Teaching the Torah

I got an e-mail from a reader regarding Scripture and Christian formation.  The reader reported that his parish was beginning a study of the Torah, and the priest began with a presentation on the Documentary Hypothesis. For those unfamiliar, the documentary hypothesis is a product of 19th and 20th century German and American scholarship that seeks to identify specific strands and layers of sources within the Torah. As one of the key features of this theory involves the names for God, J and E stand for two of them while the other two (P and D) identify theological emphases. I can see why a priest might start this way–it’s typically taught in seminaries at the start of OT study. I have nothing against the documentary hypothesis as a tool for scholarship; I think some scholars take it way too far and I find some of the methodology problematic, but it’s how some folks have made their academic careers.

But how useful is it to the church?

I want to be careful to answer this in the right way – it can be useful when it is set in its proper place and used for its specific purpose. It’s like the miter saw of the Christian formation workshop: there are a few specific tasks that it does well, but most of the time it should sit on the shelf. If you try and do large-scale woodworking with it, you won’t accomplish your task and you’ll screw up your tool!

Alright, smarty-pants – how would you do it?

What needs to happen first, in my opinion, is an orientation to the Old Testament in general and the Torah in particular. The place to start is by setting down some fundamental ground rules. Then as the group reads or studies, we can go back to these guiding principles and apply them as needed.

1. God and history: the first guiding principle must be something like this: as Christians, we believe that God has decisively interacted in history, but that history cannot define God. The basis of our faith is the understanding that the Supreme Being is not just a good idea – rather, we identify the Supreme Being as an active, hands-on presence at work in the world, in the lives of nations, and in the lives of individuals. Furthermore, God’s character is revealed to us through the patterns of action that emerge from God’s decisive interactions with history. However, the historical record itself rarely captures these interactions in an obvious or simple fashion. Thus, corollaries:

1.1.    Historical events must underlie the decisive interactions between God and humanity: for example, creation occurred; Israel was freed from Egypt; the Jerusalem Temple was built and destroyed.

1.2.    History and archaeology are blunt instruments that rarely confirm or deny the spiritual truths that Christians locate within these interactions: for example, the fact of creation does not prove the existence of a creator; historical science can tell us that population movements occurred, but cannot conclusively explain why they occurred; even when the facticity of an event is not in question, history and archaeology cannot hope to answer all of the natural and/or supernatural factors involved.

2. History and literature: the second guiding principle serves to complicate the first. History, and the facticity of God’s decisive interactions, are important to us. But they are usually not available to us. History is a complicated thing. The scholarship of the last 50 years or so has only reinforced that point. We now see history as more subjective, and less objective, always remembering the dictum that history is written by the winners. There are solid historical facts: cities existed, cities fell; kings reigned, kings died. But the fullness of the factors around these events is complex and imperfectly preserved. Any three competing histories of the Vietnam War will demonstrate that even in an era of recording and photography, history, interpretation, and truth are easier said than arrived at. In particular, interpretation is a big piece of any work of analysis and there are no “objective” stories; even an author striving to be as objective as possible will come from a particular perspective and read certain events in certain ways. Move into antiquity, and things get a whole lot more complex. Move into a body of religious literature, and understand that interpretation is central. The Bible, as we have received it, is literature. It is a written record. It is a written compilation of a wide variety of oral and written sources transmitted from different times, places, and purposes. (And this is where the JEPD thing comes in.) The collection as a whole does have a particular purpose. All of the texts within it were edited and selected (remember—there are books from the period not preserved within it; the OT isn’t just “everything ever written in Hebrew in antiquity”) for a reason: to recount the relationship between God and his people and to transmit the identity and consistent character of God through these stories.  In large measure, then, especially in the Torah, and particularly in Genesis, we are not accessing history directly, but reading literature recounting stories set in the past that preserve history or historical remembrances as a secondary purpose. As such, we encounter it first as literature, and second as a record of the events recounted. As a result, our primary tools should not be of a historical nature, but of a literary character. The question on everyone’s minds at this point is whether the Bible is true. My answer is a simple yes – it is. It communicates the relationship between God and humanity as understood by the writers and editors of the canon. A more nuanced question asks whether all of the events recounted in Scripture are historically factual. My response (that some people may see as a cop-out) is that we are asking historical questions of a large collection of documents without first assessing the literary character and purpose of the section we happen to be reading. The first task of a literary expedition is to assess the genre of the text in front of you. In light of the specific question that we’re asking, we have to ask what the purpose and function is of the text we’re reading: is it seeking to document history according to 21st century American standards? The answer must be no. Some texts and passages do come closer than others. For instance, certain sections of the Samuel-Kings complex read as being very factual—some parts of Genesis read as less so. Does it mean that we trust one and not the other? No—it means that we regard their historicity differently, holding one more lightly than the other.  Neither historicity nor facticity equal truth—if that were so, then we would not read Tolkien or Shakespeare or Coleridge and be transported and transformed by them. Nevertheless, this point must be held in tension with the first: we do believe that God has decisively interacted with history and thus we should not be too quick to write off the historicity of what we read. So, to state the corollaries:

