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We sent out an email to our Friends asking one short and profound question: What is your biggest challenge with using the Old Testament for preaching, teaching, and creative work?
Thank-you for all your thoughtful answers! If you didn’t receive the question in your email, sign up on the left side of this page and we will keep you updated.
HERE IS A LINK TO OUR FIRST PODCAST– about 10 minutes- SUMMARIZING YOUR ANSWERS WITH BRIEF COMMENTS FROM JOHN.
If you think of further comments on this subject, please email us. We are pondering ways to refresh the reading of the Scriptures, particularly the First Testament as John calls it so watch for updates from us over the next few months.
Somebody asked this on our website:
Have you written something that specifically deals with the difficulty in 2 Samuel 12:11 where in looks like God is going to push people to commit adultery and murder within David’s house?
I don’t think I have!
I guess if I were Paul, I would answer the same way that Paul does in connection with a similar remark that he makes. In Romans 9 he refers to God’s saying that he raised up Pharaoh to show his power in him, by defeating him. He was “a vessel of wrath.”
So when Pharaoh refused to hold onto the Israelites, it wasn’t just because he wanted to. It was also because God didn’t want him to. God has mercy on whomever he wills, says Paul, and he hardens whomever he wills. He’s God, so shut up.
And in the end, we have to shut up, on the basis of the fact that he is not only more powerful than us, but also more caring and faithful to the world, and anything unfair-looking that he does must be in the service of some fair and loving purpose.
But the story in Exodus, and the story in 2 Samuel, suggests that there is more than can be said. Suppose you asked Pharaoh or Absalom, why did you do what you did? Did your own action seem mysterious to you? Were you being manipulated? To judge from the way the story unfolds, they would have been able to give you an entirely logical account of their action. They made their decisions, and those decisions were quite rational.
Isaiah speaks similarly about God “raising up” the Assyrians (it’s the same expression) to invade Judah. The Assyrians will invade Judah because they want to extend their empire and get control of the trade routes. But unbeknown to them, God is using their self-centered policies to achieve his purpose when he needs to punish Judah.
Maybe we think God shouldn’t use people’s self-centered stupidity to achieve his purpose. The Bible implies that God works with what’s there, or what we give him to work with, and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty in this way.
I’ve never seen so many walking frames at a rock concert, but it was Joan Baez’s seventy-fifth birthday tour. Kathleen was surprised to see that Baez had white hair; she also had a t-shirt saying “Nasty Woman.” It was not the only Trump allusion, in the week before the election, but Bob Dylan received more references, and got one of Baez’s trademark Dylan imitations when she sang “Don’t Think Twice.”
I don’t remember another concert where the artist got a standing ovation just for coming on stage, but I guess the audience were also applauding themselves and the fact they were still alive. She started with Dylan, with “Love is Just a Four-letter Word,” but the set list was by no means just a rehearsal of old hits. It was rather a neat and impressive mixture of the sixties and the more recent. I guess the oldest song (apart from the “traditional” ones such as “House of the Rising Sun”) was Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” about the Mexican agricultural workers who were the victims of a plane crash in 1948. The NY Times didn’t give their names, only the names of the American crew. “They were just deportees.” Nothing much changes.
You have to have a list of the people you want to see before they die. I was in time for Ray Charles, B. B. King, Etta James, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and the Beatles, but in a classical music concert I once sat next to a woman who had seen Ella Fitzgerald in that very auditorium, 300 yards from our house. My jaw dropped in jealousy. But I got the same reaction when I told a student I had seen Ella’s ex, the great bass player Ray Brown.
John Lee Hooker and Milt Jackson both died just before I was about to see them, and I missed Chet Baker, and Lonnie Donegan, Dusty Springfield, and Johnny Cash.
I’ve covered Dylan (also now 75), Leonard Cohen (82), Chuck Berry (90), Chris Barber (86), Bonnie Raitt (67), Van Morrison (71), Simon and Garfunkel (75 each), Willie Nelson (83), Emmylou Harris (69), the Stones (about 350 altogether), U2 (about 200), and Brian Wilson (born the same day as me). I’m watching out for Jerry Lee Lewis (81) and Tina Turner (76), just in case.
I’ve been thinking about Jonah. If you want to understand Jonah, think of it as a short story. A short story can be read in an hour but remembered for a lifetime—which certainly fits Jonah. Study of Jonah has been skewed because discussion of it as a story has commonly focused on whether it is historical or fictional/parabolic. But God likes both history and parable, as the Gospels show, and Jonah is inspired and authoritative either way. Telling the difference is actually really hard. I do think that the prominence of irony and humor and hyperbole suggests that the Jonah scroll is an imaginative short story. But fortunately it’s not important whether Jonah is history or parable. The insight, importance, truthfulness, and reliability of Jonah are the same either way.
If one asks what message the author of the Jonah story was intending to convey, there are many possible answers. The problem of deciding which of these understandings might be right attaches to the Jonah scroll in a distinctive way because of its distinctive nature, as a short story. The nature of a story is not to tell you what you are supposed to get from it.
