Monday, November 30, 2015

The Bible Library: Wisdom & Poetical Books

          I generally do not read a lot of self-help books. Even books on spirituality are not ones to which I naturally gravitate. Much to the chagrin of my novice master, I preferred to read novels when I was in the novitiate. I guess the Wicked series didn't provide enough spiritual nourishment for his taste. Regardless, spirituality and even some self-help books are popular and valuable literature for our day. And whether or not you read such books, perhaps you've taken interest in some article in a newspaper or magazine that offered some advice or "how-to" tips pertaining to your social/domestic life or work – like, the last time you were in a dental office, because seriously... when else do you read the newspaper or a magazine? Maybe you come by these kinds of articles on the Internet through your newsfeed or Pintrest page or simply by searching Google. Further still, many of us have grown up hearing little proverbial phrases that inform our consciences: When in Rome, do as the Romans do; Two wrongs don't make a right; If it ain't broke, don't fix it, etc.
            In our on-going tour of the library that is the Bible, today we're exploring the wisdom and poetical books in the Old Testament. These books usually do not make for the most entertaining reading in the Bible. Aside from the peculiar ancient Near Eastern  context – which can be disconcerting enough and oftentimes unpalatable to our contemporary sensitivities – these books generally do not grab our attention.  Let's just say they're no Genesis or Judges. No narratives about sneaky twin brothers (Gen 25:19-34 or Gen 27) or of hair-trimming seductresses ( Jgs 16:4-30) are to be found in them. But wisdom literature and poetry are not entirely foreign to us. As you can see, we are familiar with books, articles or word-of-mouth phrases that offer advice or sometimes sage wisdom. It should be noted, however, that I would not call all of those self-help articles or books "wise."

            According to Richard J. Clifford – without whose book, The Wisdom Literature, this blog post would not be possible, because frankly wisdom literature is not my forte – in reading the wisdom books "you will probably experience a mix of interest, confusion, boredom, and aversion." But he goes on to say that "though the wisdom literature can seem strange to us, it is important to realize that its concerns are modern; in fact they are our concerns."[1] We all wonder what we ought to do in order to live a happier, more balanced life. We might philosophize about the ultimate meaning of our daily toils and hardships... if there even is one. We ponder our relationship with our creator and often wonder why good people suffer.

            Christians look to the person of Jesus and the Gospel life when grappling with these kinds of questions, but these books, as well as all of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, remain inspired and "permanently valuable."[2] I highly recommend them as a source of ancient wisdom that is ever relevant and has withstood the test of time. Not only that, but these writings also contain some of the most beautiful poetry and prose in Scripture, and they continue to inspire hearts and minds across religious traditions. So let us take a brief tour of some of these books.

            The wisdom/poetical books that are in the canon of scriptures vary according to time and place of composition, and, unlike the books of the Torah or the historical books, their content usually does not refer to a time in actual history or perceived historical memory, though there are exceptions (e.g. the book of Lamentations or Psalm 137). The first book to follow the historical books in the Christian canon of scripture is Job.

Job: Have you ever heard it said of someone (maybe even yourself) "That person has the patience of Job"? If so, you should really read the book of Job. Personally, I don't think he was all that patient. The book is 42 chapters long and from chapters 3-31 Job is kvetching[3] with his so-called friends the whole time. Basically Job was a righteous and wealthy man who revered God. In the realm of the heavenly court, however, a celestial character known as "the satan" makes a wager with God, telling him that Job is only God-fearing because he has nice things. God takes the satan up on the challenge, and Job is cursed with inexpressible misfortune. His so-called friends try to explain to him that he must have done something wrong to deserve all of this, but Job stubbornly defends his innocence. Finally God answers Job's complaint with a beautiful and lengthy speech about God's omnipotence, sovereignty, and incomprehensibly. Job is satisfied with that, and God restores to Job all that was taken away.
            There is so much that can be said of the book of Job. It is truly one of the most beautifully written books in the Old Testament. The Hebrew, I'm told, is some of the most difficult to translate. While I would like to go on about this book, I will only say two things for now.
1.) The character known as "the satan" should not be confused with the devil or a necessarily evil being. The satan literally means "the accuser," or in this context, "the prosecutor."[4] He was a member of the heavenly council whose job it was to report to God his findings about the activities on earth. In other words, the satan was like a district attorney, and that's why everybody hates lawyers.
2.) The book of Job deals with the problem of theodicy: If God is all good and all powerful, why does evil exist; why do bad things happen to innocent people? The book of Job does not actually answer that question forthright. Two things we can take from Job on this point are that pious platitudes are futile in the face of suffering (as indicated by God's rebuke of Job's friends who thought they understood God well), and that God is God, and we are not.

