Session 2: Being Christian in the World We’re In
Christianity emerged from Judaism. The scriptures of the first Christians were the Jewish scriptures. The Christian writings that became our New Testament all refer to those scriptures. Even the way the Christian story is told in the Gospels or the Epistle to the Hebrews, for instance, is shaped by the Jewish scriptures. Most of those scriptures were written in Hebrew, and you often hear the term “Hebrew Bible” but there were Jewish writings in other languages, particularly Greek, which were also regarded as scriptural. The Christians used the translation into Greek known as the Septuagint, which included some of these non-Hebrew texts. So Hebrew Bible, Jewish Scriptures and the Christian term Old Testament refer to the same set of writings, but with a little difference in meaning and content.
We are used to the books of the Bible being in a particular standard order. However, the one we are accustomed to using in our church wasn’t established until the 1500s by the Protestant Reformers. It’s different from the order of the Roman Catholic Bible, which is different from the Eastern Orthodox Bible, and all of them are different from the order of the Hebrew Bible of rabbinic Judaism. The important thing, however, is this: the Bible is a library of different writings, written at different times, in response to different situations. The order of the books doesn’t really reflect this, and they are not in chronological order, either as to when they were written or as to the events they refer to. They are grouped largely by types of literature. If we had a whole course on this, it would be interesting to go into reasons for the different groups, but here I’m pointing this out just to caution against thinking about this collection of writings like a modern book or reference. It might actually be closer to our computerized hypertext models, where you click links between different texts and jump from one related piece to another, than like a book where you follow a chronological story line or an argument straight through.
The Jewish Scriptures tell the story of God and the people of Israel. There are four main aspects to this story. One of these is Wisdom, which is not so much story, but accumulated practical, cultural, and spiritual experience throughout the life of Israel. An example is the book of Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7. The other three are the story of the Patriarchs and their faith; the rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt, which is the story of Moses; and the prophets holding the community to the justice and love of God.
These four things are not neatly divided up; many books of the Jewish scriptures have intertwined themes and texts. The texts that we have were often written, or took their present form centuries after the events they describe. For instance, the books of Samuel and Kings are a single connected narrative: it begins before the birth of King David, with the story of Samuel who eventually anointed Saul as King, then later anointed David to take his place. But it continues through the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and ends about 500 years later, describing David’s descendant Jehoiachin, King of Judah, living in exile in Babylon.
The exile in Babylon was a deeply traumatic experience and the key point in the development of Judaism. There are good reasons to believe that nearly every book of the Hebrew Bible was written, or at least put in the form we have it now, during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile.
“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.” Psalm 137:1
This doesn’t mean that no sacred texts existed before the exile; there were stories, poetry, perhaps some records of the kingdoms, ritual laws, and procedures. We don’t have any of these things independent of the Bible itself. We don’t know which were written and which were preserved by word of mouth or by memory. During and after the Exile in Babylon, however, they were written down, and what emerged was the Hebrew Scriptures and Judaism.
The Five Books of Moses are the most important of these writings. Jews refer to them as Torah, or Law—they are also called the Pentateuch—and they are the beginning of all the Bibles that I know of. The first of these five is actually entitled, “The Beginning” or
Genesis. The core of that book is the story of the three Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham was the first and he received the gift of God’s promise and covenant. The promise was that he would become a numerous nation, as numerous as the stars of the sky, and that they would inhabit the land to which Abraham had been guided. The second Patriarch is Isaac, who was miraculously born to Sarah and Abraham, when it appeared that they were too old to have children and, therefore, that God’s promise of copious descendants would be false. The third Patriarch was Jacob, who had many children and multiple wives—he was the twin of Esau who became the ancestor of the neighboring country of Edom, but Jacob inherited the promise and his other name, Israel, became the name of the nation of descendants that God had promised Abraham.
There are about twelve chapters on Abraham, about two concerning Isaac, and around twelve about Jacob in the book of Genesis. The story is mostly about how Abraham came into the land and how Jacob, or Israel, populated the land. This theme of being given the land and populating the land runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. To oversimplify a bit, the stories of David and his descendants are a continuation of this theme—there are two histories, one of which is the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and the other is First and Second Chronicles, numerous psalms, and other references in many of the prophets and other books. The early part of Genesis links this theme all the way back to the very beginning of the world—if you ever wondered about those genealogies (who begat whom?), those link people together. The last part of Genesis is about Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, and describes how Israel ended up leaving the land and going to Egypt. And that links forward to the next major theme.