2.1.    Historicity does not exhaust truth.

2.2.    The primary purpose of Scripture is to communicate the relationship between God and humanity and to reveal the consistent character of God and humanity.

2.3.    While we do believe that God has decisively interacted with history, historicity is always at most a secondary concern of the literary text that we have received.

3. Literature and interpretation: Not only is the Bible a compilation of documents and sources, it is largely a compilation of theological interpretations either of life itself or specific events including certain historical events. A lot of interpretations are set side-by-side one another. Some of these are complementary, some are supplementary, others are conflicting. That is, the same historical events or life-events are understood in (sometimes drastically) different ways. Cases in point are the two different interpretations of the destruction of the Temple found in Psalms 74 and 79 or the differing approaches to life threaded throughout Proverbs and Job. What does this do to the “truth” status of Scripture? Nothing as far as I’m concerned… Rather, it means that different authors and editors have understood specifics about the relationship between God and humanity differently. They are united in their witness to the relationship, though, despite not reaching the exact same conclusions. Corollaries:

3.1.    The Bible consists of a collection of diverse theological interpretations.

3.2.    Even when biblical interpretations directly conflict, they are united in their witness to the nature and character of God’s relationship with humanity.

4. Purpose: Why do we read the Old Testament, the Torah, or Genesis? Because it gives us the backstory of the relationship into which we have entered. In the Nicene Creed we confess that the Spirit spoke through the prophets, affirming that the relationship described in the Old Testament is in fundamental continuity with the relationship described in the New Testament and the relationship lived out today in the life of the Church. As 2 Timothy reminds us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” We read so that we can learn the relationship, grasp the character of God, and unite our lives in witness to that character and the reconciling will that proceeds from it. It goes back to the fundamentals: how does this passage reveal God’s desire for the church to be built up in love for service and reconciliation?  Sometimes Old Testament passages may seem to be remote from this question. When we find ourselves wrestling with that kind of passage, we can ask a few basic questions that can help re-orient ourselves to this question:

4.1.    What does this passage show about the consistent character of God?

4.2.    What does this passage show about the consistent character of humanity?

4.3.    What does this passage reveal about the relationship between God and humanity?

4.4.    How does this passage confirm or challenge what we understand to be the consistent character of God or humanity?

4.5.    To what degree does the character of God or humanity revealed here cohere with the consistent character revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and confessed by the church?

4.6.    How do these findings tie into what God desires from a mature Church participating within the reconciliation of God’s creation to himself?

One of the great strengths of the Church’s “pre-critical” typological and allegorical reading strategies is that they focus around the concept of a consistent character and pattern of behavior running through the relationship: God works in particular and consistent ways to maximize human freedom and liberation (despite humanity’s spotty record in cooperating with the divine will!).