Psalms: I once had a professor tell our class that if the ancient Israelites had iPods, the psalms would be their playlists. The psalms were essentially songs, and that is why a cantor will usually sing the psalm at mass. There are many different forms of psalms: individual laments, communal laments, songs of trust, royal psalms, wisdom psalms, creation psalms, songs of thanksgiving, pilgrimage hymns, etc. [5] I recommend perusing the psalms on your own and meditating on one for a day or week. Some of my favorites are 1, 8, 11, 22, 23, 25, 27, 32, 34, 42 & 43 (they're really one psalm),44,  51, 88, 121-124, 127, 130, 133, 137, and 150. I know. That was a lot of psalms to list, but maybe you will find one of these helpful to you. Or perhaps there is one not listed which you particularly like. The great thing about the psalms is that they run the gamut of human emotions, and, like Job, they're not afraid to express to God frustration and anger. Feel free to comment about some of your favorite psalms.

Proverbs: As I mentioned before, we've all heard proverbial phrases in our lifetimes. The book of Proverbs is an anthology of such wisdom sayings in the Hebrew tradition. The wisdom of Proverbs was not about theoretical knowledge, but rather practical knowledge – knowledge that helped you conduct you life in the correct manner. A wise person does morally good things, and the foolish person is one who does wicked things.[6]
            The female imagery in Proverbs is, like in much of the Bible, ambivalent. There is the "strange" or foreign woman, whose wanton ways will lead a young man to disaster. Yet wisdom itself is personified as a woman as well, and she is written about with exceedingly high regard. Interestingly enough, I knew a woman who was a big fan of the book of Proverbs and had several favorites of her own. Maybe you have or will find a few of your own favorites as well.

Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth: Don't read this book if you're depressed. Its message isn't depressing in and of itself, but one could easily take it the wrong way and think that life is meaningless. That isn't the point of Qoheleth though. Yes, it often repeats that "all is vanity" – which is to say that everything is transient or insubstantial[7] - but life does have meaning, and it does have order. It's order and meaning belong to God, according to Qoheleth, and we should accept that and enjoy the good things God has given us. After all, let's face it; we're all going to die one day, rich and poor alike, so don't bother building up your own wealth and legacy. That is what is what is truly meaningless.
            This is actually a very good book for those stereotypical father figures portrayed in movies like Click or Liar, Liar that have no time for their families because they're too busy with work. The dad in the song "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin could also have learned a thing or two from this book. And while that song was probably not inspired by Qoheleth, the song "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds definitely was (Ecc 3:1-8). Click the title to give it listen.

The Song of Songs: This is like the Fifty Shades of Grey of the Bible. No, I'm totally kidding. There's no S&M in it. But it is the most erotic bit of literature to be found in the Scriptures. The Song of Songs is a collection of  love songs or speeches by two lovers with occasional choral interjections by the bride's companions and brothers. Some commentators of antiquity, both Jewish and Christian, have suggested that the Song of Songs is an allegory of the love of God for Israel or for the Church, and while that may be a fine way to meditate on this book, there is no reason to believe that it was written as a figurative depiction of God's love. There's not even any mention of God in it. That being said, what a beautiful testament it is that this collection of love poems, which celebrates human love and passion and is so rich in erotic imagery, has been canonized as sacred.

            For this post, I'm going to be brief about the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Ben Sira (aka Sirach). These are deuterocanonical books (aka apocryphal) and will probably be treated more in a later post.The Wisdom of Solomon, I can assure you it was not written by Solomon. It was probably written the latest of any other book in the Old Testament (perhaps in the late first century BCE or early first century CE). According to Coogan, it was written "in order to demonstrate the superiority of Judaism and probably to persuade Jews who may have abandoned their religion to return to it."[8]  
           Ben Sira was definitely written sometime between the years 180 BCE 175 BCE, by a man named Jesus (Yeshua) who was the grandson of a man named Sira. Go figure that there was more than one man named Jesus in the ancient Near East. Sirach is an anthology of wisdom that the author apparently had passed down to him. I've recently read a good portion from Ben Sira and find it to be full of very sensible advice. I especially liked his assessment of true friendship in 6:5-17.

