Category Archives: Old Testament

What are the Dark Passages of Scripture?

So…I have a new book coming out entitled “Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture.” It will be released on September 20 from Our Sunday Visitor press. In the time leading up to the book release, I’ve put together a YouTube channel called “Bible Broccoli” and I’ll be posting several videos related to the book. This video above is my very first YouTube video and I address the first question you might ask about the book, “What are the Dark Passages of Scripture?” I hope you enjoy this video and I hope you check out my new book!

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What is the Meaning of “Deep calls to Deep”?

Psalm 42:7 inspires the imagination, but do we actually get the translation right? Do we really understand what this verse means?

I’ll quote the King James here:

Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts:
all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.

Ok, so for an updated-sounding translation, here’s the ESV:

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.

Often, people use this verse to describe the nature of prayer–a “calling out” from deep within oneself to deep within God. You can get a sense for it from the songs which quote this verse like “Deep Calls to Deep” by Mary-Kathryn or Matt Redman’s song by the same name. You can get a sense for the Christian preaching inspired by this line from Benny Hinn talking about intimacy with God. There are many other sermons, homilies, songs and inspiring Christian reflections on this phrase. But, do we really get it right? I think not.

The typical interpretation in these Christian reflections tries to associate the phrase to a personal communication between God and the soul. However, I think our Psalmist is actually trying to poetically describe water. Yep, water. Notice the rest of the verse about waterfalls and waves. The phrase “tehom el-tehom qore“. The ever-helpful Blue Letter Bible gives us a dictionary entry on the significant word here, tehom “deep”:

Tehom

 

Notice the relevant line: “‘wave calleth unto wave,’ i. e. wave follows wave without intermission.” The word tehom normally is referring to a big body of water like the sea. Here though, the psalmist is talking about moving water, wave after wave, or in the case of a waterfall, crash after crash of the water from above. “Deep calls to deep” describes as best as a poet can the awesome power, repeated crashing and visual impact of wave after wave, not the cry of the heart.

Now of course, this verse does come in the context of a poem about intimacy with God, which describes thirst for God, the joy of his presence and the terror of his loss. It deals with the depths of despair and conflict and the agony of tearful longing for God. But the personal dimension is at the end of this verse rather than the beginning. It says: “your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” The Psalmist feels overwhelmed by the darkness and despair he is experiencing, hitting him with wave after wave. He is mourning and oppressed (v. 9). He seeks hope, but finds taunting. His prayer is to be released from the overwhelming waters of darkness into intimate union with God. So, yes, this Psalm is about intimacy with God, but somehow we have a hard time getting the details right.

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The Wisdom of Solomon Short List

Often the Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament receive short shrift because they are not part of the canon accepted by many Christians. However, I don’t think any book gets less press than the Wisdom of Solomon. Readings from it appear eight times in the Sunday lectionary, but I’ll bet you can’t find a commentary on it online or at your local library. Here’s the short list of available book-length resources in English. Add more in the comments…if you can find any!

  • Reider, Joseph. The Book of Wisdom: An English Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Harper, 1957. 233 pp.
  • Geyer, John. The Wisdom of Solomon: Introduction and Commentary. Torch Bible Commentary. London, SCM Press, 1963. 128 pp.
  • Clarke, Ernest G. The Wisdom of Solomon. Cambridge Bible Commentary on the NEB.Cambridge University Press, 1973. 136 pp.
  • Winston, David. The Wisdom of Solomon. Anchor Yale Bible Commentary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,  1979. 360 pp.
  • Grabbe, Lester. Wisdom of Solomon. T&T Clark Study Guides. Bloomsbury, 2004. 105 pp.
  • Clifford, Richard. Wisdom. New Collegeville Bible Commentary, vol. 20. Liturgical Press, 2013. 88 pp.

 

There’s a wider-ranging bibliography put together by Daniel Harrington here. But yes, that’s it! Just a handful of short commentaries, and nothing very recent.

Edit 8/8/16:

Here are few more items to add to our list, though not all fit the criteria of being book-length or in English:

  • Deane, William J. The Book of Wisdom. Oxford: Clarendon, 1881. (Full view online access)
  • Goodrick A.T.S. The Book of Wisdom. Oxford Church Bible Commentary. 1914. (Full view online access)
  • Kolarick, Michael. “Book of Wisdom” in Volume 5: Proverbs to Sirach. New Interpreters Bible. Abingdon, 1997.
  • Larcher, Chrysostome. Le Livre de la Sagesse. 3 vols. Paris: Gabalda, 1983.
  • Reese, James M. The Book of Wisdom, Song of Songs. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983.
  • Reese, James M. Hellenistic Influence on the Book of Wisdom and Its Consequences. Analecta Biblica. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970.
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From Sea to (Shining) Sea

BlackBallDuring this Fourth of July Week, I thought a little reflection on an Old Testament conundrum that connects with some American patriotic poetics would be appropriate, so here goes: A mysterious phrase crops up three times in the Old Testament that has proved to be, well, a bit unsolvable. The phrase is “from sea to sea” and shows up in these passages. (I should note however, that the early Canadians tried to co-opt this phrase themselves in their coat of arms, which includes the Latin a mari usque ad mare. :-) )

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! (Ps 72:8 ESV)

They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:12 ESV)

I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:10 ESV)

The trouble with this little phrase is that it seems to denote a geographical reality, but scholars have pounded their heads against the wall to figure out exactly what geographical reality we’re talking about.