Moving from these basic guiding principles, I’d open the Torah with a drive-by overview of the main genres that make up the first few books. Thus, we would identify the first 11 or so chapters of Genesis as cosmological epic. The point here is less historicity (certainly not scientific or anthropological accuracy!) than setting the stage: God is the author and source of creation, humanity works at cross-purposes to the divine will, yet God cares for creation and for humanity, working in particulars—through individuals and families. From chapter 12 on we are working with family epics that narrate the experiences of the great patriarchs and their families from Abraham through Joseph. The historicity factor may be a bit higher, but what is at issue is the relationships between family members with one another and with God and his liberating works. (The Icelandic family epics are very useful analogues for how and why people record family squabbles and internecine disputes.) With Exodus, we see a shift to a bit of heroic epic in the beginning with a focus on Moses, his origins and actions, before a move towards legal materials after the Sinai experience.

So—This is how I would go about introducing and contextualizing the reading of the Torah within a Christian community. What are your thoughts, questions, and caveats?

7 thoughts on “Teaching the Torah

  1. bls

    It’s really unfortunate, I think, that Sewanee hasn’t condensed or edited some of its EFM materials for Sunday-morning Adult Ed. use. There isn’t any need for parish priests to re-invent the wheel; all that stuff is already there – and Old Testament is a year-long course. (It used to be a year and a half, with NT making up the other half-year! To me, the longer period makes more sense; it’s just a ton of material.)

    For me, I was very happy to find out about the various sources, and how all this stuff fit in with the history of the region and with the cultures; that was maybe the most important part, as far as I was concerned. As an example: I found out that “an eye for an eye” was actually an improvement in jurisprudence for the time and the region! That small fact gave me a much wider view, and made me realize that God did act in history. Another thing that impressed me was the fact that the editors of the Bible often found no problem with telling two different versions of the same story (the Creation of Adam and Eve, for instance); clearly, they felt both were important enough to include – and they took a “hands-off” approach to editing here. And if I remember correctly, there are two different tellings of the Flood as well – both making pretty interesting (but pretty different!) points.

    The Documentary Hypothesis was faintly interesting – but even I, totally from the outside, could tell that a lot of it must be conjecture. That’s OK – interesting, as I say, but it really didn’t make much of an impression on me. It’s always been obvious to me that the Bible was a bunch of different things – literature, history, theology, culture, etc., etc. Reading the stuff in the context of history – now that was fascinating. It has never left my mind since then that – well, we’re evolved from apes! This story – this God acting in history – is what happened in the intervening time. Perhaps the best thing about EFM is that it gave me an up-close-and-personal view of what life was like during the thousand years BCE.

    I learned an awful lot – I read (almost) the whole Bible, which I’d never done and why I signed up for the class – and I enjoyed learning it. It wasn’t dumbed down and it wasn’t stripped of enchantment, either. (The Bible, if people weren’t hooked into its “lawgiving” aspect, is actually a pretty fascinating book!)

    EFM DOES have a overriding thematic approach (particularly in the group activity called “Theological Reflection”): it says that it is basically dealing with “the doctrinal themes of Creation, Sin, Judgement, and Redemption.” I think maybe this is pretty helpful, even if it’s not uppermost in peoples’ minds as they study or even later. It’s such a huge amount of material, and so much is going on, that it’s probably really good to point out these overarching themes…..

  2. aredstatemystic

    Yes. Amen. In total agreement.

    I think what you’ve described is how the Fathers read scripture, especially the Old Testament. Wasn’t it St. Augustine who was hemming-and-hawing over converting because of the meanness and spite of the God of the Old Testament? Didn’t St. Ambrose have to pull him aside and tell him that these stories are essentially allegories? I could be wrong, of course, but that’s rattling around in my brain, somewhere in the back; I’m no Patrisitc expert.

