Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802809902
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 9/14/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 353
  • Sales rank: 881,002
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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Making Wise the Simple

The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice
By Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-0990-1


Making wise the simple.

The word "simple," used mostly in Psalms and Proverbs, refers essentially to a naïve person, one who lacks experience and understanding; it carries the connotation of innocence and ignorance. The claim of Psalm 19:7, from which the title of this book is taken, is that the Torah (from a Hebrew word often translated "law" or, more properly, "instruction") clears up this type of simplicity. Innocence may have positive associations, but it can also be understood as an ambiguous word, which in its negative sense can be a quality that keeps intact a status quo of undesirable ignorance and injustice. Ignorance, a more obvious negative condition, may also be seen as ambiguous with both a negative and a positive side.

In the negative sense, simplicity and ignorance manifest themselves in a variety of stances and attitudes toward the Bible. At one extreme end of Christianity is the posture that holds the biblical text to be free of error and literally true, with everything in it of equal authority. According to this perspective, the conviction that all of Scripture is equally authoritative as the word of God overshadows recognition and consideration of the historical circumstances of the text. The fact is that the distance betweenour world and the world of the Bible is vast. This distance needs to be carefully established, and the bridge across it can be constructed only when the differences have been laid out and examined. Ignorance of the concerns that gave rise to biblical texts results in a faulty perception of what they may reveal to those who hold them sacred today, and the manner in which they may do so. In addition, every interpretive process is of necessity selective. The stance that all of the Bible is equally authoritative ignores the importance of guiding principles to govern this selectivity. When the selective process goes unacknowledged, it exercises a hidden and therefore dangerous authority of its own.

At the other extreme is a conviction that large parts of Scripture, mostly belonging to the "Old" Testament, are irrelevant to modern concerns and issues of faith. This posture more obviously ignores the biblical text and practices a persistent neglect in regard to the wisdom of the text and its capacity to respond to predicaments of every age - in short, its power to connect the listener to God. Both sides, the one that takes the Bible literally and the one that neglects it, live in ignorance of the Bible. While I recognize that many readers may find themselves somewhere between the two extremes, taking some parts of the Bible literally, some metaphorically, and ignoring others, my concern is especially with the second attitude because it predominates in the sector of the church where I place myself and because I believe there is at least a possibility here for a turn in a different direction, toward the Bible rather than away from it. In any case, no matter where we may place ourselves in regard to the truth of the Bible, I have written for everyone who has a hunger and potential enthusiasm for what the biblical text may convey, who is curious and interested in old words that may bring forth new things and perhaps even make one "wise." Wisdom in biblical terms does not mean some esoteric body of philosophical or theological knowledge. Wisdom means that one knows who one is and how one should live. It is exactly this wisdom that we lack when we lose our footing in the foundational document that informs our faith and practice. It is this wisdom that the Torah of the Holy God may communicate to us, "simple ones."

Simplicity and ignorance may also be virtues that give rise to curiosity and interest: the assumption of a stance of one who does not know, who is willing to begin with questions, move toward learning and return once again to the questions. In terms of the Bible, this is the opposite of already knowing what the text contains. Martin Buber expresses this state of assumed ignorance as one belonging to folks who "... take up Scripture as if they had never seen it, had never encountered it in school or afterwards in the light of 'religious' or 'scientific' certainties; as if they had not learned all their lives all sorts of sham concepts and sham propositions claiming to be based on it." Whatever our perspective on biblical truth may be, it is helpful to begin precisely there, with the insight that there are matters regarding the Bible that we do not know and so want to know more, rather than that we already know it all. The Torah may make us wise if we are willing to ask courageous and persistent questions from the position of our not knowing, and if we are willing to stay with the questions and return to them, rather than seeking a quick response.

