Archive for April, 2012

I have for the last two months devoured the Harry Potter books. To tell the truth, I have been consumed by them. I can’t imagine how anyone was able to wait for each book to be released. What drove me from one book to the next was my interest in the characters that Rowling created and the world she placed them in. (Yes, spoilers ahead)

“Character is plot,” so the adage goes, and Harry Potter is no exception. Each book beautifully conveys Harry’s emotional turmoil as he endures physical pain and loss of loved ones. Evil’s demise is inevitable but not easy for the modest Potter and his friends. One of the more interesting relationships in the book is the one between the book’s villain and its hero. Voldemort, willing to rip apart his soul to preserve his life, is greatly feared even by those who love him most. He trusts no one and pursues power at all costs. Although Voldemort has immense magical abilities, his weakness is his own dread of death. He renounces love and refuses friends. He is a great wizard, but as his snake-like character implies, is less than human.

Harry is not ambitious for power. If anything, he desires normalcy. Circumstances force Harry down a path that he does not want to go, toward fame he does not desire. He realizes that he has to walk that path, and he does faithfully adhering to the good. His bravery grows to the point where he does not fear death. He suffers numerous losses – his parents, his godfather, his beloved friend and headmaster of the school he attends. Despite his losses, he continues to develop friendships. He dares to love and refuses to back away from adversity.

The book never celebrates death, but it never indicates that death is something to be feared. Perhaps the greatest lesson that Harry learns is that death doesn’t have the final say. Voldemort executes Harry thinking that if he killed Harry, he would win the war – he would be invincible. Harry’s act of love, his self-sacrifice for his friends, in the end was the moment of Harry’s victory, not Voldemort’s. That moment illustrated the greatest contrast in character between the both of them. Voldemort, who feared death and felt no remorse in killing, showed his own grotesque lack of humanity in his self-driven act against Harry. Harry shows the fullness of his humanity. He refuses to even draw his wand because he realizes that he must die to save his friends. The love that he has for his friends and the love they have for him saved him, but Voldemort died weak and alone.

As Harry progresses toward maturity, so does each book. Rowling does a wonderful job capturing the emotions of a teenage boy facing arduous trials in life; she does an equally good job at projecting those emotions onto the reader. Yes, the books are largely written for teens, but they deal with topics that most adults rarely think about. Rowling’s world possesses a marvelous depth; it is a world that for the most part exists only in the imagination but deals with significant issues in life. I don’t suggest that you can find the meaning of life, the universe and everything in these books. I think you will find the books worth a read.


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As I was listening to my pastor preach a sermon on Jesus healing the leper in Mark 1, I was struck by the wonderful mercy that our Savior had toward the untouchables of his time. Take a look at some of these Markan allusions to the Old Testament Law:

Leviticus 13:45-46:

 “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Mark 1:40-42:

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Leviticus 15:25-27

 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her menstrual impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean.Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity. And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity.And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening.

Mark 5:25-34

And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years,and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.”  And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

Leviticus 22:1

Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people. – The law is for the priests, but it implies that anyone can be unclean for the dead.

Mark 5:35-42:

While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?”But overhearingwhat they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James.They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.”And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age),

What a wonderful thing that Jesus is not tarnished by our uncleaness. He shows us mercy and grace and powerfully heals us of our sin sickness.

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All that remains to answer is how the two sides coalesce. The answers, of course, are varied. Wellhausen proposed that the differences reflect different strata within Israel’s history.  His theory divides the Pentateuch into 4 different sources: J – Jahwist, E – Elohist, D – Deuteronomist, and P – Priestly. This theory is know as the Graf-Wellhausen Theory or the Documentary Hypothesis. The Jahwist is the earliest source and represented the idea that Israel would be able to build altars and sacrifice to God anywhere in the land (must like the first post in the series). The Elohist was next followed by the Deuteronomist (who is responsible for the authorship of Deuteronomy). The D source was produced around the time of King Josiah; his reforms reflect much of what Deuteronomy demands of Israel. The latest source  – the Priestly source – was produced after Israel’s exile. I am primarily dealing with Deuteronomy because I think if we understand Deuteronomy’s teaching, we will see that it integrates well with what we saw in the first post.

