Befriending the Old Testament

WelCom March 2019: Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm As a child growing up in the 1950s and early 60s, I listened to the same two readings at Sunday Mass and feast days…

WelCom March 2019:

Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm

Befriending the Old Testament Archdiocese of Wellington

Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm

As a child growing up in the 1950s and early 60s, I listened to the same two readings at Sunday Mass and feast days every year. There were few Old Testament readings. All this changed dramatically with Vatican II and the introduction of the three-year liturgical cycle in 1969. The Council recommended that ‘easy access to Sacred Scripture be provided to the Christian faithful’ (Dei Verbum, #22) and that a ‘warm and living love for Scripture’ be encouraged (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #24).

We now hear much more of the Bible – in fact one-sixth. On Sundays and major feast days the First Reading is always from the Old Testament, except during the Easter Season. The Responsorial Psalm is usually from the Book of Psalms. So, if we are Mass-going Catholics we hear quite a bit of the Old Testament. Even those Catholics whose only Catholic practice is Mass on Sundays, Christmas Day and a few Easter ceremonies, have acquired some basic biblical literacy. The liturgy itself is full of biblical themes and most homilists try to preach on the readings of the day, though many leave the Old Testament in the ‘too hard basket’. Many songs are biblically based – the well-known hymns Come Back to Me, Though the Mountains May Fall, Like a Shepherd, Be not Afraid and Micah’s Theme are evidence we can sing our way through the Old Testament prophets. Furthermore, many people today use the Bible for prayer, inspiration and guidance in their life decisions. That we know how to open this extraordinary book and find such riches in its pages is the fruit of Vatican II and its remarkable document Dei Verbum.

Understandably, getting to grips with the Old Testament is somewhat daunting. However, the more we can understand about the ancient context of the stories, from the history, archaeology, geography and culture, the more we can appreciate what a treasure trove it is. For Jesus, of course, it wasn’t ‘old’ – it was what he knew, lived by and quoted from. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus mentions many Old Testament characters, for example, Elijah (4:25), David (6:3), Jacob (13:28) and Abraham (13:16) among others. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it (5:17). He uses the Old Testament to answer the question the rich young man asked him (19:16-19). Hence, as followers of Jesus we can benefit greatly by knowing the Old Testament. Jesus’ concern for the poor and needy is based in Exodus and Deuteronomy where we learn about caring for the most vulnerable in society (the widows and the orphans in biblical times) and how we are to treat the stranger among us – surely relevant today!

Over the next few months I will be exploring some basic questions about the Old Testament.

  • What is the Old Testament?
  • What’s its basic storyline?
  • When and where was it written?
  • How many books are there in it?
  • Is it true?
  • What do we mean by ‘inspiration’?
  • How is it relevant to our lives today?
  • What do we do about its violence?

Answering these questions will help us befriend this truly remarkable book. Let the exploration begin!

What is the Old Testament?

Basically, the Old Testament is a love affair – the beautiful story of the love between God and a tiny insignificant people called the ‘chosen people’. Their creation, formation and liberation, and how they understood God’s presence and action in their lives, fill it pages. The Old Testament tells of God guiding, protecting and forgiving them when they forgot their identity. For us as people of faith it’s the story of how God revealed Godself through various people and events, for example, Moses and his burning bush experience.

The Old Testament then is really a book of theology but much of that theology is historically conditioned. The stories tell us what the people believed but because their experience of God took place within their own history, the stories of that experience and their response to it, come to us in historical garb, reflecting the circumstances and conditions of the time.

This great love story was written over a long period of time in many different places by many different people. It deals with numerous concerns, some of them very much like our concerns – all kinds of family issues, national concerns, getting along with the neighbours, sickness, suffering, death, why bad things happen to good people, effective leadership, struggles on the journey, facing hardship and what to do when everything turns to custard. Such a variety demands different forms of writing.

Different types of writing

That the Old Testament contains many types of writing shouldn’t cause us too much trouble since we deal with different literary forms every day. For example, I automatically identify my power bill as an account. To continue having power I have to pay the power company the specified amount by the specified date. I can’t treat the account as merely a request for a donation or junk mail. I must recognise this particular ‘text’s’ literary form and treat it accordingly. Actually, I must carry out the first step of exegesis (a word commonly used in biblical study), that is, I take out of this text its literal sense and therefore recognise its ‘truth’. If, on the other hand, I carry out eisegesis, that is, if I read into it my own meaning I will misinterpret it and fail to recognise its ‘truth’, the truth that I owe money to the power company.

We are used to identifying literary forms and reading them correctly when we read the newspaper. We know how to approach an editorial, advertisements, current events, sports results, cartoons, puzzles, opinion pieces, letters, and so forth. We read and interpret them according to their particular form. I don’t read Tom’s Scott’s cartoons in the same way as I read death notices. These various literary forms serve different purposes, for example, to inform, entertain, persuade, describe, tell a story and so on.

To make sense of the Old Testament we need the same skills we use to read the newspaper. Some of you may say, ‘Isn’t the Bible the Word of God? Isn’t everything in it true?’ These are important questions to be dealt with later. For now, note that the Old Testament contains many different literary forms: fables, hero stories, songs, oracles, history, poetry, legends, genealogies, prophecies, laws, myths, proverbs, laments, visions, short stories, speeches, riddles and prayers. There are also biographies, conversations, epics, sagas, blessings, census records, parables, folktales and elegies.

Listen to the Old Testament reading next Sunday and see if you can recognise its literary form. Next month we will consider the Old Testament as a library rather than a book, as well as some of the other names we use to describe it.