The observation has been applied to the book of Jonah that understanding what a great man is saying is made easier if you know what he was opposing. And we don’t know what the answer is. Accepting the usual critical view that it was composed in Judah in the Persian period doesn’t help, because widely divergent understandings of its background and aim have been held within that framework. The narrator of the story doesn’t articulate its implications. The story is content to raise questions and not answer them. It works on us by making us think. Its closing with a question symbolizes its approach.
Leaving interpretation to the people listening to the story leaves them free to bring ideas or assumptions or questions from outside it and see how it illumines them. For instance, people may read the scroll on the assumption that Jonah stands for Israel as a people, or that he stands for the individual Judahite, or that he is a type of Christ.
Within the scroll itself, there are three key themes. First, the story is about God’s relationship with a great and violent city. God is prepared to act against it for its waywardness but glad to remit its punishment if it turns from its waywardness. (It’s often been said that the message of Jonah is that Israel should be more open to other peoples, but there’s no reason to think that the average Israelite was more xenophobic than the average Christian, or that the average Prophet would object to the idea of Nineveh repenting and finding Yahweh’s forgiveness. One has to be wary of anti-Judaic inclinations finding expression in this understanding.)
The story is about the sort of person God is. He’s insistent on his moral authority but also characterized by grace and compassion, and he’s capable of being flexible about his intentions in interaction with nations over which he is sovereign. The story portrays Yahweh’s manifold involvement with nature (the storm, the fish, the animals, the plant, the worm, the wind, the sun. The theodicy question presupposed by Jonah is “Are God’s compassionate actions just?” Jonah’s problem is that Yahweh doesn’t fulfill his declarations of judgment on the great oppressor (Assyria, Babylon, Persia). The people of God have to hold onto the reality of both God’s judgment and God’s compassion, and both God’s sovereignty and God’s flexibility.
The story is about the kind of person a prophet can be. Prophets can be resistant to their vocation yet also willing to do what God says; they can be quite conflicted people; they can be simultaneously knowledgeable and slow on the uptake. Prophets need not to take themselves too seriously, and people in general need not to take them too seriously.
There’s a new movie about Chet Baker which is on our Netflix list, but somehow I also put there the old documentary about him, Let’s Get Lost. So we watched it thinking it would be the new movie with Ethan Hawke as Chet and found it was the old movie with Chet as Chet (apparently the new movie is a movie about the making of that old movie…).
It started with scenes in clubs in Los Angeles in the 1950s and reminiscences about those clubs from the era of the West Coast Sound, where Chet played in little store front establishments with people such as Dizzy Gillespie, before he became the victim of his drug habit, and aged and waned before our eyes.
Old jazz guys in Los Angeles bemoan the fact that the jazz and club scene isn’t what it once was, and when they do that, I roll my eyes, but the documentary enabled me to see what they mean. They complain regularly about the places that have closed down, and I can make a list from the time I’ve been here. The third night after we moved to Pasadena, we went to the Pasadena Baked Potato (yes, that’s what they serve) and I noted there weren’t many people there; the next day it closed. We used to go to the Hollywood Baked Potato; it closed. We went to Charlie O’s, and one evening found it was closing that very night (the singer for the evening was pretty bewildered, too). The Pasadena Jazz Institute lost the plot and closed down. The Vic in Santa Monica just closed. While sometimes the places lose clientele, as often as not it’s because the owner gets bored.
I am as struck by the new places that open. On Monday we were at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo (don’t ask me why it’s there), in a street called after Ellison Onizuka, the Japanese American astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Vocalist Jessica Vautor was celebrating her birthday and her CD with the most original and creative arrangements of standards by Vardan Ovsepian on piano and extraordinary jazz cello playing by Artyom Manukyan (there were non-Armenians in the band as well). That was only Monday. Tuesday there was the New Breed Brass Band from New Orleans doing a free outdoor concert, and on Thursday Sara Gazarek and the New West Guitar Group doing another free outdoor concert, and on Friday Asian American Connie Han’s lively piano trio at Red White and Bluezz. Don’t listen too much to the old jazz guys.
I’ve just finished translating the Old Testament. “Excuse me?” you ask. Well, about eight years ago Philip Law (then of Westminster John Knox) invited me to write a series of commentaries called “The Old Testament for Everyone.” When I was nearly done (the last ones will come out this year) he asked if we could bring together the translation elements in each volume and produce the complete translation on its own. It would also mean my translating the remaining twenty per cent that wasn’t included in the commentaries.
It didn’t seem a big task, but it took much longer than I thought. The bits I had omitted were often the difficult bits. But also I hadn’t needed to worry about consistency when I was working book by book. When the translation was in one volume, there needed to be consistency. So I’ve spent several hours almost every day over the past year or so just working through the translation of the Old Testament again with nothing much on my desk but the Hebrew text and a dictionary.
