Something Old

G-ETS Intro to OT: thinking, rambling, reflecting, musing, etc.




Tell us where you go from here. How do you plan to retain involvement with those participants who might make up part of your Personal Learning Network? What future projects and plans might motivate you to engage again the materials and methods of this course? You can be tentative or provisional about your plans, but be specific.

I am grateful for this opportunity to blog about some overarching ideas and understandings I have gleaned from this course and to put in writing some of my future plans regarding this course and its materials. I am the type of person who finds deep meaning in closure and I think this will be helpful in terms of putting closure on this semester and opening space for where to go next with this material.

I came to this class with little background in the Old Testament. I knew the major narratives, but this class has really shaped my understanding of how these materials came together and has challenged my notions of God based on the diversity of experiences and narratives we find in these texts. I was most challenged in this way by the material on the four sources (JEDP) we studied recently, and the diversity found in the conventional versus dissenting wisdom material we studied earlier in the semester.

The four-source theory helps make the book seem more feasible in terms of a historical account and in terms of the varying audiences the texts seem to address. I think this material will be very helpful in my future ministry in terms of my teaching roles as a pastor. Congregations often struggle with the apparent inconsistencies in biblical texts, and I feel that the varying sources has really helped me shed some of my embedded theology around this.

The conventional versus dissenting wisdom material we studied at the beginning of the semester really shaped my understanding of the Old Testament as a whole. The idea that diverse understandings of God, ranging from the Deuteronomist to the priestly class to the people in exile, has informed my own shaping and reshaping of what it means to be human in relationship to the divine. I find that this topic also helps me give some space for God to be presented as so angry and malicious (“rape” scene in Jeremiah 20, for example) and at times so full of steadfast love and faithfulness (some of the psalms, the Exodus 34 narrative, etc.). I think that the overarching idea must be that competing claims about God all hold some amount of “truth.”

Some of the Enduring Understandings from our course which shape my ongoing exploration include: “The Writings don’t represent doctrine, but experience…and experience varies,” “The past might not change, but histories change,” and “The ‘world behind the text’ differs substantively from the ‘world in the text.’” Something I would like to do this summer is to go through the Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions from this course in more depth and to write about where I have landed with some of them as a result of the course. I think this could be a very helpful resource for my preaching file.

I would also like to read the Bandstra text in more detail. I used the Stanley text this semester, and found it to be good, but I also want to get some broader background from the Bandstra text and other of the recommended resources that I did not get a chance to explore thoroughly. I am glad this is a free online resource and I will have the space to explore it in detail over the summer.

I have been grateful for the opportunity to engage in dialogue, games, and learning with my classmates, professor, and TA in ootle16, and I look forward to future conversation via e-mail, other online venues, and in person at Garrett-Evangelical for those who take classes there. Thanks to all of you for helping shape my thinking this semester and helping to bring the ancient historical texts to life in your words.



Flawed forebears. The main characters of the Ancestral Story, both male and female, seem generally strong and determined, but at times they also revealed weaknesses. Can you identify examples of each? Do you see the patriarchs and matriarchs as the movers and shakers of Israel’s future in relation to the promises of God, or were they mostly just passive recipients of the divine promises?

In The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, Christopher Stanley discusses how the Genesis 12-50 narratives present characters who function as either positive or negative role models “whose words and deeds reveal how the deity wants his people to live” (218). In this sense, the Ancestral Story in the Genesis account functions as a text that presents religious value in addition to a historical background for the people of Israel. Regarding the religious value of the text, the lives and actions of the patriarchs and matriarchs, whether historically “accurate” or not, present truths about how these people perceived God’s role in the lives of people and desires for the actions of people. This textual focus offers much space for thoughtful analysis, but one of the most intriguing issues involves the tensions between strength and weakness, determination and flaws, that are woven throughout the characters in the narratives. Why would the authors of the text choose to tell their story using heroes and events that do not always paint the brightest picture of the lives of these characters? Why would God choose broken people and broken situations in which to accomplish God’s plans?

Strong and determined characters do comprise many of the narratives in Genesis 12-50. Jacob’s story, for example, is highlighted by incidents that depict a sort of strength and determination. Jacob, according to Stanley, plays a “classic trickster” role that “highlights ambiguities or tensions in the value systems of a given society” (220). The tricks he plays on his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac, show Jacob’s determination to get ahead in life, stealing his father’s blessing from his older brother. Whether this is ultimately “strength” of character informing this action remains questionable, since Jacob’s actions are ultimately self-motivated at this point and he is depicted as taking advantage of his family members. Interestingly, strength and determination also define Jacob’s turning-point toward following Yahweh. On Jacob’s way home to work toward reconciliation with Esau, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being throughout the night and is left with a dislocated hip joint in the morning. In this scene Jacob is both “humbled and blessed” by the mysterious being (God) and is renamed Israel – “one who struggles with God” (220). Here it is Jacob’s strength of character in transformation that ultimately may teach a lesson to his ancestors.

Another depiction of strength of character is in the story of Jacob. Although Jacob is dealt unfair circumstances by his jealous brothers and by his master’s wife in Egypt, his steady obedience and work ethic continuously elevates him in Egyptian society. He shows strength of character by ultimately forgiving his brothers and caring for his family (although not without tricking them first!).

On the other hand, most of these characters in the Ancestral Narratives also show flaws and weaknesses. Stanley asserts that “virtually all of the characters in the Jacob narrative are selfish, conniving, and untrustworthy…even Joseph brags about his future greatness and deceives his brothers several times before revealing his identity to him (Genesis 42:1-45:8)” (Stanley, 227). Sarah does not trust God’s revelation that she will have a child in her old age (Genesis 18:1-15) and she also manipulates Abraham when she wants rid of his slave Hagar (Genesis 16; 21). Isaac acts passively throughout the text. Jacob tricks Esau. Laban tricks Jacob. And on and on….and we begin to wonder how such broken people managed to create a strong nation.

And I think that in this sort of wondering we can find the role of God in the narrative. It is in the brokenness and flaws and weaknesses of the patriarchs and matriarchs that Yahweh’s transforming power is able to be comprehended by the people. The role of the flawed individual is then more important in terms of God’s ability to “work in the circumstances of his people, despite the vagaries of human behavior and the threats posed by uncontrollable events” (Stanley, 227). This is the core of the religious value of these texts. That, as Stanley writes, “No situation or individual lies beyond the transforming and redeeming power of Yahweh” (Stanley, 227). The people who receive these stories are then able to see their own narratives woven into the narratives of individual, flawed heroes who are characterized by loyalty and obedience to a deity stronger and more capable than themselves. This is an important overarching Truth embedded in these narratives for the people.

