Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Bible in a Year: Still Thinking about the Torah

I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

The Torah is such a rich section of the Bible. Although I finished Deuteronomy last week, here are a few more thoughts about the Torah, gleaned from some of my other blog sites.

The author of the "Judaism 101" site writes, "Each week in synagogue, we read (or, more accurately, chant, because it is sung) a passage from the Torah. This passage is referred to as a parshah. The first parshah, for example, is Parshat Bereishit, which covers from the beginning of Genesis to the story of Noah. There are 54 parshahs, one for each week of a leap year, so that in the course of a year, we read the entire Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) in our services. ... We read the last portion of the Torah right before a holiday called Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), which occurs in October, a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). On Simchat Torah, we read the last portion of the Torah, and proceed immediately to the first paragraph of Genesis, showing that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.

"In the synagogue service, the weekly parshah is followed by a passage from the prophets, which is referred to as a haftarah. Contrary to common misconception, 'haftarah' does not mean 'half-Torah.' The word comes from the Hebrew root Fei-Teit-Reish and means 'Concluding Portion'. Usually, haftarah portion is no longer than one chapter, and has some relation to the Torah portion of the week."

This is from http://www.jewfaq.org/readings.htm , which also has the list of weekly Torah and Haftarah readings. This site, https://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/ , also provides the daily and weekly readings for recent and upcoming years according to how Simchat Torah falls.

Remember that in Judaism, "the prophets" is not only Isaiah through Malachi, but also Joshua through II Kings, or the later and former prophets, respectively. The Ketuvim, or writings, have no formal cycle of readings, although the Five Megillot (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) are read on particular festivals, and Psalms are found throughout the Siddur (prayer book).

The Torah may be the most ambivalent portion of the Bible for Christians. Some Christians won’t touch the statutes with the proverbial long pole—unless, of course, some of the laws are suitable to prove a point, and the laws become God’s eternal word which other people have violated.

We Christians should remember a few things about the Torah. The first is that much of material was not originally meant to be applicable for us Gentiles (Acts 15, Gal. 3:3-5). These are laws for Jews to do God’s will and to set them apart as God’s people. The distinction you often hear—the moral laws are applicable for Christians but the ceremonial laws are not—is not a biblical distinction at all, because in the Torah, all of life—worship, legal translations, daily behavior, diet, and so on—are of a whole piece. In his love, God has given the Hebrews a precious expression of his will.  God shares this religious heritage with us Gentiles because of his love and this material is part of our religious heritage because of God’s favor (Rom. 11:17-24).(

In contrast to Paul's theology about the law in Romans and Galatians, Judaism has not historically viewed the law as a means of self-justification and self-salvation; the law has been God’s wonderful gift to follow. Paul, however, was adamant that the laws were unnecessary for Gentile converts to Christianity; even more than the moral law, he stressed the law of the guidance of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Now, we see the law through Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness and took the consequences of our law breaking onto himself (2 Cor. 5:21). But Paul upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), to show how Christ’s perfect (law-keeping) life is now a gift of life to us; thanks to Christ, the Torah is precious to us Gentiles, too.

Arguing thus, Paul stayed within the Torah and went back before Moses to Abraham to show how God’s favor touches people through their faith apart from the law (Rom. 4). (Jesus did a similar thing, going prior to Moses to God’s first intentions: Matt. 10:2-9). The question remains for Christians: how does the law still apply? A classic solution is to view the law in three ways: as a restraint to the wicked (the political use), as the law that brings us to Christ’s salvation (Gal. 3:24, the theological use), and then the “third use of the law,” which is to give content to the love of Christ which we display as we’re transformed by the Spirit (Gal. 6:2).

Furthermore, the Torah is foundational for Christians in other ways so obvious that we take them for granted. A Bible explorer will discover interesting “arcs” and connections between the Torah and the New Testament. One is the idea of the covenant, for now God has extended his covenant to include non-Jews (Rom. 3:29-30). Another is the idea of blood for atonement forgiveness of sins (Rom. 3:25). Christ’s blood was shed and now there is no longer need for sacrifice (Heb. 9:11-14).

Still another idea is the faithfulness and righteousness of God, a Torah theme strongly defended in Romans 3 in Paul’s preaching of Christ.

Here are a few additional connections:

The Creation and New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:1)
Adam and the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21)
The faith of Abraham, in some important ways the key to the whole Bible (Gen. 12:1-3, Rom. 4, Heb. 11:8-22)
The manna in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread (Ex. 16:1-21, John 6:25-40).
The covenant, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the Eucharist (Ex. 24:3-8; Lev. 7:12, 22:29, Ps. 107:22, 116:17, Amos 4:5, Mark 14:22-25 and parallels, 1 Cor. 11:25)
The healing serpent and the healing of Christ (Num. 21:8-9; John 3:14-15)
The condemnation in Deuteronomy of a condemned criminal “hanging on a tree” (Deut. 21:22-23; John 19:31, Gal. 3:13)
The salvation of Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)
The role of Moses (Heb. 3:1-6, 11:23-28)
Moses’ shining face (Ex. 34:29-35, 1 Cor. 3:12-18)
The drink offering (Ex. 29:38-41, Lev. 23:12, 13, 18, Phil. 2:12-18, 2 Tim. 4:6-8)
The priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-14, 9:1-10:18)(20)
The “rest” of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:7-4:13)
The Pascal Lamb (Ex. 12:11; 1 Cor. 5:7)
The two great commandments (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:28-34, Gal. 5:14).