The basic idea behind the source theory is that it maps the historical development of the Israelite religion beginning with the simple worship of Jahwistic cult and progressing to the monotheistic, strigent, law-keeping Judaism. Wellhausen says, “It is only in Deuteronomy…that one sees the root of the matter, and recognizes its connection with the anxiety for a strict monotheism, and for the elimination of the popular heathenish elements.”  The goal of the Deuteromistic reforms was to restrict worship to one place (Jerusalem) and to eliminate the degenerate “pagan” practices at that time in Israel’s history. Therefore, Deuteronomy only really had applicability to the people of Israel in the Davidic/Solomonic reigns onward:

One step indeed is taken towards investing it with an historical character, in so far as [Deuteronomy] is put into the mouth of Moses; but the beginning thus made keeps within modest limits. Moses only lays down the Law; for its execution he makes no provision as regards to his own time, nor does he demand it for the immediate future. Rather it is represented as not destined to come into force until the people shall have concluded the conquest of the country and secured a settled peace…Until the building of Solomon’s temple the unity of worship according to it had, properly speaking, never had any existence; and, moreover, it is easy to read between the lines that even after that date it was more a pious wish than a practical demand.

In identifying the “place God will choose” as Jerusalem and some of the law, Wellhausen requires a later time for Deuteronomy’s composition. Wellhausen and many other historical critics date the Deuteromistic source in or shortly after the time of Josiah’s reign.

I think one of the more damaging critiques of the Documentary Hypothesis is the fact that the science of dividing the Pentateuch into its sources is speculative. Also, the practice of dividing sources is prone to ignoring the literary features that glue the Pentateuch stories and laws together. The analyses of the historical critics are helpful (I have enjoyed reading Wellhausen). I do think we ought consider the Pentateuch as a literary whole.

We should note that Deuteronomy does not explicitly name Jerusalem as the place of worship. I would go as far to say that the phrase “the place which God will choose” does not even imply permanence. The phrase, rather, implies God’s sovereignty over the manner in which Israel worships him. Instead of reading the phrase forward in Israel’s history (to Jerusalem), we should read it backward into the formative event of Israel’s life as a nation: Sinai/Horeb. McConville states, “[T]he ‘place the LORD will choose’ brings for ever into Israel’s life the principle that the covenant must always be renewed in a life of decision that finds itself constantly at Horeb, being called into covenant in an open history consisting of many times and (perhaps) many places.” The point of this call for Israel to meet in that place was for them to renew and remember the covenant they made with the LORD.

Furthermore, the law of the altar (Deuteronomy 12:2-5) does not necessarily suggest that all sacrificial activity will occur at a central, permanent location as opposed to the Covenant Code (Ex 20:23-25), which allows a “freer” exercise of Israel’s religion. The literary choice of word “place” is set up in direct contrast to the “places” where Israel’s neighbors set up pillars and altars to their gods. Not only does Yahweh demand worship for himself alone, but he also demands that the place worship is “known to belong wholly and unequivocally to Yahweh” (McConville). The law, like the rest of Deuteronomy, emphasizes the need for Israel to completely dedicate themselves to Yahweh.

Both ideas of Israel’s worship do not represent different ideas with Israel’s history as much as they fill the theological idea of Israel’s worship with significance. Israel’s redemptive beginning continually brings light to the manner in which they are to live in the land, how they are to worship, and how they are to treat one another. The biblical idea of “sanctuary” touches both the spiritual and ethical dimensions of life. Israel cannot divide their interests; they must live holistically – ceremonial feasts andsocial justice, obedience and sacrifice. Israel’s identity of children of God founds God’s commands. Israel’s proper response as God’s children, is obey those commands with hearts fully dedicated to loving God and neighbor, and keeping themselves from the profane practices that soiled the land before Israel’s arrival.

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The other side I wanted to present is that the Old Testament, Deuteronomy in particular, wants to centralize worship “to the place where God chooses to make his name dwell.” This motif stands out like red ink on the pages of Deuteronomy:

“These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earthyou shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go,and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.

You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes,  for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you…then to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the Lord.

Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, but at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you.

You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present,but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose. – Deuteronomy 12:1-19 (approximately)

I’m sorry for the long quote. Deuteronomy 12 kicks off the this unique feature and binds the laws that Moses dictates to the people around this centralization theme. In a similar way to the other Pentateuchal books, Israel was required to worship God differently than the current occupants of Canaan. Unlike those books, Deuteronomy intermingles laws regarding purity with laws regarding social justice. The centralization theme provides that context for this assortment of laws:

Then to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the Lord.And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male servants and your female servants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. – Deuteronomy 12:11-12.

You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always…At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.- Deuteronomy 14:22-29 (approximately).

Law keeping has two axes: 1) love God, 2) love neighbor. The central location for feasts and sacrifices is the intersection of both axes. In this way, Israel, time after time, is reminded of God’s redemptive act and love toward an undeserving and hard-hearted people and their responsibility to care for their brothers, the poor, the widows, and the fatherless.