So were the patriarchs and matriarchs the movers and shakers of Israel’s future in relation to the promises of God, or were they mostly just passive recipients of the divine promises? I think the answer is “yes” to both. They were movers and shakers in their willingness to radically obey God in all circumstances (even if the obedience came a little later than the initial request). Yet their flaws show them as passive to the extent that Yahweh was able to work through divine power in the lives of the people.

An Enduring Understanding for this unit is “The Bible is a library of composite texts that are substantively diverse in their understandings of God and of the world.” We see this in a slightly different way in these narratives. The diversity seems to lie in the character depictions of the heroes of the people of Israel. “God works through diverse situations – flaws and strengths – to accomplish God’s will for the people” seems to be an overarching message of these texts. An Essential Question for this unit is “What makes a narrative or a claim “true”? Can conflicting narratives or claims both be “true”?” The ultimate truth here is that loyalty to God is desirable for the people and that loyalty produces God’s favor. This truth comes across through conflicting narratives and claims as the theme of the text. Whether or not the stories actually happened in history is irrelevant if the message comes through clearly to the people.






Make Option 01: (Modified from Stanley, Exercise 32:) “Most of the stories in Genesis 1-11 are not mentioned anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. This suggests that they were either not well known, or were created later than most of the other biblical materials. The Hebrew Bible also contains references to the origins of the universe that differ substantially from the Genesis stories.

“Read the following passages and make a list of the things that they say happened at the time when God created the universe. When you are done, go back over the list and mark which items seem to agree with the Genesis 1-2 creation stories, and which ones differ. Then see if you can construct an alternate story of the creation from the events that do not appear in the Genesis creation stories.”

  • Isa 51:9
  • Job 9:4-14
  • Job 26:7-14
  • Job 38:1-11
  • Psalms 8:1-9
  • Psalms 74:12-17
  • Psalms 89:8-10
  • Psalms 104:1-9
  • Psalms 136:1-9
  • Proverbs 8:22-31

Isaiah 51:9

This text, calling God to action, recalls Rahab, the “primeval chaos-dragon” over which God held victory at the beginning of time. This is likely a reference to the idea that God engaged in a primordial battle with chaotic forces at the time of creation. Isaiah 51:10 supports this by naming the sea and “waters of the great deep,” scriptural symbols that represent chaos. (Harper-Collins notes) Canaanite creation myths often reference Baal as fighting the monsters of the sea.

Job 9:4-14

This text again mentions Rahab (9:13), recalling God’s power over the mythic figure. Harper-Collins calls this a “combat myth of creation” similar to the Mesopotamian Tiamat. The whole of the text presents a creation myth of chaos vs. God’s might. There is a reference to the creation of four constellations in 9:9. The creation myth here paints a picture of God as one who “does great things beyond understanding” (9:10).

Job 26:7-14

Verse 7 mentions Zaphon, a mountain in the north on which the gods (esp. Baal) dwelt in Canaanite mythology. God’s acts of creation seem to be compared to and/or filtered through the traditional Baal mythologies. Here Rahab is referenced in conjunction with God’s power that “stilled the Sea” (9:12). The “fleeing serpent” in verse 13 also occurs in Isaiah 27:1 with reference to Leviathan. The text presents a creation myth that sets God in victorious opposition to the forces of chaos. Verse 10 describes a “circle on the face of the waters,” reminiscent of Genesis 1:2 (“a wind swept over the face of the waters”).

Job 38:1-11

Here God is responding to Job’s questioning by describing God’s role in creation. Verse 7 (“all the heavenly beings shouted for joy”) alludes to a divine council as part of creation. Verses 8-11 set God against the chaos of the sea, prescribing boundaries for the waves to remain separate from the land.

Psalm 8:1-9

This text seems coherent with the Genesis account/understanding of creation in the Ancient Near East. It begins with God’s creation of the heavens (moon/stars), then accounts for the creation and role of human beings (dominion over all creatures), and then describes various creatures of the earth, air, and sea.

Psalm 74:12-17

Harper-Collins notes that verses 13-15 depict “the mythological creation battle in which the watery forces of chaos, portrayed as monsters, are defeated by the Lord at the beginning of creation.” The notes also mention that Israel would have associated this type of language with the creation of the people of Israel upon crossing the sea (Exodus 15:1-18). The creation text here emphasizes the boundaries that God created – between day and night, sea and land, summer and winter.

Psalm 89:8-10

God’s creation is viewed as victory over chaos. Rahab is described as “crushed like a carcass” in verse 10, and this is related to God crushing other enemies. The sea is depicted as “raging” and chaotic (89:9).

Psalm 104:1-9

Harper-Collins notes that this psalm has similarities with the Egyptian Hymn to Aten and to Genesis 1. In terms of similarity to Genesis 1, this text acknowledges God as creator of the heavens, and then creator of the earth. This order resembles Genesis 1. The text also describes creation mythology as God having power over the unruly waters, setting “a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth” (104:9). Verses 6-9 are concerned with how and where God put the waters (in streams, rivers, springs, etc.) to control them.

Psalm 136:1-9

This is a hymn of thanksgiving and praise for God’s works of creation. It seems to reflect the creation mythology of the Ancient Near East, and has a poetic similarity to the Genesis 1 account. God is praised for making the heavens (136:5), spreading earth over the waters (136:6), making the great lights (136:7), making the sun (136:8), and making the moon and stars (136:9).

Proverbs 8:22-31

According to Harper-Collins, this text gives context for “Woman Wisdom’s antiquity and authority,” painting a remarkable picture of “Wisdom portrayed as born of God as mother.” In addition to the depiction of Wisdom’s role in creation, verses 24-29 reflect the opening of the creation account in Genesis 1 fairly accurately.


Alternate Creation Myth

Based on these alternate depictions of creation, here is my attempt to articulate a creation myth that aims to include some of these understandings.

In the beginning there was chaos. The sea, with all manner of monster and creature, raged everywhere, leaving room for nothing else to flourish.

God saw another way for things to be, so God entered into the chaos to bring order.

God’s power controlled the sea, and set boundaries so that the land could produce beautiful and diverse creatures, trees, and plants.

God continued setting boundaries….day and night, sun and moon, sky and land, on and on and on. In every boundary God held the tension between the two, making order out of chaos by God’s very presence.


Christopher Stanley offers some helpful analysis of the Creation myths in The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. He explains that the narratives in Genesis “appear to agree closely with what we know about the views of other people in the ancient Near East” (p. 147). Stanley asserts that the writers of the Hebrew texts were not approaching creation scientifically, but rather aimed to reject the theology of neighboring beliefs regarding the nature of the universe (p. 147). Yet other texts (Job, Psalms, Isaiah) had elements that shared the worldview with other neighboring religions, including that nature was guided by supernatural powers. The fact that Yahweh followers believed in one God was the primary difference between creation narratives in Hebrew culture and other cultures.

