How and Why We Should Read the Poetry of the Old Testament for Public Life Today
What has been written with imagination, let us read with imagination. The latest in our series on the OT and public life.
Editor's Note: The Old Testament is full of much which is confusing, violent, and ambiguous. This Comment series, curated by Ryan O'Dowd (lecturer at Cornell University and author of Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction) explores how and why we should read the Old Testament for public life today.
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Poetry makes up a large part of the Bible. In addition to the poetic books themselves—Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations (these alone amount to around one third of the Old Testament)—there are large sections of poetry in other biblical books: well over half of Isaiah, over one third in Jeremiah, and around one fifth of Ezekiel, as well as more than half of the materials in the so-called Minor Prophets (Hosea to Malachi) and other poetic sections in the narrative books, such as Hannah's psalm in 1 Samuel 2. Altogether, then, more than half of the Old Testament is poetry. And the Old Testament makes up more than two thirds of the Christian Bible. There even are some poetic sections in the New Testament (Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; Philippians 2:6-11, etc.). You do the math, but on any count, the poetry of the Bible is important, by sheer numbers alone.
The poetry of the Bible is beautiful and powerful. It has been written with imagination, and it needs to be read with imagination. I will demonstrate this with a few comments on recent developments in the interpretation of biblical poetry, and then present three case studies of how skill, imagination, and wisdom can help us to read the poetry of the Bible for all it's worth.
Method: Modern Interpretation of Poetry
The first half of the twenty-first century is an exciting time for studying the Bible's poetry. Scholars of language and literature have gained exciting new insights into poetry.
Modern linguistics help us understand how words acquire different meanings in different contexts, and how word combinations produce meaning that far outstrips the sum of the meanings of the individual words. It helps us see ambiguity as an asset rather than a setback. Modern scholars of Hebrew poetry have helped us overcome simplistic ideas about poetic parallelism and rediscover the beauty of Hebrew poetry. Modern critical theory inspires us to ask fresh questions of familiar texts, invites us to rediscover their modern relevance, and empowers us to become proactive participants in poetry's production of transformative meaning.
Modern study of metaphors helps us understand how the metaphors we use to speak of complex problems shape our thinking and our lives. Modern hermeneutics helps us read biblical poetry with humility and expectation: "What has been written with imagination must be read with imagination" (Alonso Schökel, Manual of Hebrew Poetics, 1988).
In many ways, the study of Hebrew poetry has just begun. We have arrived in a new territory of the mind that awaits our discovery, a land wide open to the interpretive imagination, inviting us to embark on an exciting adventure of the mind that can change our own lives, our political, cultural, and ethical values, and consequently change our world for the common good.
Such imaginative and responsible Christian reading requires skill and imagination, and the Church needs to be challenged and empowered to acquire these interpretive virtues. For example, poetic metaphors in the Bible are immensely powerful, and they can be used as forces for good or abused to promote or justify evil. On the one hand, they can be beneficial agents of change when applied responsibly and skilfully for the common good. On the other hand, superficial and less than competent interpretations can turn them into dangerous traps misleading well-meaning Christians and confirming narrow-minded and dangerous presuppositions current in the general cultural milieu.
In an important study of the ethical relevance of the Law for Christians, notable Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham explains that laws tend to be a pragmatic compromise between the legislators' ideals and what can be enforced in practice. Laws do not show what is socially desirable, let alone ideal. They enforce minimum standards and set a floor for acceptable behaviour, not an ethical ceiling: "[They do not] . . . disclose the ideals of law-givers, but only the limits of their tolerance" (Wenham, Story as Torah, Edinburgh, 2000). By contrast, the poetry of the Bible can bring us further. In beautiful words and phrases and in powerful thoughts and emotions and ethical challenges, we come face to face with the dreams and hopes of the people of God and catch a glimpse of God's ideals for fulfilled, purposeful lives that actively contribute to the common good rather than simply avoid doing the wrong thing.
Case Study 1: Poetry on Genocide
A good case in point is Proverbs 24:10-11:
If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength being small;
if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death,
those who go staggering to the slaughter;
if you say, "Look, we did not know this"—
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it?
And will he not repay all according to their deeds?
If this text had been as well known and if it had carried the same authority in the Church as the passage about obeying the governing authorities in Romans 13:1-7, the Church in Germany and the Church in Rwanda would have behaved very differently during the genocides committed in those countries. World history would be different.
And the poetry of the Bible has the power to shape our future, too. The following passage is relevant to the challenge of ethnic tensions and the threat of war.
Case Study 2: Poetry on War
After a moving and uplifting reflection on the cultural and spiritual importance of Jerusalem, Psalm 137 ends with the following "bombshell" (pun intended):
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
What are we to make of this? There are two common responses. First, most avoid these shocking statements as contrary to Christian values, so that the entire psalm is excluded from many Christian lectionaries and rarely preached on. Second, some Christians abuse these verses to justify "just war" arguments against political enemies, most recently in the so-called "war on terror" waged by countries like the United States and Great Britain. Yet, there is a third and, in my opinion, better way of reading these verses, and they have to do with interpreting them skilfully, imaginatively, responsibly, and wisely.
First, the entire psalm is constructed on a specific kind of metaphor, called personification. Jerusalem and Babylon are treated as if they are female human beings with emotions and other human characteristics.
Arising from this, secondly, "daughter Babylon" is not a young, vulnerable female with small children, but the symbol of a destructive and brutal army. Consequently, the "little ones" to be killed are not innocent infants; rather, the "children" of the personified army represent adult soldiers, the very people who taunt, threaten, and humiliate the poet and his or her compatriots in the earlier verses of the psalm. The image is not about infanticide, but about expressing the agony and resentment of an exiled and humiliated community about their abusive oppressors. These first two points are about skill and imagination.
