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


Micah (Wisdom Commentary, 2015)

This volume brings gender studies to bear on Micah’s powerful rhetoric, interpreting the book within its ancient and modern contexts. Julia M. O’Brien traces resonances of Micah’s language within the Persian Period community in which the book was composed, evaluating recent study of the period and the dynamics of power reflected in ancient sources. Also sampling the book’s reception by diverse readers in various time periods, she considers the real-life implications of Micah’s gender constructs.

micah cover

By bringing the ancient and modern contexts of Micah into view, the volume encourages readers to reflect on the significance of Micah’s construction of the world. Micah’s perspective on sin, salvation, the human condition, and the nature of YHWH affects the way people live—in part by shaping their own thought and in part by shaping the power structures in which they live. O’Brien’s engagement with Micah invites readers to discern in community their own hopes and dreams: What is justice? What should the future look like? What should we hope for?
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Changing (?) Definitions of Rape

I just published a new session in my Reading the Bible as an Adult project:  Bathsheba, Tamar, Absalom, Solomon:  David’s Family Curse? The entry deals primarily with the trans-generational dynamics of 2 Samuel 11-18, how the themes of David’s later life spill over into those of his family.  I talk about David’s fukú , the language that Junot Díaz  uses in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to describe a family curse. But there’s a lot more to discuss  in these stories of David and his children, including the way that different people and different cultures think about rape.

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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.


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.

And the Winner Is….

It’s time for the results of my first reader poll.  Drumroll, please.


As of  today, with 50 votes cast over 7 weeks, the winner in the “What is your favorite book among the prophets?” is Isaiah.  Close to 36% of respondents listed Isaiah as their favorite book.   

The popularity of Isaiah comes as no surprise.  Not only is Isaiah the longest prophetic book (giving people more to like), but it’s also the prophetic book most quoted in the New Testament.  In fact, of all Old Testament books it’s the second-most quoted in the New Testament (Psalms wins that contest).  Passages from Isaiah appear in the narratives of Jesus’ birth (“behold, a virgin will conceive”), his life (“the spirit of the LORD is upon me”), and his passion (“he was despised and rejected”).   A lot of folks know Isaiah even when they don’t know that they know Isaiah.  

Jeremiah came in second with 24%. 

Fair 2008 by Bob n Renee.

Jeremiah is a usual second-place finisher.  No real match for Isaiah’s popularity, Jeremiah does offer moving personal speeches (“oh that my head were a fountain of tears”) and memorable metaphors (God as potter and Jerusalem as clay).  Jeremiah also provides New Testament writers with material, such the description of a future new covenant that will be written on people’s hearts. 

Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Book of the Twelve all tied for third place with 10%. 

The tie between Ezekiel and Daniel makes sense.  In my experience, a lot of folks like the stories in both–the valley of the dry bones and Daniel in the lion’s den–but find the books as a whole somewhat strange.  Of course, people who read Ezekiel and Daniel as predicting the future tend to find these books immensely important, so their third-place finish in my poll tells me something about who is (and who isn’t) part of my website audience yet. 

I work mostly on the Book of the Twelve, so I’m disappointed that the minor prophets didn’t get a better showing.

Maybe offering people a chance to vote for individual books may have given Amos or Micah a fighting chance.  Having to share the stage with Nahum and Obadiah can hurt a guy’s ratings.  

Six percent voted for “what’s a prophet?,” while 4% liked Lamentations (I’m rounding, in case you’re attempting oversight of my accounting).

“What is a prophet?” is a question I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about.  

Before I give my answer, I’m interested in hearing what other people think.  Let me know your definition of a prophet by taking my new poll:  “What is the primary role of a prophet?” 

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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