Wisdom and Hope

Solitude. Chagall

Before I run my next post on Pete Enns’s book, How the Bible Actually Works, I thought I would give some personal perspectives with regard to the questions:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What is the Bible for?

Our last post raised a number of questions in the comments that lead me to do this. In this piece, I will focus on what we usually call the Old Testament. I prefer to use the terms “First Testament,” “Hebrew Bible,” or “Tanakh” (what the Jews call the Hebrew Bible — meaning Torah/Prophets/Writings).

So, what is the Hebrew Bible? And what is it for? Why did the Jews compile sacred books together and form a canon of Scripture known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh? For what purpose did they put together what Christians have traditionally called the “Old Testament”?

The Jews who found themselves outside the Promised Land and without a kingdom any longer brought the canon of the Hebrew Bible to completion, at the end of a long process, because of the theological crises raised by the Babylonian Exile. In its present form, the Tanakh was edited and put together for one primary purpose: to help the Jewish people learn to live in a post-kingdom world.

In order to help them do that, the Hebrew Bible was given:

1. So that the Jewish people might learn wisdom for faithful living after the kingdom.

2. So that the Jewish people might have hope that God would intervene and restore his rule in the world.

What we have in the Hebrew Bible is a sapiential book and an eschatological book.

Who wrote the Hebrew Bible?

After 35 years in pastoral ministry and Biblical study, I’m convinced that many if not most Christians have a simplistic view of “The Bible” and how it came to us (if they even think about that question at all).

When we pastors and teachers talk to them about “The Law of Moses,” for example, most people imagine that the Pentateuch we have today — Genesis-Deuteronomy — was simply produced by Moses. He sat down and wrote some books, people read them, the priests taught them, and everybody knew “The Torah” in the same way that we know “The Bible” today. If Barnes & Noble had been around then, you could have walked into the store and picked up a copy of one of Moses’ books.

Of course, this is a child’s Sunday School view of Scripture. Even a passing knowledge of history and a cursory acquaintance with the Bible itself reveals that we are dealing with something much more complex and nuanced.

  • First of all, the people in the days of Israel did not have a “Bible.” The stories that they learned and passed on were passed on orally or in liturgical settings.
  • Second, most of the biblical books do not tell us who their authors were. There are texts in the Pentateuch, for example, that say Moses wrote some things and deposited them with the priests to be kept in the Tabernacle (e.g. Exodus 17:14, 24:7; Deuteronomy 31:24-26). Occasionally, those documents were brought out and read to the people (the vast majority of whom did not read or have books of any kind). But nowhere is Moses indicated as the one who put the book together in its final form. In fact there are many factors that make that impossible, including the fact that the book contains the account of Moses’ death!
  • As another example, the Pentateuch records the existence of other books (e.g. Genesis 5:1, Numbers 21:14) that Moses (or other authors or editors) used as sources.
  • In addition, the sections in the Pentateuch which contain laws for the community consist, by and large, of case laws: laws based on rulings by judicial authorities that were given to answer certain situations that arose. Therefore, they are not original to “the Law,” but reflect the ongoing development of Israel’s community life before they were recorded together as a group in a “book.”
  • Furthermore, it is likely that many stories and episodes had a long history of oral transmission and liturgical and pedagogical use before they were woven together in the form we have today in our Old Testament. Walter Brueggemann calls this the process of “traditioning” through “imaginative remembering.” As he describes it: “The remembering part is done in the intergenerational community, as parents tell and retell to children and grandchildren what is most prized in community lore” (Intro. to OT).
  • Finally, it is clear that the entire Old Testament, as well as particular sections such as the Torah, has been edited and shaped into a final form, the form we have today. This is the end result of the long “traditioning” process referred to above, and it culminated in the days of the Exile and afterward. The “Old Testament” in the form we have it is a product of the Babylonian Exile. The Old Testament we read today was simply not in existence through most of Israel’s history. It was developed as the Hebrew people and their teachers remembered these stories and laws generation after generation, and then were moved by the crisis of the Exile to further compose, edit and shape the text into its final form. Those who did this are mostly unknown to us, but they left us with a priceless treasure.

