Halfway point!

In the Christian sequencing, the Psalms fall at the halfway point through the Old and New Testaments.

They would be even further along in the pages following the ordering of the Hebrew Bible.

Either way, there’s a lot more ahead.

Still, in looking for an overall structure and developing line of theological thought in my straight-through reading of the Bible, I was already perplexed by the lack of systematic development. Too many things seemed to be moving in contrary directions. Rather than clarifying a concept of the Holy One, for starters, I found the opposite happening. Yes, the war-god was giving way, but that was more a consequence of military defeats, flawed government, and Babylonian exile. The evolving comprehension remained, for me, lacking.

In the arrangement of the Biblical books I was tracking, I’d already come through the history of the development of the Jewish people — one that peters out before the fall of the second temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE — and entered the books of Wisdom. I still had a few more Wisdom books to encounter and then the Prophets. The history, in other words, fizzles out before the biggest scene.

Epharim Moses Lilien’s Queen of the Sabbath. A day of rest each week remains a revolutionary concept.

The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, mixes history, Wisdom, and the Prophets in what may be a more organic or unified approach, especially when it applies Chronicles as its concluding recap.

Looking at the sections by length, the brevity of the New Testament comes as a shock — just about 15 percent of the total. Rather than a second act, it would seem more of an appendage or even an encore, of sorts.

One thing I hadn’t expected was the awareness of authorship, once I had encountered the commentary on J, the Jahwist or Yahwist. This perspective intensifies in learning of scholarship adding the Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly sources. This definitely wasn’t the “written by God,” as we children had been taught in Protestant Sunday school, or, as I was concluding, not even the “inspired by God” alternative. Rather, what was emerging were texts of experiences of Otherness. Even the Five Books of Moses, from this perspective, would be more accurately titled the Five Books about Moses.

Well, now it’s on to the rest of the story.

Now for the intensely personal and public Psalms

As the longest book of the Bible, this collection of poems or hymn-texts spans the range of Jewish experience. Some are intensely personal, with confessions of despair that border blasphemy. Some others are public celebrations, meant to mark special nationalistic occasions.

My first surprise in this sequential reading of the Bible was how quickly this book went — three sittings over 36 hours of a weekend. I’d last approached the collection with a psalm a week as a meditation before settling down into Quaker worship. That exercise spanned three years. (Some of the longer psalms received extended attention, for one thing.)

Another surprise came in recognizing that the set, as a whole, is far more political than I’d anticipated. Sometimes it’s the king pleading for his own safety or lamenting the afflictions imposed by his adversaries; sometimes, it’s his court poets speaking in his name; and sometimes these come as independent voices recognizing the importance of having rulers who are faithful to the social justice issues affecting the poor and oppressed. That in itself is amazing, considering the burdens David and then Solomon imposed on the people in support of their courts, armies, and public works projects. Also, these poems aren’t presented in chronological order.

David and Michal in a classical view of the Psalms.

As a poet, I am struck by the imagery, thought, and power of many of these works. Here the Bible texts turn from talking about God in a historical sense and instead converse directly with the Holy One or speak openly of their experiences. For added intensity, you can take some of the passages that seem to command worship and add the personal first-person pronoun. See what happens, for instance, when you take the repeated “Praise the Lord” proclamations and make them “I praise the Lord.” From there, you can even modify “Let them” to “Let me” or “Let us” and so on. Many of the psalms are already in that first-person intensity.

I am baffled when others tell me that Psalms is the one book of the Bible that eludes them.

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Job, a most troubling tale

In a straight-through reading of the Bible, the Septuagint ordering takes us straight from Maccabees to Job. We go from collective rebellion and its victories to the torture of a single righteous individual for no just cause. The Hebrew and Protestant canon, meanwhile, leap from the celebration of Esther’s victory into the existential angst of coping with evil itself. Either way, no other book of the Bible is so troubling.

We have no preparation for what we’re about to encounter. This is the first book in the sequence to deal primarily with theology, the intrinsic condition or definition of the Holy One. Up till now, the Holy One is present primarily as relationship to individual people and to action — a Creator, a partner in a series of covenants, the giver of descendants to a holy people, a war-god, a jealous and angry judge, a vast spirit beyond words, or a mystifying figure that walks with chosen men, and so on. (Men, again, apart from women. How problematic.)