An enduring understanding for this unit is that “The Bible is a library of composite texts that are substantively diverse in their understandings of God and of the world.” This is certainly the case with the creation myths we studied for this week. I was surprised by the diversity of understandings of God in creation, but the “truth” of creation – God setting boundaries and making order out of chaos – seemed to be present in all of the texts. We have seen this diversity of understanding throughout this semester, so it is not surprising that, like the dissenting wisdom/conventional wisdom texts, these creation texts would also leave space for various experiences with our diverse Creator.

So is this creation myth fiction? If so, can fictional narratives have authority for people? I believe so. There are certain stories that may not have actually historically happened, but that hold truths beyond question. Some of the stories we learn as kids – fairy tales, for example – hold truths that inform our narratives throughout our lives. Histories themselves always tell us a story which may not have actually happened, but which shapes a people and how they move forward.


“Write the Bible”

Read the story of the rape of Tamar 2 Samuel 13:1-33.

Privately, reflect on the story. What does the story tell/show, and what does it hide or leave untold? Whose voices and interests are given expression, and whose voices or interests are not given expression? What do you wish happened that doesn’t?

In a blog post (or oral presentation, or video presentation linked at your blog), write 350-750 additional words to the story. These words may be a prequel, or a sequel, or interlaced into the story. You may “break up” your words, adding some here, and some there.

You may choose simply to write your words, and indicate by some means where they belong in relation to the biblical story. Or, you may copy and paste the biblical text into your blog and write into it and around it. If you choose the latter, find some way to format your text so that the reader knows at a glance what is biblical and what is nonbiblical.



Here is another disturbing biblical narrative. The story is about a brother raping his half sister. I was thinking that one reason it is so disturbing is that the voice of the author is a man writing about a woman who has been raped. The story is not written from Tamar’s own perspective. In modern culture the voices of many who are abused, violated, or mistreated remain unheard. Yet there is a trend toward letting one’s voice be heard and a hope that people are beginning to listen. I have chosen to add to this story in order to insert possible perspectives (particularly that of a woman) in the narrative. I also tried to insert some commentary that helps bring light to some of the contextual confusion that might come across to the modern reader engaging a text written in a very different historical context. The original biblical text is augmented by my statements (in bold type).

13 Some time later, David’s son Amnon fell in love with Tamar the beautiful sister of Absalom, who was also David’s son. Amnon was so upset over his inability to figure out how to have sex with half sister that he made himself sick. She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible in Amnon’s view to do anything to her. He wanted to figure out how to rape her but he was not smart enough to figure out a plan on his own. But Amnon had a friend named Jonadab, Shimeah’s son, David’s brother, who was a very clever man. At least that’s how the other men in Israelite society saw him. As the women in this society would tell you, clever could be translated here as deceitful or dangerous.

“Prince,” Jonadab said to him, “why are you so down, morning after morning? Tell me about it.”

So Amnon told him, “I’m in love with Tamar, the sister of my brother Absalom. By ‘in love with’ I guess I actually mean that I want to figure out how to have sex with her.”

So Jonadab came up with a disgusting plan…“Lie down on your bed and pretend to be sick,” Jonadab said to him. “When your father comes to see you, tell him, ‘Please let my sister Tamar come and give me some food to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I can watch and eat from her own hand.’” Women at this time were second-class citizens. They were expected to serve men, even though they themselves were part of the same lineage. Women needed men to survive in this culture, so they rarely questioned their roles in this regard.

So Amnon, in a state of wickedness and uncontrolled lust, lay down and pretended to be sick. (Let’s be honest, he was pretty sick, in the sense of his willingness to trick his sister in this way.) The king came to see him, and Amnon told the king, “Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of heart-shaped cakes in front of me so I can eat from her hand.”

David, the one supposedly entrusted by God to protect the weak, sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Please go to your brother Amnon’s house and prepare some food for him.” Did he know what evil Amnon was about to do?? What kind of father would allow this to happen?

So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house where he was lying down. He did not seem sick, but she did not wish to cause an uproar by questioning him. Women’s roles were rather set in stone, and Tamar was young enough to still be navigating how she would live out her roles in society. So she took dough, kneaded it, made heart-shaped cakes in front of him, and then cooked them. She took the pan and served Amnon, but he refused to eat. His odd behavior was starting to make Tamar feel uneasy.

“Everyone leave me,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. 10 Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food into the bedroom so I can eat from your hand.” So Tamar took the heart-shaped cakes she had made and brought them to her brother Amnon in the bedroom. At this point her intuition was telling her that something bad was about to happen. She tried to think of ways to escape, but she didn’t know what the protocol was in this situation. 11 Her intuition was spot on. When she served him the food, he grabbed her and said, “Come have sex with me, my sister. And if you don’t agree to it I will rape you.

12 But she said to him, “No, my brother! Don’t rape me. Such a thing shouldn’t be done in Israel. Don’t do this horrible thing. 13 Think about me—where could I hide my shame? And you—you would become like some fool in Israel! Please, just talk to the king! He won’t keep me from marrying you.” Even in this terrible situation, her ability to use such strong language with Amnon was impressive.

14 But Amnon refused to listen to her. He always got his own way, and he was not going to let his silly sister refuse his advances. He was physically stronger and older than she was, and so he raped her.

15 But then Amnon felt intense hatred for her. After he released his sexual frustration all that was left was his own shame. Rather than feeling sorry, though, he turned it into rage. Rage was his only true emotion, it seemed. In fact, his hatred for her was greater than the love he had felt for her. (The ‘love’ he felt was really just rage in the form of perverted sexual frustration. So let’s not call it love.) So Amnon told her, “Get out of here!” He was never one to take ownership of his actions.

16 “No, my brother!”[a] she said. “Sending me away would be worse than the wrong you’ve already done.” Tamar was right. Amnon was certainly aware of the legal tradition and the punishments he would receive for his crime: “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her [send her away] as long as he lives” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).


But Amnon wasn’t thinking. Or he was too filled with anger to think. He wouldn’t listen to her. 17 He summoned his young servant and said, “Get this woman out of my presence and lock the door after her.” (18 She was wearing a long-sleeved robe because that was what the virgin princesses wore as garments. But why did it matter now? After being violated by her brother she would never feel like a princess again.)[b] So Amnon’s servant put her out and locked the door after her. The door was locked. Amnon was out of sight. But Tamar would never feel safe again. She was now used property, worthless in the sight of society. And, worse yet, her body and heart had been broken.

