A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Pentateuch

Does Jacob Change? Does Anyone?

(This post covers some of the same ground as my session on Jacob in Reading the Bible as an Adult but talks more about how the themes of the story resonate with me.)

It’s common to read the Jacob narrative (Genesis 25-36) as tracing the main character’s transformation.  According to a lot of folks, Jacob begins his life as trickster but several key events help him to change.  One is his experience of being on the receiving end of deception, when his uncle Laban manipulates him into taking not just one but two cousins and hatches one scheme after another to keep Jacob down on the sheep farm. The other episode seen as pivotal shows up in chs. 32 and 33: on the night before he is to face the brother he has wronged, Jacob wrestles with and prevails over a man whom he later perceives as God.  Not only Jacob’s name but his very character is altered by the experience, enabling him to reconcile with Esau.

That’s one way of looking at this story.  But paying close attention to particular literary features of this narrative makes Jacob’s story look different– less about change than about how themes established at the beginning of a life continue to weave throughout it.

change

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Why Read the OT (1): As Background

A lot of folks treat the Old Testament as “background” reading for something else.  For Christians, it’s treated as the prequel to the New Testament, the part you have to read in order to understand the stuff you want to read. Who is Melchizedek and why does the book of Hebrews link him to Jesus?  Why was circumcision important to Jews of the first century?  What does atonement mean?  What’s a covenant? The Old Testament offers the answers for the New Testament reader who wants to know.

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In non-religious circles, students of art, music, and literature are encouraged to learn the Old Testament in order to understand the references in their own subject matters.  After all, it’s the well from which Handel (actually his librettist) drew most of Messiah, including the Hallelujah chorus. Of course you can appreciate the stylistic dimensions of Rembrandt’s “Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s wife” at the Met and Rubens’ “The Meeting of David and Abigail” at the National Gallery without understanding the stories behind them.

But Goltzius’ “Lot and His Daughters” in the Rijksmuseum is more deliciously creepy when you know what’s going to happen after the guy drinks that bowl of wine.

Old Testament literacy also helps folks “get” the references in pop culture.  It explains what half of U2’s lyrics are about.  It shows up over and over in South Park episodes, as when Kyle’s parents read him the Book of Job.  And it’s been great fodder for Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments, allowing him to poke fun at people who don’t know biblical stories–Noah, Cain and Abel, the 10 Commandments. (see blog post on biblical literacy in popular culture)

Especially in the U.S., the political arena is filled with allusions to and arguments about the Old Testament.  Obama’s inauguration speech alluded back not only to the founding fathers but also the Old Testament prophets, and a few hot passages from Leviticus are common weapons for those who stand against same-sex marriage.

But reading the Old Testament as only as background overlooks the true riches of this collection.  In the next few blogs, I’ll share some other reasons to read the Old Testament.


It's the (Biblical) Economy, Stupid

It’s easy to read the Bible as if it contained disembodied doctrine, eternal truths about the divine being and the cosmos floating above the mundane concerns of human living. But biblical materials were shaped by the people who wrote them–not only by their beliefs but also by the economies in which they lived.  And as ancient Israel’s economy changed over time, so too did the assumptions and the agendas of the writers of the documents that we now have in the Bible.

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The Bible and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The pope’s comments during his recent visit to Israel spurred a reader of the website to ask me this question:   “Why would the pope support the creation of a Palestinian state, since the Bible claims that God has given the Holy Land to the Jewish people?”

I thought others might be interested in my reply.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?   Since the Bible insists that God promised land to Abraham’s descendants, and since Jews are descendants of Abraham, then obviously Israel always and only belongs to Jews.

But the issue is far more complicated than such a simple formula implies.

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