Friday, December 26, 2014

Five Blessings from Reading (Really Reading) the Five Books of Moses

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

A few months ago, I began reading the Old Testament, a book of scripture which I have never before been able to read all the way through (the closest I ever came was 25 years ago while on my mission in South Korea; reading from Joseph Smith's Inspired Version of the Bible, I made it all the way through Jeremiah, at which point I simply couldn't take it any more and gave up). This reading, once I determined that I was going to do it right, involved my trusty Revised English Bible (my favorite translation out of the four or so I own) and Robert Alter's wonderful translations and commentary. Just before Christmas I finished working through his largest chunk of the Old Testament, The Five Books of Moses, and I figured I ought to be able to come with at five statements of gratitude for my reading of this, the oldest and most foundational text of the whole Western religious and philosophical tradition.

1) It's good to be able to see OT fragments for what they are. I'm not particularly well-schooled in the documentary hypothesis, nor the criticisms of it, but I know enough to know that the earliest--in terms of the internal narrative--parts of the Old Testament not only couldn't have the sole authors so often attributed to them in Sunday School, but they couldn't have been entirely written at the times stipulated by their place in that internal chronology either. Reading the King James Version of the Old Testament (even the KJV as slightly amended by Joseph Smith) makes it hard to do more than shake one's head at these obvious inconsistencies and fissures, since that version presents the whole of the OT in the same--beautiful, but to our eyes and ears today also almost impenetrable--heightened and archaic English tense. But by reading Genesis (and, to a lesser but still important degree, the other four books of the Pentateuch as well) in a translation with more careful and contemporary language, the reasons why scholars ever came up the idea of that one can discern distinct narrative and documentary traditions behind these five books--namely, the famous Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P) sources--becomes fairly obvious. You can see that at one point God is referred to one way, then later in the story He is referred to differently, and then later yet He is referred to in the previous way again. God--Yahweh, or El Elyon, or Shaddai--takes on warrior forms, is sometimes peaceful and sometimes murderous, appears and then disappears from the overall story, is acknowledged by and then is unknown to the many rival peoples which the descendants of Abraham contested with, and so forth. I've known intellectually for years that the creation of scripture is a far more happenstance, complicated, and prolonged process than the faith-promoting stories of revelation that so many Christians like myself were raised with often imply, but in reading these first five books of the OT, and being able to really see how different perspectives and traditions overlapped, borrowed from each other, and in some case eventually died (or were edited) out, I can see the process in a way I never had before.

2) It's good to be able to appreciate the myths sprinkled throughout the OT. There are, as anyone who has read it knows, many strange stories in the OT, particularly in Genesis. Some of them might be categorized as "miraculous" in the sense of demonstrating God's providence in the later religious sense, but many others just stand out, obviously important to the ancient transcribers and redactors of these once-oral traditions, but whose significance to the overall epic of Israel is by no means obvious today. You have Lot's daughters, Jacob wresting with an angel, God attempting to kill Moses, giants in the land, and much more. Seeing these stories better connected with the rhetorical traditions out of which they came helped make them sensible to me, or at least more so. The tribal realities, violent contests, sexual tensions, physical sufferings, aspirational hopes, and desperate fears of a wandering people, thousands of years ago, who became the carriers of what eventually emerged as our understanding of a loving and omnipotent God, are at least partially captured in these strange mythological tales. It deepened my appreciation of what the OT can teach us overall by seeing, as clearly as possible, some of the rudimentary building blocks of the stories they told themselves and preserved, generation after generation.

3) It's good to get to know the OT patriarchs and prophets as human figures. The basics of the life stories and relationships of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses--along with all their supporting wives, children, siblings, allies, enemies, and more--weren't unknown to me, but there were so many details that I'd never noticed or didn't understand before (the whole story of Tamar, Onan, and Judah, or the rebellion against Moses, for example, had never made much sense to me previously). Getting a better sense of how, in these stories, these men were presented as arguing, striving, scheming, begging, or confessing deepened my appreciation of them as figures of inspiration, warning, or moral teaching, despite the enormous historical (and epistemological) gap which separates them from readers like myself today.

4) It's good to be caught up in the overall drama of the OT again. I can remember as a child first hearing so many of these stories in Primary classes on Sunday, and finding them amazing, bizarre, exciting, frightening, and--most of all--important. Abraham taking his son Isaac to Mt. Moriah to be sacrificed, Rebekah fooling the aged and blind Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau, Joseph playing a trick on his brothers to test their repentance, the detailed construction of the Ark of the Covenant, Joshua's dangerous trip with the spies into Canaan, and more; the Old Testament is littered with these tales, all half-remembered and--when remembered and returned to through our approved Sunday school lessons--usually proof-texted to death. I'm sure I'm not alone in having found it harder and harder to take them seriously--whether historically or morally--as the years went by. The language of the King James Version is so deeply entwined with how we have come to understand Christianity that to be able to see these stories in all their audacity, pathos, horror, ambiguity, and majesty requires that one--or at least, required that I--find an entirely new set of lenses in order to view them. Through the REB and Alter's commentary I was able to do that. Abraham became again a canny and desperate man, dealing with an unpredictable divine power; the relationship between Joseph and his brothers became again one of real anger, genuine confusion and doubt, and sincere change; and Moses became again a towering, demanding, but also always self-doubting figure, the very archetype of one who is forever changed--greatly empowered, but also in some ways also shattered--by being in the presence of the eternal God. I finished the Pentateuch, and I truly felt that I'd read an epic, a series of tales and adventures and revelations woven together around the construction of a people that, in all its deep and captivating meaningfulness, could stand alongside the creations of Homer, Dante, or Tolkien. And that was a truly great feeling.

5) It's good to bring the OT into my faith life again. For decades, the New Testament has been my favorite collection of scripture--and honestly, I don't expect that to change. The stories of Jesus told by the canonical gospels, and the stories about His teachings told in the writings of Paul and others, are just too important to me. But reading--really reading--the OT over the past months has done something to my prayer life; made me more grateful for this enormous, often incomprehensible, regularly vicious, but never not beautiful world which I am part of, I think. Joseph Smith produced a revelation supposedly from Moses, in which he recognizes his own nothingness before God, and that scripture has played a major role in my own thinking over the years. But honestly, far beyond any declaration, the Five Books of Moses show Moses himself--as well as every other figure of significance in the Bible constantly being thrown back, reproved and altered and stunned, by a God whose omnipotence is revealed, as it were, sideways. It turns out, as the stories are repeated and rethought again and again by the whole host of Israel, that God just possibly already had plans in place for Lot even as Abraham was haggling with the Almighty for his life, or that God was maybe moving in Judah's life at the exact moment that he acquiesced to the selling of Joseph into Egypt. I don't take these stories literally as history, but I take them literally as stories, and stories about God is all we have--as if anyone us actually need (or could likely handle) anything other that! The overall epic of the OT, thus far anyway, has shown me a story of a God who was always already there, however it is that we may suddenly, unexpectedly, be able to see Him--and, perhaps paradoxically, that hasn't made more hesitant in my faith, but more confident. Really, I may have no idea what is going on, but the seemingly always unanticipated answer of these stories at the heart of the tradition is always that something is going on. And that something--so far--is good enough for me. As I continue in the new year into Joshua and Judges and beyond, I can only hope that conviction continues.

1 comment: said...

Thanks for this, Russell. I like your take on scripture.