Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What I Learned from the Old Testament

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Recently a friend of mine shared a story with several of us about how he, while on vacation and with some spare time on his hands, decided to re-read some parts of the Old Testament. His strongest impression of what he read, he said, was that these were the records of a people struggling to understand what it means to no longer be God's chosen people--or, if they were still chosen, why being chosen did not protect them from being defeated, occupied, and driven into exile, their temple desecrated and their community destroyed. He commended a reading of the Old Testament to us all, saying that it would remind us of the importance of humility, and endurance, and maintaining faith and hope even while our assumptions about the world all around us are being shattered.

(Please, no 2016 elections jokes. I've heard enough already. Besides, my friend is a Republican.)

It took me two and a half years, but about a month ago I finally completed my long trek through the entire Old Testament (the Revised English version, with an assist from a lot of commentaries by Robert Alter along the way), one chapter at a time. My thoughts on it all? Overall, I would say my friend's recommendation was correct, casual though it may have been. I would add, though, that the best way to draw out that homily--in my pedantic opinion anyway--isn't to take it from the apparent authorial intentions of the narrative itself (as if there was only one authorial intent or narrative line in the OT!), but rather to recognize that, to a very great extent, the marvelous, meticulous, convoluted, confusing, millennia-long literary product which is the Old Testament is itself an important source for our concepts of "humility," "endurance," "faith," and "hope" in the first place.

Not that other ancient literary sources didn't also help lay a deep foundation for the gradual emergence of a real moral subjectivity, whereby we human beings are simultaneously conscious of both our own pleadings outward and upward and of the condition of our own heart as the source of those pleadings. Truth is, this remarkable psychological and ethical evolution had many ancient parents. (Which is, itself, part of the reason why reading the Old Testament in light of critical scholarship on the myths of other ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern peoples is so valuable). But because the historical Jesus, and thus Christianity, came from Palestine and out of the Hebrew religious tradition, the Old Testament's liturgical and prophetic literary legacy was carried forward through all of Christian and Western and modern European civilization. So that means the legends of Adam, the pains of Abraham, the dilemmas of Moses, the boldness of Miriam, the mourning of Aaron, the triumphs of Deborah, the sins of David, the perversions of Ahab, the warnings of Isaiah, the strategies of Esther, the crankiness of the Preacher, the madness of Ezekiel, the machinations of Zerubbabel, the haplessness of Jonah, the cursings of Jeremiah--and more importantly, the belabored, overlapping, inconsistent, sometimes simply fragmentary but often nonetheless powerful translations which relate all of the above to us, in all their messy, haunted, one-step-forward-two-steps-back repetitiveness--have shaped the way Christians like myself morally conceive of the world. The very facticity of these records obliges us to reconsider our beliefs, and then reconsider again. Or as the finest scriptorian I have ever known, Jim Faulconer, often reminded his students: as believers, we ought to "read, read, read, work, pray, and reread." Doing that stretches our acts of faith out--and given the canon of the Old Testament, that stretching will be lengthy and humbling indeed.

In other words, it seems to me, having read the whole blessed, boring, remarkable, ridiculous thing, that having the Christian story of salvation and judgment be connected to the OT's monumental and contradictory literary burden--a burden which most Christians either proof-text to death or ignore entirely, as I did for so many years--can give those who believe in that redemptive story an awareness of carrying a great historical weight. The salvation of Jesus is presented in the New Testament terms of a sacrificial lamb, a priestly office, a purifying fire; centuries of literary echoes and arguments inform each of those theological imaginings, and when we strive (or are forced by the hardness of life) to see something beyond the simplistic, we find that our hopes in Him cannot be disentangled from those forms either. And that, I think, means we cannot help but turn in upon ourselves and ask just where we have placed this story of Jesus's grace in our hearts, and more importantly why. We are the sorts of modern Christian believers we are--or, at least, many of us are led to being the sort of humble, enduring, faithful, hopeful, believers we ought to be--in part because the Old Testament, the bare fact of the whole strange and awesome thing, with all its commandments and condemnations and curiosities, its insistently distancing and yet drawing presence, won't let us be otherwise.

Well, anyway, that's that. I'm not a scholar of the Old Testament as history or literature; I'm just a reader. I already accepted the basic assumptions of historical criticism in approaching the text, so realizing the ambiguity and unreliability of many of these tales didn't bother me any. Mine is a faith more based on community and continuity that history and authority, and the OT gave me plenty of the former, even while complicating even further the later, so as a reading of scripture it served me well. Your mileage may vary. Still, would I recommend it? Of course! I mean, the election is over, at least insofar as the Anglo-American blogosphere is concerned, so what better thing could you do with 2017 (and possibly 2018, and perhaps longer), than sit down and read, from beginning to end, hundreds of interwoven accounts of the world's creation, its promise being vouchsafed to a particular people, and their constant interrogation of, enjoyment of, abuse of, abandonment of, and attempted reclamation of, that gift? (There's a lesson in that, surely.)

Oh, and all right, you want a ranking? Top Ten list? Fine, here it is. I mean, if Mormon apostle Bruce R. "Job is for people who like the book of Job" McConkie can do this, so can I.

The Top Ten Books of the Old Testament:

1. Genesis
2. Job
3. Ecclesiastes
4. Exodus
5. 1 & 2 Samuel
6. Micah
7. Ezra-Nehemiah
8. Isaiah
9. Esther
10. The Psalms

Feel free to disagree with my listing in the comments (though you'll be wrong).

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