Whichever way we conclude reading through what I’ll reluctantly call the Old Testament, whether it be with Malachi or Chronicles, and whether we include the Apocrypha of the Vulgate editions or limit ourselves to those of the standard Hebrew Bible, a pause is needed before plunging ahead into the New Testament.
My straight-through reading took place four years ago now — occupying a bit under three months, as I recall.
My plan to go back through to collect my marginal notes and scattered thoughts, however, got ambushed. A near heart attack, for one thing, intervened, as did a new novel and a host of revisions on the earlier ones.
Since launching this series, it’s already taken us a year to get through my posts on the Old Testament. (I am somewhat relieved that many of the Jewish authors in Congregation refer to that collection as such.)
I started out looking for the Big Picture. As if there were one.
What I’ve encountered is a startling range of encounters that ask, ultimately, how do we experience the Other, the Holy One, the I AM? And then, how do we respond?
As if the Other is a thing, or even a person, rather than existing totally beyond (or outside of) physical matter or energy. Something like that.
Collecting my notes and considerations led to another surprise, a book I picked up at a remaindered (that is, sharply discounted) price in a bookstore. A gem, at that, even if it took me more than two decades before delving into its riches: Congregation, Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg.
His introduction, by the way, I’d love to quote verbatim. The ambitious volume itself, unfortunately, seems to be long out of print BUT you can find copies online. Grab one, if you wish.
One thing Rosenberg’s assembly of authors and Everett Fox’s notes for the Five Books of Moses gave me was a perception of how much I and, for that matter, most Christians, do not, even cannot, appreciate in these texts.
It’s not just the dirty jokes we’re missing, though there appear to be many earthy asides we don’t catch.
More than that, though, is a recognition of how much Christians miss in their unawareness of midrash — the fleshing out of these amazingly barebone, minimalist texts — often assembled in the accompanying Talmud and more. My, how the rabbis over the ages have reimagined and given body to these spare lines! They’ve lived with them, dreamed of them, reinterpreted them. None of this comes through in any of the Protestant commentaries I’ve encountered, where, I suspect, many of the assertions would come as an embarrassment or appear even as borderline heresy. Oh, yes, it seems fair in this practice to actually challenge and confront the text, rather than accept it at face value. There’s no way a fundamentalist would accept irony, for example, or perhaps even humor. As for poetry? Metaphor compresses experiences, emphasizes the subjective over quantifiable objectivity.
Another thing that came through strongly, in essay after essay, was how much these books are family stories for Jews, reflections of their very identity and roots, even among non-observant families. I appreciate the authors’ childhood memories and idiosyncratic relatives woven through these essays. For the rest of us, we might be able to say so-and-so was “like” as Biblical figure, but we’d never think of these ancient characters as our ancestry and original household.
As for that Big Picture? Oh, my. My reading left me feeling it’s more like a huge art museum, with gallery after gallery to explore. And that’s before adding the New Testament.