Category Archives: Old Testament

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!

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.

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.

 

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?

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.

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.

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.

Did Mary Crush the Serpent’s Head?

If you go to any Catholic Church or bookstore, you’re likely to see a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a snake. A statue of the Virgin makes sense, but why does she always have a serpent underfoot? Well, it’s a long story.

The story begins with Gen 3:15, some of the words that God speaks to the serpent after deceiving Adam and Eve, inducing their Fall, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (RSV). So, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t see the connection. It says ‘he shall bruise’ not ‘she’.” And you’re right, for the RSV. But if you look at the Douay-Rheims version, it says, “she shall crush thy head.” What’s going on?

Well, what we have here really is a text-critical problem.

Hebrew Masoretic Text: הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ֣ רֹ֔אשׁ  (hu’ yeshuphka rosh, “he will crush your head”)

Greek Septuagint: αὐτός σου τηρήσει κεφαλήν (“he will watch your head”)

Latin Vulgate: ipsa conteret caput tuum (“she will crush your head”)

Nova Vulgata (1979): ipsum conteret caput tuum (“it will crush your head”)

In the Hebrew, the masculine pronoun hu’ is referring back to the noun zera‘, which is a masculine noun. The other thing to mention is that the verb form, yeshuphka, is third person masculine singular with a second person singular pronominal suffix.  And the vowel pointing could not change it to feminine—the feminine form would include one different letter, not just vowel points. It would be תָּשׁוּפְךָ* (tashuphka). The masculine is not just in the pronoun, but is embedded in the verb.

In Greek, the masculine pronoun autos is used even though the antecedent (spermatos, seed) is neuter. It seems that the masculine is preferred here by the translator because the seed/offspring of Eve would presumably be a person, not a thing.

The Nova Vulgata uses ipsum, a neuter pronoun referring to a neuter noun (seed, semen). But St. Jerome’s Vulgate is the outlier here, reading ipsa, which here is the feminine nominative singular (not the nom/acc neuter plural) and the Douay-Rheims version is based on the Vulgate. I should also add that the Nova Vulgata is the current official version of the Bible promulgated by the Vatican.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia defends the Vulgate text of this passage thusly:

The reading “she” (ipsa) is neither an intentional corruption of the original text, nor is it an accidental error; it is rather an explanatory version expressing explicitly the fact of Our Lady’s part in the victory over the serpent, which is contained implicitly in the Hebrew original. The strength of the Christian tradition as to Mary’s share in this victory may be inferred from the retention of “she” in St. Jerome’s version in spite of his acquaintance with the original text and with the reading “he” (ipse) in the old Latin version. (emphasis added)

This explanation is rather generous, but it’s more helpful than saying that we just don’t know why Jerome translated this way.

Interestingly, Jerome’s translation made it into a very important papal statement, the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Pope Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus:

Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it triumphantly to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.

I like the idea of the Virgin Mary having an “immaculate foot,” but I still think this statement is based on a flaw in Jerome’s translation. Interestingly, when John Paul II took up the Protoevangelium in his audience on Dec 17, 1986 he regards Christ as the agent of “crushing” not Mary.

Now, of course, from a theological perspective, every Christian shares in Christ’s victory over sin and the devil. The New Testament substantiates this: But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13 RSV) “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:4 RSV) Mary, as the most Christian Christian, is as JPII teaches in the above-cited text, “the one who first shares in that victory over sin won by Christ.” So all Christians get to “crush the serpent’s head” through Christ’s victory on the cross and the Virgin Mary is the first to share in that victory. Are the statues based on a faulty translation? Yes. But are they still theologically correct? Yes.

Ancient Near Eastern Texts and the Bible

There are quite a few ancient Near Eastern texts that shed light on our understanding of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. The documents come from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Ugarit and other places. Their similarity in language, culture and historical context is immensely helpful in understanding the Old Testament more clearly. There have been two major publications of these texts in English translation to which scholars refer. The first collection, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, was edited by James Pritchard and published first in 1950, with a revised edition in 1955. For many years, the “ANET” was a standard reference for Old Testament scholars. However, in the 1990’s the ANET was replaced by a three volume work called The Context of Scripture, edited by William Hallo. This “COS” is now the standard scholarly presentation of ancient Near Eastern texts in translation. However, as you could imagine, the ANET and COS are not identical. They offer mostly the same texts, but COS omits some texts included in ANET and ANET omits many texts included in COS. And what if you find a reference to ANET, but need to locate it in COS? Lots of confusion could result from all of this! Fortunately, a certain Kevin P. Edgecomb, has provided a very helpful cross index of ANET and COS with notations as to which texts are included and excluded from the two publications. If you ever find yourself comparing texts from these two translations, his cross index will be indispensible to you.

Dei Verbum, the Minor Prophets and a Catholic Textbook: A Case Study


The Vatican II document on Scripture, Dei Verbum, has some very specific language about how to read the Bible. The document states, “Since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out.” (sec. 21) Also it states, “the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and in turn shed light on it and explain it.” (sec. 16, footnotes removed)

So, as Catholics, we are supposed to read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old. They go hand-in-hand. We are supposed to pay attention to the “content and unity of the whole of Scripture.” So let’s put these ideas to the test in a miniature case study:

1. The New Testament says, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 2:20-21 ESV)

2. A common Catholic textbook on the Old Testament commenting on Haggai says, “Haggai’s enthusiastic nationalism and hope for independence led him to extol Zerubbabel as the person God would use to bring blessing to the land.” (Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament. New York: Paulist Press, 1984. p. 439)

The textbook’s explanation of Haggai certainly sounds as if the author believes that Haggai’s prophecy about Zerubbabel was produced by Haggai’s will because of his nationalism and hope for political independence and not by the Holy Spirit. The oracle is a result of Haggai’s personal thoughts, struggles, weaknesses and dreams. That is, it was produced by “the will of man.” But this understanding is directly in opposition to the understanding laid out in 2 Peter 2:20-21. There, the author emphasizes thoroughly that the prophecies of Scripture are not the product of human thinking or striving, but of the Holy Spirit’s leading and inspiration.

It seems it would be quite difficult to reconcile 2 Peter 2:20-21 and the statement of the textbook. Oh wait, Dei Verbum just makes the problem worse. It says we are supposed to read Scripture as a unity, Old and New Testaments together interpreting one another. Here, 2 Peter is telling us how to read the prophets. So, if we accept Dei Verbum, then we should follow 2 Peter’s guidance.

The point is simple, the prophets spoke “under the influence of God”(2 Pet 2:21 NAB). They did not make up their prophecies because of their pet political issues or their psychological problems. God spoke through them. And to read the Bible in a Catholic way, we must accept this simple teaching of the Bible and the Church.

(Photo: Siena, Cathedral of S. Maria, west facade, head of prophet Haggai: ca. 1280-1300 from mtholyoke.edu)