Thursday, 18 December 2008

Thoughts on the Hebrew Bible

For several years I've had a love-hate relationship with the Hebrew Bible. In my youth, I believed the 66 books of the protestant Bible to be the canon, the holy scriptures, the words of life. Later, I began to doubt the continuity between the Old and New Testaments (to use the Christian labels). The character of Yahweh and the character of Jesus seemed to be incommensurable, so the texts which support these two also have some measure of incommensurability.

To resolve this, for a while, I followed Pannenberg's lead and insisted that theology begin and end with Christ. Begin with Christ, move through the text in question using the starting point as interpretive locus, and then return to Christ to conclude. It seemed like a reasonable methodology. However, it's tantamount to taking a pair of scissors to the Hebrew texts and slicing out large sections. It reduces the Hebrew Bible to a Christian apocrypha: interesting to read and useful for exegesis or comparison, but not authoritative for the Christian. As with anything apocryphal, there can be overlap and supporting sentiment; a Christian message could be found in it, but the link is, for want of a better word, accidental.

Perhaps the way to read it is to return to the initial assessment and reinterpret it. The Hebrew Bible does contain the words of life, but life isn't always divine or good. Life has good and evil, respite and suffering; and there is no booming voice of authority from the sky (or the pulpit) to identify which event is which. A man hears a voice that tells him to sacrifice his son... such is Abraham. A woman gets close enough to a foreign invader to drive a tent peg through his skull... such is Jael. A man hears a voice to lie on his side for a year, cooking his food on a fire fueled by dung... such is Ezekiel. A king kills one of his officers in order to sleep with his widow... such is David. A song is sung about the joy of smashing babies against rocks... such is Psalm 137. Who is to say which is good and which is evil? They are prompts for contemplation, they are accounts of what happens in life, but they aren't categorical imperatives.

Does this help the Hebrew Bible at all? Not really. It remains apocryphal, as a wisdom tradition, as a politicised and theocratised history of an ancient culture. It makes for good reading and good contemplation, but no more than that.
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