Why did the exilic/post-exilic community put this book together?

As stated above, the book they gave the post-exilic community was designed to give them wisdom and hope. We see this dual emphasis throughout its pages.

For example, in the final chapters of the book of Genesis, it is Joseph who saves his family by the wisdom he shows after having been sold into slavery in Egypt. The Joseph narratives are clearly stories of wisdom, filled with wisdom terms and motifs, designed to show how God spoke to him, helped him, and used him to preserve Jacob’s family through his providential guidance and provision. Joseph, for his part, becomes a model of faithful living in a foreign land, bringing life and sustenance to his world. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (50:20). What better story could there be for those who had themselves suffered exiles and whose prospects involved living under the thumb of foreign powers?

But the Joseph story has something else. Genesis 49 contains the prophetic words of his father Jacob, who says to his family, “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” The patriarch then, in a poetic speech, puts his finger on Judah as the one through whom the ultimate hope of Israel (and the world) will come:

Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s sons shall bow down to you.
Judah is a lion’s whelp;
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He couches, he lies down as a lion,
And as a lion, who dares rouse him up?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes,
And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

This prophecy would have been a significant word of hope for the Babylonian exiles, who were, after all, the people of the nation of Judah. As this piece by Pete Enns that we once ran shows, the whole book of Genesis points toward the later prominence and royal role of Judah. But this passage in Genesis 49 seems to go even further. Jacob is speaking to his sons about what will happen in “the end of days,” leading to the “obedience of the peoples.”

Genesis 49:8ff has long been seen as a messianic text, referring to the establishment of God’s kingdom through a coming king from the line of Judah known as “Shiloh” (the one to whom it belongs). In the midst of the wisdom stories of Joseph, then, we have a word that looks beyond the present struggle, beyond the days when God’s people live under the rule of the nations. We have a word of hope about the kingdom of God and its King.

These are the two primary emphases of the Hebrew Bible. By them, those who put the Hebrew Bible together hoped to preserve a faithful people who would one day welcome the coming of God’s rule over all the earth.

So, what does this mean for us today?

If this is what the Hebrew Bible is and what it was originally composed to do, then how do we approach it today?

When I read the Hebrew Bible, I do it with these two themes of wisdom and hope foremost in mind. And I keep them in front of me by remembering how the book was put together and why.

I used to think that the main question when reading it was, “What did the author intend?” But I don’t think that anymore. I don’t know who the authors were, the original settings for these texts, or where they originated. But I do know that this book was put together from the stories and texts of Israel’s experience with God for a purpose that would be meaningful to those who lived after the Babylonian Exile.

So what I ask now is, “What would this text have meant to that community of people in post-exilic times? What would those who chose this text, edited it, and included it in its context have wanted those people to learn from it?” And specifically: “What wisdom can I learn from this text?” and “How does this point me to the coming of the kingdom of God? (And, as a Christian, as we’ll see in our next post, that means I ask “How does this lead to Jesus?”)

And then I can move from there to asking questions about how it applies to my own life and faith community today.

39 thoughts on “Wisdom and Hope

  1. And that Rabbi from Nazareth illustrated that God is in the business of Doing the Unexpected.


  2. Let me guess… They belonged to the tribe that would be doing the subjugating and exploiting?


  3. I think we Xtians are guilty of not even thinking about the meanings found in the Tanakh by the Jewish community, in ancient times right up to the present. Which means we are missing out on a tremendous amount of stuff that *might* actually push us closer to being a Jewish sect again – as things were in the 1st century, before the wholesale adoption of the church by gentiles.

    Apologies if that sounds cynical or oversimplistic, but I think it’s a helpful thing to keep in mind. Jewish commentary on and discussion of various parts of the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh has been invaluable in my own life, and I think this could very well be true for others, if they gave it a chance.


