On Reading the Whole Hebrew Scriptures In Midlife

On Reading the Whole Hebrew Scriptures In Midlife September 29, 2020

Some Notes In Three Stages While Reading the Pentateuch, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim


Early Notes

For years now I’ve known the Hebrew Scriptures were organized in a different order from what Christians call the “Old Testament.”

Basically, the first five books are the same in both, called the Torah or Pentateuch.

Where things change are in the second section, what Hebrew Scripture calls Nevi’im. The prophets. Which starts Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings, then continues with three major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and then the 12 “minor” prophets.

This differs from the Christian Old Testament, which goes Joshua Judges Ruth, then inserts Chronicles after Samuel and Kings, and shifts to the other Writings for a bit, like Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and literature like Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, before then concluding with the prophets, whereas Hebrew Scripture reserves these writings for a final section, Ketuvim (Writings) that concludes with Chronicles.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s knowledge I had at a factual level, and it’s the kind of thing you can acquire yourself just by reading a good Wikipedia article.

But I’ve never known the difference experientially. But I decided now would be a good time to rectify that, so the last month I’ve been reading my way through Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

He published them at the conclusion of a long and amazing career in a three volume slip case, that somehow beautifully emphasizes the groupings (and remember, in synagogue all of Scripture is held in scrolls). It’s been a tactile experience to read Hebrew Scripture in this way.

Today I finished Kings. Honestly, one reason I wanted to do this read through was to more carefully read the prophets. I feel like I’ve never read them well in totem, as a group. But setting them up in this way, concluding with the poignant (and in many ways despairing) drift of Kings, feels very different from turning to them in Christian Scripture, where all the poetic texts and wisdom literature divide the “history” books from the prophets.

As a reader, arriving at this point, it feels like exile. Like, the prophets are speaking, and I’m ready. Also, since some of the greatest prophets are recording in Kings, it is appropriate that these books are part of the Nevi’im.

I don’t yet know what it will be like to read Chronicles as the “conclusion” or final books of Hebrew Scripture. It certainly sets things up very differently from the Christian conclusion with Malachi.

As I’ve been reading these first texts, it occurs to me I wanted to rank them (for quality? canonicity? I don’t know), kind of the way fans rank the nine Star Wars films. If I were to do so, it would go like this:


As I have been reading, I’m also realizing once again the vast difference between reading Scripture in preparation for preaching, or in worship, or reading it devotionally, and reading it for “the whole.”

It hits you differently. It encompasses you. All the more reason to actually read the texts organized as they are in Hebrew Scripture tradition.

As I have aged as a pastor and human, I have honestly become less concerned about what counts as Scripture, what counts as a classic of literature, what is canonical, etc. I’m not sure actually whether I’m reading this text devotionally, academically, or simply because I love classics (I take time every year to read other texts like The Odyssey, and the Scripture makes it in the mix, in this sense it is “just” literature to me).

Perhaps this is because in the end, it’s not about dogmatics. It’s about joy, and love, and beauty.

Scripture is a mess. It’s also so profoundly beautiful I’m thankful to spend a lifetime with it. Kind of like life itself.

Be safe y’all. Much love. Hope such esoteric reflection might be a sign of life in a distracting world this Saturday evening.


A Meditation from the Pastor After Reading All the Prophets In Three Days

By the time you make your way through Isaiah-Jeremiah-Ezekiel, you realize how LONG these books are.

Like, SO long. They easily take up over half of the totality of the Nevi’im, the Hebrew prophets section, and just one of these long prophets is longer than the final 12 minor prophets combined.

Isaiah feels like walking around in a mansion. The poetry is gorgeous. There aren’t just multiple rooms, there are three whole wings. And some of the rooms are perfect for singing (thanks, Handel).

Jeremiah gives us the American jeremiad. That poor dude. God just kept him giving more and more horrible news to report at precisely the moment everything was falling apart. Imagine being told by God to tell people their house is burning down WHILE the house is burning down. And then keep saying it over and over.

Meanwhile, Ezekiel was a hot mess. So much of it is clunky, and yet when he’s on he is SPOT on. Nobody gives us a vision of God and the throne like that first chapter. Nobody gives us a poem like dry bones.

But to get to those kernels, you have to slog through a lot of text, and a good portion of it drifts over into the kind of misogyny you hear from some men who just aren’t well.

This time reading the texts, I must confess I am thankful I read the Silmarillion before I read the Bible straight through again. I don’t know if I can tell you precisely why it changed things, but I’m reading the Bible in its entirety with very fresh eyes, and although that is partially attributable to some good theological reflection over the years, and great marginalia from Robert Alter, really reading the Silmarillion has made a world of difference.

I got done with the prophets and thought to myself, “Anyone who is a fundamentalist or a literalist is just fooling themselves. Like, they don’t actually try to apply all of this. That would be like saying that whenever you drink water you drink the whole ocean. Nobody does.”

These texts are really old. They have very little of what you might call narrative. They require a lot of work, and are tedious in the extreme and sometimes literally incomprehensible (like, sometimes we don’t even know what the words mean anymore).

I can see why most people of faith never get around to reading them.

Yet on another level, I realize that most of us spend hours each day doom scrolling, reading post after post and article after article that are not unlike the prophets in their repetition and tedium. Like, you’d think we’d all be SO tired of anything about Trump by now, and yet we keep reading stuff about him.