    I remember when I first discovered the Fathers, how refreshing their reading of scripture was. It wasn’t a dogmatic, history-centered drool, but it was like a ladder. The sermons of Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory and Chrysostom (among many others) are a thing of beauty. They treated scripture, especially the prophecies, was like a — pardon the hyperbolic metaphor — like a bird on whom you rode up into God. They emphasized your final point much more than any modern (or “pre-critical” as you put it) commentators, that scripture isn’t an end to itself, but is constantly revealing you and me, the people of God, and God himself. I wish we all read scripture like this.

    Historical and academic studies of scripture have their place, of course. I’m grateful for my academic education in that area and knowing Koine Greek. But I’m not an academic and most people aren’t either. But to me, if a study of scripture doesn’t lead to a deeper communion with God, then why do it? So, thank you for these ground rules and for emphasizing your final point.

  3. BillyDinPVD

    I’m so glad that there are people trying to move toward an appreciation of the Documentary hypothesis that doesn’t make it the focus of Biblical study. I used to be a member of a weekly parsha study group, one of whose members was a scholar working in the field of the hypothesis. Every week the only thing she seemed to bring to the table was related to whether J had written such and such a passage, or if it was E, etc. It made the task of extracting some sort of meaning from the story or passage very difficult, but I couldn’t articulate my thoughts about it as we’ll as this post.

    I find something similar in discussing the NT with some Christians who seem pretty sure of their own ability to tell which Gospel passages reflect the teachings of the “historical Jesus” and which don’t, or whether Paul really wrote such and such an epistle. Even if one accepts the Jesus Seminar school of thought, it seems to me that shattering the text in this way without dealing with the story as we’ve received it is a very limiting way of looking at the Bible.

  4. bls

    I wanted to say, too, that the study of OT seems really, really important to me – if one wishes to “understand the mind of Christ”! These were “the Scriptures” to Christ himself; this is how he was seeing and talking about the world to others who also saw and understood it from this viewpoint.

    (My EFM group leader always said, BTW, that Christ didn’t really say anything that you don’t find in the Old Testament. And one thing – among others – that idea leads to is an acceptance that, perhaps, the teachings of Jesus are not the most striking thing about him! And that leads on to other very interesting thoughts….)

  5. Beth

    I really enjoyed learning about the Documentary Hypothesis (which I also first encountered in EFM) and certainly think there is a place for discussion of topics like it, but I agree that in most general parish settings the limited time for a Torah study like this can be used far more profitably (e.g. in some of the ways Derek has outlined).

    I am currently reading Jason Byassee’s _Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine_, and shortly after seeing this post I came upon this paragraph in the book dealing specifically with the importance of carefully considering what goals we have in mind when we involve people in engaging with scripture:

    “Exegesis [for Augustine] is about closing the gap between what Scripture says the church is and what the church currently is, on the way to its celestial destination. The delight that comes from allegory inches hearers just a bit further towards that goal. Any form of biblical reading, whether for Augustine or for any other patristic exegete, is not finally about meanings or texts or senses, if these words are meant in an abstract fashion. It is finally about the pursuit of a certain way of life. If we miss this, we miss the entire heart of Augustine’s exegetical endeavor.”

    I think that’s a message that is quite a propos for many of us charged with teaching scripture in mainline settings after training in mainline settings. I am very grateful for even the most arcane parts of my seminary training, and I think I may have included snippets about the Documentary Hypothesis in a sermon or Bible study or two over the years (I’ve certainly included other remarks about debated authorship of epistles, material that isn’t in some MSS, etc, though never as anything like a main point) , but all the questions up there under 4 are so much more important for a pastoral and formational context, where our goal is “a certain way of life.”

  6. Alice Linsley

    The Doc Hypothesis isn’t ultimately that helpful in understanding the patterns of Genesis and Genesis is the foundation to the whole of Scripture. The Genesis Kings Lists in 4, 5 and 11 present an authentic marriage and ascendancy pattern which is unique to the Horite ruler-priest caste. Genesis 10 describes the Kushite expansion out of Africa which has been verified by DNA studies.

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