            And lastly we come to the book of Lamentations – another book one should not read when depressed. It is a collection of poems describing the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, so naturally it is not going to be the most cheerful – not that anyone was expecting it to be with a name like "Lamentations." It had been presumed that that author was the prophet Jeremiah, and that is why it follows his book in the Christian canon of scripture. However, scholars are pretty certain that Jeremiah was not the author. Among the more interesting things about this book is that the first four poems are acrostics in Hebrew. Each line or stanza begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. If you've ever written a poem using the letters of someone's name as the start of each line, it's kind of like that, but with the whole alphabet. This was one way to aid people in memorizing the poem... and trust me; the destruction of Jerusalem was not a thing one should forget.

            So having taken a whirlwind tour of the wisdom and poetical writings of the Old Testament, for this week I encourage and recommend reading Psalm 49. It is a good example of a wisdom psalm, and it fits in well with some of the themes of other wisdom literature, like Job and Qoheleth. As you meditate on this psalm, consider what is really important in life. Do you put your trust in material things or in God and in cultivating life-giving relationships? What is your reaction to the psalmist's description of the universality of death? Does death frighten you? Even if it does, do you have hope in redemption and resurrection? What sort of wisdom do you glean from this psalm, and how will it affect your life this week?
            Of course, you do not have to read this particular psalm this week. There are plenty of other good passages from the wisdom/poetical writings. I also recommend reading the entirety of Lamentations, or Song of Songs. They're short books. Or you can peruse the book of Proverbs, or find another psalm you may enjoy reflecting on. If you have the time, I highly encourage reading the whole book of Job (ideally in one or two sittings). All of these are great books for reflection and meditation, and they may just be even better than a self-help book.

            As always I welcome questions and comments. And now that is made even easier! Bible Codega now has a page on Facebook, so I invite you to "like" the page and leave a comment or question there if you prefer. Next week – or sometime after final exams (yikes!) – we'll take a look at prophetic literature.

             For now I leave you with somewhat of a proverb my father used to tell my siblings and me: "Smile! The sunshine's good for the teeth." Not the most morally consequential phrase, but hopefully it brightens your day. Peace!

[1] Richard J. Clifford, The Wisdom Literature, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 17, 18.
[2] Vatican Council II, “Dei Verbum” § 14.
[3] The word "kvetch," by the way, is of Yiddish origin and means to complain persistently. It also sounds an awful lot like another word which can mean the same thing but is not very appropriate.
[4] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 483.
[5] Coogan, 462.
[6] Clifford, 51.
[7] Ibid., 103.
[8] Coogan, 518.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Bible Library: The (not-entirely) Historical Books

            I was asked to give a presentation this past Friday on the Old Testament to the guys in their first year of Franciscan formation. I had one hour, and with so little time I figured that, if nothing else, one ought to have a fairly general idea about the flow of major historical events which influenced the Hebrew Scriptures. Keeping this task to an hour was no easy feat, for if you knew me (or anyone in my family), you'd know that I can take a long time to get to the point of a story and often detour into excessive tangents. That being said, I'm not entirely sure if I accomplished my goal for those guys in formation. However, since today's post is about the so-called historical books, I figured it would be good to distill that hour-plus rant into a post that takes under ten minutes to read... for your sake and for theirs.

            First of all, the books categorized as the "historical books" are not meant to be read like high school history books. Rather, I'd be inclined to think of them as more akin to Shakespeare's historically-based plays. We can talk about Richard III's rise to the throne and his eventual defeat as historical events, but it was Shakespeare's poetry and poignancy that put into his mouth "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Likewise, we know that Julius Caesar was assassinated, but did he really ever say "Et tu, Brute?" ("You too, Brutus?")? Probably not. Nevertheless, the reality of being betrayed by a close friend is a truth that resonates so deeply within us that we invoke these words whenever we feel as if we've been stabbed in the back by someone we love. What I'm getting at is that the "historical books," and much of the Bible for that matter, are not historical in the way we think about history today. But that isn't to say they don't speak the truth.

