Lecture 3- The Theology of the Writings
The third and final segment of the Hebrew Bible is the segment called by Old Testament theologians the "Writings". This was the final segment of the Bible canonized by the Jews of the early Christian era. What is so very remarkable about this collection of texts is that they are quite different than the Law and the Prophets. The center of gravity remains God, as in the two earlier collections, but mankind is closer to the center of view. To put it another way, the focus of the law and the prophets is: mostly God and partly man. In the writings the focus is equally God and man. Thus, for example, God is found in the first and last sections of Job, but the center of the book is about man's struggle with seemingly senseless evil. Likewise the book of Proverbs discusses how mankind ought to live in human society. And, lastly, the book of Esther does not even mention God!
So, as we turn our attention to this segment of the Bible we are walking closer to earth than in the former two segments. But we will still have our eyes fixed on heaven, where God dwells in light unapproachable; as we approach him in the prayerbook of the Bible and our first object of discourse, the book of Psalms.
a) The Theology of Psalms
ASSIGNEMENT: Read the book of Psalms.
The Psalms are a collection of hymns and laments from various era's of Israelite history. There are a variety of hymns included in the book, which is really a hymnal for the post-exilic period. There are hymns, laments, royal psalms, hymns of praise and wisdom hymns.
The book is divided into several collections of hymns:
3-41, Psalms dedicated to David.
42-49, Psalms from the guild of Korah.
51-71, Psalms dedicated to David
73- 83, Psalms from the guild of Asaph
84- 89, Various psalms
90-107, Psalms with similar introductions
108-110, Psalms dedicated to David
119, A Torah Psalm
120-134, pilgrimage hymns
138- 145, Psalms dedicated to David.
The first two psalms are introductory to the whole collection, while the last four conclude the whole. Other psalms simply do not fit into the over-riding category and so have been left aside. It must be noted the the general understanding that when a text says something like "a Psalm of David", that the Hebrew text literally has "a psalm for David". Thus, the psalms are not so much from David as for him, as the patron of the Temple (much like a modern book is dedicated to a friend or family member).
Within the Psalms there are various notations. These notations and their meaning
"shir" - song
"mizmor" - song of remembrance
"tehilla" - song of praise
"tephilla" - prayer
"todah" - thanksgiving hymn
"maskil" - an artistic song
"selah" - refrain
The psalms spring from various periods of Israel's history, as has been stated above. So, for example, there are ancient Canaanite fragments incorporated in Ps 19:2-7:
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
And Psalm 29 is simply a Canaanite hymn adopted by the Hebrews:
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, "Glory!"
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
The royal psalms date, obviously, from the period of the Monarchy, while liturgical psalms such as 132 date from the same period. There are also texts which date from the exilic period, such as Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How could we sing the Lord's song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem's fall,
how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!"
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
For the majority of Psalms, however, it is simply impossible to tell when they were written. But to tell why they were written, that is, to describe their theology, is a very simple matter. The theological message of every Psalm is that God remains Lord in the good times and in the bad times of life. That is why there are psalms of praise and psalms of complaint. The psalms express the full range of human life; and they do so because God is involved in every aspect of human life. Thus, the theology found in the psalms is at the same time an anthropology. These psalms are about God and mankind.
ASSIGNMENT: Read Job, Proverbs, Daniel, Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes.
This segment of the Bible is both provocative and inspiring. It may seem odd to some that Daniel, Ruth, and Esther are included here. Yet Ruth is about a wise woman who unites herself to the Jews; Esther is about a wise Jew who protects her fellow Jews, and Daniel is a wise man who knows how to act in a foreign court. Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are wisdom literature because they speak about how one should live in the world.
Thus, the one thing that makes a work a wisdom work is that it describes how one who is wise should (and does) behave in the world. Wisdom literature arose out of the need to train young Israelites for government service. If one keeps this in mind one is well on the way to correctly interpreting these wisdom texts.
Wisdom is common in the Ancient Near East. There are numerous examples of wisdom in ancient documents from all of the societies around Israel. For this reason it is proper to say that Israel is like its neighbors in its desire to train people for right living. The Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians as well as the Egyptians all have collections of wisdom literature. All the peoples of the Ancient Near East strove to be wise.
The form of Wisdom literature is variegated. The Proverbs, for instance, are brief, pithy sayings. For example:
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid.
The good obtain favor from the Lord,
but those who devise evil he condemns.
No one finds security by wickedness,
but the root of the righteous will never be moved.
A good wife is the crown of her husband,
but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones.
The thoughts of the righteous are just;
the advice of the wicked is treacherous.
The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush,
but the speech of the upright delivers them.
The wicked are overthrown and are no more,
but the house of the righteous will stand.
One is commended for good sense,
but a perverse mind is despised.
Better to be despised and have a servant,
than to be self-important and lack food.
The righteous know the needs of their animals,
but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.
Those who till their land will have plenty of food,
but those who follow worthless pursuits have no sense.
