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Thoughts on Moving from Numbers to Deuteronomy

Thoughts on Moving from Numbers to Deuteronomy

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (CBC)I’ve completed the second chapter of Deuteronomy in the CBC commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and it may surprise some that I’ve felt a bit of a letdown as I moved from the variety of liturgy and laws, though interspersed with narrative, that is Numbers. It might surprise you less if you realize that my personal theology (and I think we all have one), is built on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, though not necessarily in that order. That’s the order in which I started studying the books seriously, however.

For most Christian readers of Hebrew scripture, I think that getting into Deuteronomy is a bit of a relief. Reading Genesis through the first half of Exodus goes pretty smoothly, but then one bogs down on all those details of building the sanctuary, and you get them twice: instructions and implementation. Then when you’ve worked your way through that you get to Leviticus, which contains so much liturgy, along with obscure laws on issues we generally don’t face. Numbers is a little less dismal, and then Deuteronomy starts to give us propositional theology that we can get our teeth into.

I was there before I spent serious time in Leviticus. I don’t claim expertise; that takes incredible amounts of study. But I’ve spent a great deal of time on the text. There’s a great deal that one can learn from that liturgy, including the simple fact that liturgy matters. Those of us who are not “high church” tend to think that the way in which worship is conducted isn’t very important. It’s mostly a time to accomplish our goals, often divided between “worship” (when that’s defined as musical), and “sharing the Word,” and of course those who believe one or the other is critical can have some great debates.

But we can learn a great deal from the ancient liturgy, and I think we can either increase or diminish our impact on the world around us through constructive liturgy. This is not an argument for high church liturgy. I am also not arguing that worship only takes place in worship services, much less that worship can be equated to music. All our activities should be done in worship to our creator.

But there is a time for us to act out for ourselves and for others the nature of the church as a community, and coming together at a common place and at a common time to share in activities as a community is, I think a critical part of this. Unfortunately, we have a variety of ways to avoid this. We may reject gathering together entirely. It may be a time when an ordained pastor occupies most of the time explaining to us what he believes we should believe. It may be a time to experience an emotional high as part of musical or artistic endeavors. It may be a scripted program that is ancient and could be meaningful, but is carried out by rote.

But it doesn’t have to be any of those things. It can be, instead, a time when we gather together and join in activities that encourage one another and prepare us to face the world around us as effective witnesses for Jesus. I don’t think there’s a particular set of activities that make this happen. I do think it’s possible because I have seen and experienced it.

God doesn’t just communicate in one way. Hebrews 1:1-4 makes it clear, and presents Jesus as the ultimate communication from our creator (amongst other things that reinforce that idea). The Torah (or Pentateuch) presents these different ways. We have liturgy helping to teach the people and to shape them into God’s people. We have story, showing us people experiencing God’s activity in the world, and we have theological propositions. I kind of prefer the liturgy, but that’s just me. Here we have all three demonstrated.

I think that neglecting one or the other leaves us with potentially skewed views of God. We need both the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8), and the God who is sorry that He created humanity (Genesis 6:6). The same God also forgives a poor Israelite who can’t even afford a bird as a sin offering (Leviticus 5:11).

So I guess I won’t be let down and instead enjoy the change!

(For studying the Bible as story, try Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure by Dr. Bruce Epperly.)

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Deuteronomy and Introductions Redux

Study Bibles and CBCA second law and a second note on introductions to biblical books. Goes together, no?

I completed my reading of Numbers along with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary yesterday and today read the introduction from the section on Deuteronomy. In it the author, Eugene H. Merrill (professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) argues forcefully for Mosaic authorship and for an early (1446 BC) date for the exodus. In school I learned 1445, but the majority position is that the exodus occurred in the mid to late 13th century, and critical scholars in general would reject at least direct Mosaic authorship in favor of a date of writing in the 7th century BC.

In the course of presenting these positions and his basis for them he makes the statement (p. 449) that “there is absolutely no objective evidence that compels a late provenance for the book.” I would first point out that it is useful to realize that evidence rarely compels, especially in historical situations such as this. Secondly, there is evidence that would point to the composite nature of the book and some that would suggest a later historical setting. Certain Merrill, along with many others, has provided explanations for this apparent evidence, but having provided an alternate explanation, however convincing it may be to the one providing it, does not make the evidence go away.

I like to look at introductions in various study Bibles. I’m not sure why, as the usual result is simply to raise my blood pressure a bit. In this case I have at hand The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and the NLT Study Bible. Out of these, only the NLT Study Bible would tend to agree with Merrill. That count is not important, however, because it doesn’t constitute a good survey of quality scholarship on the issue.