            I'll let this notion sink in for now and return to it in a later post. It's an important topic and one that I think lot of people find difficult to grapple with. This is also my not-so-covert attempt to keep readers tuned in to subsequent blog postings.

            For now, let's look at the quick-notes version of Old Testament history.

            Last week I wrote about the Torah. It's difficult to pinpoint the events of most of the narratives in the Torah on a timeline, and some passages I wouldn't bother even putting on a timeline at all. The flow of events in the Torah is, however, important to keep in mind. The main things to remember are that Abraham was called by God out of Haran (near the Syrian-Turkey border of today) to immigrate to the land of Canaan (in modern-day Israel/Palestine). He begot Isaac who begot Jacob (aka Israel), and Jacob had twelve sons who more or less became the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. These Israelite tribes went down to Egypt from Canaan because of a famine, and many generations later the Israelites were led out of the Egypt by Moses (you know the story... "Let my people go!" and all that). They then spent forty years wandering in the desert. According to Fran Fine from The Nanny it was because they were walking off the Passover meal. According to Scripture it was because the people had sinned. Anthropologists might say it was because they were nomads. Either way, they eventually reached the eastern bank of the Jordan river.

            This brings us now to the setting of the historical books. The book of Joshua concerns the conquest of the land of Canaan. Moses has died, and Joshua is charged to lead the people into the Promised Land and take it from the Canaanite tribes. This book is rather triumphalistic, because it gives the impression that the conquest was reasonably successful. This was likely not the case, but rather wishful thinking on the part of the authors of Joshua.

            Next we have Judges. This book goes to show just how unsuccessful the conquest of Canaan really was. As Michael Coogan says, the book of Joshua "presented the ideal... however, the book of Judges gives a sobering and even appalling presentation of the reality."[1] The Judges were military leaders and/or administrators of pre-monarchic Israel – "the highest authority at the tribal level."[2] At this time there was a lot war with the Canaanites and a lot of in-fighting among the tribes of Israel. Judges is a great book to read, by the way. Some of it reads like a Greek tragedy. Other parts are rather funny, like the story of Ehud (see Judges 3:12-25).

            The book of Ruth takes place at the time of the judges. It doesn't deal with historical material per se, but it is a lovely book to read. And it's only four chapters, so I'm not even going to bother giving a summary of it. But I will note that it has much to say to us to today in terms of welcoming the immigrant or foreigner. Ruth, by the way, is one of the ancestors of king David.

            By 1 & 2 Samuel we get into some chartable history. These books are named after the prophet Samuel, who is kind of a crusty figure in the Old Testament. He anoints the first king of Israel, Saul, even though he'd rather not have a king. He's pretty bent out of shape about it, but God tells him "You are not the one they are rejecting. They are rejecting me as their king" (1 Sam 8:7). Saul then becomes king, but falls out of favor with God and then goes a little nuts. Saul is succeeded, not by his son, but by the ruddy and handsome David. Under David are the tribes of Israel united for the first time, and the rest of the books of Samuel are about David's reign. The united kingdom of Israel is short-live, however. 1 & 2 Kings begins with the death of David, and then follows the line of his successors. Only his first successor, king Solomon, is able to keep the kingdom together (though, for all of Solomon's wisdom, he wasn't that admirable of a king). After Solomon's death (c. 928 BCE) the kingdom is divided by his sons Jeroboam and Rehoboam: the northern kingdom (Israel) which included most of the Israelite tribes, and the southern kingdom (Judah).

            Jumping ahead about 200 years later, the kingdom of Israel in the north falls to the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE. The elite from this kingdom are exiled to Assyria (modern day northern Iraq). King Sennacherib of Assyria tries to take Judah and lays a nasty siege on Jerusalem during reign of Hezekiah, but surprisingly Jerusalem and the southern kingdom does not fall... yet. In 586 BCE the Babylonians (from modern day southern Iraq, and sometimes referred to as the Chaldeans in Scripture) destroy Jerusalem and the Temple and send the upper classes of Judah into exile in Babylon. I cannot express how devastating this was to the Judahite's psyche and religious morale. A lot of prophetic literature concerns either the impending experience of exile, the exile itself, or the return from exile.