The wicked covet the proceeds of wickedness,
but the root of the righteous bears fruit.
The evil are ensnared by the transgression of their lips,
but the righteous escape from trouble.
From the fruit of the mouth one is filled with good things,
and manual labor has its reward.
Fools think their own way is right,
but the wise listen to advice.
Fools show their anger at once,
but the prudent ignore an insult.
Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence,
but a false witness speaks deceitfully.
Rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil,
but those who counsel peace have joy.
No harm happens to the righteous,
but the wicked are filled with trouble.
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,
but those who act faithfully are his delight.
One who is clever conceals knowledge,
but the mind of a fool broadcasts folly.
The hand of the diligent will rule,
while the lazy will be put to forced labor.
Anxiety weighs down the human heart,
but a good word cheers it up.
The righteous gives good advice to friends,
but the way of the wicked leads astray.
The lazy do not roast their game,
but the diligent obtain precious wealth.
In the path of righteousness there is life,
in walking its path there is no death.
The Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. That is, reverence for God helps people put their priorities in order. When a person's life is in order, then God is the center of that life.
Wisdom helps people cope with reality. See, for example, Proverbs 14:
The wise woman builds her house,
but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.
Those who walk uprightly fear the Lord,
but one who is devious in conduct despises him.
The talk of fools is a rod for their backs,
but the lips of the wise preserve them.
Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
A faithful witness does not lie,
but a false witness breathes out lies.
A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain,
but knowledge is easy for one who understands.
Leave the presence of a fool,
for there you do not find words of knowledge.
It is the wisdom of the clever to understand where they go,
but the folly of fools misleads.
Fools mock at the guilt offering,
but the upright enjoy God's favor.
The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy.
The house of the wicked is destroyed,
but the tent of the upright flourishes.
There is a way that seems right to a person,
but its end is the way to death.
Even in laughter the heart is sad,
and the end of joy is grief.
The perverse get what their ways deserve,
and the good, what their deeds deserve.
The simple believe everything,
but the clever consider their steps.
The wise are cautious and turn away from evil,
but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.
One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly,
and the schemer is hated.
The simple are adorned with folly,
but the clever are crowned with knowledge.
The evil bow down before the good,
the wicked at the gates of the righteous.
The poor are disliked even by their neighbors,
but the rich have many friends.
Those who despise their neighbors are sinners,
but happy are those who are kind to the poor.
Do they not err that plan evil?
Those who plan good find loyalty and faithfulness.
In all toil there is profit,
but mere talk leads only to poverty.
The crown of the wise is their wisdom,
but folly is the garland of fools.
A truthful witness saves lives,
but one who utters lies is a betrayer.
In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence,
and one's children will have a refuge.
The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
so that one may avoid the snares of death.
The glory of a king is a multitude of people;
without people a prince is ruined.
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,
but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly.
A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh,
but passion makes the bones rot.
Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker,
but those who are kind to the needy honor him.
The wicked are overthrown by their evildoing,
but the righteous find a refuge in their integrity.
Wisdom is at home in the mind of one who has understanding,
but it is not known in the heart of fools.
Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people.
A servant who deals wisely has the king's favor,
but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.
Wisdom sometimes applied still does not yield the expected results. Two of the most famous examples of this are Job and Ecclesiastes. When one reads Job one reads the story of a man who did all the right things, but who nonetheless suffered. Cf. Job 3:
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said:
"Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said,
'A man-child is conceived.'
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night -- let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard in it.
Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning --
because it did not shut the doors of my mother's womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.
"Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck?
Now I would be lying down and quiet;
I would be asleep; then I would be at rest
with kings and counselors of the earth
who rebuild ruins for themselves,
or with princes who have gold,
who fill their houses with silver.
Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,
like an infant that never sees the light?
There the wicked cease from troubling,
and there the weary are at rest.
There the prisoners are at ease together;
they do not hear the voice of the taskmaster.
The small and the great are there,
and the slaves are free from their masters.
"Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death, but it does not come,
and dig for it more than for hidden treasures;
who rejoice exceedingly,
and are glad when they find the grave?
Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?
For my sighing comes like my bread,
and my groanings are poured out like water.
Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes."
What, then, is one to do when one does everything right, and yet life falls apart? Job complains, but God is not pleased by these complaints. Cf. Job 41:
"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in its nose,
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it make many supplications to you?
Will it speak soft words to you?
Will it make a covenant with you
to be taken as your servant forever?
Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on leash for your girls?
Will traders bargain over it?
Will they divide it up among the merchants?
Can you fill its skin with harpoons,
or its head with fishing spears?
Lay hands on it;
think of the battle; you will not do it again!
Any hope of capturing it will be disappointed;
were not even the gods overwhelmed at the sight of it?
No one is so fierce as to dare to stir it up.
Who can stand before it?
Who can confront it and be safe?
Under the whole heaven, who?
"I will not keep silence concerning its limbs,
or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame.