19 Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long-sleeved robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and walked away, crying as she went. She didn’t want to cry, but the tears wouldn’t stop. How could Amnon have done this? He was in the lineage of David – one who God promised would someday be her king, her protector. So much for that.

20 Her brother Absalom saw her crying and said to her, “Has your brother Amnon been with you? Keep quiet about it for now, sister; he’s your brother. Don’t let it bother you.” “Don’t let it bother me?” thought Tamar. “How could all these people be so cruel?” So, without hope and without a chance for a life in her society, Tamar, a broken woman, lived in her brother Absalom’s house.

21 When King David heard about all this he got very angry, but he refused to punish his son Amnon because he loved him as his oldest child. This is no excuse for ignoring such a tragedy, and Tamar felt completely abandoned by her whole family. Her brother, the rapist, her other brother and keeping quiet about it, and her own father refusing to bring justice. God’s covenant to the royal house of David seemed completely ridiculous to Tamar. She didn’t understand how God could continue to bless those who committed such wicked actions. But in her society no one would listen. c22 Absalom never spoke to Amnon, good word or bad, because he hated him for raping his sister Tamar. His silence was not helpful, but he also felt like he had no choice in this matter. He tried to come up with a plan for revenge.

Absalom kills Amnon

23 Two years later, Absalom was shearing sheep at Baal-hazor near Ephraim, and he invited all the king’s sons. 24 Absalom approached the king and said, “Your servant is shearing sheep. Would the king and his advisors please join me?”

25 But the king said to Absalom, “No, my son. We shouldn’t all go, or we would be a burden on you.” Although Absalom urged him, the king wasn’t willing to go, although he gave Absalom a blessing.

26 Then Absalom said, “If you won’t come, then let my brother Amnon go with us.”

“Why should he go with you?” they asked him. 27 But Absalom urged him until he sent Amnon and all the other princes. Then Absalom made a banquet fit for a king.[d]

28 Absalom commanded his servants, “Be on the lookout! When Amnon is happy with wine and I tell you to strike Amnon down, then kill him! Don’t be afraid, because I myself am giving you the order. Be brave and strong men.” 29 So Absalom’s servants did to Amnon just what he had commanded. Then all the princes got up, jumped onto their mules, and fled.

Absalom finally would have revenge. But was it for Tamar only? Or did he also want a chance to be king someday? It was hard to say…

30 While they were on the way, the report came to David: “Absalom has killed all of the princes! Not one remains.” 31 The king got up, tore his garments, and lay on the ground. All his servants stood near him, their garments torn as well. 32 But Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah, said, “My master shouldn’t think that all the young princes have been killed—only Amnon is dead. This has been Absalom’s plan ever since the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar. I had nothing to do with it (he continued to be a deceitful jerk in this regard) 33 So don’t let this bother you, my master; don’t think that all the princes are dead, because only Amnon is dead.


One of the Enduring Understandings for this unit is “The past might not change, but histories change.” I think this was an interesting exercise in light of this text. I found that “changing” the history of this story was enlightening and helped to “give voice” to someone that biblical history chose to leave out. It seems that historians always write from their own lens, or own sense of truth, so considering the story through Tamar’s point of view was helpful for my own feminist lens, in particular. I was also able to see the story more clearly in its original context once I gave voice to the missing viewpoints. To that end, the Essential Question for this unit, “Is every history a narrative fiction?”, was helpful to consider in this exercise. Every history is, perhaps, a narrative fiction. Given the embedded theology, culture, and beliefs of the historian, the classification of fiction seems appropriate. Yet, in the fiction lie truths, not only for the events that took place in time, but for the writer of the historical account.



(Based on Stanley, Exercise 45:) Read Judges 19:1-21:25. In about 1000 words:

What would you say is the central message or theme of the story? What purposes would the story have served for the people who preserved it and told it in ancient Israel?

List, in detail, the plot elements that would seem strange or even offensive to most modern readers in your social context. How, in detail, might these narrative elements have been perceived by an ancient audience? How might these narrative elements have functioned for that audience and its society? (That is, what good might these strange and offensive elements have served for the original hearers?)

How does the story depict the leadership of Israel during this premonarchical period?

The central message of this story is…well…difficult to find in the midst of the chaos! The entirety of the story is so full of strange and offensive material (at least to this modern reader) that the social and political context of the text must be taken into consideration as accurately as possible when discerning the message.

The story begins with “In those days there was no king in Israel” (Judges 19:1), but we do not arrive at the central message until the very last verse. At the end of the whole narrative we finally hear the central theme in a sort of recapitulation of the first verse with the final conclusion now added: “In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right” (Judges 21:25). In other words, in the absence of a king the people were chaotically following their own will rather than the will of YHWH. Reading the passage with this final conclusion in mind does help (somewhat) frame the offensive material in the rest of the story.

The central theme of Judges sets the reader up for the history in I Samuel when a monarchy is established. Christopher Stanley speaks to this central theme of Judges in The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach: “[Judges] makes the point that the system of intermittent judges is incapable of ensuring the peace and stability of the people, whether against outsiders or against one another. For this a monarchy is needed.” This idea is key in helping to frame the troubling elements in this passage.

The narrative goes a little something like this:

There is a Levite man and a concubine.

Said concubine leaves the Levite and goes back to her father’s home.

After four months the Levite goes to get her and bring her back to his house.

Much eating, drinking, and spending the night take place at the father’s house before the Levite and concubine set off to return home.

They leave late and end up having to stay in a city called Gibeah.

An old man from the Ephraim highlands offers to let the Levite and concubine (and servant and donkeys) stay the night.

A rowdy group from Gibeah comes over and tries to have sex with the Levite.

The old man offers his daughter and the concubine instead.

The Levite ends up throwing the concubine outside to be raped by the rowdy group of men from Gibeah.

She dies.

The Levite brings her home, cuts her into 12 pieces, and sends the pieces to the 12 tribes of Israel.

The Israelites kill the Benjaminites and burn Gibeah.

Everyone freaks out about there not being a Benjaminite tribe anymore, so they go and abduct and force women from Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh to be with the remaining Benjaminite men.

The end.