            This brings us to the end of 1 & 2 Kings. The exile lasted  almost fifty years. But then the Persian empire (from modern day Iran) captures Babylon in 539 BCE, and the Persian king, Cyrus II, allows the Jews to return to Judah in 538. They begin working on reconstructing the Temple. The next four historical books, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, were written during the time of this reconstruction of Judah. 1 & 2 Chronicles are pretty much a retelling of the books of Samuel and Kings, but from a post-exilic viewpoint and theology. Ezra was a priest and a scribe, and Nehemiah was governor of Judah appointed by the Persian King. These two men, though active at different times, were most responsible for reorganizing Jewish life after the exile.

            I'm going to skip Tobit and Judith for now. They are interesting books, but they don't have much to do with the history of Israel for our purposes today. Perhaps I'll treat them later in a post about Deuterocanonical books. Protestant traditions refer to these books as apocrypha, which simply translated means "hidden." The book of Esther doesn't have much to do with the history of Israel either, but it takes place during the Persian period. Here's a one sentence synopsis: Jewish queen of a Persian king convinces the king not to enact the genocide against her people which his official, Haman, devised. Like many of the books of the Bible, its message is about God saving his people.

            The Persian period lasted from about 539-332 BCE, but, as we may be familiar with from the movies, Alexander the Great conquers a fat chunk of the eastern world including the Persians. Thus the land of Judah came under the control of the Greeks – more specifically, the Seleucid empire. This brings us to the last period of the Old Testament, the Hellenistic period. Do you remember that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Toula's father says, "There are two kinds of people in this world: Greeks and everyone else who wishes they were Greek"? This must have been the attitude of the Greeks back then too, because they loved their culture and thought everyone should love it too. They wanted to spread their Hellenistic ways all over the world. This did not make some folks too happy.

            Now you've got this small nation of Jewish people who have not been self-ruling for over 250 years. They have not only kept their faith and traditions but have become staunchly committed in their beliefs and culture despite the trials of the exile, and now they've got Greeks wanting to Hellenize them – that is, make them Greek. Well, some of them went along with it and assimilated. Others, however, thought the very infringement on their Jewish culture was a heinous persecution. And then Antiochus IV came along and really acid rained all over Jewish religion, essentially making it punishable by death to practice the Jewish faith at all. The books of 1 & 2 Maccabees are concerned with this Hellensitic period in what is known by this time as Judea. Like Tobit and Judith, I'll say a little more about 1 & 2 Maccabees in a later post. But for now I shall say that these books relate the surprisingly successful Maccabean revolt (a Jewish revolt against the Seleucids) which eventually led to the Hasmonean dynasty (Jewish rulers of Judea) and fairly independent rule for the Jews until the Romans came and did... well, what Romans do. Conquer people.

            So obviously this could not cover every detail in Old Testament history, and yet it was still a rather long post. But hey, we just covered over a thousand years of history! I hope, however, that this helps to put some of the Old Testament into context.

            Since this post had a lot to do with rulers, kings, and empires, and since this Sunday was the Church's celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King, my recommended Scripture reading for this week is 1 Samuel 8. As you reflect on this passage, compare and contrast this warning about earthly kings with Christ who is king of heaven and earth. What does it mean for you to have God as king? What do you think the kingdom of God is like? Given the rather unfortunate history with earthly rulers that unfolds in the Old Testament, do you think a kingdom of justice, peace, charity, mercy, and self-sacrifice with God's own son as king can make a difference in our own time? What do you hope for if/when you pray "thy kingdom come"?

            As always, I am grateful to hear from readers any comments or questions. Don't forget to subscribe in the "Follow the Codega" box. And tune in next week to learn more about the wisdom/poetical books!

Peace and all good things, and have a joyful Thanksgiving!

[1] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 175.
[2] Coogan, 178.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Bible Library: Torah