Who can strip off its outer garment?
Who can penetrate its double coat of mail?
Who can open the doors of its face?
There is terror all around its teeth.
Its back is made of shields in rows,
shut up closely as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can come between them.
They are joined one to another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
Its sneezes flash forth light,
and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
From its mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap out.
Out of its nostrils comes smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes out of its mouth.
In its neck abides strength,
and terror dances before it.
The folds of its flesh cling together;
it is firmly cast and immovable.
Its heart is as hard as stone,
as hard as the lower millstone.
When it raises itself up the gods are afraid;
at the crashing they are beside themselves.
Though the sword reaches it, it does not avail,
nor does the spear, the dart, or the javelin.
It counts iron as straw,
and bronze as rotten wood.
The arrow cannot make it flee;
slingstones, for it, are turned to chaff.
Clubs are counted as chaff;
it laughs at the rattle of javelins.
Its underparts are like sharp potsherds;
it spreads itself like a threshing sledge on the mire.
It makes the deep boil like a pot;
it makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
It leaves a shining wake behind it;
one would think the deep to be white-haired.
On earth it has no equal,
a creature without fear.
It surveys everything that is lofty;
it is king over all that are proud."
That is, God tells Job, "You don't know what you're talking about"! God does not explain why bad things happen to good people, he tells Job to stop acting like he knows everything! The book of Ecclesiastes follows this same line. Yet it concludes by maintaining that the truly wise person will seek God all his life. Look at Eccl. 12:
Remember your creator in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come,
and the years draw near when you will say, "I have no pleasure in them";
before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened
and the clouds return with the rain;
in the day when the guards of the house tremble,
and the strong men are bent,
and the women who grind cease working because they are few,
and those who look through the windows see dimly;
when the doors on the street are shut,
and the sound of the grinding is low,
and one rises up at the sound of a bird,
and all the daughters of song are brought low;
when one is afraid of heights,
and terrors are in the road;
the almond tree blossoms,
the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire fails;
because all must go to their eternal home,
and the mourners will go about the streets;
before the silver cord is snapped,
and the golden bowl is broken,
and the pitcher is broken at the fountain,
and the wheel broken at the cistern,
and the dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the breath returns to God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Yet the wise person is much better able to cope with the ups and downs of life than the fool. And why? Because the wise person places his life in God's hands while the fool takes the reigns into his own hands. In summary one can and should say that wisdom literature has as its goal the training of people in correct behavior in a world that is not always what it seems to be.
c) The Chronicler
ASSIGNMENT: Read 1-2 Chronicles, and Ezra and Nehemiah.
For many years it has been assumed that the author of 1-2 Chronicles was also the author of Ezra and Nehemiah. Scholars today are slowly moving away from that position (though I myself am not completely convinced that they are separate works). The evidence is almost equally weighted in either direction.
Nevertheless, against the stream of modern scholarship, I shall maintain that the author of Chronicles is also the author of Ezra and Nehemiah; and that this author is known as the "Chronicler".
The Chronicler used various sources to compile his rewriting of Israel's history. He used Ezra's memoirs, Nehemiah's memoirs, the Deuteronomistic theologians writings, and several other sources. It is what he does with these sources which demonstrate his theological purpose. As an example we shall examine two passages: one from the Deuteronomist and one from the Chronicler's reworking of this passage.
2 Sam 24:1, a Deuteronomic passage, says,
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go, count the people of Israel and Judah."
Clearly David is incited to number, or conduct a census, by the Lord. The Hebrew text says that "Yahweh" incited David to count Israel. Yet when we read this same story, as rewritten by the Chronicler, we have quite a different story!
1 Chronicles 21:1 says:
Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.
Yes, you read it correctly, Satan did it! How can it be that the same story, told by the Chronicler and the Deuteronomist, relates the facts so differently. In one it is Yahweh, and in the other it is Satan! Why the change?
Quite simply, during the exile Israel encountered Persian religion which taught that God was the source of good and his enemy Satan was the source of evil. This view infiltrated Israelite theology and so when the Chronicler wrote (around 400 BC) it was only reasonable to him that Satan was the source of temptation, and not God.
This Persian view survives to the present.
Thus the Chronicler makes Satan responsible for the horrors of the exile; and he also exalts the priests of Israel. That is why one reads endless passages about genealogy (important only to priests). That is also why the stories of David are all positive. One cannot read of David's sin with Bathsheba in Chronicles, because when the Chronicler wrote David was idealized. Why? Because David provided for the construction of the Temple!
Thus the Chronicler's work is more theological than historical. He is interested in reconstructed history and not history per se.
In summary, we must simply recognize that each portion, and indeed each book of the Old Testament is a theological gold mine. one must not, therefore, level the whole to one message or another. One must read the variety and understand that this variety arises because these theologians are addressing different concerns and different audiences.
What can one do? "Tolle, Lege" (take, read!). Take the Old Testament in hand and listen to what it says!
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