A primer on the Old Testament

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Article Scripture and Theology
The editors interview Father Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M.

Adapted from an article that first appeared in the January 1991 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 56, No. 1, pages 26-31).

Franciscan Father Leslie Hoppe is a professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago. He is the author of many outstanding books on the Old Testament and biblical archaeology, including The Holy City: Jerusalem in the Theology of the Old Testament (Glazier) and There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Abingdon).

He has participated in several archaeological projects in Upper Galilee and has served as the director of CTU’s fall study program in Jerusalem. In January 2015, he will lead the first Holy Land Pilgrimage sponsored jointly by U.S. Catholic magazine and Catholic Theological Union.

What can Catholics today learn from the Old Testament?

Many modern people look at the people of ancient Israel and say, “Those are primitive people. What could we possibly learn from them?” But the Israelites weren’t primitive. I don’t mean to say that we ought to re-establish ancient Israelite customs, but we ought to recognize that these ancient people had to deal with some of the same problems that we do. They asked the same questions that we still ask: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be in a relationship with another person and with God? What is this world of ours? What purpose does it have? How long am I going to live? Why do we die?

The Old Testament is the written form of these theological, spiritual, and philosophical concerns. It is a record of the Israelites’ religious experiences. There is not one human problem people face today that wasn’t faced by these ancient people. Christians read the Bible to come into contact with tradition and give shape to their conversion to this faith. Yet, conversion is a lifelong process. It is not simply that one is saved or one isn’t. We need to grow in our generosity, love, and concern for others. The Bible provides a framework for understanding our relationships with God and each other and helps us to deal with specific issues in our lives.

Why do we read the same Bible stories over and over?

Our assumption should be that there is always something new to be gleaned from the text. If we accept the Bible as a document of faith, then we must come to grips with the traditions of the Bible and accept them as our own. Eventually, we will begin to see our experiences reflected in the biblical texts. Sometimes the texts will support what we are doing; other times they will challenge us. At still other times, the Bible won’t seem to speak to our experience at all. Overall, though, the more we look to the Bible, the more we can develop. We can become the people God wants us to be through reading and studying the Bible.

Give us an example of the way an Old Testament story still speaks to us today.

The story of Hosea’s marriage (Hos. 1-3) still speaks to people of betrayal, commitment, and love. The prophet’s experience of his failed marriage led him to empathize with God, whom ancient Israel had betrayed by worshiping Baal. His wife’s infidelities moved the prophet to speak to Israel with special passion when he criticized its unfaithfulness to God. Hosea’s own commitment to his unfaithful wife enabled him to see that God would not allow Israel’s infidelity to be the last word. In God’s name the prophet speaks, “. . .I will allure her … and speak tenderly to her. . . And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me ‘My husband’” (Hos. 2:16-18).

This story calls people of this century to fidelity to their commitments, both personal and religious. It is a stirring witness to the love of God: God’s love is powerful enough to overcome even our betrayal of that love. God will not allow our sin to frustrate the plans God has for us.

What claims does the church make about the significance of scripture?

The church maintains as an article of faith that in some way God presents the religious reflections found in the Bible as the way to our salvation. These reflections are not merely a chronicle of what happened in ancient Israel. We believe God stands behind these reflections, so much so that they offer us all that is necessary for our own salvation.

But the church does not authoritatively define the meaning of the books of the Bible. No one meaning is assigned to any text. The assumption is that there is always something new to be learned and something more to be probed. That’s why when Christians proclaim scripture in the context of the liturgy there is supposed to be a homily. The homily serves as a reflection of what the text means for us today.

The church doesn’t want to say, “Here are the 20 things to be learned from the Bible. Now write them down and toss your Bibles away.” Students would love for Bible study to be that simple. But it’s a much more involved process than that. To the great credit of our tradition, the church does not close off discussion, study, reflection, or investigation by defining texts left and right.

What are some of the big discussions or controversies among biblical scholars about the Old Testament?

One of the great debates that continues among biblical scholars is the question of the histories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—were these real individual people? Some scholars maintain that the biblical narratives reflect the real-life situation of the middle Bronze Age; therefore, they say, we can be confident that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real people and the Bible preserves their memory. Other scholars maintain that the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were creations of writers in the sixth century B.C., have nothing to do with history, and tell us nothing about any specific individuals. But the writings do tell us about a particular people’s understanding of God, the election of Israel, and the future of Israel.

Many Catholics, when they hear of this debate, shrug their shoulders and say, “Who’s Abraham, anyway?” because they’re not that biblically literate. But Protestants, especially conservative Protestants, consider this an extremely important question because once you question the historicity of one biblical narrative, it leaves the door open for questioning others. It’s not long then before scholars begin questioning such things as the Resurrection of Jesus. This problem has caused great divisions among Christian denominations. But Catholics aren’t as shaken by these discoveries because they don’t have a strong fundamentalist tradition when it comes to biblical interpretation.

Did you ever reach a point in your scholarship where you had a crisis in faith because of something you discovered?