            When I was in junior high I began to read a chapter of the Bible almost every night, and by the time I was in my third or fourth year of high school I had read up to Isaiah. I didn't really understand prophetic literature, so I gave up on that whole endeavor for awhile. Interestingly enough, what initiated this nightly reading from Scripture wasn't so much youthful piety as it was a really odd sort of punishment. My parents saw that I was using a pencil on which I had written the words "Cupid sucks." Typical thirteen-year-old angst, though I think anyone would admit that I could have written a lot worse. Nevertheless, my parents thought that a good penance for my apparently shocking vulgarity was to read chapter 3 of Genesis (when Adam and Eve eat from the tree in the middle of the garden). Pubescent immaturity... a narrative of the fall of humankind and distortion of relationships. Hmm, it seems a little incongruent if you ask me, but that's what I was told to do.
            For the record, I do not advocate using religion to punish children – of course, I'm not well suited for giving parental advice either, having no children of my own. For me, however, it kind of worked out, and I had decided to keep reading the Bible even after my reprimand for juvenile nonsense. I doubt many other teens would follow suit, but if the worse your child can do is write the words "Cupid sucks," he or she might be the type that would run with it and end up pursuing a religious studies degree. As it turns out, I never returned my mother's Bible after that, and it is currently on my desk beside me as I type. Some lesson learned.
            Some people may be under the impression that in order to read the Bible they should start from Genesis chapter one and read straight through. That is a worthy and laudable endeavor, I suppose, and if you want to do that, that's great, but I personally wouldn't recommend it. Even though I had taken that route as a teenager, I still had not connected very deeply with the Scriptures until I began to learn more about them. In any case, the Bible isn't really a book. If you try to read even just the Old Testament from beginning to end you might start off reading a single narrative, but soon you'll begin reading repeated versions of some of the same stories. You'll also find that not everything in the Bible reads like a story. In fact, most of it doesn't at all. There is a lot more poetry than prose in the Old Testament, for example, and half of the New Testament is letters which are a whole other literary form in and of themselves.
            The Bible is a complex compilation of various literary genres and styles by numerous authors. And if there is anything you should know about the Bible, it is that it didn't just fall into human hands from on high. Not even all of the books in the Bible reflect the exact same theology. What!? I know, you'd think that the Word of God would have its act together, right? This is one of the reasons why we need to use caution and humility when using Scripture. We have to appreciate the fact that the Bible is not so simple. Nevertheless, you can read the Scriptures, and God does speak to us from them today. That's kind of why we listen to the Word proclaimed at our religious services, isn't it?
            For the next couple of weeks I just want to introduce some of the books of Scripture and how they are organized in the Bible. I like to think of the Bible not as a book but as a library. On the left side of the library there are shelves of books of the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Scriptures) and on the right there are bookshelves of the New Testament. Those shelves on the left of our library can be categorized by Torah, the historical books, wisdom or poetical books, and the prophets. That, in fact, is how the Catholic editions of the Bible order the Old Testament and why they are not organized in chronological order. The Jewish canon[1] of Scripture is known as the Tanak, and it is organized by the Torah, the prophets (Nevi'im), and the writings (Kethuvim). I point this out simply because the acronym, TNK, is just brilliant, and it makes me smile!
            For today, let's look at the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch – penta as in pentagon because there are five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Torah is the most important of the Hebrew Scriptures for the Jewish peoples. It can be said that everything else in the Hebrew Scriptures, and arguably in the New Testament as well, is commentary on the Torah. The word Torah simply means teaching or instruction. Sometime before the Babylonian exile, the word Torah was associated with "the teaching or law of Moses," and by sometime after the exile it essentially referred to these first five books of the Bible.[2] As with all things, there is a lot more that can be said about the meaning of Torah, and it surely has a much deeper connotation in the Jewish faith, but for our purposes if you hear Torah, think Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
            Oh, and if you are every perusing a shelf of movies and you come across Tora! Tora! Tora!, do not be fooled. It is not something akin to Fiddler on the Roof as I had thought. I was quite disappointed when I took it off the shelf only to find Japanese World War II aircraft on the cover and not cheerful Jewish elders dancing.
            By way of a brief and almost certainly over-simplified introduction into these five books, here is a little description about each one just to whet your appetite.

Genesis: I think this is a great book to start with if you are new to reading the Old Testament. It's one of my favorite books in the Bible, because it is such a human story. It's got everything: myth, legend, blood, sex, and betrayals, family drama, beautiful struggles and witnesses of faith, and dastardly deeds of human folly. It's like Game of Thrones without the dragons. I'm kidding;  I have never even seen Game of Thrones. The bulk of the narrative, beginning just before chapter 12 through the rest of the book, tells the story of the great Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob (aka Israel) & his two wives, Rachel & Leah, and finally all of Jacob's sons.