Much of this story would be offensive to most modern readers. The key offenses would be sexual violence towards women (19:23-25, 21:23), attempted sexual violence towards men (19:22), chopping up a dead woman and sending her body parts to 12 locations in Israel (19:29), war as revenge (chapter 20), and the practice of owning concubines (chapters 19 and 20). Honestly, it sounds like something you’d see on the show “Criminal Minds.” Though – when I read this passage I was reminded immediately of Genesis 19, which contains a similar story of attempted rape of male visitors and Lot offering his daughters to be raped instead. This provides some historical context for the passage. The original audience had a different cultural understanding of rape, and they had a very different understanding of the importance of hospitality. I believe that if this story is like the Genesis 19 context then the inhospitality somehow trumps the rape of women in the realm of detestable activity. (This does NOT make this an acceptable narrative in my modern mind, but I’m trying to have some hospitality for the social context too…)

The Deuteronomic message likely plays into the themes of this narrative and helps to navigate some of the offensive messages from a clearer contextual center. I believe that the Deuteronomic ideology helps navigate the war narrative in a sensible manner. The original audience would have seen revenge war as something commanded and carried out by YHWH. Hence the appearance of the commandments of the Lord in chapter 20 (20:18, for example).

The leadership of Israel is depicted as non-existent. It seems important to tell this story to the people of Israel in order to maintain an enduring understanding of the danger of weak/absent rulers. In this sense one wonders – is this story “true”?

There is evidence that the events in this story are fictional or that there has been an artificial framework put here to tie together traditional stories about ancient Israel (see Stanley, p. 264). This would make the story more palatable as a message for Israel rather than as an actual historical event. Here we can find a possible answer to Dr. Lester’s Essential Question for this unit – “What should a written history accomplish in its own time?” Is this, like the book of Job, more useful as a “Once upon a time” story? Or is it a typical example of the manner in which we must read histories – as events filtered through diverse lenses? Is there truth even if the events did not actually happen? This is the exciting and mysterious puzzle of history…



Read the following passages from the Hebrew Bible.

  • Deuteronomy 28:1-68
  • Joshua 23:1-16
  • 1 Samuel 12:1-25
  • 2 Kings 17:5-18
  • 2 Chronicles 36:11-21

Summarize what each passage says or implies about the relationship between faithfulness to Y*WH and his covenant and the events of social and political history.

Then, assess for yourself the credibility of the positions taken in these texts. Do you find these claims coherent with other biblical witness? Are they intelligible in light of the way we understand the world today? Are they moral? How or how not? What if they are not?

The Deuteronomistic narrative helped shape the manner in which the exiles of Judah interpreted social and political systems through the lens of Yahweh’s actions in the world. The central theme is that Yahweh brings about punishment for sins and rewards good behavior with blessings. Many Christians and Jews continue to interpret current events in light of these Deuteronomistic beliefs.

Deuteronomy 28:1-68
aThis passage first relates obedience to Yahweh and his covenant to blessing. The blessings are not only personal (fruit of your womb – 28:4, personal wealth – 28:4b-5) but also social and political. The social and political blessings include defeat of enemies (28:7), prosperity of the nation (28:12), and the nation being known as Yahweh’s people (28:9).

The second part of the passage relates disobedience to Yahweh with punishment. The first set of curses are the antithesis of the blessings (28:15-19). Other punishments include personal sickness (28:22, 27-29), bad weather (28:23-24), defeat by enemies (28:25), destruction of lineage (28:62), and poverty (28:51-52).

The punishment not only is named as resulting from disobedience but also from “not serving God joyfully and with gladness of heart” (28:47). The text claims that God will take delight in punishing those who are disobedient (28:63).

These claims are found in other scriptural narratives (the conventional wisdom books, for example), but they are also rejected in some narratives (Job, for example). The claim that God takes delight in punishment seems to go against many of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and against some of the other messages in the New Testament (2 Peter 3:9, for example, states that the Lord is not willing that anyone should perish, but desires that everyone would come to repentance). These claims are intelligible in that they echo many of the messages we hear about God’s punishment in the world today – hurricanes blamed on people’s behavior, shootings seen as punishment for God’s anger, etc.). These messages seem unintelligible to me, given my theology around God’s love and my observations about “bad things happening to good people,” etc.

Joshua 23:1-16
Joshua relates obedience and love of Yahweh to blessing. He relates intermingling with the other nations with disobedience and claims that God will cease to fight for Israel if these things happen. He assures that God’s promises will only come to pass if the people follow God’s commandments. He claims that God will destroy those who bow to other gods (23:16). The punishments include removal from the land provided by God (23:16) and destruction by enemies (23:13).

These claims, particularly that God will punish those who bow to other gods, are mentioned throughout scripture. The first commandment would be an example of this. These claims are intelligible, particularly in light of how God wants us to only worship God – not other gods. That part makes the argument more intelligible than perhaps other Deuteronomistic texts.

I Samuel 12:1-25
Samuel also relates disobedience to punishment. For example, when the people “forgot the Lord their God,” God sold them into slavery (12:9). God rescued the nation when they asked for forgiveness for their sins (12:10-11). This text emphasizes the relationship between the people’s behavior and the king’s behavior. These claims are echoed by many American people today who conflate presidential politics with God’s will for the nation. I tend to disagree with these sentiments, seeing God as separate from the political parties that people choose to support. In fact, it frustrates me when people claim that God blesses America more than other nations and that God somehow places people in power for God’s will. I suppose I have more of an Enlightenment-era belief in separation of church/state and free will.

2 Kings 17:5-18
This text claims that the Assyrian invasion of Israel and the resulting captivity was related to “the people of Israel sinning against the Lord their God” (17:7). The sins involved worshiping other gods, and following the customs of other nations (i.e. losing their own identity). The claim is that the wickedness of the people provoked the Lord to anger (17:11). The ultimate sin seemed to be idolatry (17:16) and the ultimate punishment was the removal of the people from God’s sight (except for the tribe of Judah) (17:18). The relationship between God’s anger and the behavior of the people is also detailed in the book of Exodus (ch. 32-34). This again reflects the conventional wisdom of some of the psalms and some parts of Ecclesiastes.  The argument is intelligible, in that it echoes some of the other biblical narratives about God, but it seems to again go against the lens of the Jesus of Nazareth narrative (incarnation, resurrection narratives in particular).

2 Chronicles 36:11-21
This text relates the action of the king (Zedekiah) to the actions of the people (unfaithfulness, abominations, polluting the house of the Lord). The actions of the leader and the people led to punishment by God – and ultimately to the fall of Jerusalem. This text relates God’s wrath primarily to the worship of other gods and to improper worship of Yahweh (36:14). This claim is made throughout scripture and echoes the Joshua 23 text cited above. This claim is echoed today in those who relate punishments (bad weather, famine, poverty, etc.) to God’s anger at the nations for sinful behavior. As a member of the LGBT community, I find that our community is often blamed for societies “ills” by conservative folks.