  4. Stbndct was quoting Richard Beck’s blog, Experimental Theology, a post from 2 days ago. If you seek (via your preferred browser) you will find.



  5. The “wisdom” aspect sounds like what John Walton is driving at as well in his new book:

    “We have too often looked to the Torah to construct legislation as if the Torah were intended to be legislation. If, as we contend, it was never intended as legislation, then that is the wrong approach. If the focus of the Torah is order and wisdom, then it will provide for us an understanding of order and wisdom at least in an Israelite context.”



  6. Stbndct says:

    March 12, 2019 at 7:41 am

    That said, as regular readers know, over the last few years I’ve grown increasingly tired of and critical of progressive Christianity. I think I’d describe myself as post-progressive. As a post-progressive I continue to hold to a suite of progressive views (politically, theologically, doctrinally, biblically), but now want to distance myself from the more dysfunctional aspects of progressive Christianity.

    That fascinates me. Would love to here more.

    But this is just the internet – a blog if you will.

    Still, fascinating


  7. I don’t read Enns all the time, just occasionally, but the times I have read him it seems to me he only stresses the human side, not the divine. If you could point me to a blog post where he talks about how the Bible is inspired by God, I’d be glad to read it.


  8. In my description of the news reporter job I forgot to include the biggie of the W, Where When , Who etc. please add How to the list . I keep it simple because I am .


  9. I don’t see Enns as deconstructing the Bible, and I’m not sure I am following your claim that it leads to no inspiration. Unless you mean inspiration as, “God told me what to right, and so I did.” Why do think that the traditional evangelical view of the Bible is the correct one?


  10. When we had journalistic professionals the news was to report What, Where, When, Who and Why. The story, the evolution , the journey, the rationale and the purpose of the Bible to me is divinely inspired. What Enn’s recap of is not startling, groundbreaking or that earth shattering news. The Babylon exile set the foundation and movement of many things that prevailed in history. The fact that the Jews ghettoized themselves, set up the synagogues and kept their culture in a foreign land is pretty well evident. That carried into the 20th century with the Yiddish language and the Jewish ghettos in Europe that help them preserve their faith and culture but made them easy pickings for the progroms and the holocaust .

    For years most Christians gave the OT scant attention as the important thing was the NT. So for the “average” Christian they do dwell on the NT with the majority of the OT knowledge being the 10 Commandments and of course the Bible stories. To sum it up the Bible is where we as Western Civilization people found and find Jesus. Thanks to the printing press.


  11. I haven’t read Enns’ books, but I’ve followed his blog. As someone who vacillates wildly between a kind of desperately Barth-informed theology and spirituality of transcendence, and a pervasive skepticism concerning the particulars of Christian faith and doctrine, I have not found enough reconstruction in Enns to anchor my faith. Clay, could you tell me a couple of the particulars in which Enns has helped you reconstruct your faith? They might be helpful to me too.


  12. Well when we get around to collecting a Third Testament, Flannery O’Connor and Johnny Cash definitely get their own books.


  13. Stbndct, an interesting perspective. Seems to me the response you describe is the motivation for a lot of recent attempts to decouple Christianity from the Hebrew Bible.

    You could choose to look at this another way though, as a kind of victory. I am old enough to have grown up with some truly hard core folks who could consider mass murder, slavery, subjugation and exploitation of entire cultures as God’s will without batting an eye.


  14. Why would you suggest that Enns is saying the Bible “has no real inspiration from God”?

    Just because someone is emphasizing “how” the Bible came to be written, stressing the human processes involved, it doesn’t mean that God is excluded. Pete’s most fundamental illustration of scripture, after all, is the incarnation — that Jesus is both human and divine.


  15. I’ve read some of Peter Enn’s blog posts, and one of his commentaries. He knows a lot about scripture and often has good insights. But one problem I do have with him and others who have made it their purpose to deconstruct the traditional evangelical view of scripture is that once they are done deconstructing, they leave me with no real reason to read the Bible. You can say read it for wisdom, but why read the Bible as opposed to the Koran, or the philosophers, or whatever? If it has no real inspiration from God, if it is just the experiences and ideas of ancient people, why read it other than for curiosity or enjoyment if you enjoy it? Enn’s is as good as any I’ve read at tearing down the traditional evangelical view of the Bible, but much less impressive at building something else back in its place.