Exodus: Another must read! Some of this story we are familiar with from popular culture, but just as with Harry Potter, the book is always better than the movie. Exodus is the story of a saving God, who hears the cry of his people – a people who aren't even all that grateful sometimes. Not only is God a saving God, but he also makes a covenant with his people at Sinai and gives them the law. This was a hallmark of ancient Israelite theology – the salvation from slavery in Egypt, the covenant, the law. The ancient Israelites defined themselves as a people and their relationship with God based on the narratives found in Exodus. Always remember, the God of the Torah is a saving God.

Leviticus: This is one reason why I don't recommend reading the Bible from cover to cover. That isn't to say Leviticus is a bad book; it's mostly a book of laws though. Many of the laws contained within it might seem tedious or unusual for our senses, but essentially many of the laws have to do with holiness. As it says repeatedly "You shall be holy, for I the LORD am holy." Holiness was a technical term, however. It didn't mean piety like we often think of holiness; it meant separation from what was ordinary, and the people of Israel were called not to be ordinary, but extraordinary – a people set apart. That vocation to holiness still remains in the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the way. One last thing I love to point out about the book of Leviticus is that it is in this oft-dismissed book of the Bible that we find that beautiful teaching which so many mistakenly think originated in the New Testament: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).

Numbers: To quote biblical scholar Michael Coogan, "Numbers is the most complicated of the entire Pentateuch, in terms of both its content and its sources."[3] Essentially, Numbers is about the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years. It gets its name from the various censuses of the tribes of Israel that are included in the book. There are some more laws and some interesting narratives in Numbers – even one with a talking donkey (Num 22). Among the things we can take with us from this book is the analogy of wrestling with God. The Israelites do a lot of whining in this book, and while God often chastises, God also always saves.

And finally, Deuteronomy: I love this book. A biblical professor I once had said that Deuteronomy and Isaiah are like the bread and butter of the Hebrew Scriptures. Deuteronomy, whose name means "second law," is more or less Moses' fair-well speech before his death and the Israelites' entry into the promised land. Indeed, a lot of it reiterates many of the laws and narratives found in other parts of the Torah, but with a slightly different theological perspective. My favorite part of Deuteronomy is 7:6-11. The thing to keep in mind with Deuteronomy is covenant and that "the LORD, your God, is God indeed, the faithful God who keeps his merciful covenant... (7:9)." It is God who is faithful, even when we are not.

            So as you can see, the Torah has a lot of laws, but it also has a lot of stories – stories about a people and their intimate relationship with God. Consider for this week some of the stories in your own life about your relationship with God or with the Scriptures. As you can see, my teenage encounter with the Word had some offbeat origins, but sometimes our experiences with the Divine can be a bit humorous. For this week, I recommend reading Exodus 15:1-18. This is one of the oldest passages in Scripture, and it really gives you a sense of how the ancient Israelites thought of and related to their God. One of their earliest recognitions of the character of God was that God saves his people. In reading this passage, think about your image of God. What is your earliest experience with the Divine? Who has God been for you in your life? When you hear how God saves his people, how does that affect you? Do you think God cares about you, or do you think God is aloof and distant?
            As always, I encourage questions and comments, and don't forget to subscribe. Just type your e-mail in the "Follow the codega" box. Tune in next week for a brief introduction to the historical books.
May the Lord bless you and keep you!

[1] Canon is the word used to designate the list of authoritative books of the Bible by a religious institution.
[2] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 184.
[3] Coogan, 153.

