In this straight-through reading of the Bible, I set out looking for the big picture.
As we might say, God is in the details — but there’s a host of them in these pages. Or, more accurately, in these scrolls, filled with a plethora of issues, events, and people.
Pardon the pun, then, if we consider the Lord of Hosts, meaning a vast array of so much. (Ahem.) (Or amen.)
Arriving at the end of Hebrew Bible (there are, as I’ve remarked, differences between that collection and those of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, on one hand, and the Protestant, on the other), I am struck by an awareness of one crucial variance in the sequencing.
That comes with, where the Jewish approach places the utopian Chronicles as the grand finale. It’s a grand reprise, a reminder of what’s come before, rather than simply an alternative telling of Kings right before it.
Since my straight-through reading followed Christian sequence, where Chronicles comes as right after Kings, the Old Testament simply petered out. There was no overarching structure. Perhaps this is intentional, to emphasize what will follow with Jesus and his followers.
Not so in the Hebrew Bible ordering.
As Herbert Tarr contends in his essay in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, “It’s fitting for the Jewish Bible to conclude with the Book of Chronicles … Not only does it review the history of Genesis through Kings, but it reiterates the central contractual theme that runs throughout the Jewish Bible and foreshadows the Talmud, which focuses on the law and its application. For it was the people of Israel and their Bible — not classical Rome, a Johnny-come-lately to the ancient world — that gave mankind the concept of law as well as monotheism.”
He then sees Pauline Christianity remiss in dismissing the legal contract of the Jews and instead proclaiming a new covenant. “Christians regard the Jewish Bible as a small library of individual books,” he observes. “Not so: the entire Jewish Bible is essentially one extended lawbook that delineates the Covenant into which God and Israel entered voluntarily. If Israel is the Chosen People, she is also — this is equally important — the choosing people. Without Israel’s concurrence, there would have been no deal — and no Bible.”
(I appreciate Tarr’s recognition of Pauline Christianity, with its Hellenism moving from what might be better called the original covenant, which would have remained the grounding for Jesus himself.)
In effect, Tarr provides an argument for a straight-through reading in which Chronicles appears as the culmination of the Jewish canonical instruction, after Isaiah, the Psalms, and other basic works are woven in.
“This legal contract obliges each party to be mutually faithful, excluding all others: the people Israel would serve only God, and He would guard and prosper them. That’s why the Jewish Bible spotlights only God and Israel, its costars, as they cleave to this contract — or fail to do so.”
To place this covenant — not the temple or rituals, even when extended into daily life, nor the people as a collectivity nor their land nor their victories nor even their evolving identity — transforms the entire story. I must admit, I’ve been looking at it askew, playing it in the wrong key. I’m hardly alone.
To emphasize covenant, though, also leads to a fundamental distinction.
To cast the Covenant along legal lines, as Tarr appears to be doing, can reduce it to a set of prohibitions and sanctions that ultimately lead to judgment with rewards and punishments in the balance. “Thou shalt not,” as we have from Exodus. This is the core, I feel, of most religious practice around the world. As one Vedic scholar I know has quipped, it leads to ritual sacrifice that says, in effect, “I did you a favor. Now you owe me one.” In other words, there’s a hope of having some control over the Holy One.
It also leads to hairsplitting and lawyers — or the equivalent of the despised Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament. Or, of religious fundamentalism.
Tarr perceives these dangers.
“Sacrifices and prayers are never enough; they are worthless unless accompanied by deeds of righteousness in daily conduct. Lip service is no substitute for upright living. Salvation by faith alone is found nowhere in the Jewish Bible. What counts are acts. And so, cheating in a business transaction, for example, is no mere civil crime, but a breach of the Covenant as well and therefore condemned by God Himself.”
(Well, here we are, back at the conundrum of precisely this Holy One is.)
By this point, I’m not sure how much of Tarr’s argument is found in his reading of Chronicles itself and how much arises in the rabbinic lore or his own conclusions, but he is looking at the big picture.
“It is when the king or the people Israel breaks this contract that a prophet appears to castigate them. The Covenant is the legal basis for this indictment. Acting as God’s messenger (a forthteller [truthteller?] or preacher, not a forthteller or predictor), the prophet appears during every reign to transmit the word of God, berate Israelites for their misdeeds, warn of God’s wrath, and urge repentance. Indeed, every Biblical writer insists that it’s impossible to serve God while at the same time mistreating one’s fellows. To love God is to practice justice.”
What a powerful summary of the story we’ve followed!
Tarr does fault the Chronicler’s “one-note theology that flies in the face of universal experience,” the idea that virtue will be immediately rewarded and evil punished or that wealth is a sign of God’s rewarding merit. He finds an antidote in the book of Job, where a good man suffers through no fault of his own.
“The people Israel are the only ones in history who have always blamed themselves for whatever calamity befell them,” Tarr notes. But they were also “the only people in antiquity exiled from their homeland and national religion who maintained their religious and social identity in captivity.”
Curiously, what Tarr describes — dovetails with a historic Quaker reliance on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy as a spiritual foundation. That is, right action more than right thought. Response based more on the compassionate heart than the intellectual head. In this, we do whatever we do in regard to each other out of love and affection in accord to the Holy One’s guidance. We’re not alone, but in relationship. Discipleship, in the New Testament perspective.
I return to the earlier appraisal of Chronicles as a whitewash job, this time with a different emphasis. After all of the nitty-gritty of personal, political, economic, and social relationship in the previous histories, we need to be reminded of the dream encapsulated in the covenant. The ideal, the utopia, or, as Tarr emphasizes, the hope that has sustained Jews and Judaism for millennia.
I think of marriage, with all of its daily trials, and yet the way we find ourselves weepy with joy when we witness a wedding.
It is fitting that the Hebrew Bible, in the face of all the oppression over the millennia, should end on that note. The hope — and the promise — live on, even in the shadow of the Holocaust and other great evils.