  16. The approach that Pete Enns and other scholars have taken in the study and application of the scriptures to our lives has given me a way through what, I had come to fear, would be the end of my religious life. For that, I will always be grateful.


  17. Stbndct: thanks for sharing this today. This is a problem for the church in time to come and we’d better figure out how to address it. The fact is, our sacred book is an ancient book that expresses many ancient perspectives. This is — IMO — why we need to keep Jesus at the center. His Torah gives perspective on the first Torah.


  18. It is interesting to see Dr. Beck interact with his commentators. He is far less of a fundamentalist than are many of his commentators.

    I credit Flannery O’Connor and Johnny Cash, whose Jesus I have long admired and wish I had the courage to follow.


  19. Though I don’t consider myself to be biblically fragile, there’s more than a little truth in what you are saying. On the other hand, just imagine being a Sunday School teacher attempting to introduce more nuanced ways to approach the scriptures in a classroom of biblical inerrantist, in a church lead by biblical inerrantists. You not only would hear howls of outrage, they might even question your salvation. In the end, everyone has triggers. Some are even valid.


  20. “Almost every page of the Bible triggers progressive Christians.”

    If what God is doing isn’t triggering you, you haven’t been paying attention. 😉

    “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” – Peter
    “How can these things be?” – the disciples
    “If you’re suffering, it MUST be your fault.” – Job’s comforters
    “Foolishness!” – Greeks, re: the Gospel


  21. The “divine verbal dictation” model, in theory if not totally in practice, is the core assumption of many such folk.

    i.e. Automatic Writing/Channelling, just like Oahspe, Seth Speaks, or “Spaceship Ruthie”s hundred-plus volumes of Unarian Scripture.

    To that is tied the assumption that God primarily (if not only) speaks in eternally valid propositional Truths.

    i.e. Axiom, Axiom, Axiom, Fact, Fact, Fact, Check, Check, Check.


  22. Makes a lot more sense (and has a lot more depth) than the usual Verse-spouting Holy Nincompoop approach. That just cultivates pride and arrogance instead of wisdom or despair instead of hope.


  23. When we pastors and teachers talk to them about “The Law of Moses,” for example, most people imagine that the Pentateuch we have today — Genesis-Deuteronomy — was simply produced by Moses. He sat down and wrote some books, people read them, the priests taught them, and everybody knew “The Torah” in the same way that we know “The Bible” today.

    Yet another flashback.
    Not “imagined” — FACT! FACT! FACT!


  24. What is the Bible?

    Which was a trick question during my time in-country.
    The only CORRECT answer?
    “THE! WORD!! OF!!! GAWD!!!!”


  25. I think Richard Beck is doing some excellent, hard thinking. His insights are frequently enlightening.


  26. I think of an idea I heard about that makes sense:

    Read the Book of Revelation first. Especially the part about the Lamb Who was slain being the ONLY one who could open the scrolls and make sense of them, which is like saying, if you want to know what ‘The Ban’ means, look at it through the lens of Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen From the Dead.


    I’m all for reading the Old Testament and getting the ‘fallow ground’ of my soul plowed up by Jeremiah or whomever; but when you hear a fundamentalist take ‘The Ban’ literally, you are looking at a soul who lacks the humility to view all of sacred Scripture through the lens of Christ INCLUDING the ‘God of the OT’ who was supposed to have been a monster dashing babies heads against rocks . . . . well, that doesn’t align with the Jesus Christ revealed in the New Testament, no.

    I guess it may be a matter of ‘personality’, but some NEED to have a ‘God of Wrath’ willing to send all of those ‘other sinners’ to hell;
    and only then can these needy folks see themselves as ‘justified’, these chosen few, these white-washed tombs.
    Or maybe it’s a matter of not being able to see the forest for the trees, not being able to pull the lens back far enough to INCLUDE Christ as the Revealer of God . . . ?