Friday, November 6, 2015


                The Bible is a curious collection of texts. Whether you've read any of it or not, you know some basic stories and quotes that are in there. Who hasn't heard of Adam and Eve? Who hasn't heard of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And if you know anything about Jesus, you know at least something about the Gospels. Now granted, I don't actually believe that every single person has had some familiarity with the aforementioned biblical features, but if you've chosen to read a blog with the word "Bible" in the title, I presume you've brushed up against at least a few rudimentary things contained in the Scriptures.
                The Bible, for all of its archaic obscurity, has withstood the test of time, not only as a source of Truth and Divine Revelation, but also as a fount of symbols, archetypes, lessons, and verses that remain in our imaginations and find their way into popular culture. Allusions to Scripture are made in movies like Pulp Fiction, Red Dragon, and The Matrix, and songs by Lady Gaga, Mumford and Sons, and Adele ("reap just what you sow," yeah, see Galatians 6:7). I'm still baffled by the John 3:16 signs at sporting events, but there you go – another way in which the Bible creeps in to our daily lives.
                Despite all of this, the Bible still remains for many of us to be, well, archaic and obscure. That doesn't keep people from quoting it left and right with "The Bible says this!" and "The Bible says that!" It's no wonder it can be an intimidating piece of work. How are we expected to be moved and shaped by the Word of God when we either can't understand it or are beaten over the head with a verse here and a verse there? Before I began to take Scripture courses in college, I didn't really find it to be that significant in my life. I had read a good portion of the Old Testament and all of the Gospels, and of course I had heard the readings from Scripture proclaimed at Mass, but it still did not seem all that accessible. As a religious studies major, I only took my first Scripture course because it was a requirement. Yet from then on I was hungry to learn more – more about the historical context, the literary character, the relationship between the audience and author. I even spent three semesters studying Hebrew (two studying Greek, but that was a bust) in pursuit of understanding the Bible better. And in fact, even though I was learning things about the Bible that challenged my preconceived notions about it, I was not only unfazed but found my faith strengthened.
                As you can see on the sidebar, the name of this blog comes from an old profession in which a man guided people through the dark streets of Venice with a lantern. For me, all of my biblical professors were like codegas of Scripture. They shined a light, however small or bright, on these sacred texts that gave me some confidence in reading them and brought to light some of the deep and beautiful mysteries within them. While this blog remains a humble endeavor, for Sacred Scripture should always be approached with humility, I hope that it can be like a codega for you as you engage the Scriptures. Some material out there on the Bible is purely scholarly. Other sites and periodicals have a more heart-centered focus. For me, learning about the Bible on a rational level has been the channel through which the Scriptures have touched my heart. Perhaps, through this blog, this same method of shining a rational light on the Bible will move you in your faith.
                Each week I will post some basic biblical hermeneutical information ... Wait. Herme-what!? Don't worry. It's far more interesting than it sounds and slightly less painful. I will post some basic guides for biblical interpretation (that's what hermeneutics is about) that might help you in your biblical reading. For the first couple of weeks I just want to point out what's all in there. I mean, there are 73 books in the canon of Scripture used by Catholics. It might be a good idea to get some sense of what those 73 books are. From there I'll spend a post or two on how the Bible came to be compiled and canonized. It seems a lot of folks have questions about that. And it's worth noting where the Bible comes from if we are ever going to take it seriously. After that... well, it is wherever the Spirit moves us.
                I should also mention, if you haven't noticed, that this blog will have a definitively Catholic character. After all, I'm a Franciscan friar, and if I wasn't writing from a Catholic perspective (on the World Wide Web of all places), I think my superiors would be a little annoyed with me. That isn't to say that this blog is only for Catholic readers. I encourage anyone to read and comment. That this blog has a Catholic perspective simply means that I will at times make reference to the Church's teaching about Divine Revelation and will draw connections from the Bible to Catholic tradition and liturgy. I have the utmost respect for biblical scholars in other faith traditions who have paved the way of biblical scholarship. The Catholic Church and its biblical scholars are indebted to them.
                With that being said, I greatly encourage questions and comments. It will help me find out what it is you want to know about the Bible. Take note of the "No Pearls Before Trolls" policy though. But even more so than questions or comments, I encourage you to pick up a Bible and read it for yourself or with another person sometime. This blog is all about cultivating biblical literacy. With each post I will offer some recommended passages for you to reflect upon, which might help facilitate reading the Bible.
                Lastly, here is my challenge to you. Try to have a conversation about what you've read and reflected upon with another person or group. I presume that if you're in a Bible study or something of the like then you already do that. But if not, start some kind of informal Scripture-based faith sharing with your friend, your spouse, a sibling, someone from your parish, etc. The reading of Sacred Scripture shouldn't always be a solitary spiritual exercise. You will benefit a lot more from it if it is a shared activity. In the words of Fanny Brice: "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world" (Funny Girl). But importantly, let us not forget the words that Jesus spoke: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). Basically I just want to point out that reading/sharing Scripture with other people is ideal. Don't be afraid to give it a try.

I hope you will find your way back the Bible Codega again. Subscribing always makes that easier though! Until next time,

Peace and all good!