Exegetical Nitpicking

It wouldn’t be right to pass over the passages and on to the dictionaries to solve the problem, so first we have to engage in a little nitpicky investigation. Notice that in the Psalm 72 and Zech 9 passages, the phrase is appended by another stock phrase “from the River to the ends of the earth.” In each of those two cases we’re talking about a messianic king reigning from Jerusalem and establishing dominion. One would expect such passages to recall the ideal borders of the Holy Land (Deut 1:5; Josh 1:3-4) and say something like “He’ll have dominion from Dan to Beersheba!” But instead, we get these other features. The only easy one to identify is “the River”, which is the Euphrates–I don’t think any scholar dissents from this view. The “ends of the earth” which could just mean “everywhere really far away” has sometimes been identified with the Atlantic exit from the Mediterranean, Gibraltar. In the Amos passage, we have something different. We’re not talking about ideal reigns or borders, but starving people roaming for food and “from sea to sea” is a convenient way of saying “helter skelter” or “higgledy-piggledy.”

The Options

Ok, so what are the options for explaining “from sea to sea”?

1. The most common sense option, from my view, is to consider one of the seas to be the Mediterranean and one to be the Indian Ocean or one of its offshoots (Persian Gulf, Red Sea). We don’t have a complete understanding of how the ancient thought about their geography, but those two HUGE bodies of water seem to be the logical choices for me.

2. One could say: Mediterranean sea to Gulf of Aqaba

3. Or: Mediterranean sea to Dead Sea.

4. BUT, the problem is those seas are actual things. “The ends of the earth” may not be. You can’t go on vacation there. Othmar Keel offers an interesting perspective in his important book Symbolism of the Bible here:

Keel uses an artifact called The Babylonian Map of the Woooooooorld (cue big voice radio guy) to show how the ancients understood their geographic position. In a GPS-free world, things can get confusing! There’s a disk of land, surrounded by a circle of water–all land being like a big island. While there’s some truth to this–continents are really just enormous islands–it makes our “sea to sea” thing a bit different. The idea here might be more to say “everywhere in the whole wide world!” which would comport with the “ends of the earth” idea our phrase is combined with in Ps 72 and Zech 9. Another scholar has examined this point and defended this view further: Magne Saebø,  “Vom Grossreich zum Weltreich: Erwägnungen zu Pss 72:8, 89:26; Zech 9:10b,” Vetus Testamentum 28(1978): 83-91. Saebø digs deeper and tries to explain how an ancient formula for describing a territory using east-west, north-south terms (like we might say “coast to coast and border to border”) has now expanded to account for the entire world in a way that doesn’t exactly make sense.

To me, the last option, while not easy to arrive at is probably the best one. Perhaps more archaeological digs and research will give us more examples or clues to explain the “from sea to sea” phrase more closely. When we hear of the messianic king reigning from sea to sea, we should be thinking something like “everywhere!!” 

That’s your Independence Day edition of the Catholic Bible Student. Enjoy it from sea to sea!

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Did the Wave Offering Make the Sign of the Cross?

Wave offerings are prescribed in the Old Testament several times–mainly in Leviticus and Numbers. Normally, the OT sacrificial system leads people to tears of boredom, but something caught my eye in reading about this in Allen P. Ross’s book, Holiness to the Lord. He describes the wave offering ritual thusly:

The wave offering (tenupa) was placed in the offerer’s hands, and then the priest placed his hands beneath those of the offerer, moving them upward and downward, forward and backward, thereby symbolizing the consecration of the gift of God in the sight of all. (p. 192)

Sounds interesting, but what is even more amazing is what he suggests in a footnote:

[R.K.] Harrison ([Leviticus: Introduction and Commentary, IVP 1980] 83) observes the description and interpretation of this ritual and notes that the motion was in the shape of a cross. If this is right, then it is a symbolic foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ.

Interestingly, there is no description of the ritual in the biblical text and some commentators, like Jacob Milgrom, have rejected the wave offering as a “fiction.” Harrison’s description is rooted in later Jewish rabbinic sources. So this may remain a mystery, but if the description of the ritual is accurate, it reminds me of a Catholic priest making the sign of the cross over the gifts on the altar before the sacrifice of the Mass is made. Perhaps this act is foreshadowed by the ancient Israelite wave offering.