Another point to notice, although English obscures the point (you may have a footnote in your Bible), is that the “you” in Deuteronomy is often a singular “you” (not y’all). We should rather call it a collective “you.” Israel is addressed as a whole, not as individual tribes. They are unified under God, committed to one law, and act collectively as one people. Von Rad sums the idea up nicely:

[All] these things, the products of nature and civilisation, are gifts, and in fact blessings accruing from salvation, which Jahweh’s love desires to present to his people…Thus in Deuteronomy everything is interrelated and gathered together to give a unified theological conspectus – one Jahweh, one (comprehensive) Israel, one revelation (תורה), one promised land (נחלה), one place of worship, one prophet.

Their unique status as a nation is established by Yahweh’s salvific love and their commitment to Deuteronomic idea of oneness. Their rejection of Yahweh and his revelation through the Torah is a forfeiture of that divine blessing. Their mistreatment of the poor also counts as a rejection of God’s law (see Amos 8 as an example). The continual, practical reminder of their “oneness” emphasizes that their wholeness as a nation revolves on their full-hearted commitment to love of God and neighbor.

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Perhaps one of the more curious features of the Torah is how it conflates two seemingly different attitudes toward places of worship. First, the Patriarchs built altars and sacrificed wherever God revealed himself to them:

At every place where they take up their abode or make a passing , the fathers of the nation, according to this authority, erect altars, set up memorial stones, plant localities, dig wells. This does not take place at indifferent and casual localities, but at Shechem and Bethel in Ephraim, at Hebron and Beersheba in Judah, at Mizpah, Mahanaim and Penuel in Gilead; nowhere but at famous and immediately holy places of worship. (Wellhausen)

The Israelites were given the authorization to build an altar wherever God makes himself known as their fathers before them. This attitude is summed in the book of the Covenant:

 Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed. (Ex 20:24-26):

When God reveals to his people, they devote themselves to reverence and worship. Not only do all the places mentioned are important places in the land of Canaan as Wellhausen noticed, but the broad distribution of God’s revelation points to the idea that the land itself is God’s chosen sanctuary.

When Israel obeys God’s word, God promised to walk among his people and live in their midst (Lev 26:11-12, Deut 23:15). Israel’s chiefest responsibility, then, is to keep themselves and the land clean from any kind of sin. The land is a special gift to them from Yahweh; it is the place where he has chosen to live among his people.

Interestingly, Israel’s initial act in the land, herem – devotion to destruction – of their sinful enemies, is the harbinger of what would happen to them if they were to pervert the true worship of Yahweh. The Canaanite’s sinful cultic practices preceded their own desrtuction. Idolatry pollutes God’s sanctuary (Lev 20:3).  When Israel turns from Yahweh to idols and neglects Yahweh’s law, God will destroy and exile them from the land so that “the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it” (Lev 26:34-35). The land will rest from Israel’s unclean and sinful behavior before God brings them out of exile.

The land is not only important for Israel because it is where they their home. The land is important because God chose to make his home among his people in that place. The land is identified as the place where God blesses his people and reveals himself. Exile is the worst kind of judgement against Israel for it evidences God’s abandonment, albeit temporary, of his people.


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What is Progress?

I believe the whole idea of Progress is ambiguous in our society. I am not referring to, in particular, social programs or science. I am talking about what makes Progress “progress.”  In other words, how can we determine what true Progress is? Some sort of social contract? Whatever best advances the goals of evolution? To love your neighbor as yourself? These points all still lack definition. Who’s to say what the social contract is? Who possesses a clear knowledge of the goals of evolution? What kind of love do we owe our neighbor? Even if something “feels right,” we cannot tell if it “feels right” because it is right or because it is a part of what our social fabric determines to be right. We have no way of knowing whether our current pursuit of Progress furthers it or deadens it. Only a omniscient being can deliver answers to these questions.

Progress is as ambiguous as it is non-binding in our society. What obligates us to follow a social contract? If we cannot tell that the contract furthers Progress or deadens it, then how can we require people to bind themselves to it? Even if were able to say that the social contract furthers Progress, we would have as much trouble requiring people to follow it as we would in requiring people to believe the truth – as ridiculous as that sounds.  Only an omniscient authority can mandate that we progress.

These points are important because they show us how important morality is to the idea of Progress. We cannot relegate morality to the relativist and then call people to a revolution of social or evolutionary Progress. We have no basis on which to stand. Until we gain proper moral grounding, the debate over what Progress is and why we should care will continue to be drowned in a deluge of rhetoric and spin. I do not merely mean, that we need to change the laws of the land. I think that Progress begins with individual hearts and minds that are dedicated to understanding morality’s source (i.e. God) and living according to that morality. Until then, we live as the Israelites did without a king, “each did what was right in their own eyes,” and the result is that we regress as a society – intellectually and morally.