For a great part, the root of ignorance of the Bible resides in a Christian inability to take seriously the importance of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, for its faith and practice. The custom of relegating the Old Testament to second place has a long history in Christianity and is still powerfully present both in the classroom and the church. The use of the so-called Ecumenical Lectionary in many congregations illustrates this customary devaluing of the largest part of the Bible. Old Testament passages are served up in a fragmented fashion, subordinated to the agenda of the Christian year, and either trumped by New Testament selections or interpreted as merely a prelude to them. Within the framework of this skewed Christian reading of the Bible, again illustrated by the Ecumenical Lectionary, a second and related problem is the privilege accorded to certain Old Testament material, with an attendant ignoring of other texts, sometimes of entire books. An emphasis on the Prophets, for example, has made the Torah, the first five Books of the Bible, unknown territory for many Christian believers. Hence, few will recognize the emphatic concern for social justice, so prevalent in the prophetic literature, as an issue central to the ethics of the Torah.

Having lost their moorings in the Torah, churchgoers at best assume the central tenets of faith and practice, as love of God and neighbor, to belong mainly to the prophetic critique of biblical Israel's shortcomings, or to have been invented by Jesus and his followers. In losing the connection with and foundation in Old Testament teaching, Christianity is in danger of failing to comprehend its own identity or what it means to live as a community that views itself as being in covenant with God. In addition, a mistaken understanding of the place and meaning of divine guidance, as a set of rules, the law - to be followed mechanically, set in false opposition to the gospel, the good news of God's love for the world - has created a deep uncertainty in regard to the practice of faith. How life should be lived within the Christian communion and in the world is left to hazy principles of goodwill, and it is not clear why Christians should follow one path and not another, where the dictates of faith come from or what they consist of.

If my first concern resides in current experience within the context of the Christian church, a second concern is rooted in my personal history as a child of the Second World War and in the intellectual framework into which I later put this experience. Born under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, I lived the first part of my life in the shadow of that existence and its aftermath. I have described the formative influence of these years elsewhere, and here point only to the conviction that after the attempt at the total annihilation of the Jews during the Hitler years, it cannot be business as usual for Christianity. "After Auschwitz" Christian teaching and preaching must take place in the light of what was perpetrated in Christian lands by Christian hands, and must take account of the ultimate consequences of Christian "teaching of contempt" for Judaism and the Jews. Where it fails to do so, its right to speak of Christian love or consider itself as "the people of God" is called into question.

As a teacher of Old Testament in a mainline denominational seminary for more than 25 years, I have become deeply concerned about the inability of Christian interpreters of both Testaments to reflect on the biblical text in light of the Holocaust/Shoah. It is hard to find reading material on the Bible that takes seriously the failure of Christianity to live up to its calling, which became apparent through the events of the Holocaust. Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Jewish attitudes are thus allowed to flourish unchallenged, often covertly and therefore all the more dangerously. Lack of acquaintance with the Bible, our own foundational document, combined with ignorance of a history of discrimination against and persecution of our Jewish sisters and brothers, thus continues to set Christians on a path fraught with uncertainty and potential violence against our neighbor. Today, the existence of the State of Israel, as much as policies of the current government must be held to critique and even disapproval, has unfortunately given rise to a renewed flourishing of hatred of the Jews, this time not only but also and again in Christian lands. As Jonathan Rosen points out, Arab anti-Israel propaganda has "joined hands" with European anti-Semitism, and "something terrible has been born." Rosen, who grew up resisting his father's "refugee sense of the world," came to the sense that he thought he "was living in the post-Holocaust world" and found "it sounds more and more like a pre-Holocaust world as well."

This book then addresses above all the Christian need to engage the entire Bible for its own sake, as a rich source for Christian faith and practice, as well as for the sake of "the other," for the sake of restoring just relations with those we have considered to be estranged from their own inheritance - the Jews, for whom the Christian Old Testament counts as the Bible. I focus on the Torah as a part that is both essential and at the same time more underused and misunderstood in Christian circles than the rest of the Bible. Interpretation of Scripture is always selective, as the questions and issues of the time press upon the text and emphasize the importance of one biblical passage over another. Yet, criteria for the interpretive task may be constructed to serve as a guide at any time, and I have laid these out in some detail in chapter 2 of part II. Where possible, New Testament texts are brought into conversation with texts of the Torah in order to let each text shed light on the other, rather than letting one text determine the meaning of the other.

