Monday, September 30, 2013

I Just Finished Reading the Hebrew Bible

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible.

John Martin, "The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah." It's going to be that kind of post.

And blood
exploding fire
wailing blood
and bleeding
—"Dread Beat and Blood," Linton Kwesi Johnson

This week, I finished reading the Hebrew Bible (AKA The Old Testament—I will stick with the "Hebrew Bible" here and abbreviate it "HB" when I feel like it). And I'm here to tell you why it was scary, weird, surprising, and delightful. In that order.


You've probably heard this before; (heck, I've already mentioned it in the course of this project), but the God of the Hebrew Bible is often portrayed as a violent, seemingly capricious entity. I discovered, though, that there's another layer of scary unpleasantness in the HB, and that comes out of the incredible bitterness and anger that the Biblical authors felt in reaction to the destruction of their country.

There's a fair amount of material generated because of these feelings. Some of it is (in)famous, like the notorious baby-smashing impulse expressed by the Psalmist in Psalm 137, a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

But sometimes this material is the stuff of entire books, and obscure books at that. Obadiah, for example, is one long tirade against the nation of Edom for how they responded when Jerusalen was sacked (basically, they were total dicks about it). It's only a couple pages long, but they're a couple pages of condemnation and divine threats to a whole country of people. Nahum is a book entirely about gloating over the destruction of Nineveh, the capital Israel and Judah's longtime frenemy Assyria. To be fair, the Assyrians were also kind of a bunch of dicks—among other things, they destroyed Israel and took her people away into exile—but Nahum is just page after page of creepy happiness over the death and destruction of an enemy. Which was scary to find in my Bible.

The way I've been processing this strain of scary in the HB* has been to chalk it up to basic, human emotion. I'm sure if someone destroyed the place where I lived and took a bunch of people away, I'd be pretty irate too. I don't know if I'd be baby-smashing irate, but still. It's been easier to figure this stuff out than the whole violent, capricious God thing. On that score, I'm still befuddled and still sympathize more than I probably should with Marcion.


The Hebrew Bible is a product of an ancient and incredibly foreign culture. This isn't always obvious, because we can read it in our own language and because it's a familiar and even foundational document in our culture. But there are moments when the reader gets jarred out of a sense of familiarity by the appearance of totally alien cultural norms and activities in the Bible. My favorite of these is the symbolic prophetic act.

Raphael, "The Prophets Hosea and Jonah"
Many of the prophets felt called by God to deliver unpopular messages to God's people. And sometimes, they used symbolic, public actions to help them. In our culture, such symbolic acts might take the form of, say, chaining yourself to the White House's front gate, or speaking for 21 hours straight on the Senate floor. In a Biblical setting, things can get a lot weirder than that:
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”  So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. (Hosea 1:2-3, NRSV)
That's right, ladies and gentlemen: Hosea's symbolic act was literally marrying a prostitute. Which is insane.

More awesomely weird is my personal favorite symbolic prophetic act, from Jeremiah:
Thus said the Lord to me, “Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.” So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, “Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.” So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, “Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.” Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 13:1-8, NRSV)
Jeremiah's symbolic act involves—yes, it's true!—his dirty, filthy underwear. It's a metaphor, sure, but it's a weird metaphor.

There's plenty of even weirder and crazier stuff in the HB; I won't tell you all about it here for the sake of space, but I just want to point out that the beginning of Ezekiel sounds suspiciously like a UFO sighting and that—and I cannot emphasize this enough—there are talking horses in Zechariah, in addition to a huge flying scroll and a woman sitting in a giant basket for no obvious reason. The Hebrew Bible is weird.


There are some real surprises and even delights in reading the Hebrew Bible, though. My biggest surprise came when reading the book of Amos; God shows Amos a vision of some fruit, which seems innocent enough, and then things take a sudden bewildering turn:
This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

Then the Lord said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!” (Amos 8:1-3, NRSV)
I found this so jarring that I laughed aloud when I read it. "Hey, God," I thought, "it's just fruit. No need to get so worked up."

The Prophet Amos in a Russian Orthodox Icon
Turns out, there's a pun here: the words for "summer fruit" and "end" sound very similar, and God uses the odd vision of the summer fruit to introduce the idea that follows. Most folks are unaware that puns are a feature of the Hebrew Bible, but they are. It's rarely more obvious than this jarring passage, which simply does not work as a piece of coherent writing unless you know there's a pun. Most of the time, wordplay passes completely unremarked upon in English translations, because it's not central to a clear understanding of the text.

Nevertheless, puns and other wordplay are common tools for the Biblical authors, used for making meaningful connections between passages, carrying ideas forward, and even creating humor. It's too bad modern readers, myself included, are typically not in on the joke.


The truly great joy for me, of course, has been in discovering the connections between obscure parts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament passages that I know well. It's a pleasure to watch the Biblical authors borrow from and build on each other.

Rafael, "The Prophet Isaiah"
I discovered, for example, that a line I'm used to seeing in hymns is actually not only Biblical but has a more involved history than I might have imagined. Paul uses an image in talking about spreading the gospel, "how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news," which he appears to have borrowed from Isaiah, who was talking about the hope of Israel being delivered from her enemies. Isaiah, in turn, borrowed it from Nahum, who was talking about how totally rad it was that Judah wasn't going to have to deal with Assyria anymore. Isn't intertextuality fun?

The Hebrew Bible, for all its flaws, was the Bible of Jesus, so it's been worth examining as a Christian to gain insight into his thoughts and what he said and did. In the course of my study of the HB, for example, I read a great essay on Ezekiel and how it relates to the New Testament. I'd never heard of most of the connections between Ezekiel and the NT before, and it was fascinating to me.


Knowing and understanding the Hebrew Bible is essential for Christians, I think. Without its foundational stories, the New Testament can't happen. Without its prophetic messages, the dramatic foreshadowing of the New Testament isn't there. And without its poetic images, the vividness and deep meaning in the New Testament is sucked dry.

While many Christians, myself included, would be more comfortable ignoring the ugliness here in the Hebrew Bible, it is vital to the truth and wholeness of our faith that we find ways to acknowledge and set aside this ugliness and instead learn to seek out the beauty and the truth in it.

*This kind of scary stuff is mostly in the poetic books. The historical books of the Bible, which are clustered in the first third of the Christian Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible has a different order), generally deal with the pain of the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile by looking for reasons that they might have happened. The typical answer is simply "idolatry."

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