood completely the “temple overtones,” that is, the relationship between the temple sacrifices that related to God’s covenant with Abraham, and Christ’s death as the “one, true and ultimate sacrifice” of the New Covenant. We hear those words, “the blood of the covenant” when we hear accounts of the Last Supper, but we don’t hear them the same way the writers wrote them and the early chuch would have heard them.

Barron also observed that when he asks people what it means to refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God, many people respond by talking about the gentleness of a lamb. Of course the people writing the Gospels had no such thing in mind. To them, the image immediately called to mind the one who has come to be sacrified. But those overtones tend to be lost on us.

The second thing that prompted this thought: As I mentioned the other day, one of the books I’m currently reading is Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (about which I’ll write more when I’ve finished reading it). I was struck by Williams discussion of the Ascension of Jesus, which is referenced in the creed. We’ve all seen artistic renditions of this event, which show Jesus being lifted up into the clouds. I suspect many people think those images depict what literally happened.

Talking about the passages in Luke and Acts describing the Ascension, Williams writes: “This is pictorial language, of course, not to be interpreted as if the Bible were thinking of a sort of space travel. The biblical writers knew quite well that God did not live in a literal place above the clouds, but they happily used the strong images of Old Testament poems and psalms to tell us that after a while Jesus appeared no more in matreial form to his disciples. He ‘ascended’, he left the scene, and he now ‘is seated at the right hand of the Father’: when we look at God, we can’t help but see Jesus.” Without some knowledge of that Old Testament imagery, we can’t know how to read those Ascension accounts.

Doubtless some will scoff of my observation of the value of greater understanding of the Old Testament to more fully appreciate the New Testament, thinking it too obvious to be worth mentioning. Indeed, the sheer number of cross-references to the Old Testament in the footnotes and margins of some versions of the New Testament gives a pretty clear clue about the fact that, as Rob Bell puts it, “[w]hat the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners could understand.” Nonetheless, I think it is useful reminder to those who tend to limit their focus to the Gospels, thinking it enough to read about what Jesus said and did. We will miss an awful lot if that is all we do.

Tales of the Old Testament

Having taught seventh grade religious education and otherwise been involved in various ways with pre-teen and teen religious education, and thus experienced their lack of familiarity with the Bible, I was excited to pick up a copy of Henri Daniel-Rops, The Book of Books, a retelling of Old Testament stories intended for this age group.

Many of the stories are written in an engaging way and overall the book provides a reasonably good chronology of Old Testament events. Having said that, I would not choose this book as a way to convey a sense of the Old Testament to young people.

Originally written in 1955 and published in English in 1956, the book has been re-released as an ARKive edition of Sophia Institute Press. The ARKive Editions are exact reproductions of the books as originally published. The publishers recognize that “previous ages and cultures had their faults: and even in good books from earlier times we often find language, ideas or values that were once deemed acceptable even by honorable souls, but are now seen clearly to be wrong.” Their view is that where “books that are overwhelmingly good are tainted by unfortunate peripheral remarks or occasional wrongheaded judgments, we have chosen to publish them intake,” judging the good of the book to outweigh the harm done by such remarks.

In the case of this particular book, the “language, ideas or values,” include an extremely derogatory stance toward women (not only cursed by curiosity, but always the cause of trouble for men), an incredible comment about the lack of civilization of Africans (making it sound as though the entire country in 1956 was one large jungle), and a display of complete disdain for other religions. (It is one thing to believe that one’s own religion is the true one, it is another to refer to other religions as “outlandish” and their gods as “absurd.”) The book also suffers from a Lake Wobegone effect in its treatment of the Israelites; are we really to believe that virtually every Israelite was highly intelligent and gifted? That there were no average, or even below average people among them?

I don’t disagree with the publishers that “good men and women these days can (and should) dismiss” objectionable comments “as the unfortunate products of an age as flawed as our own, albeit in different ways.” However, this is not a book aimed at adults, but at pre-and young teens and it is a book that says in Chapter 1: don’t read the Bible yourselves, it’s too hard, so I’ll relate everything you need to know. I’m far less comfortable thinking that a young person reading this book can filter out the author’s prejudices in the same way an adult can. For an adult, this might provide an interesting window into views that may have been prevalent (or at least not uncommon) in the 1950s; for a pre-teen or young teen it risks confusion and misinformation.

Apart from that major criticism (and my unhappiness at discouraging people from reading the Bible itself), there are at least several places I noticed – and I am no Biblical scholar – where the author simply is wrong in his retelling of certain stories. (E.g. there are several inaccuracies in his telling of the Story of Ruth.) These are not major, but they are surprising.

Overall, despite the engaging way in which the stories are told, I would be very hesitant to recommend this book to its intended audience.

I read this book as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program.