Are these texts moral? Are the ideas moral? I believe it depends on one’s sense of morality. They are in that they present a strong opinion regarding the principles of right and wrong behavior. They are also moral in that they teach a lesson – rather than presenting an accurate historical understanding of Yahweh. One of the Enduring Questions for this unit is “Is every history a narrative fiction?” Christopher Stanley claims that the “narrative that fills the books of Joshua through Kings was not composed as an objective record of past events, but rather as an extended religious tract that used materials from the past to deliver a message to the present. If that is the case, how does this history speak to our socio-political situations today? How does the history of the American people speak to our problems today? Where do we find God in these historical narratives? I find that history can teach us a lot, but that history is also very contextual. The messages in the Deuteronomistic narratives seem opposed to some of the dissenting wisdom passages and to some of the New Testament. The context helps shed light on the reasons for framing Yahweh in these ways, but this framing can also be dangerous, given the reality that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. With our emphasis on science and technology and reason, it is dangerous to frame God in this way.


Assignment: Pick someone whom you would like to teach about “Isaiah’s Servant.” (A colleague, a prospective MDiv student, a curious family member, or anyone else.) In about 1000 words, and using these course materials as a resource, write them a letter about what this “servant” is for the book of Isaiah. Be sure to cite appropriately, so that they can engage these materials themselves also. Don’t “lecture” (we all know how off-putting that is!), but do find compelling ways to include the relevant information. Anticipate their questions and concerns, and address them overtly.

Dear church music directors,

Greetings. Grace and peace! As a fellow church music director I can feel your pain this week – Holy Week – I do hope that you are hanging in there with the added services and demands of this week. I don’t know about you, but I often find it difficult to choose songs for worship. This is for a number of reasons: getting stuck in a rut, not wanting to teach new songs, all the songs are in ridiculous keys, no drummer this week, etc. BUT my most difficult issue is finding songs that contain helpful (could we say accurate?) theology. There are a lot of crazy theological ideas in Christian worship music repertoire! I’m committed to finding songs that don’t put incorrect words in the mouths and on the hearts of the people in my congregation, so I spend a lot of time thinking about this.

I was struck by this worship quandary again this week as I was studying the “suffering servant” theme in the book of Isaiah and I thought it might be important to discuss this topic in some depth. We have a lot of songs that talk about the “suffering servant” – most of which name Jesus as this One who was “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5a). Here’s one example, By His Wounds…or if you’re more into the hymn thing here’s another example, O Sacred Head Now Wounded. It’s a common Christian interpretation to read Jesus of Nazareth into the “suffering servant” narrative in Isaiah, and Christian theologians have done so throughout history. At the end of this letter I will discuss that reading of the text, but first I would like to offer some information that might shed light on the scriptural context to help us sort out what’s going on here.

A bit of background: The book of Isaiah is divided into three main sections. Chapters 40-55 in the book of Isaiah comprise a section called Second Isaiah. This happens to be the second of the three sections – hence, probably, the name. While the first portion of Isaiah was written to the pre-exilic community during the 8th century B.C.E., this second portion of the book of Isaiah was addressed to the people of Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile (500s B.C.E.). If you’d like a more substantive discussion of this historical context you can check out Bandstra’s Chapter 12: Postmonarchy Prophets: Exile and Restoration.

The “suffering servant” stuff is in Second Isaiah in a subsection of four poems that speak of a mysterious figure called the “Servant of Yahweh.” Here are the four poems: Isaiah 42:1-6, Isaiah 49:1-6, Isaiah 50:4-9, and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The last of the four poems is the one that has been used as a theme in the aforementioned songs/hymns. So here’s the problem with those songs in regard to the ways they go about reading Jesus into these poems: In this context, Jesus of Nazareth is not likely the “suffering servant,” but rather the “suffering servant” is most likely the people of Israel. The notes in my Harper Collins Study Bible explain, “The early church identified the servant in this passage with Jesus, and Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission may have been shaped by this figure. In the original historical context, however, the servant appears to have been exiled Israel.” The context of the other poems supports the notion of the “suffering servant” as Israel. Tovia Singer writes, “Isaiah’s first three Servant Songs clearly identify Israel as God’s servant, and the surrounding chapters of Isaiah 53 clearly speak of Israel as a suffering and humiliated individual” (Who is God’s Suffering Servant? The Rabbinic Interpretation of Isa 53)

This is a BIT of an aside to the discussion about music, but I found it disturbing/interesting/enlightening to read Rabbi Singer’s thoughts regarding Christian issues with Isaiah 53 and the “suffering servant” as the people of Israel. He discusses how the church has used Isaiah 53 as a prooftext in order to show the validity of the Gospels, particularly to prove Jesus of Nazareth’s death as “explicitly prophesied in Hebrew Scriptures.” He asserts that Christians use the suffering of Jesus as a cornerstone of their doctrine, claiming that a concession of the “suffering servant” as the people of Israel would, “require Christendom to abandon one of its most cherished polemical chapters used to defend its own teachings, and a vital part of its textual arsenal used against its elder rival, Judaism.” Singer goes on to write, “It is astonishing that missionaries would use rabbinic texts to support Christian doctrines given that each and every one of the rabbis that they zealously quote utterly rejected the teachings of Christianity.” Pretty intense stuff.

I can see the validity of Rabbi Singer’s statements though. We Christians tend to get trapped in church doctrine and become inflexible to other ideas, even if they are grounded in academically-sound readings of Scripture. And with the upcoming Holy Week services I have been noticing that we tend to sing a LOT of songs about suffering and blood shed in the church. Which is understandable, but they tend to only be from an atonement theology standpoint. Why not find songs that use liberation theology for Holy Week? Dr. Brooke Lester talks about the sinner/judgment model of the Christian tradition versus the victim/vindication model we see in Isaiah. This would be an interesting challenge to find words for worship that enliven the victim/vindication narrative.

Part of why I am writing to you is that I wonder if we might be able to find some room for new words to use in Christian worship. And I’m wondering if this conversation can serve to augment how we look at scripture and talk about it. It seems that we get stuck on one idea (Jesus as “suffering servant”) and perhaps fail to see the fullness of God’s grace and love.

One of the Enduring Understandings in our Old Testament class related to this topic is:
The Prophets aren’t talking to you: rather, they speak to their time and place, in order to make specific things happen in that time and place. What does that mean for the words we choose to use in worship? In particular, what does this mean for the songs that use Isaiah 53 to speak about Jesus of Nazareth as the “suffering servant”?