Also: Deuteronomy's authorization of and limitations on role and authority (under the Torah) of the king, which in turn shapes the later prophetic theologies concerning the righteous Davidic king of Israel---which in turn shapes Christians' vision of Jesus. (I found an interesting article about the Deuteronomistic theology of the monarchy: http://www.academia.edu/218248/_The_Reconceptualization_of_Kingship_in_Deuteronomy_and_the_Deuteronomistic_Historys_Transformation_of_Torah_)


Back in 2015 (http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-pentateuch.html), I took notes from the enjoyable article on the Pentateuch in the New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary. The author, R. W. L. Moberly, discusses issues of interpretation and content. For instance, narrative tensions can be found throughout the various books. Isaac’s blessing of his two sons (Genesis 27) implies that Isaac was near death; but Isaac died years later, after Jacob returns from his fourteen years with Laban (Genesis 29:15-30, 35:27-29) (p. 432). The number of Israelites who left Egypt seem to be a comparatively smaller group---that can be accommodated by twelve springs and by water produced from a rock (Ex. 15:27, 17:6). But elsewhere the narrative describes the group as 600,000 men on food, not including women and children, or nearly two millions people (p. 433).

Another contrast is the status of women: Exodus 20:17 places “wife” after “house,” while the corresponding commandment in Deuteronomy (5:21) places wife before house. Similarly, Deuteronomy 22:22 makes a woman accountable for her actions, although in Genesis, when Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s harem (and later Abimelech’s), it is Abraham who is accountable (Genesis 12:18-19, 20:10) (p. 433).

Still another contrast is the difference between the Ten Commandments, usually in small details, but notably in the difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the Sabbath commandment, where two different reasons for the commandment are given (Ex. 20:11, Deut. 5;15) (p. 433).

The article lists several similar examples, reflecting the different traditions that have been brought together in the writing and editing of what became the canonical text. But I was particularly interested in points made in the section "Genesis as ‘the Old Testament of the Old Testament’" (p. 434-435). The focus is on the fact that, in Exodus 3:13-15, God reveals the divine name to Moses as a new name, and in Exodus 6:2-3, it is stated that the patriarchs knew God, not as YHWH but as El Shaddai. But in Genesis, God uses the divine name (Gen. 15:7, 28:13), and the name is frequently used throughout the book (p. 434).

A possible explanation is that, for the hypothesized writers named as the Elohist and the Priestly sources, the divine name was made known to Moses but not before, while the source called the Jahwist used the divine name all along, in Genesis 2, in Gen. 4:26, and so on. Still, these different traditions were preserved together when Genesis was written. (Another explanation is that the divine name was familiar to the authors and used in the text, even if it is anachronistic: p. 435.)

Moberly writes that the divine name becomes attached to the covenant of Moses and therefore to holiness and exclusivity (as in Exodus 12, where the Egyptians did not know the true God.) And yet, the Lord named by the divine name YHWH is traditionally called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob---Moses' forebearers. As Moberly puts it, “The one God can apparently be known in markedly different ways. This poses the ancient problem: how should one recognize as religiously authoritative material that is full of religious practices different from or even forbidden by Mosaic torah (compare, e.g., Jacob’s setting up a pillar in Gene. 28:18 with the strong prohbition of such in Deut. 16:22)?” (p. 435).

Moberly suggests that the patriarchs “become types and/or figures of Israel” for instance, Abraham’s journey to Egypt. The Abraham stories aren’t rewritten to reflect later religious realities but they remain authoritative heritage for Israel. Christians, of course, do the same thing in their interepretation of Abraham, Moses, and other aspects of the Old Testament (p 435).

Another interesting point made in the article concerns the Shema, not only Deut. 6:4-5 but also Deut. 6:6-9. Christians tend to ignore 6-9 as Jewish practices. Yet Christians feel scriptural obligations to follow other teachings of scripture (as in the "do this" of 1 Cor. 11:23-26, et al.). It’s just that Christians have appropriated other practices for their own heritage. "Of course, some Christians traditionally have practiced equivalent to those of Deut. 6:6-9, most obviously int he regular recital of the Lord's Prayer and in the display of the prime Christian symbol of the cross---often on a necklace but also over the gates of critics in the historic Christian empire of Byzantium, where they symbolically depicted the identity and allegiance of the place one was entering, just as Deut. 6:9 envisages the working of the Shema doing for Israel's homes (private space) and cities (public space). Deuteronomy does not envisage the recital and display of an equivalent to the Shema, but of the Shema itself. Yet Christians only receive Deuteronomy as part of the larger canon of Scripture… and that makes the difference" (p. 437).

I often fuss about Christians who declare that the Bible shouldn't be interpreted, only obeyed. It's such an uninformed if well-intentioned declaration about the Bible, a book with richness and contrasting viewpoints that reward ongoing study and interpretation. 

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