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After struggling with my own conscience the last few days  over whether or not the Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ) module was worth a $112 investment, I was finally able to convince myself to buy the module for Accordance (my wife will not confirm this story). BHQ contains a more robust listing of the textual critical notes than its predecessor BHS.  For those of you whose eyes just glazed over, just know that in antiquity, many different texts witness to the “original” Old Testament. BHQ compiles many of the known witnesses and lists the differences in the margin and provides a commentary on why the editors prefer one witness over another.

I needed to find a good variant to test. I flipped over to Deuteronomy 32:8 where in the Masoretic Text, it reads:

When the Most High causes the nations to inherit
When he separated the sons of Adam (or Man)
He caused the borders of the people to stand
According to the number of the sons of Israel

In other texts, the same verse reads:

When the Most High causes the nations to inherit
When he separated the sons of Adam (or Man)
He caused the borders of the people to stand
According to the number of the sons of God (also angels of God, sons of the gods, heavenly court)

The former reading is attested in the Masortetic Text and the latter reading is attested in the Old Greek (Septuagint) and Dead Sea Scrolls. Some English translations chose the latter reading (ESV, NRSV, NET, and commentators such as Alter and McConville). Many of the English translations that I read (JPS, KJV, NIV, HCSB, NASB) opted for “sons of Israel.” Which is it?

BHQ prefers the “Sons of God” reading. They explain:

That v. 8 represents a deliberate emendation for theological motives is reasonably certain (McCarthy, Tiqqune Sopherim, 211–14). Even more interesting is the series of subsequent corrections to which [the Masoretic Text] was subjected as a consequence of an emended v. 8, showing that the phenomenon of theological corrections was not something that happened in a half-hearted way. It required more than the convictions of an isolated scribe to have effected five further interrelated changes (Gen 46:20, 21, 22, 27; Exod 1:5).

They are, of course, hinting that the scribe(s) who changed the text from Sons of God(s) to Sons of Israel did so because they were strict monotheists. The correlation of the “Sons of Israel” to the nations in this passage is that both groups are 70 in number. In Genesis 10, 70 nations are listed. In Gen 46:2-27 and Exodus 1:5, 70 “sons of Israel” are listed.

I also think we can list one more theological motivation for the change. Angels are not the only beings referred to as “sons of God;” Israel is as well: “You are the sons of the Lord your God” (Deut 14:1). The scribe may have read “sons of God”  as “sons of Israel” and decided to change the text to reflect that interpretation (thus insulating the text from a polytheistic reading as well). The editor of the NET Bible explains:

“Sons of God” is undoubtedly the original reading; the [Masoretic Text] and [Septuagint] have each interpreted it differently. The [Masoretic Text] assumes that the expression “sons of God” refers to Israel (cf. Hos 1:10), while [the Septuagint] has assumed the phrase refers to the angelic heavenly assembly (Pss 29:1, 89:6, cf. as well Ps 82).

I agree with the NET. Sons of God was probably the “original” reading and best explains both the Old Greek and Masoretic variants. How, then, should we understand “sons of God?”  Alter points to an earlier stage in the development of Israel’s monotheism where YHWH is “surrounded by a celestial entourage of divine beings or lesser deities.” I doubt that the Deuteromistic author would consciously advocate such a view (see Deut 32:17-29). On the other hand, McConville and Tigay both understand “sons of God” to refer to angelic divine council. This concept has great evidence for it as attested to by Pss 29:1, 89:6, 82, and Job 1. The text is, therefore, pointing out God’s specific love for Israel over the other nations. He assigned angels to other nations while YHWH himself is over Israel.

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“Theologians are often terribly adamant in denying that we know ‘God in himself,'” writes John Frame in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, “Unfortunately, they fail to clarify the meaning of that rather ambiguous phrase.” Of course, we do not know God exhaustively or know him as he knows himself. If we mean “God in himself” by those phrases, then I have no problem with that statement. Can we know God truly or do our minds relativize “facts” about God so that we cannot know him accurately? Our minds are limited and fallen. Our own knowledge of God is under constant reformation and reformulation. Yet, I would not want to go as far as to say that our minds completely obscure our knowledge of him. Allow me to echo Frame once again:

Some people have argued that because our knowledge of God comes through revelation and then through our senses, reason, and imagination, it cannot be a knowledge of God as He really is but only of how He appears to us. It is certainly true that we know God as He appears to us, but must we therefore assume that these appearances are false, that they do not tell us the truth? We would assume that only if we were to buy the Kantian presupposition that truth is always relativized when it enters our consciousness, that reality is forever hidden from us. But that is an unscriptural concept. In Scripture, reality (God in particular) is known, and our senses, reason, and imagination are not barriers to this knowledge;  they do not necessarily distort it. Rather, our senses, reason, and imagination are themselves revelations of God – means that God uses to drive His truth home to us. God is Lord; He will not shut out His world.