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Sheep Judging

I’ve been to the Estes Park Wool Market festival and to the National Western Stock Show, so I have seen some sheep judging (and sheering and bleating). Usually the judges are looking for well-bred animals that conform to the specifications for their category of sheep. Symmetry, good wool, proper bone structure are all rewarded with blue ribbons.

But what about sheep judging in the Bible? Normally, our minds would go straight to Jesus in Matt 25, saying that he will judge between sheep and goat:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the s

Photo by Peter Dutton

Photo by Peter Dutton

heep on his right, but the goats on the left. (Matt 25:31-33 ESV)

Here, the “Son of Man” is not looking for good breeding, but for righteousness and for service to the poor. It’s interesting to put our eternal judgment in metaphorical perspective…it’s like sheep judging. Ok, but what about the OLD Testament?

Interesting you should ask. The OT actually provides a rich sheep-judging background in Ezekiel 34:

17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?  20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. (Ezek 34:17-22 ESV)

So the image of eternal judgment as sheep judging in Matthew 25 is not new, but it does modify the picture Ezekiel paints. For Ezekiel, the Lord judges between “sheep and sheep” – meaning that they are all the same species, but he’s making judgments on an individual basis. In Matt 25, the judging is between “sheep and goats”–a distinction rooted in Ezek 34:17. For Matt 25, the sheep are the “good guys” and the goats are the “bad guys.” The goats end up “on his left” and get condemned (Matt 25:41), while the sheep are “on his right” (Matt 25:33). Matthew’s gospel develops Ezekiel’s metaphor–now a person’s actions reveal his/her true identity as a sheep or a goat.

 

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What Did Ezra Read?

Today, the mass reading comes from Nehemiah, which reports the event of the priest-scribe Ezra reading the law of God to the Jews who have returned from the exile to the land. Here’s the report:

And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. (Neh 8:3 ESV)

So the question is what exactly is he reading? Scholars have put in a lot of sweat equity trying to figure out what exactly the “Book of the Law” was–Deuteronomy? The P material? Some early form of the Pentateuch? But of course, being scholars, they resort to bookish ideas to try to solve this problem of the book. I thought I’d lend a hand by introducing modern technology. :) (That would be a rather Catholic Bible Student kind of thing to do anyway.)

So…here’s where mp3 files come in. Back in the 60’s a mellifluous rabbi recorded himself reading the entire Tanak aloud and a very kind webmaster, has turned these recordings into mp3’s for all of us to enjoy for free. If we can grant Ezra about 6 hours from sun-up to noon to read, then how long would it take to read the Pentateuch in its present Hebrew form?

Using the Mechon-Mamre recordings as our baseline:

  • Genesis – 4:31:59 (4 hours, 31 minutes, 59 seconds)
  • Exodus – 3:14:39
  • Leviticus – 2:07:22
  • Numbers – 2:55:12
  • Deuteronomy – 2:43:28

So, if he read the whole Pentateuch, it would take 15 hours, 32 minutes and 40 seconds, with no breaks! So…he didn’t have time to read the whole Torah. But he could have read all of Deuteronomy and all of Numbers. Or he could have read all of Deuteronomy slowly with breaks and stops for moments of explanation. 

How much of the Pentateuch can you read from sunrise to noon?

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Translating Jeremiah 1:17

In the Old Testament reading for Mass yesterday for the feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, the Lectionary (NAB) translates Jeremiah 1:17 as follows:

But do you gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; 

But if you take a look at most other Bible translations, you’ll see something different. Here I’ll use the ESV as an example:

But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them.

The second line in the NAB sounds kind of nice–that God is encouraging Jeremiah positively and assuring him of his divine benevolence: “I wouldn’t leave you crushed! So don’t be discouraged.” is the message. However, the ESV (along with most other translations) reads the opposite. Here God is saying to the prophet: “Don’t let them discourage you! If you do, then I’ll personally discourage you.” It reads more as a stick than a carrot. God is basically threatening the prophet to do his duty courageously or there will be consequences. So…this brings us to the revised NAB or the NABRE, which was put out in 2011. It reads:

But you, prepare yourself; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Do not be terrified on account of them, or I will terrify you before them;

Here the NABRE reverts to a traditional translation and even emphasizes the severity of the threatened divine action: “I will terrify you.” This is a dramatic turnaround from the previous NAB translation which softened the message. Here the NABRE translators get it right. The message is that God doesn’t want his prophet to be spooked by the powerful people who will oppose his divine message and that if he cowers down and lets them intimidate him into silence, then God himself will step in and “terrify” the prophet in front of his opponents. It’s a kind of encouragement, a tough kind that we don’t like to give or receive, but a kind that is sometimes necessary to get us headed in the right direction.