It’s been an extraordinary experience. The depth and the wonder of the words I have been reading have come home to me more and more. I’ve sat there marveling that I’m privileged to let this sacred text soak into me. I’ve felt more and more that I have been on hallowed ground. Yes, they are holy scriptures. Of course it’s because they’re all about God. So simply reading them for hours every day has made we wonder at the God whose activity lies behind them and who is the most prominent character in them.
(Until it’s published next year, the translation is on my website, under the tabs for different parts of the Old Testament. There’s also a paper about translation which includes some reflections, under the “Interpretation” tab.)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of heaven” (Matt 5:3).
Who are the poor in spirit to whom the reign of heaven belongs?
Here as elsewhere Jesus is picking up the language of Isaiah 61. There, they are the people to whom Isaiah 61 declared good news of freedom, vindication, and restoration. Isaiah 61 was an important passage for Jesus; he quotes in his sermon at Nazareth. Luke includes that story at an equivalent place in his Gospel to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus echoes it in describing his ministry to John the Baptizer (Matt 11:2-6). The poor in spirit are people who are neglected, ignored, put down, insignificant, and powerless. They will no doubt thus be materially needy, but also oppressed and depressed.
It’s impossible for someone like me or for most readers of this blog to be poor in spirit. That’s not something to feel guilty about, though. Arguably it’s something to thank God for. But it’s also something to be wary of. The poor in spirit are the people to whom the reign of heaven naturally belongs. People like us are the rich for whom it’s hard to enter to the reign of heaven (Matt 19:23-24). Fortunately it’s not impossible to get in (Matt 19:25-26).
We can redefine “poor in spirit” so it applies to us. But do we then take the description away from the people to whom it belongs? That might well mean we can’t get in.
Here’s the big idea in this connection for me.
Isaiah 40—55 works in linear fashion and it simply declares that God’s purpose is about to be fulfilled. Isaiah 56—66 works chiastically: it goes round in circles. It is set the other side of the events that Isaiah 40—55 heralded and it knows that they had not brought the consummation of God’s purpose.
Isaiah 56—66 is prophecy for a time when nothing is happening, when all a prophet can do is reaffirm God’s promises and reaffirm God’s expectations and model the kind of prayer one prays in such a situation and equip the people of God for the long haul.
The importance of its message has come home to me in our own context. Isaiah 1—39 promised the coming of a reign of peace and justice, and Isaiah 40—55 promised the consummation of God’s purpose, and the New Testament declares that in Jesus God has fulfilled those promises.
Seven hundred years passed from the time of Isaiah ben Amoz to the coming of Jesus. Three times as many years have passed since the coming of Jesus, and (as 2 Peter 3:4 puts it) things continue as they were from the beginning of creation. While a countless host all over the world has come into a relationship with God since Jesus’ coming, and they will be the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, here in this world Jesus’ coming has made little difference. As Jesus put it, wars and rumors of wars continue. Slavery on a vast scale continues. Poverty on a vast scale continues.
Isaiah 56—66 was designed for a time like our time. It reminds us to hold onto God’s promises, to re-commit ourselves to God’s expectations, and not to give up on prayer like that of the woman in Jesus’ parable who is making trouble with the unjust judge.
Every day John and I say set prayers out loud together from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. A good reason for doing this, as opposed to free-forming our own prayers, is because we forget God’s love and God’s instructions. Set prayer from God’s Word reminds us what God promises and what God asks. Next, this discipline is servant behavior and helps us ‘take on the mind of Jesus.’ (Phil 2:5). And the third reason is – God hears us.
The scriptures overflow with examples of people crying out. The slaves in Egypt cried out. Noah cried out. Hannah cried out. Job cried out. Apostles cried out. And God heard them and God answered them.
John points out that when we read set prayers, we are adding our voice to the voice of many others who are offering the same prayers all over the world, crying out together. This puts our lives into the context of the wider church and reminds us that we are part of the overarching bigger story; we are a part of God’s life.
God hears us and remembers us as God’s beloved people.
The people who cried out in the Bible were not always answered in the way they expected or had asked for. But they were heard. This fact is reinforced for me when I know I am praying the same words they said; this doesn’t happen when I am making up my own prayers.
But will we hear God?
We are sometimes prone to identifying culturally dictated impulses or personal rationalizations as something “God said to me.” Through the set prayers, especially those taken directly from Scripture, I come to know what God has promised and what God’s “voice” sounds like. I am less prone to put my own words into God’s mouth. And many times the answer I need is right there in the prayers.
In Conclusion: Set prayers provide a frame you can depend on.
It may seem that praying set words is shallow or doesn’t take enough creative effort or is too simple. However, when I am focused on the tasks of the day, or trying to sort out my relationships, I can easily forget what is important.
Here is a sampling of important reminders that are included in the four Episcopal Daily Devotions:
The morning prayers remind us that we have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection.
At noon we are reminded that our blessed Savior stretched out his loving arms on the cross for us.
In the early evening we reflect that it is not ourselves we proclaim but Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake.
At the close of the day we are reminded that the Lord is merciful and almighty and can drive away all the snares of the enemy.
These things are a frame we can live in and depend on. They are true. They convey God’s love for us. They are God’s answers to our prayers.