We are his creation. As Christians, we are his people. Furthermore, God is able, as Lord of Creation, to overcome our deficiencies as fallen creatures and communicate i.e. reveal himself to us. Our knowledge of God is a gift of grace and mercy to a thoroughly undeserving people. Out constant struggle to understand God and Scripture illustrates the depth of our fallen creatureliness. Our knowledge of God and our ability to act on that knowledge is the picture of how the most high God bends low to show mercy to us. Thus, knowledge of God – true knowledge of God – ought to increase our humility and widen our praise, but let us not think our minds are too “human” to accurately know the “divine.”

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I am not speaking of, unfortunately, Berlin, Germany. I refer to Adele Berlin’s fantastic work on Biblical Parallelism. I read this book a year ago in Hebrew class. I originally intended to use it as a source for my term paper on OT genre, but Berlin convinced me to pull up a chair and stay a while.  Berlin’s work is valuable for any one who desires to know more about Old Testament parallelism. I haven’t finished the book yet, but her chapters on Poetry and Parallelism and Parallelism and Linguistics have made my extended stay worth it.

Berlin defines parallelism as “the correspondence of one thing with another.” Parallelism occurs all over the place in the Hebrew Bible. Even narrative contains parallelism. What differentiates poetry from any other genre is parallelism’s dominance in the text. In narrative portions of the Bible, this key feature is still difficult to detect. Take Genesis 31:36-39:

“What is my offense?
What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me?
For you have felt through all my goods;
what have you found of all your household goods?
Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two.
These twenty years I have been with you.
Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried,
and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks.
What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you.
I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night.

Obviously, Jacob’s speech is elevated and contains parallelisms, but none of the major English translations treat it as poetry. Other sections are much easier to classify:

Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel.

Genesis 49:5-7 moves like poetry. Though the parallelism is more obvious in the Hebrew text, the first two lines have the same syntactic feature of being verbless clauses. Even though each element is not parallel to each other (e.g. Simeon and Levi = weapons of violence), the dominance of parallelism compels to compare the two lines. Simeon and Levi are united as brothers, and what unifies them is their attitude of violence (referencing the massacre of Shechem). And on the poem goes…

Parallelism can occur within a line or across lines; it can be as small as a sound or as large as a metaphor. Berlin’s nearly countless examples illustrate that parallelism is semantic (e.g. word pairs) as well as grammatical (e.g. morphology).

All this is to say that I love to rediscover the books that I have either read all the way through at one point or read part of and put down. If it’s a good book, why not pull up a chair and stay a while?

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In his commentary on the Pentateuch, Abraham ibn Ezra, a medieval rabbinic commentator, lays out five methods of interpretation. Excepting his own, he subjects each method to caustic ridicule. The ridicule, actually, is quite beautiful from a literary standpoint, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

The question of how to practice law after the destruction of the Temple drove the formation of Rabbinic Judaism . Their teachings and detailed explanation of Torah Law became known as  the Oral Law (i.e. Mishnah and Talmud). Eventually, the Oral Law was canonicized in Rabbinic circles. On the flip side of Rabbinic Judaism is the Karaite viewpoint of the Hebrew Bible. They held that the Tanakh only was authoritative and rejected the Oral Law as a a part of the canon.

Ibn Ezra “undresses” the Karaite vision of the Hebrew Bible in his introduction to his commentary. Ibn Ezra recognizes that “you will not find one commandment with all of its requirements explained.” This point is important because certain laws in the Torah carry the punishment of excommunication (being “cut off” to be more exact”). If the laws are not spelled out, how can you avoid this punishment? How can the law be kept? According to Ibn Ezra, you need the Oral Law to explain how to keep the Torah.

Ibn Ezra’s observation continues to be a valid question for interpreters today. For Christians, however, the rabbinic tradition is not an option. The lack of explanations casts doubt on whether or not the Torah was ever meant to be read as a law book. Of course, such readings still endure. We should not retreat to the New Testament and abandon the Torah. The Oral Law may not be in the in the Christian canon, but the Torah Law is. Beyond that point, the issue gets murky. Should we seek strict literary solutions? How much does historical background play into interpretation? The answer is not easy. We will continue to struggle with this important issue, but, in so doing, we will be blessed by the richness that understanding the Torah will bring.

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