No, not at all. That’s one of the benefits of studying scripture from the perspective of history. I was always well aware that every historian leaves his or her imprint on history. Therefore, I realized that in the Bible I wasn’t getting a message that comes directly from God. I was getting the interpretation of real people who lived in real time, who were just as smart and just as dumb as I am. So I must say I never came into a crisis—just the opposite, in fact. Very often study and reflection led to new insights; to a deepening of my faith; and to a much clearer understanding of what sin and redemption are, who God is, and what suffering means.

Suffering seems to be a major theme in the Old Testament. Why?

Suffering is part of the human experience, and often an unexplainable part. When we’re in pain, we want to know why. The Bible deals with the darker side of human experience because it seems to be the side of life people are most confused by. The problem lies in the Bible’s affirmation that God is loving and powerful; yet God’s chosen people suffer. These mixed signals are particularly explored in the books of Job and Lamentations.

Another reason suffering is dealt with so much in the Old Testament is that for most of the period the Old Testament covers, the people did not believe in life after death. Everything in life had to make sense within the 30 or 40 years that they had to live—because if it didn’t then, it never would. There is a poignant concern for dealing with this existential problem in the Old Testament, and it is still a common human concern. Unfortunately, I don’t think any tradition—biblical, philosophical, or otherwise—has come up with a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil and suffering in the world. It’s a part of our experience against which we vehemently revolt.

Was the God of the Old Testament vengeful?

The first image that the people of ancient Israel had of God was of a loving God, a saving God, a redeeming God. What’s the first commandment? “You shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart and your whole soul.” Well, how could you love a vengeful, angry God? We have to break out of this caricature of an Old Testament God who is angry and vengeful. Remember, the God of the Old Testament is the God of Jesus.

If you had to summarize the main teaching of the Old Testament, what would it be?

People asked that question of Jesus, and he said, “Love God and love your neighbor.” That’s what the Old Testament tells us: God loved us, and we ought to respond to that love through service to one another. That’s the primary affirmation in the Bible about God and God’s relationship to humans. The biblical assertion is that our approach to God is indirect; we know God only through people. Thus, we need to consider our relationships with others before we can be certain about our relationship with God. These are the moral imperatives that challenge anyone who reads the Bible.

The Bible sets out countless directives and examples of behavior that can help us in our personal relationships. Its stories and writings offer us a moral framework. If it weren’t for that, the Bible probably wouldn’t have survived all these centuries. Most people aren’t very interested in theological systems, but they do want to know how they ought to live so that they can get along better with one another and with God.

For example?

The most familiar example of how the Bible guides us in our behavior is what we call the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. But of these commandments, the ones that demanded that people honor their parents, deal honestly with one another, respect each other’s marital relationships, and safeguard each other’s lives did not reveal new values to the people of ancient Israel. As long as people lived together, they recognized these values.

The revelation that the commandments bring is that our relationship with God is, in some sense, an outgrowth of healthy, just, loving human relationships; and if we have our relationship with God in order, everything else will fall into place. The Bible asserts that the quality of our interpersonal relationships determines the quality of our relationship with God. In the New Testament one finds this same understanding: “Let us love one another; for love is of God, and they who love are born of God and know God. They who do not love do not know God; for God is love” (1 John 3:7-8).

Is there a simple way to understand the contents of the Old Testament?

The Old Testament contains the Torah, or what Christians call the five books of Moses—namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. That is the core revelation to ancient Israel—the revelation that God brought Israel out of Egypt into the land of milk and honey. The people then asked themselves, “How do we respond to God’s goodness? How do we shape our lives in this land?” That’s why all the laws were set out in the first five books.

Next come the prophets, who ask such questions as, “How have we responded to God’s goodness? Have we behaved the way we should?” The former prophets—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings—describe Israel’s life from the time the people entered the land to the time they left in exile. Overall, they tell how Israel had potential but blew it. Yet the prophets are not without hope. They tell the people that if they obey Torah, then they can reverse their slide into self-destruction.

The latter prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets—each deal with a particular time frame within Israel’s life in the land and also serve as a reflection on how well the people have observed Torah. There are two forms used for such revelation: the oracle of judgment—in which the prophet says, “Because you have done thus and thus, this is what will happen to you”—and the oracle of salvation—in which the prophet announces God’s intention to save Israel, not because of anything that Israel has done but because of God’s fidelity to the covenant.

A third category of Hebrew scripture is the Writings, what we would call “miscellaneous” nowadays. Everything that doesn’t fit into the first two categories goes into Writings. Here you’ll find an endless array of biblical literature: erotic poetry; love stories; intellectual musings; proverbs; history; adventure; critical wisdom, such as Job and Ecclesiastes; and the book of Psalms, which, unlike many other biblical books, reflects what ordinary people believed. It was through the psalms that the people’s religious faith was formed.

Overall, biblical literature is real people’s attempts to think about their experiences and try to find meaning in their lives. We can learn from their spiritual struggles.

Can we find answers to all of our problems by consulting the Bible?