The third is about responsible interpretation: The psalm is composed among a beleaguered minority in a foreign land, powerless and entirely unable to put any of the vindictive ideas expressed here into action. The psalm is about helping those who cannot help themselves to cope emotionally with the inescapable injustice they have to endure. The imagery is cathartic and designed to bring healing to a wounded people.
By contrast, an interpretation that casts a large, powerful, and rich country in the role of Lady Jerusalem and casts a much smaller and less powerful country in the role of Lady Babylon would misinterpret Psalm 137. Similarly, using the end of the psalm to justify the killing of non-combatants, an inevitable corollary of modern warfare, would be an abuse of the psalm. Such a misapplication would not only be naïve, but outright irresponsible and dangerous. Wise interpretations will know how to apply the psalm to heal the emotions of the powerless and oppressed, not to promote violence and war.
The next case study will look at biblical poetry that has the power to change ourselves. The next passage is relevant to the formation of Christian character and ethical values.
Case Study 3: Poetry on Prosperity
A brief instruction in Proverbs 3:9-10 is generally associated with "prosperity teaching" in some Christian traditions. It reads:
Honour the Lord with your substance
and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
and your vats will be bursting with wine.
These two verses have been a mainstay of "prosperity gospel"-type preaching for many decades. A superficial reading suggests two related ideas—one general, the other specific: first, these verses appear to suggest that godliness automatically leads to wealth; second, they appear to suggest that the giving of generous offerings of money to Church work or Christian ministry organizations automatically leads to prosperity, especially financial rewards.
In practice, this often leads to calls for people to give the so-called "tithe," a tenth of their financial income. Such preaching is regularly accompanied by promises that faithful and generous, even sacrificial, giving would make relatively poor people prosperous. However, this is in fact not what these verses are saying. Rather, they are addressed to rich people, for verse ten clarifies that their barns (plural!) and their vats (plural!) will be filled beyond capacity. Only relatively well-off people have a barn or a vat of their own. Those with several barns and vats are wealthy.
What does this mean? Rather than providing a prosperity gospel for the poor, these verses constitute a genuine "gospel to the rich": Those with significant wealth (they already own several barns and vats just to contain their regular income) are encouraged to put God first in their lives by being generous to others. The motivation for such reorientation and generosity is given in promises—barns filled to overflowing, wine containers filled to bursting—that imply two related but distinct positive outcomes.
The first outcome is that any giving to the work of God will not diminish the giver's wealth, but increase it. The barns and vats will not be empty or half full—they will be completely full. Giving will not diminish the giver. And the second outcome is that such giving, by contrast, enriches the giver to the level of surplus without excess. Not more barns and vats to be filled with ever more corn and wine are promised, but an overflow just beyond the present level of prosperity.
An imaginative interpretation will ask the question ingeniously prompted by this mysterious abundance: "What is the generous giver to do with this excess of fortune beyond his or her actual needs?" The obvious answer, ingeniously built into the poetic design of this astonishing piece of advice, is this: Give it away! Honour the Lord with it, continue the "virtuous cycle" of abundant generosity begetting generous abundance—not for one's own enrichment, but for a prosperity of the heart that glorifies God through enriching others.
These three case studies demonstrate that the poetry of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible has the power to move, to heal, to challenge, and to transform. They have also shown that reading such poetry needs skill, imagination, and wisdom. These interpretive virtues do not come easily. They need hard work, commitment, and perseverance. But the fruits of such investment in interpretive skills will be abundant and rewarding. They can bring true and lasting change—for ourselves, and for the common good.
The Old Testament is the New New Testament
The New Testament was written over a period of around one hundred years, by those who knew the incarnate Jesus personally or who at least knew people who had known Jesus through first-hand experience. All of them wrote from the perspective of Jesus' imminent return (Matthew 16:28; Luke 9:27). From this perspective, all that mattered was the life to come, eternity in heaven: "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:2). In the light of the resurrection, the challenges and opportunities of this earthly life seemed peripheral: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:17). Most of the New Testament was written to prepare its readers for heaven. Guidance on how to live faithfully here and now was peripheral: "For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:14).
By contrast, the Old Testament—the Bible of Jesus and the disciples—was written over a time-span of around one thousand years. It was written by and for a community of believers who, for most of its existence, constituted a beleaguered minority surrounded by powerful opponents. It describes the highs and lows of a people's spiritual and physical defeats and victories. It paints a vivid picture of the struggles and triumphs of innumerable individuals, great heroes and heroines of the faith, through many generations. It presents the songs of joy over divine blessings and the laments of anguish over divine judgment. It offers us glimpses into the deepest feelings and fears, the greatest joys and insights, the unsurpassed wisdom of great thinkers like the author of the book of Ecclesiastes. In short, it describes the life of faith of the people of God through history. And here lies its relevance for modern Christian faith and praxis.
The Christian Church has existed for almost 2000 years. Through much of its history, it has been a beleaguered minority, like ancient Israel. While this has not been true for Europe roughly from 300 CE to 1900 CE and for North America from the Eighteenth Century to the present day, it has certainly been true for most of the world for most of Christianity's history, it is true for Western Europe today, and it is (still) true for many parts of Africa and Asia.
The Church has gone through wonderful triumphs and tragic failures, like ancient Israel. The Church has brought great advances to humanity, like ancient Israel. The Church has committed great sins, like ancient Israel. It shares with modern Judaism one of the greatest treasures of humanity, the Hebrew Bible. For the Church—as for ancient Israel and modern Judaism—the Old Testament, and especially its poetry, is an inspiration for a life lived well, for survival in the midst of injustice and suffering, for humility in the midst of human self-aggrandizement, and for a life in service of the common good.