The problem with the lot of these is that they each assert their position with confidence and provide a couple of notes on things that favor that position, but give very few reasons why anyone might disagree. If you read the conservative introductions, you might well conclude that the critical scholars who disagree are just perverse, while if you read the more critical introductions, you might not be aware that there are modern conservative scholars who would hold to such views as a 1446 BC date for the exodus or Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy around 1406 BCE.

You may think I’m being unfair, as each introduction must be short, especially in the study Bibles. Merrill’s can be somewhat longer as he is writing for a substantial commentary on just three books of the Bible. But my point is not to chastise the scholars for their positions or for espousing them in their introductions. I do find their language a bit intemperate, and I would also point out that it doesn’t take many words to indicate that other scholars disagree with at least some indication of why that might be.

My interest is in what you do about it. I’d suggest strongly that you don’t surround yourself with books that agree with you and that come from scholars that are in your own religious/denominational tradition. I am generally convinced, though I wouldn’t use “compelling” for any evidence, that the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, is a composite text containing some ancient traditions, but built up with case law and later additions and adaptations. Yet I will carefully read Merrill’s commentary as I also read through the Hebrew text. What’s more, I can predict right now that I will learn a great deal from Merrill’s work.

The reason I can do that is that I’ve read this introduction, and while I disagree with the dating and authorship section, it is followed by a discussion of structure and themes that is extremely helpful. I frequently encounter the idea that a certain writer is just a liberal, or too conservative for me, so why should I read his material. We could go for “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). But I think perhaps Provebers 27:21 is better:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
    so a person is tested by being praised. (NRSV)

Or as I translated it for a Tweet (I like literal in this type of poetry):

I really need to read someone saying that there is “no compelling evidence” for the position I hold. If I only read The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I would never be pushed to look more closely at the evidence.

I think it is particularly important in using study Bibles, because people seem to get the idea that whatever is in the notes is what “scholars” believe regarding the passage. They often also decide that if “scholars” believe it, then they must too. But scholars as a group rarely agree on anything. It’s one of their best features, because they all want to refine things and find some new, good ideas. The results are sometimes crazy, but nothing like as bad as the results of not doing so.

Introductions are hard to write and often don’t prove that useful. But using a range of them can be quite enlightening!

Sacrificing for Joy

Sacrificing for Joy

The Old Testament Lectionary passage for the first Sunday in Lent, cycle C is Deuteronomy 26:1-11.  It’s kind of an odd text for this season.  You might almost use it as a text for Fat Tuesday.

I’m going to comment more on the lectionary texts this week, if for no other reason than because I’ve been asked to teach the weekly Lectionary at Lunch group at First United Methodist Church of Pensacola for my friend Rev. Geoffrey Lentz.  I plan to provide another set of comparisons between various study Bibles and what they contribute to the study.  But first I want to note two things from this passage.

First, Christians often assume that grace is our contribution to religion and that the Israelite religion was one of works and rituals.  But in the confession of faith in this passage, Israel’s faith and worship is clearly rooted in God’s gracious acts to Israel.  God reaches out first and people respond.

Second, the people bring a sacrifice of first fruits, and it’s not just given in thanks, it’s given for the purpose of having a celebration together.

It’s easy for us to look down on rituals and ceremonies or on good works in general.  Often this reflects a lack of such works on our own part.  But the real issue is not whether one worships in high or low liturgy, or whether one engages in good works.  Rather, it’s where those acts of worship and good deeds are rooted.  When we are expressing God’s grace through our deeds, and responding to God’s grace in worship, our worship will tend to be filled with God’s presence, and truly be good.

Without being rooted in God’s grace, we will engage in empty rituals and deeds done for the purpose of earning God’s favor.  Such acts are dead and do not lead to joy.

Note that the confession comes before the party, just as God’s salvation comes prior to the response.  That is a pattern that is repeated in both the Old Testament and the New.

Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy: A First Look

Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy: A First Look

This is a first look, before I have read or used the book extensively.  I have simply looked through it, read the preface and some introductions, and laid out a plan for reading and study using the volume.  I intend to “blog through” rather than simply read and review this volume.  See the end of the post for how I will proceed.

Those who know me will be completely unsurprised that, when I was given the opportunity to review a volume in this commentary series, I chose this one.  There are two interlocking reasons:  1)  I love studying the Torah from every perspective I can manage, and 2) I believe Christians who neglect this part of the Bible also miss some of the depth of their own theology and tradition.