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Who is Melchizedek?

Melchizedek, a figure so heavily emphasized in the letter to the Hebrews, is shrouded in mystery. Who is this character and why is he so important?

Melchizedek

In the Bible
Melchizedek shows up only three times in the Bible. At first, he is a priest to whom Abraham pays a tithe (Gen 14:20). Melchizedek is here called a “priest of God Most High”; he offers bread and wine and blesses Abraham (Gen 14:18-19). Second, he shows up in a royal coronation psalm, written to celebrate the Davidic king, wherein the Lord “swears” an oath that the king “is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). Lastly, he shows up in Hebrews, which mentions him 8 times and emphasizes that Christ is a high priest in the line of Melchizedek, applying the line from Ps 110 to him (Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 10, 11, 15, 17).

In the Dead Sea Scrolls
Melchizedek appears in a document discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls called 11QMelchizedek or 11Q13. In this text, Melchizedek returns to inaugurate the jubilee year, the “year of Melchizedek’s favor”* according to the text of 11Q13, instead of the “year of the Lord’s favor” in Isa 61:2. The text describes Melchizedek as a “godlike being”* who judges and executes God’s vengence. It cites Ps 82:1 and Ps 7:7-8 to describe him.

In Apocryphal Literature
Melchizedek is mentioned in 2 Enoch 68-73 (“the Exaltation of Melchizedek”) as being conceived without a father, being born from his mother’s dead body as a 3-year-old and continuing the line of priests from Enoch and Seth. The Nag Hammadi text “Tractate Melchizedek” in Codex IX, identifies Melchizedek as Jesus Christ.

Philo
Philo explains Melchizedek as a just king and relates him to reason (logos). See Legum Allegoriarum 3.79-82.

In Early Jewish Literature
Some early Jewish writers equate Melchizedek with the archangel Michael, leader of the heavenly armies. Other early Jewish authorities identify Melchizedek with Shem, the son of Noah (Targumim Pseudo-Jonathan, Neofiti, V, P).

In Early Christianity
There was actually a group of Christian heretics called “Melchizedekians”, referred to by Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion, Book II, chapter 55 (Greek, English excerpts). They regarded Melchizedek as actually greater than Jesus. There is also an early Christian work called Historia de Melchizedek (PG 28:525) attributed to pseudo-Athanasius.

Conclusions
So what to make of all these different identities? Clearly, early Jewish and Christian writers were very interested in Melchizedek’s identity and often sought to explain him in a way that pulled together other concepts–priesthood, redemption, eschatology. The best source, of course, is the Bible. Melchizedek should mainly be seen as an Old Testament priest who serves as a “type” of Christ. He foreshadows Christ’s universal priesthood through which we can be redeemed. The letter to the Hebrews provides the definitive interpretation of Melchizedek–a man, yes, but a man who points to the God-man.

I am indebted to Harold Attridge’s commentary on Hebrews (Hermeneia series, [Fortress Press, 1989]192-95) for pointing me to the right sources. You can find an online reproduction of his essay here.

*See Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 456.

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A Catholic Theology of the Old Testament

One of my friends mentioned to me a couple weeks ago, “No one has written a Catholic theology of the Old Testament in over 40 years.” I took a look and well, he’s right. In fact, if you type “catholic old testament” into Amazon, almost nothing comes up. There have been lots of Old Testament theology books from Protestant scholars, famous ones too: Childs, Goldingay, Waltke/Yu, and of course, Brueggemann.

The exact goal of an Old Testament theology is a little hard to define, but it comes around to explaining how the Old Testament portrays God and man’s relationship with Him. Of course, Christian writers are interested in how the Old Testament prepares the stage for Jesus and the New Testament as well.

A specifically Catholic theology of the Old Testament should contribute all these things, but should add a lot on how to integrate Old Testament teachings with the official doctrine of the Church and her theology. This is not easy to do. Significant changes in Catholic theology have unfolded over the last 50 years, so the task has become even more complicated.

So, what old Catholic Old Testament theologies are there? Well, I just checked out one called Theology of the Old Testament by Paul Heinisch (originally written in German around 1940; published in English in 1965; Review here). Another one was Theology of the Old Testament by Paul van Imschoot (original in French? 1954; vol. 1 English translation in 1965)–three volumes were planned; two were published in French, only one in English.

Perhaps it is time for a new Catholic theology of the Old Testament.

UPDATE:

I found a couple more Catholic theologies of the Old Testament in Frederick Prussner’s book, Old Testament Theology: Its History and Development. Here they are:
Cordero, Garcia. Teologia de la Biblia: vol. 1, Antiguo Testamento. Madrid: Editorial Catolica, 1970.
McKenzie, John L. A Theology of the Old Testament. Garden City: Doubleday, 1974.

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