Exodus begins the story of Moses, the giver of the law. There are two deeply intertwined elements of this. Through Moses, God rescued the people of Israel from dire hardship and slavery and returned them to the land. In that process, God gives the gift of the law by which the Jewish people live. The law, given through Moses is not a burden, but a life-giving gift. Notice, that in the Babylonian Exile, the people went through dire hardship and the law was codified. It is during that time that the books of Moses were given their shape and Moses’ story came to predominate in Judaism. Throughout the final four books of Moses, stories of Israel being led by Moses in the wilderness are interwoven with legal texts—texts about ritual purity, about religious sacrifice and observance, about ethical behavior and how people live together. There are a very surprising number of laws, as well as references to two groups: the poor and the “sojourners in the land” which is to say, outsiders, immigrants or refugees. Caring for the poor and the sojourners is a duty that surpasses all others. Scholars spend their entire lives studying the contents and the nuances of this part of the Bible—most of us prefer reading Biblical stories, but trying to understand some of the legal passages can have its own kind of rewards. Here is a link to a sermon about one from Leviticus. <On Asparagus and being a neighbor >.
The third theme of the Jewish Bible that I would like to discuss is the prophets. It is a mistake to look to the prophets primarily for prediction. The prophets were about correction far more than prediction. They listened to God and spoke in poetry—some of the oracles were long and some were short, but they were correcting the people when they were wandering from God’s promises. In particular, the prophets confronted the kings and those who were wealthy and powerful. They advocated for the poor and they advocated for a return to true and humble obedience to God. In the historical books, which are mostly about the kings of Israel and Judah, the prophets Nathan, Elijah and Elisha appear, to do precisely that.
The books of the prophets are sometimes confusing because they don’t appear either in the order of the historical periods they address, or the time they were written. In fact, quite a few of them have oracles that were clearly written in different times. There are at
least three “Isaiahs.” The call of Isaiah in Chapter 6 is in the year that King Uzziah died which is 742 BC. The famous text, “Comfort ye, my people” in chapter 40 is the beginning of a section summoning people home from the exile, which happened about two centuries later, around 540 BC. Many scholars believe that the last ten chapters reflect a later time, after the exiles had returned, with oracles encouraging them to rebuild the city and the Temple. Even at that, it’s not that simple, since some oracles earlier in the book reflect the voice and interests of second Isaiah, and some later in the book come from earlier.
Comfort ye, my people–Isaiah Chapter 40
What is constant is the prophet’s call to return to God, and the assurance of God’s love. Isaiah was the most commonly used book of the Bible by Christians in the first century. It contains the themes of the patriarch and God’s gift of the land and God’s people and of the deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the law.
While the books of the prophets each have their own characteristics, many share this diversity of times and types of oracles. Some, like Amos, are particularly stern in condemning the sins of the rich and powerful, others emphasize hope and the restoration of the community. The prophets were continuously a force to remind Israel of God’s love and their duty to follow God’s commandments, especially in restoring life and justice to the community, to give hope to the poor and downtrodden and to correct the abuses of the powerful. Next week, when we discuss the New Testament, we will see how the tradition of the prophets continues in John the Baptist and in the life and teaching of Jesus.
This is only a quick introduction to the Old Testament. The next thing to do is to start reading some parts. There are many kinds of literature that I haven’t discussed. When we read the psalms in the service, you can hear that they are poems, the hymns of the Temple when it was rebuilt after the exile. All of the themes that are mentioned here show up—Abraham and Israel; the people of the land; Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. Meditations on the law of the Lord. And exhortations and oracles, much like those of the prophets. The Jewish Scriptures are a rich and profound library that immerse us in the love of God and celebrate the gift of life.
The very first psalm summarizes the psalter and also the whole of scripture:
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
And they meditate on his law day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
- Share your favorite story from the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. Why is this your favorite story?
- What did you learn from the reading? How will it affect the way you pray or approach the scriptures?
- In today’s popular culture, who or what are some examples of prophets today? Why?
- From the reading, what do the Hebrew Scriptures tell us about relationships (in general and by extension, with God)?
- Of the three themes of the Hebrew Scriptures mentioned in the reading, which do most identify with or see as most significant to you?
- Discuss a secular (not overtly religious) TV show, movie, song, or play that you like that contains these themes.