Yet few Christians are really interested in Torah, and it is difficult to get them to study it.  So while I have studied from much more complex commentaries on the topic, such as Jacob Milgrom’s three volume commentary on Leviticus (here is my review), I can’t pass those on to Sunday School classes or to pastors I’m encouraging to get started in preaching or teaching from these books.

Thus I am very much attracted to the basic idea of this commentary series, starting with its use of the NLT second edition text, which is an excellent foundation on which to build a commentary for everyone.  Too frequently commentary translations are done in a technical fashion, designed to illustrate the commentator’s points.  This is not a bad thing for a scholarly audience, or even for those past the first stages of study.  Indeed it is necessary.  But it doesn’t help much with that first study.

I’m encouraged by the ambitious goal set forth in the General Editor’s preface:  “… the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary aims at helping teachers, pastors, students, and laypeople understand every thought contained in the Bible.”  Yes, it’s ambitious, but it is aimed at the right group of people.  If one doesn’t keep one’s eye on the goal, then one will never get anywhere.

So how is this volume laid out?

First, it includes the full scriptural text from the NLT second edition.  That’s a highlight.  I’ve already read that part, though not from this volume.  It is a good translation to use in accomplishing the goals of the commentary.

Second, it includes notes on textual, translational, and interpretational details.  For example, looking at notes from Leviticus 4:1-5:13, I see explanations of the Hebrew word behind the English translation “commands” along with references.  We’re provided with word numbers in both the Tyndale and the Zondervan numbering system (Kudos to Tyndale for including the latter), along with references to selected works.  There’s a discussion of the phrase “ceremonially clean” and “an offering for their sin” amongst many others.  In scanning through the volume I also saw notes on various textual issues, but written in minimally technical language.

Finally, there is commentary on the passage as a whole, dealing more with themes, theology, and application.  In the case of Leviticus 4:1-5:13, there is about a page of notes followed by nearly five pages of commentary.  The scriptural text itself occupies very nearly two pages.  This will give you an idea of how space is proportioned.  (The introduction and outline of the book is 10 pages.)

Overall, the book is 679 pages + 14 pages of front matter.  The main section uses 214 pages for Leviticus, 229 for Numbers, and 236 for Deuteronomy.

So let’s compare bulk as a sort of “intimidation factor.”  The NLT Study Bible uses 65 pages for the book of Numbers.  The New International Commentary on the Old Testament volume on Numbers uses 667.  I don’t have a good intermediate number on Leviticus, but I would note that Migrom’s commentary is over 2700 pages.  I would say this commentary is well-placed then to draw people beyond the study Bible stage and on to the more serious study.

As for perspective, the authors (David W. Baker, Dale A. Brueggemann, and Eugene H. Merrill) and editors are all unsurprisingly evangelical, and fairly conservative at that.  I don’t intend to criticize the commentary for its stated perspective.  I will note just how much each author interacts with opposing viewpoints.  In a commentary such as this, there is a balance.  Too much discussion of every idea out there means that one can’t get to the basic work necessary; too little tends to limit the usefulness of the work to broader audiences.

As I mentioned in the initial note, it is not my intent to read through this book and then publish a review.  Rather, after publishing these initial notes, I am going to use it as my secondary devotional study, after my time spent on the week’s lectionary passages, and then blog about the experience, finally wrapping everything up when I have read the entire volume.  While I will, as always, be studying and comparing with many sources, my primary question in this case will be just how valuable and accessible the material is to someone preparing a Sunday School lesson or a sermon for their congregation that would draw from this material.

In terms of overall theme, I’ll be asking myself how well the volume will link the theological themes to Christian theology and tradition, and of course ultimately to Christian living.  Then I will rate the book as to how well it accomplished the stated goal I quoted above, with due consideration for how ambitious a goal it is.

You will be able to follow my study on my Participatory Bible Study blog.  There will be a final wrap-up post here.

Christian Carnival #198

Christian Carnival #198

. . . has been posted at The Minor Prophet.

A couple of posts are of particular interest in Biblical studies. First, from dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos we have Words of Amos, which is a response to comments on an earlier post on the possible Samaritan background of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7. I find the discussion interesting, though I have definitely not studied this area enough to have an intelligent comment!

Jeremy Pierce writes on dating Deuteronomy 32:26-27, asking just how well this passage fits into the normal late 7th century dating for the D source. Commenters pointed out that this is an archaic poem, probably written much earlier than the remainder of the book, and might have been well known, and thus very difficult to change. I would add that while I support the source theory for the Pentateuch, I think D needs to be dated a bit earlier than that in order to work well historically, but that’s a large topic in itself.

There’s lots of other good stuff there, but those were the major points of interest in Biblical studies–that I saw, at least.