There are no immediate principles of conduct laid out in the Bible and no set directives for every situation in which you find yourself. If you’re upset with your boss, you can’t turn to the section on bosses in the Bible. That’s not how it works. What we get from scripture are values. One primary value, found on the first page of the Bible, is the integrity of the human person. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.

The notion of sin stems from this belief in the integrity of each human being. We learn that we have to look at the effect that our actions have on others and on the community as a whole. That is made clear in biblical narratives that often seem morally unsophisticated at first glance. For example, in the story of Achan in the book of Joshua, after they take Jericho, the Israelites are told to take all the booty from the city and burn it as an offering to God. But Achan decides to salt away a few valuable items. When the community moves on, they suffer defeat after defeat. Joshua wonders, “What’s the problem here?” And God says, “Somebody has taken booty that belongs to me.” The Israelites discover it was Achan who violated the commandment; they kill him, and their troubles are over.

The point of the story from our perspective is not to kill sinners but that actions have consequences beyond the individual. That’s a moral value we’ve lost. People don’t see how their behavior affects others. That’s the terror and horror of sin. It envelops everyone in its tentacles. The effect sin has on the community is a piece of Old Testament wisdom that we need to recapture. There is no such thing as private sin or a victimless crime.

Why is the idea of community so important in the Old Testament?

Because, as the Bible points out, it is human nature and thus God’s will that people live in community. One of the challenges the Old Testament can offer U.S. culture in particular is the challenge to the myth of individuality and the capitalist ethic that all you need to do is work hard and everything will fall into place. Individuals are affected by their community; they can’t separate themselves from the positive or negative forces in the community.

The Bible challenges us to look at actions and situations from the view of the marginalized, the oppressed, the people who are not in the center of the act to see how they are experiencing our actions. Remember, as spiritual descendants of Israel, we are to identify with people who are in bondage, people who are searching for the Promised Land, people with whom God has entered into covenant.

What exactly is meant by the Old Testament’s talk of covenants?

The concept of covenant is another metaphor for explaining the relationship between the divine and human. How are we related to God? Today we tend to speak more in personal terms. We talk of “I and thou.” But in ancient times the metaphor used was derived from legal terms. The covenant was a treaty that a powerful lord made with a lesser power or dependent vassal.
In the Old Testament, when the term covenant is used to describe the relationship between God and the people of Israel, what is meant is that Israel’s relationship with God is like the relationship of a vassal to a lord. In the legal codes of antiquity, people in a covenant held certain characteristics, which can be broadly translated as loyalty, compassion, and fidelity. People in a covenant had certain obligations. If they failed in these obligations, they were sanctioned; if they succeeded, they were blessed. Because the lord didn’t have to enter into a covenant with the vassal, a covenant was considered positive, an act of loving-kindness that was to be met with gratitude.

When Christians talk about the new covenant with Christ, does the meaning change?

Yes. By the time of Christ, there were several schools of thought about the theological significance of the covenant. God had made a covenant with Israel to bring them to the Promised Land, but then Israel was sent off into exile in Babylon. The people of Israel had to decide what the exile meant. The priests decided that the covenant that God made with Israel was an everlasting covenant, never to be broken whether or not they lived in the Promised Land. Thus, the exile was just a temporary problem; and the relationship between God and Israel was still firm. Other Jews, namely Jeremiah and Ezekiel, said, “No, no, no. The old covenant is dead. We must make a new covenant with God.” So in the Old Testament tradition there were some believers in the everlasting covenant and some in the new covenant.

What does the church do with these beliefs? It combines them. At Mass, the celebrant recalls the words of Jesus: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.” The point of these words is to show that Jesus fulfills every expectation that anybody from ancient Israel could have had.

Did people have very many different expectations?

One thing we’re learning through biblical archaeology and the study of early Jewish literature not found in the Bible is that Judaism at the time of Jesus was a diverse religious phenomenon. To assume that people had one notion of their faith and of the terms and concepts of their faith is absurd. The biblical period covers many centuries and represents the theological reflections of many different types of people. The more we come to understand the world that produced the Bible, the more individual narratives come to life and the more we understand the effect the biblical stories had on the people who first heard and read them. The process of interpretation then becomes more realistic. We can see more clearly the challenge the Bible offers.

Do you have a favorite Old Testament character?

My favorite character is Ecclesiastes because to me his cynicism represents a realistic attitude toward the human condition. He doesn’t go off into flights of religious ecstasy. He is all too aware of the difficulties of life, but that awareness doesn’t lead him to reject religion. He sees the value of tradition, yet he gets angry with God. He says to God, “You placed within us the desire to know who you are. But you made it impossible to ever find out.”

Ecclesiastes doesn’t give up, though. He advises people to go to the temple, offer sacrifices, continue trying to do the best they can, and accept from God whatever God gives. Ecclesiastes says this religion stuff doesn’t work all the time, but it has its merits. His realism is too much for some people; but that’s just why I like him—despite the generation gap, he’s a lot like me.