by Lance Hawley
The short answer to this opening question is “God.”
I was first moved to study the Old Testament by a scholar who exhibited a communion with God through the text. He was a poet and convicted me of the inexhaustible wealth of the Hebrew Scriptures. He showed me that it was more than just a series of books that talked about God, but it was a meeting place to come face to face with the Creator of the universe.
The purpose of Bible study is experiencing God and growing into his mission. This goes for scholarly and devotional reading alike. No matter our exegetical abilities, when we read the Bible we ought to concern ourselves with knowing God. Ideally, close readings, attention to detail, and scholarly inquiry only deepens our understanding. Certainly, God is beyond our comprehension, but we are not left without a clue. The more we study Scripture, the more opportunity we have for knowing the fullness of God.
I seek to know Scripture like I know an old hymn. I want to know the lyrics, the historical references, the metaphors, the poetic rhythms. But it is not just for study sake; I want to sing the song. As the great Zion song says, “I heard their song and strove to join.”
Admittedly, I sometimes find myself devoting vast amounts of time to the study of the minutia of Scripture that does not seem to have much to do with knowing God. I sometimes miss the forest (God) for the trees (particular texts), but the right corrective to this is not to ignore the trees. Even the minutia, properly framed, filters up to knowing God more fully. I will attempt to illustrate with a few examples.
Wrestling with God through text criticism
Text criticism gives us a window into ancient interpretation. Sometimes variants in the manuscripts are just scribal errors, but often variants reveal disagreements or shifts among interpreters. For example, Job 13:15a, is translated by the NRSV as “See, he will kill me; I have no hope,” but the ESV has “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” The reason for the difference is a textual variant: the Hebrew word here is lō’ meaning “not,” but another ancient tradition reads lô meaning “to him.” The two Hebrew words sound identical. So does Job say that he does not have hope or does Job say that he will still hope in him? I think that it is fairly clear that the NRSV is more in tune with the book of Job and the variant “in him” is a later effort to make Job seem less despairing. But back to our question, what does this variant have to do with knowing God? Simply put, we cannot make the big points without observing the details. In this case, we get an insight into how our ancestors in faith heard and wrestled with the character of Job. Job is a book about the human experience of suffering and how one relates to God in the midst of suffering. This small little word matters to the portrayal of despair. In my experience, it contributes to my own wrestling with God as I observe injustices and resolve to speak to God without restraint. So the text critical question filters up to wrestling with God when the realities of injustice hit home. One can certainly wrestle with God without knowing Hebrew or this text critical issue, but the closer we look the more we bring to the table.
The awe and wonder of wordplay
I love wordplay and a good poetic turn of phrase. For example, in Isaiah 5:7, a parabolic song about a failed vineyard concludes with God expecting mishpat (justice), but getting mishpaḥ (violence), expecting ṣedaqah (righteousness) but getting ṣe‘aqah (an outcry). This pair of wordplay is obvious in the Hebrew and contributes to the richness of the poem. What I love about close study of the Old Testament is that it slows me down and draws my attention the creative detail of Scripture. God is a poet. The better we understand His poems, the fuller our communion with Him.
I do not study the Old Testament to prove or disprove its history or to contradict science. In my experience, these are unfruitful and misguided pursuits for the most part. Additionally, my primary reason for studying the OT is not to establish doctrine. Doctrine is important, no doubt, and the Old Testament certainly espouses doctrines, but these are typically secondary gleanings from the primary story of God among His people.
I study the Old Testament to learn from Israel’s witness to the character and actions of God, so that I might more fully understand the wonders of God’s work in the present. I want to sing the song of the Old Testament, which not only requires me to learn the lyrics and the tune, but also to join the chorus. The text hymns its King in strains divine. I hear the song and strive to join.
Lance Hawley is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament and biblical Hebrew at Harding School of Theology in Memphis. His research focuses on the book of Job and Hebrew poetry. He also has a major interest in biblical law and biblical canon as essential topics of study for followers of Jesus. Before joining the HST faculty, Lance served as a church planter in Madison, WI for ten years. He has a passion for the spiritual formation of missional communities. Lance and his wife, Laura, have three children.
