Saturday, July 30, 2005

the mysterious prophetic books

why are the books of the prophets intimidating to a majority of Christians?

the normal response to this question is the books seem far distant from the Christian experience located in Jesus Christ. the prophetic books seem to include random references to judgments on nations that mostly no longer exist. they also show the prophets taking part in odd symbolic actions. lastly, the words against social injustice potentially strike too close to home and are ignored.

i stayed away from the books of the prophets most of my life due to these reasons. i attempted to read through the entire book of Isaiah on an InterVarsity retreat but i stopped 1/3 of the way through because i was too frustrated. the references to Manasseh and Ephraim over and over were enough to put me to sleep. i actually fell asleep on my Bible (and probably drooled on the pages).

my appreciation for the prophets only came after i realized that 1 and 2 Kings provides the storyline behind the writings of the prophets. this observation is similar to Acts providing a story behind the founding of the churches to which Paul wrote his epistles. the stories found in 1 and 2 Kings, however, provide more details and reasons for the life and calling of the prophets. i now believe that each person needs to read 1 and 2 Kings before even beginning to wade through the prophets. in particular, the major prophets will remain particularly enigmatic without the background of the practices of Israel and Judah. In addition, the rise and fall of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and other nation states needs to be included in order to gain a full picture of the context of the prophets.

the largest obstacle to this understanding is laziness. a strong dedication is needed to gain the high-level and then a lower level view of the history of Israel and the prophets within the history. the first step is to read through 1 and 2 Kings with a map. the next is to locate the prophets prophets on a timeline with their locations (specific king such as Hezekiah, specific location such as northern kingdom of Israel). the third step is to read the prophetic books. finally, the final step is to pull together all the information gained above.

the result (probably after multiple iterations of this) is a better understanding of the story of Israel in which the prophets are set. the message of the prophets at a specific time to a specific audience will make sense. the alternative is to continue to randomly open up prophetic books and hope for the best as you read about the seemingly random judgments and references to Ephraim...

Friday, July 29, 2005

another window into the Old Testament

My first semester at PTS included a high-level introduction to the Old Testament. The main textbook, The Hebrew Bible by John C. Collins included a majority of the same criticisms of the Old Testament that I encountered during my intro to OT class at UVa 8-9 years ago. I walked away from the course with a new set of questions that remained unanswered. I did not have another resource to balance or challenge the questions besides the Biblical text itself.

A friend recommended, indirectly, a book by John Bright titled A History of Israel. The book takes a more balanced approach to describing the history of people of Israel. In particular, the very assertions that remained unchallenged in Collins' book are put in a wider discussion with other perspectives and findings.

The first idea that is put in a larger conversation is the documentary hypothesis (J E D P) - a largely 19th century hypothesis questioning Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and, instead, positing multiple sources pulled together. The description in Bright's book that caught my attention immediately was that numerous archaeological findings have been made since the formation of this hypothesis. One result of incorporating these findings into a conversation about the writings of the Pentateuch involves the discoveries that date to the times of the patriarchs. These show that the very writings of the Pentateuch or the traditions upon which they draw are similar to other writings from that time period. In other words, the Pentateuch cannot be simply dismissed as being written by individuals who lived after the exile of the Israelites to Assyria and Babylon as a way of explaining why Yahweh could let the exile happen to God's chosen people. The sources for the Pentateuch, instead, match closely to the traditions and writings of those near the times of the patriarchs.

Overall, this example, along with many others, shows me that extreme criticism of the Biblical text needs to be put in conversation with other research and writings that challenge these assertions. A quote from a friend sums this up when he stated that "many great minds have also put thought and research into ideas and have come up with different conclusions." Of course, I could jump out into a discussion of the motivations of scholars who hold to extremely critical views that have only been held in the past 100 years (a small breath in the depth of history) but that is for another day.

This entry has been long overdue. I am willing to listen to all perspectives but I have very little patience with perspectives that refuse to incorporate any challenges from others who interact with the same material from other angles.