So too the prophets, we keep reading them because they mattered, and they matter, in spite of the distance of time and culture involved.

Take for example the opening of Habakkuk, which might as well be my words this week in prayer form:

“How long, O LORD, shall I cry out,
yet You do not listen?
I scream “outrage” to You,
and you do not rescue!
Why do You show me mischief,
and You look upon wretchedness?
Plunder and outrage are before me,
quarrel and contention I bear.
Therefore teaching fails,
and justice never comes forth.
For the wicked surrounds the righteous.
Therefore perverted justice comes forth.
See among the nations and look,
and be altogether astonished.
For a deed is being done in your time,
you would not believe it were it told.” (1:2-5).

I mean, Breonna Taylor? Justice never comes forth?


Reading the Final Collection of Writings

Today I finished the first complete read-through of the Bible I’ve done in my 40s. I can still remember back to the first time I read the Bible straight through from beginning to end. I was gifted a Student Bible when I was ten, and it had a guide for reading straight through in three months.

I started out so confident and inspired in Genesis. By the time I hit Chronicles, I was despairing. I still finished out of sheer tenacity but I don’t know how much I really got out of the experience other than a sense of how ancient the text was.

Earlier this month, I did a listen through of David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. I highly recommend it, especially in audiobook.

But in this post I’m focusing on the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Ketuvim (The Writings).

The Writings include Psalms, Proverbs, Job, The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Qoheleth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

You can see this is the primary example of how the Hebrew Scriptures are organized differently than the Christian organization of the Old Testament.

There are a few reasons for this. First, it’s because the Pentateuch and the Prophets have a logical cohesion, the Pentateuch as the Torah, the most ancient and original texts. The prophets because they narrate the history of the era of the prophets, and contain the prophetic writings.

The Writings (Ketuvim) are the collection of “everything else.” You might call them miscellaneous writings.

There are many fascinations with this portion of the Hebrew Scripture. First, it’s the last to become canonical. In fact, a few texts in it are still debated as to their canonicity, in particular Esther.

But their contestability also has to do with how much later some of them are written. Like Daniel, written in the 2nd century BC, or Ruth, written in the style of Joshua and Judges but actually composed much later.

The Ketuvim vary widely in their literary style. It’s truly the part of the scriptures that says, “Hi, I’m a library.” The psalms are songs. Ecclesiastes is philosophy. Song of Songs is love poetry. Nehemiah is a memoir. Ruth is like a short story. Proverbs are wisdom sayings, like collections of aphorisms today. Job is also philosophy framed as a tragic tale.
Some of these texts are perhaps the most eloquent literature in the whole Bible. Like Job. Other parts are the only part of Hebrew Scripture not written in Hebrew, but rather Aramaic, including sections of Daniel and Ezra.

Some of these texts just really aren’t that great. Chronicles, I’m looking at you, and your airbrushing out all the parts of Kings about David that offer him as a fully human figure.
And some of these texts, though influential, also present a kind of dismal legacy. We can blame so much of end times predictions on Daniel, and unfortunately Nehemiah reverses the direction of inclusion found in so much of the rest of Hebrew Scripture, reintroducing tragic racial distinctions during the completion of the second temple.

As a reader of this text now in mid-life, I came had a number of reactions. First, reading these writings last I truly had a renewed sense of the breadth of literary styles the scriptures include. It’s remarkable.

Second, it’s still a really hard book to read straight through. I love the psalms, but 150 psalms in a row, followed by proverbs is kind of a slog.

Proverbs is still one of my least favorite books, other than the portrayal of Lady Wisdom. I’m also not a big fan of Chronicles, although this time around it did help me think of Chronicles as kind of like a proto-four-gospels approach.

By which I mean, in the same way there are four gospels describing the life of Jesus in the New Testament, in Hebrew Scripture you get a retelling of Kings from the perspective of the Chronicler. The only weakness is that unlike the gospel writers, each of whom has unique strengths, there’s not really much to commend the Chroncler’s version of the story, other than that it sets things up at the end on a positive note with the rebuilding under Cyrus.

I loved one quote from Alter’s translation of Nehemiah in particular that I believe helps me think about the role of these texts in our life of faith. Nehemiah is a memoir of the rebuilding of the temple, as well as Ezra’s bringing the Torah back out to read before the people.

He writes, “If rebuilding the walls and the Temple consolidates the physical security and the cultic viability of the people returned to its land, the public reading of the Torah–essentially, a confirmation of its newly minted canonicity–consolidates the spiritual coherence of the people” (847).

I’m thinking about how much value we place on the public reading of Scripture in worship, and how people who are lectors think of it as an honor and privilege. Not because it’s for them, but because when we read these texts out loud, it is less about their coherence and more about our spiritual coherence as a people.

I honestly can’t say I would recommend that everyone try to read the whole bible straight through. Some of it (like 1 Chronicles 1-9) is completely unedifying, and a lot of it is tedious and repetitive at best.

And yet reading it through as a whole again, in Alter’s translation, has reminded me that it stands there as a kind of mobile temple, replete and compendious and grand. Perhaps like a temple, some of it is built not to be seen, but to keep the whole building standing.

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