The Issue: How a person looks on the outside determines his or her value and worth and how we treat them.
We have our criteria, what makes a person look trustworthy and attractive. We also have our list of features and/or attire that diminishes trust and attractiveness. Let’s just think through a few things that we use to determine the worth of a person:
What would you add to the list, I’m sure there is more to consider but I want to close with a thought from the Old Testament story of the selection of King David. God has this great line in the story, see if you can find it!
1 Samuel 16: 6 When they arrived, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed!” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 8 Then Jesse told his son Abinadab to step forward and walk in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “This is not the one the Lord has chosen.” 9 Next Jesse summoned Shimea, but Samuel said, “Neither is this the one the Lord has chosen.” 10 In the same way all seven of Jesse’s sons were presented to Samuel. But Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Then Samuel asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse replied. “But he’s out in the fields watching the sheep and goats.” “Send for him at once,” Samuel said. “We will not sit down to eat until he arrives.” 12 So Jesse sent for him. He was dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes. And the Lord said, “This is the one; anoint him.” 13 So as David stood there among his brothers, Samuel took the flask of olive oil he had brought and anointed David with the oil. And the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David from that day on. Then Samuel returned to Ramah.
I wonder what might be our approach to folks, if we could look past the outward appearance and see the heart. Maybe broken…Maybe mended…Perhaps pure…Perhaps not so pure. It is interesting to me that God chose and man described as dark, handsome, with beautiful eyes…but it was David’s heart that God really selected. When we learn to look past appearance, it is the heart that allows us to “humanize” each other and truly say, “I select you,” in a conversation, a look, or a relationship. Let’s re-humanize the world!
I start this new year with a recognition of all those who have read this blog, seen the errors in grammar and spelling and kept reading anyway. Those who have received some sort of blessing and/or challenge from its reflections are both friends and those I have never met. Looking back over the last two years, I have shared over 140 pages of thoughts, quotations, devotions, and most importantly Scripture with you. This year will be no different, and I will try to commit myself to two posts a week; the first will be on Tuesday or Wednesday and the second will be on Thursday or Friday. This provides me with structure and discipline, but there will be times that once a week will probably be more doable! (Just FYI)
So, to start the year I want to sing a praise to God and join in all of creation (and outer space because I have been watching the Star Wars movies with my kids) in honor and glory to God. There are some days I need to read about and think about a God who is close to me and knows my needs. A God who sits in my mess and guides me through my daily walk is intimate and understanding. There are other days, like today, where a passage reminding me that God is above and beyond me, my situation, and the stuff in our lives is exactly what I need. A God who doesn't get bogged down in our thoughts and in our actions, but one who rises above to continue His purposes is strong and determined. Because God reigns and is far above the messes that we humans make is why we can honor, glorify, and worship this God. It is what gives God holiness and makes him “other.” And so we join with Psalm 29, a song of David, in praise to the God who deserves honor, speaks in the thunder but rises above the storm, and the one we worship in the “splendor of his holiness”
1 Honor the Lord, you heavenly beings;
honor the Lord for his glory and strength.
2 Honor the Lord for the glory of his name.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
3 The voice of the Lord echoes above the sea.
The God of glory thunders.
The Lord thunders over the mighty sea.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is majestic.
5 The voice of the Lord splits the mighty cedars;
the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon’s mountains skip like a calf;
he makes Mount Hermon leap like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord strikes
with bolts of lightning.
8 The voice of the Lord makes the barren wilderness quake;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks
and strips the forests bare.
In his Temple everyone shouts, “Glory!”
10 The Lord rules over the floodwaters.
The Lord reigns as king forever.
11 The Lord gives his people strength.
The Lord blesses them with peace.
As we start 2018, with whatever it has already handed you, I think the last two verses will carry us and encourage us.
The Lord rules
The Lord reigns
The Lord gives his people
The Lord blesses them
Be still…settle the soul and quiet the mind…hear the worship of creation and live in the assurance of God’s position beyond our struggles and above our flaws! That is why God deserves our worship, and it is why we can come to him with our needs.