    There IS need for Christian people to come together and communicate and arrive at some collegiality about the great teachings of the Church (or the Body of Christ, if you will). Only then do we begin to get past the petty differences that are products of our own limited ‘through a glass darkly’ understandings; and when we do this, we can then begin to look at what we have found that is MEANINGFUL, as individuals, and as collectively joined.


  27. An old saying:
    “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New”.
    (St. Augustine)


  28. That said, as regular readers know, over the last few years I’ve grown increasingly tired of and critical of progressive Christianity. I think I’d describe myself as post-progressive. As a post-progressive I continue to hold to a suite of progressive views (politically, theologically, doctrinally, biblically), but now want to distance myself from the more dysfunctional aspects of progressive Christianity.

    Regarding teaching my Sunday School class, here’s an example of what I’m talking about. It’s almost impossible to have a proper Bible study with Bible-triggered progressives.

    Almost every page of the Bible triggers progressive Christians. Everything is problematic for one reason or another. Almost every page of the Bible triggers doubts or a faith crisis.

    Imagine my job. Can you imagine what it would be like trying to do a study, say, of the book of Joshua to a class full of progressive Christians? The conquest of Canaan narrative is so, so triggering.

    And for good reasons. Again, I’m post-progressive, so I get the trouble with the herem texts. I have trouble with the herem texts. Given those troubles, in a class full of progressives you have to deal with all those problems on the front end before you can get to the text itself and have a study. You spend all your class time anticipating the standard progressive objections and laying out your interpretive scheme to handle them (e.g., progressive revelation, Christological hermeneutic, Giraridan readings, non-violent readings, etc. etc. etc.) that you never really have time to talk about the text itself. When you lead a Bible study for progressives you spend so much time on hermeneutics–How shall we read this problematic, troubling story?–you never have much time for the Bible itself.

    In addition, I also have a worry that by spending so much time on hermeneutics we’re increasingly buffering and insulating ourselves from the strange, unsettling Word of God. If we are not very, very careful, hermeneutics can become a way of making the Bible say exactly want we want it to say before we ever listen to the text. Sometimes I wonder if hermeneutics hasn’t become a way of protecting ourselves from the Bible.

    To be clear, we need classes on how to read the Bible well and properly. There are harmful and damaging readings. Hermeneutics is critical. But progressive Christians have become so biblically fragile you can barely have a proper Bible study with them.
    From Richard Beck blog


  29. Ultimately, to answer the evangelical/fundamentalist objections, you’ll have to go back even further, and deal with the question of how God reveals Himself. The “divine verbal dictation” model, in theory if not totally in practice, is the core assumption of many such folk. To that is tied the assumption that God primarily (if not only) speaks in eternally valid propositional Truths. I wonder if these two things might need addressing before an actual dialogue about how to use the Bible can actually be had.


  30. Keeping in my mind that for the Christian community, the answers about what the Bible is and what it’s for are not limited to the Tanakh/First Testament. Including the New Testament in the answer to those questions changes them for the Christian community.


  31. Answering the questions of what the Bible is and what it’s for by first answering them in regard to what the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh is and was to the Jewish community, and what it considers their purpose, makes historical sense. The answers are overlapping, but not identical, with how those two questions have been and are answered by the Christian community. When you separate the answers about what the Bible is and what it’s for thus, then Enns’ answer that its purpose is to produce wisdom makes sense. Does Enns separate the questions and answers in this way in his book?


  32. -> “When I read the Hebrew Bible, I do it with these two themes of wisdom and hope foremost in mind.”

    Same here. It mirrors what I’m learning via my recent study of Isaiah, which seems to be a cycle of wisdom (warnings to not let pride and arrogance ruin your relation with God) followed by hope (when your failure to be wise leads you into exile, have hope, for God is your Lord and Rescuer).


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