The final question is one of our Essential Questions in Old Testament class: Why and how do we appropriate ancient words for our own purposes and interests? What does it mean for a text to “speak to” someone it’s not meant for? How does the understanding of this narrative shed light on the historical context? How does the historical context speak to us today? Can it? Walter Brueggemann writes about Isaiah 53, “Although it is clear that this poetry does not have Jesus in any first instance on its horizon, it is equally clear that the church, from the outset, has found the poetry a poignant and generative way to consider Jesus, wherein humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension.” It seems clear that this text can speak from a broad context, but it seems clear that the historical context is also crucial. I guess we just continue to live in the tension, consider the contexts, and work on finding words for worship.





Make Option 02: Read these passages from Jeremiah: 1:1-19; 2:1-13; 4:23-28; 5:1-5; 7:1-34; 8:18–9:3; 18:1-12; 20:7-13; 23:9-32; 31; 32:1-15. Which of these texts sound to you like prophecies of “doom”? Which, by contrast, of “hope”? What make the differences? Do you find it credible that these types of utterance could both come from the same prophet? To what of Judah’s political circumstances might each be appropriate during Jeremiah’s career? If you are someone who preaches, do you preach both “doom” and “hope”? Under what circumstances, and what makes the difference?

First, a brief background. This background is summarized from my reading of Christopher Stanley’s The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet in 627 B.C.E. (according to Jeremiah 1:1-3). He took up this vocation at a young age and, through visions and direct speech, proclaimed the judgment God intended to bring upon the people of Israel as a consequence of their rebellious actions. The rebellion involved social injustices and worship of other gods. Jeremiah worked as a prophet in the years leading up to the Babylonian invasion and the years immediately following.

Jeremiah 1:1-19 (Hope/Doom)

“See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10) The notes in the Harper-Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version) identify this verse as a motif that summarizes the alternating messages of doom/hope throughout the book of Jeremiah. According to these notes, the message of destruction (destroy and overthrow, pluck up and pull down) points to the oracles in chapters 2-25, and the message of hope (build and plant) points to the messages of salvation in chapters 30-31. Therefore, this message of Jeremiah’s calling seems to hold both doom and hope, with an overarching message of Yahweh’s intended protection over the work Jeremiah is being called to do.

Jeremiah 2:1-13 (Doom)

This is a message of doom, though it seems to be equal parts mourning (of the people abandoning Yahweh) and doom (the punishment that shall not escape the people of Israel). Jeremiah 2:8 communicates a metaphor of God as a husband to the people of Israel, a narrative that plays out in the mournful image of a bride leaving her husband. This passage portrays doom in the expansive nature of the sinful behavior and the resulting punishments. Those who abandoned Yahweh are identified as priests, rulers, and prophets (2:8), a large segment of the population. The resulting punishment is even more expansive, with Yahweh accusing even their children’s children (2:9), naming Israel as a worthless people (2:5), and proclaiming that the people have forsaken God and are unable to save themselves (2:13).

Jeremiah 4:23-28 (Doom)

Except for 4:27, which the Harper Collins notes name as a later prose insertion meant to promise that destruction would not be total, this passage contains an overarching message of doom. Jeremiah uses language that calls the earth “waste and void” (4:23), entirely “laid in ruins” (4:26), containing no life, human or otherwise. This state of devastation is a vision of the outcome of Yahweh’s anger (4:26). The vivid descriptions of the entirety of destruction, and the eerie vision of a world completely void of life, frame the message as one of hopeless doom.

Jeremiah 5:1-5 (Doom)

This passage also contains a message of doom, particularly in the context of the expanse of people who “act justly” (5:1). The ultimate message of doom here is “But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds” (5:5). This paints a picture of a land where absolutely no one keeps Yahweh’s commandments.

Jeremiah 7:1-34 (Doom)

While this passage begins with a suggestion of hope (“[If you amend your ways] I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever” (7:7)), the mood quickly shifts to one of doom, portrayed in the reality of the situation and the expectation that the people will not amend their ways. One of the messages of doom is that Yahweh is refusing to listen to the people and forbidding Jeremiah from interceding for the people (7:16). The words of Yahweh relate Yahweh’s intended silence to the manner in which the people have consistently ignored the warnings of the prophets. This paints a sort of “eye for an eye” picture of Yahweh’s punishment, which adds to the hopeless message of the text. The punishment here is graphic: “The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth” (7:33), naming the place the valley of Slaughter. The refusal of Yahweh to listen to the people, and the graphic depictions of punishment without relent, make the message here one of overwhelming doom.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:3 (Doom)

This message contains no hope. Jeremiah is offering a lament (much like the lament psalms and the lament we find in Job 3) for the destruction of the people of Israel. The hopeless message is beautifully written, but extremely sorrowful. An example of the tone of the passage is: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20). Sad. Poetic. Honest.

Jeremiah 18:1-12 (Doom)

Here God offers a way out of destruction for Israel. Yahweh describes himself as a potter, carefully devising plans that are malleable based on the actions of the people. God offers a plan for repentance and a promise of changing God’s mind about the intended disaster if the people amend their evil ways (18:8). But the people speak “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will” (18:12). Therefore, what was meant to be hopeful is, again, a message of doom. This passage is particularly sad because the message of hope is almost dangled like a carrot, but then taken away again because the people will not repent. (The carrot metaphor doesn’t quite work, because God is not taunting the people in that way, but rather the people’s own foolishness is reaping due consequence.)

Jeremiah 20:7-13 (Hope/Doom)

This is a disturbing passage. Dr. Brooke Lester refers to this passage in his Lecture Part B, discussing scholarly opinions that the passage can be read as suggesting the image of God as a rapist, seducing and overpowering Jeremiah (20:7). Even in the midst of this difficult imagery, Jeremiah seems to paint a more hopeful picture of God, even commanding praises to the Lord for “delivering the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (20:13). Here Jeremiah seems to offer a hopeful, if not honest and disturbing, message of God’s ultimate protection from enemies. Though one has to wonder, in this context, what protects from the violence of God??

Jeremiah 23:9-32 (Doom)

Much of this passage involves an oracle against false prophets (23:9-15), putting God in opposition to those who “speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (23:16). The message from the prophet Jeremiah seems to be not one of comfort, but one of punishment and doom, stemming from the honest examination of the actions and consequences for the people of Israel. The key idea is that “God will “bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment” (23:12).

Jeremiah 31 (Hope)

This passage is hopeful, conveyed in a tone that is altogether different from the preceding passages we have examined. The message is that “there is hope for your future” (31:17), and that God will “turn mourning into joy, comfort, and give gladness for sorrow” (31:13). The tone is so unlike the other passages that it seems to be coming from a voice other than Jeremiah. From a voice other than the Yahweh who spoke doom in the other passages. More on this in a bit…

Jeremiah 32:1-15 (Hope)

This passage outlines a purchase of a field during the time of Babylonian conquest and threatened exile, an act that shows great hope in the midst of unrest. The act of buying land is one of trust in God’s faithfulness and hope for a future where Israelites will be free in the land promised to them. Here God says, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15), offering hope for future restoration.