I have written, as always, as a feminist, as someone who is dedicated to the establishing and maintaining of equal and just relations between women and men, as they are equally created in God's image. My feminist analysis and interpretation of the Bible take place within a confessional arena, in the trust that Scripture when seriously engaged by the believing community reveals God and God's intentions to the faithful. I do not think this happens automatically or mechanically or without a great deal of application on the part of those who take the Bible seriously. I write as a 21st-century Christian, a white woman of the Western industrialized world who grew up in Europe and made her home in the United States, who is deeply concerned about all that fractures and hurts relations between human beings, between humanity and the earth, and between humans and God. To the healing of this wounding the biblical text speaks strongly and convincingly. It does so especially in the attention given to the treatment of the stranger, an issue I consider to be central to the ethics that infuse the teachings of the Torah.

The first part of the book takes up understandings of the Torah in Judaism and Christianity, and considers next biblical designations assigned to a community that understands itself as living in covenant with its God, both in ancient Israel and early Christianity. Recognizing that instruction for the faith community can be understood only from within the covenant bond, and at the same time aware of the difficulty of connecting ethical demands from the ancient past to today's world, I suggest seeking access to covenant requirements via an initial understanding of the treatment of the stranger demanded from the ancient Israelite community. In order to become reacquainted and reengaged with the Bible, it is important to establish and evaluate the distance between us and the text, between our world and that world. I have therefore presented the world of the Bible in its cultural, social, and economic aspects as well as its religious practices with a good bit of detail in Part II. Following the setting of this context within which the texts of the first five books of the Bible took shape, we read through the Torah, beginning with the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which form both prelude and backdrop for what follows (Part III). I continue with the consolidation of the ancient Israelites into a people by the covenant at Sinai, with all that this entailed, in Part IV. In the last part of the book I take up the manner in which God is depicted in the Torah, to then move to a review of the teachings of Jesus and Paul in the light of their being on a possible continuum with Torah teaching.

The discussion is oriented to a close examination of specific texts that illustrate the line of argument. The choice of passages is perforce selective; much had to be left out, not because of its lack of significance but because of the limitations of space or because I wanted to bring to attention material that I hoped would surprise, intrigue, and above all engage the reader. In my choices I have been guided by the story of the Torah itself and what I consider to be its main theme, and by a desire to highlight what is often ignored because it does not obviously or immediately speak directly into a Christian context. The book of Leviticus is therefore treated more thoroughly than some other material, although without doubt it still is not treated here with the depth it deserves. So-called law codes in their covenant framework are taken seriously and considered on their merit both for the ancient community and for modern-day Christian believers. Torah means "instruction" rather than "law," but moral and ritual legislation is very much a part of the Torah.

It should be clear that in terms of the Bible I do not hold the text to be without error. It should be equally clear that I write as one who is focused on the biblical text, on its capacity to invite us into a different world that yet speaks to our own world and existence, on the intricate and alluring ways it tells its stories, presents its ethics, and displays its commitments. I write for those who similarly are not literalists but who have a desire to take the Bible seriously, who have a sense of their lack of acquaintance with it, who believe there is a redemptive word from God to be found here, and who have the courage to ask disturbing questions of the text.

With only an occasional exception, all the biblical citations in the book are in my own translations. In translating I have followed the principles of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, who together translated the Hebrew Bible into German in the 1920s. Buber and Rosenzweig followed the principle of hewing as closely as possible to Hebrew language rhythm and word choice rather than adapting the text as smoothly as possible to the language of the translator. The occasional awkwardness that may result is judged to have the advantage of more clearly evoking for the modern hearer the distinctive quality of the world and language of the Bible. In addition, Buber and Rosenzweig were convinced of the need for the listener to be aware of the essential spoken quality of the biblical text, what they called its "orality" - hence, the rendering of the Hebrew text into short lines in the target language, following a natural breathing rhythm. My indebtedness to Martin Buber is of long standing and will be evident in many places other than the translations.

In the context of translation efforts I note my reading of the name of God as "the Holy One." It is in my view inappropriate to spell out the four-letter Name of God, the so-called Tetragrammaton, by inserting vowels between the consonants. For a long time unsure as to how to render this word in English, and unhappy with the title Lord, the customary rendition in our English translations, I settled some time ago for a number of reasons on "the Holy One." The reader may assume that everywhere this appellation occurs in the translations the Tetragram underlies the reading.


Excerpted from Making Wise the Simple by Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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