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Posts tagged ‘Old Testament’

Wisdom Literature–Proverbs

I tend to read the Bible more as history than as scripture. The stories of the Pentateuch develop fascinating characters, but I view them as mythological explanations for the creation of the earth and the creation of the Israelite nation—although I don’t go quite so far as Brigham Young and call them “fairy stories.”  

For me, the prophets are pretty tedious reading. Who can blame the Israelites for not listening to grumpy oddballs, sometimes running around naked (Isaiah 20:2), and predicting destruction? And if many of the calamities described by the prophets were really eschatological—about events thousands of years in the future—then no wonder the Israelites found these messages irrelevant.  While some of the Psalms are quite beautiful, too many of them are whiny or strike me as over-the-top flattery trying to get God to grant the petitioner’s wishes.

But the Wisdom Literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job—those, I love. The authors of these books do not claim to be speaking for God. They are thoughtful humans relating wisdom gained from their earthly experiences. Proverbs, although attributed to Solomon, was more likely composed by numerous authors at a much later date—probably after the Babylonian exile. Modern scholars believe many passages were taken from more ancient Egyptian wisdom books, particularly The Instruction of Amenemope.

Recognizing that the proverbs are not direct revelation from God frees people from taking every admonition seriously such as: “A slave cannot be disciplined by words/ Though he may comprehend, he does not respond.” (29:19) Beating slaves—and children—for that matter, is not part of modern philosophy. My neighbor, whose biological time clock was set for evening rather than morning, could have used this information to counter her husband’s interpretation of “Early to bed, early to rise” as a commandment.

I like the short, pithy statements of Proverbs: “When the wicked dominate the people groan.” (29:2)  Some verses have poetic beauty: “Three things are beyond me/Four I cannot fathom/ How an eagle makes its way over the sky/ How a snake makes its way over a rock/ How a ship makes its way through the high seas/ How a man has his way with a maiden.” (30:18-19)  (All quotes are from the Jewish Publication Society translation.)

My hackles are raised by Prov. 31:10-31—the description of a “virtuous woman.” I seethe at the praise heaped upon this competent, but overworked woman busy night and day with housekeeping, horticulture, earning money, and caring for her children while hubby sits at the gates all day with “the elders of the land.”

Proverbs is a classic because most verses contain truths about coping with an often harsh world. Pride, dishonesty, laziness and drunkenness are all eschewed, and hard work, thrift, and generosity are extolled. Still, it is possible to come away from Proverbs with the notion that people bring all misfortune upon themselves. To find the perspective that many things in life are beyond our control, we must turn to Ecclesiastes which I’ve written about here.

Studying the Old Testament

Since the Old Testament is Gospel Doctrine course of study for 2010, I’m going to recommend my favorite version, The Jewish Study Bible  produced by the Jewish Publication Society using the Tanakh—a direct translation from the Hebrew Masoretic Text into modern English. The Tanakh is a much more authentic translation than the KJV which was translated into English from a Latin translation of the Greek Septuagint.  The Jewish Study Bible contains the best of Jewish scholarship including essays on Jewish interpretation of passages, historical and geographical background, and textual criticism. Maps and diagrams are provided as well as timelines linking world historical events to biblical texts. Footnote explanations of obscure or controversial passages provide necessary clarification.

The first difference a reader will notice about the JSB is the order of books. The Torah, the first five books is the same, but from then on readers who have memorized the order of their non-Jewish Bibles are in trouble. The Torah is followed by the Nevi’im or Prophets, a divided section containing the books from Joshua through Kings (the former prophets) in the first part and the latter prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) in the second half. The third section, the Kethuvim, was canonized last and has the most diversity—apparently every book thought worthy of inclusion which hadn’t already been canonized. The wisdom literature is included along with the historical books, Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezra, Daniel and Chronicles. The Jewish Bible includes no apocryphal books.

The JSB gave me insights into the Jewish faith as well as a deeper understanding of the OT. One question I’ve entertained for years is: How could Jews read the Messianic passages in Isaiah and not be converted to Christianity? The historical context of those scriptures shows that more than one interpretation is possible. For example, Isaiah 7:14, “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” refers to a sign which Isaiah promised King Ahaz in the 7th century BC. The Jewish interpretation of chapter 7 is that Isaiah is predicting the birth of a child in the near future who would be very young when the Kings of Syria and Israel abandoned their siege of Jerusalem.  Also errors in translation exist—the word translated as “virgin” in English is “almah” in Hebrew and refers only to a young woman of marriageable age regardless of the condition of her hymen.

New translations give intriguing insights into the culture of ancient times. The word “earrings” which the servant of Abraham presented to Rebekah in Gen. 24 is translated as “nose rings,” not only in the Tanakh but other modern translations. It is referenced in a footnote to vs. 47 in the LDS Bible. The image of Mother Rebekah sporting an engagement nose ring or two might endear her to 21st century young women.

Studying the Tanakh translation in depth brought all kinds of fascinating tidbits to my attention. Genesis 28:20-22, in both the KJV and Tanakh, documents Jacob’s interesting approach to tithing. After fleeing Esau’s wrath following the usurpation of the birthright, Jacob bargains with the Lord. “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on/ So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God/ And . . . of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” Paying tithes after the blessings seems like more of a sure deal to me. I doubt it will be implemented in the church anytime soon.

For anyone seeking an in-depth understanding of the OT and insight into Jewish biblical thought, $30 for a copy of the JSB is a real bargain.

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