Concluding Thoughts

The mixture of hope and doom in Jeremiah is somewhat perplexing. The tone of hope versus doom is so vastly different that it does sound like a different voice making the proclamations. The historical situation in Judah provides one possible reason for the contrasting messages. When there is an obvious impending Babylonian invasion the tone shifts to one of hope, providing the people of Israel with a vision to sustain them throughout the years of exile. This situation makes it plausible that the prophet might change his tone in order to offer hope to a people in a dire situation.

In Dr. Lester’s Lecture Part B, he discusses the 2-part message that is involved in preaching the gospel: the message of God’s call (invitation) to all people, shaped by love and comfort, and the message of God’s claim, the demands or expectations that come with the call. The context of the congregation at any given time informs whether the message needs to be centered more on call or claim. My preaching experience is still somewhat limited, but when I have preached I’ve tended to try to gently weave together call and claim in the message. I think that typically both call and claim are there to balance one another, and to help congregations move safely in the direction in which God is calling them. That said, I also think there are times when one message must be the sole focus, and must be proclaimed boldly as Jeremiah did. For instance, in times of stagnation congregations need to step up to God’s demands for justice. In times of grief, congregations need to hear messages of comfort. This is perhaps what Jeremiah was trying to do with the people he ministered to, the people over whom he lamented in a very pastoral way.


Make Option 01: (Exercise 87 in Stanley.) Read Amos 2:6-16; 5:10-17; 6:1-8; 8:4-9:4. In about 750-1000 words, what does Amos say is wrong with Israelite society? What will happen to the people of Israel if they don’t change their ways? Is there anything that they can do to avoid this fate?

The words of the prophet Amos, directed at the inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel during the middle of the 8th century B.C.E., are the earliest prophetic sayings recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Christopher Stanley, in The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, describes Amos’ audience as wealthy elites enjoying an “era of peace and prosperity” (p. 429). Amos brings to light the deceptive nature of this peace and prosperity, naming the sins that are undergirding the wealth of the nation.

What does Amos say is wrong with Israelite society?
According to Amos, there seem to be two categories of issues in Israelite society: economic injustice and straying from authenticity in their covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Stanley names the broken covenant with Yahweh as the primary problem and the economic injustices as the symptom of the primary problem (p. 429). In other words, a lack of connection to Yahweh leads the people to all types of economic and social sins.

Amos indicates that the Israelite wealthy are “trampling on the heads of the poor and needy) three times in the excerpts we are examining: 2:7, 5:11, 8:4. This theme of the rich taking advantage of the disadvantaged is indicated in a number of other ways throughout these texts. Amos says that the Israelites steal from the poor (5:11 – “take from them levies of grain,” 8:5 – “practice deceit with false balances”), practice debt slavery (2:6 – “sell the needy for a pair of sandals,” 8:6 – “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals”), and keep people from entering the city gates (5:12 – “push aside the needy in the gate”). In addition to these active sinful behaviors, the wealthy are accused of passive complacency, self-indulgent behavior, and lack concern for the troubles of the nation (6:4-6). The overarching sin in this section seems also to be related to pride (6:8 – “I abhor the pride of Jacob”).

Chapter 2 reveals sexual immorality in Israelite society (2:7-8 – “father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned”). This section of the text relays the ways in which the Israelites are sinning in sacred places intended for the worship of Yahweh (2:8 – “lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed”), a symptom pointing to the ways in which sin is related to the distance that the Israelites have put between themselves and their relationship with Yahweh. In the same way, the Israelites are forcing the nazirites, consecrated by God to do God’s work, to break their vows (2:12) and are telling prophets, raised up by God to prophesy, to be silent (2:12). Seemingly related is the accusation in Amos 5:12 of Israelites “afflicting the righteous.”

What will happen to the people of Israel if they don’t change their ways?
The message of Amos in the selected passages is that God will punish the people of Israel if they don’t change their ways. The primary punishments in these excerpts involve foreign armies invading the land, forcing exile to those who are not killed in the process. A catastrophic military invasion is described in Amos 2:13-16, resulting in “those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day” (2:16). Chapter 5 describes punishment in terms of the death of Israel, invoking the image of professional mourners wailing for the death of the people of Israel (5:16-17). The most severe judgment is described in chapter 9, where the total destruction of Israel is described. The totality of destruction is conveyed in terms such as, “not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape” (9:1), going so far as to offer the descriptive warning, “though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the sea-serpent, and it shall bite them” (9:3). The section ends with the warning, “I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not for good” (9:4).

In addition to the warnings of death and destruction, God threatens to withdraw God’s word from the people of Israel. Amos reveals this state of separation in chapter 9: “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (9:12). Chapter 9 also describes the time of punishment in terms of darkness, famine, thirst, and trembling earth.

Is there anything that they can do to avoid this fate?

All hope seems almost to be lost in Amos’ assertions, but there remain a few glimmers of possible ways that the Israelites could avoid the aforementioned punishments. Chapter 5 offers the most hopeful path toward avoiding the devastating fate: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14). Amos describes the task as a turning from evil toward good, as would be evidenced by establishing justice, particularly in relation to justice for those who are needy at the city gates (5:15). Amos informs the people that these actions may cause Yahweh to be gracious to the remnant of Israel and not punish those whose hearts turn back to God. The excerpt in chapter 9 has a much more pessimistic view toward avoiding punishment, and seems to suggest that all hope is indeed lost.

Other thoughts.
One of the assertions of Dr. Brooke Lester in his list of essential understandings for the writings of the latter prophets is: “The Prophets aren’t talking to you: rather, they speak to their time and place, in order to make specific things happen in that time and place.” At the same time, one of Dr. Lester’s essential questions is: “Why and how do we appropriate ancient words for our own purposes and interests? What does it mean for a text to “speak to” someone it’s not meant for?” This tension is important to consider when reading and studying the works of the latter prophets. We often approach biblical texts wondering what they have to say to us in our current time. And it is certainly easy to jump to making parallels between the actions (and inactions) of Israel portrayed in this text and the current political and social climate in the United States. The problem with making parallels between the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures and our current time is that we often forego historical context and, as Stanley suggests, “interpret [prophetic] sayings in a manner that would have made no sense” to an 8th century audience. It is crucial, then, to begin with the goal of understanding the historical importance of the texts for their intended audience. Only then can we perhaps think about what the texts have to say more generally about how those people understood Yahweh, and how that understanding might interact with our own.

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