Poet and printmaker William Blake seems to have an affinity for Job.

Job returns us to the Creator character with a twist. Quite simply, if evil exists in the universe, it’s intentionally or accidentally part of the divine plan, and either way, we are at a loss for how to incorporate this aspect into our love of the Holy One. We pick up, in effect, at the point just before God tosses Adam and Eve out of Eden, where in the circle of blame, the Serpent is about to finger the Holy One for the events that are transpiring, an accusation that God angrily cuts off mid-sentence.

Well, the story of Job does open with the solution we’ve generally adapted, one of psychological denial, which gives us the first appearance of Satan, who will evolve into a fuller, more sinister character in the New Testament. This duality allows us to still turn to God as good, honorable, and nurturing. I was about to say “respectable,” but that somehow points to the reminder we’ll hear later that we need to fear the Holy One, who is worthy of awe. (Stand back!) Even so, accepting a duality in the eternal powers also means that one identity is lessened at the expense of the other, which in turn opens a multitude of theological speculation. As I said, this is a troubling book.

Blake delineates the cosmology befalling Job. I’m guessing that Adam and Eve are watching from lower left.

In effect, the story of Job sweeps away everything we’ve encountered up to this point in Scripture and counters much of what comes after. I’ve previously written of this trial in an ebook, Eden Embraced, where I view the discourse along the lines of a Hindu Upanishad, and more recently in a posting that suggests approaching the text as a very dark comedy.

This time, I’m struck also by the possibilities of an atheistic reading. What happens if we remove God and Satan altogether?

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Remarkable Sophia and her wisdom books

At this point, the Protestant Bible follows the Roman Catholic arrangement with what are sometimes identified as the Wisdom Books, including their concept of Sophia — the Greek word for wisdom.

In contrast, in ordering of the Hebrew Bible, the books are interspersed among the Prophets.

The Hebrew term for wisdom, chokma, weaves through these texts, especially in Proverbs, where it is personified in feminine form. Indeed, it appears to be the most fully developed articulation of the Holy One’s feminine attributes in Jewish Biblical thinking.

My own introduction came in Cynthia Taylor’s “Who Is Sophia? And Why Is She Important?” presentation in Reclaiming a Resource: Papers From the Friends Bible Conference, which took place in 1989 in Philadelphia. After examining the development in the Hebrew texts, Taylor remarks, “Things really warm up among biblical scholars when they look into the Christian Scriptures for evidence of Sophia. This is where some see heresy, where orthodoxy rubs shoulders with Gnostic tradition. Yet more of us are seeing that Jesus and Sophia are the same, as are Christ and the ‘Comforter’ whom Jesus promised his disciples. This latter aspect of God’s energy is the Holy Spirit, which was present from the beginning of time (Genesis 1:1,2). This ruach (Hebrew for God’s breath) is also feminine. This is Sophia …”

Andrew Gonzalez sees Sophia as highly sensuous and youthful. His style certainly contrasts sharply with the Roman modeling we find in so much Biblical illustration.

I’ve already taken another profound Greek concept, Logos, from the opening of the gospel of John and traced it to a much different model of Christianity than is seen in its conventional translation as the Word. My booklet Revolutionary Light details some of the consequences in Quaker practice.

In a similar vein, the introduction to the Wisdom Books in the New Jerusalem Bible says simply, “More and more clearly, through Job and Ben Sira until the latest section of Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom, personified Wisdom is seen as the agent of divine activity in the world, and eventually as participating in the divine nature itself.” The next sentence is startling: “This prepares for the Christian understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.”

Well, yes and no. It can also lead to a much more feminist perspective or reach beyond the usual strictures of trinity.

Look, too, at how pow political these books are! And how often their depiction departs from the war-god. (Well, in Psalms there’s an evolution from the war-god to something far more cosmic and merciful.)

Sophia in a traditional Greek Orthodox icon. There’s a foreshadowing of the appearance of the Theodokos, the Mother of God.