For our faith ancestors, Psalm 126 was traditionally known as a “Psalm of Ascent,” which meant that it was sung by travelers as they made their way to the Temple. Of particular interest is the understanding that this is not a Psalm of David, but one that was probably written during the return to Jerusalem around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. However, one caution would be to hinder the usefulness of the Psalm by tying it too tightly to its historical circumstances. While historical context is enlightening, God’s people are always in need of salvation and the Lord’s strength to restore us from our chaos and terrible choices.
126:1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
A Note about the Streams of Negeb (or Negev in the NIV) - These streams are well-known for being dry and being dry often. However, these stream beds can suddenly be rushing floods when the seasonal rains arrive. So, we can see the imagery here of a lack of hope suddenly turning into the arrival of life-giving deliverance.
The point of this Psalm is that we as God’s people live by both memory and hope. During this Christmas time, we remember the story of Jesus’ birth and what his coming means for us. We reflect on the cross and the resurrection as we take the Lord’s Supper. We hear the teachings of Jesus proclaimed and lived out as we interpret the Scriptures. We try to become like him as we live in the community of the church. And yet, through the tears, sorrow, and hard times—we hope. We hope that Christ is coming again, and our memory of what Jesus has done compels our belief in what He will do! Like the memory of Jesus burst on the scene unexpectedly and without warning, so we prepare ourselves for the hope of Jesus’ coming that will complete all things. Within these boundaries, we are a glad and joyful people!
This is the time of year we hear much about “good news” and “glad tidings.” We sing about comfort and joy, and we think about hope and peace and joy again! And I want to give my affirmation that these words, and the ideas they stand for, are at that the heart of the Christmas season. I also want to ask a series of questions, like:
Listen to the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61:
1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion--
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
If we listen carefully to the words of the prophet, we know that Jesus himself reads from this very passage as he begins his ministry in Luke 4. I also hear some of the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 and ideas echoed in the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1. Let’s reflect on a few more verses of Isaiah 61:
8 For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations.
So, let’s reflect and briefly answer the questions above:
Who was the target of the good news proclaimed by the prophets and Gospel writers?
The good news is for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, and the mourning -- good news that includes "the day of vengeance of our God." Why is that mentioned? None of these folks would get much good news in the ancient social order unless that order was destroyed and replaced with a new Kingdom. When that order was destroyed, rebuilding God's "ancient ruins" could begin (vs. 4). In the meantime, the prophet rejoices, clothed in the hope this good news brings (vs. 8-11).
Who would have seen this news as not-so-good-news?
It seems fair to notice that those who were considered oppressors, captors, and those loving the life of the world would see the good news as not so good news. When the prophet claims that God “hates robbery and wrong,” I hear more than those who are labeled as thieves, but those whose greed moves them to take more than they need and those whose power allows them to exploit others for their own benefit. If the Lord comforts those who mourn, then we might flip the statement to suggest that God also evokes mourning for those who are comfortable.
Who might have categorized this news as “fake news?”
Well, this isn’t hard to speculate because in the Gospel stories the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees seem to think Jesus is fake and the stories regarding his power and ministry are also false. I think it is safe to say that those who have the most to lose in accepting any “news” are the quickest to label it and try to prove it “fake.” Herod sure doesn’t like the notion that there is another leader and King in town. So much so that he kills John the Baptist, the one who proclaim’s Christ’s coming.
Do I really think that the good news is actually good news?
I think this is the real question…because to answer it I have to admit that I am quite comfortable in my life. I have to admit that my bank account is ok and that I have everything I need—plus some. My belly is full and my wants are vast. Can I truly follow a King who is the leader of the oppressed and depressed, the anxious and the addict? Can I trust in a God who loves justice so much that it confronts my life and calls me to question the ways of my culture, government, and my own mind and will? Do I want to live as an example of the contemporary “American Dream,” or do I want to be an oak of righteousness that brings glory to God? Is there a scenario where I can even try to accomplish both or are these two lifestyles diametrically opposed to one another?
O Lord, help me join the prophet who proclaimed…”I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…” Our life in the Spirit of God makes the good news actually good news!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.