Hebrew Bible open to Genesis 1

Musings on Reading the Hebrew Bible, Regularly, Progressively

Hebrew Bible open to Genesis 1

People call this collection of writings by various names: Old Testament, Tanakh, Hebrew Bible. Some names bring with them a sort of prejudice against these writings. If a testament is old, does that mean it is out of touch, irrelevant? Other names can be confusing. Hebrew Bible, the term I prefer, creates anxiety: will I have to learn Hebrew to read it? No, the term is a way of describing this collection of writings, regardless what language we read it in.

Tanakh is a nice label, but few people know what it means. It is an acronym, from the first letters of Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Khetuvim (Writings). In printed editions of Jewish Bibles, the order of books is organized under these three headings. Though the contents are the same as in the Christian Old Testament, the arrangement of the books is different.

But aside from rambling on about names, this short essay is about the value of reading the Hebrew Bible, and reading it regularly and progressively. What do I mean by reading it regularly and progressively? What is the value of any of it?

Then there are the questions that the Hebrew Bible itself discusses, issues central to human existence and inquiry.

What sort of king is God? How does his supposed kingship correlate to the obvious chaos and tragedy of this world? Why does God both disclose himself to us and hide himself at the same time? Is there a better way for a person? Is there an advantage to righteousness or wisdom? What are the limits of life and death? How do I mediate daily life with all its emotion and emerge with some kind of peace?

Reading the Hebrew Bible

Reading the Bible should be a rhythm, not a treasure hunt or school lesson. Here is what I mean, first in the positive sense and then describing what Bible reading should not be. A rhythm is a cadence that moves us, a pulse we live by. It repeats and cycles. We find ourselves moving with it. The effect of rhythm on a person is powerful, irresistible.

There are ways of making our reading of the Hebrew Bible a rhythm. But first, let me explain what should not be our method.

People reading the Bible in general, and even more Christians reading the “Old Testament,” are often engaged in hunting for treasure. The goal is to find that “poster verse,” the one that is worthy of making into a piece of art and hanging it on the wall, “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for your good and not harm, to give you a future and a hope.’” If only we could find more verses like this one instead of, “Ten cubits was the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the breadth of each frame.”

Poster verses are rare. Mundane, gory, and troubling verses are more common. One common side effect of the treasure hunt method is disillusionment with the Bible and abandonment of its use altogether. Excitement comes less and less over time, as one has already discovered the commonly known treasures of biblical inspiration. This approach lacks a rhythm that syncs the Bible with life.

Long time readers might suspect I would be a fan of the school lesson approach. Get out your reference books. Select a portion of text. Parse phrases and sentences. Examine the use of keywords in different contexts (a word study). Excavate ancient contexts that illuminate the background and concepts of a passage of scripture.

I do like all of these things and I do engage in them. But separated from a rhythm they too fall short. Discoveries are disconnected from life. While “academic” is a word I appreciate, the Bible should be more than academic. Academic tools should serve a larger agenda in our lives and not become an end in themselves.

Stories about Rhythm and Bible Reading

I publish daily commentaries on Torah and the Gospels. I also teach online students, mostly Hebrew and Bible translation coaching, but sometimes also theology. The interaction that happens with my readers and students keeps me on my toes and gives me a virtual community of people to share ideas and life with.

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If I was on a treasure hunt, I might never have noticed Psalm 49:15 and 20. My student, who was working through Psalms, kept me engaged week after week in discussion and translation. We wrestled with questions like, “Is the psalmist a believer in afterlife and if so what kind?”

After four or five weeks of work, we were ready to see far more in this text that a casual reading might have revealed. We had the benefit of repetition, cadence, cycling through it again and again. We got past the familiar and penetrated to a deeper level.

The psalmist’s riddle is about the apparent good things that happen to bad people and the fact that this bothers him or her terribly. Is there some kind of justice in this life or will the psalmist propose that it comes in some kind of afterlife?

Sheol is a name given to the mystery of death, sometimes a reference to the grave and the place where lifeless bodies lie undisturbed. Other times it describes a shadowy place, a sort of half-existence beyond this life. In this ashen world of shades and ghosts there is little light.

So some phrases caught our eye: “the upright [e.g., the psalmist and people like him/her] will rule over them [the bad people who oppress others] at daybreak” and “he [the bad person] must join the company of his ancestors, who will never see daylight again.”

Daybreak. Daylight. What is it doing in a text about Sheol, Hades, the underworld? Daybreak, of course, comes after nighttime darkness. Is the psalmist talking about people going down to the grave and later seeing daybreak, emerging again into the light?

This is one story. I could tell dozens. Readers who follow the Daily Portion, where we engage in the rhythm of Torah and Gospel each day, often email with excitement about something they learned. Because it is rhythm and not mere treasure seeking or a school lesson, they bring these insights over into their lives.

When it is a rhythm, it changes us and it occupies our thoughts outside of our “study time.”

The Questions Behind the Hebrew Bible

I repeat here the questions I brought up earlier (which gives this essay rhythm). These are the kinds of questions that drive the Hebrew Bible and its writers and readers.

What sort of king is God? How does his supposed kingship correlate to the obvious chaos and tragedy of this world? Why does God both disclose himself to us and hide himself at the same time? Is there a better way for a person? Is there an advantage to righteousness or wisdom? What are the limits of life and death? How do I mediate daily life with all its emotion and emerge with some kind of peace?

This is the Hebrew Bible and its value for us. What’s your plan?

Want to study Hebrew or the Hebrew Bible in English? I teach online students from all over the U.S. and other countries. Half-hour sessions on Skype. Email me for more info. Derek at TheHebrewNerd.com

5 Comments

  1. Since it sounds just a bit oxymoronic to study a “Hebrew Bible” in English, maybe it would be more accurate to refer to it as a “Jewish Bible”. This has the advantage of reminding students just where this collection of writings came from, whom it is about, and to whom it is addressed.

    Of course, it may beg the question about other Jewish literature, including the apostolic writings that sometimes are called a “Greek Bible” or a “Christian Bible” even though they also are thoroughly Jewish, whether studied in Greek or in English or in some other translation. And the question might come up about what often is lost in translations, including coded references in Hebrew phrasings of which Greek translations are what appear in the apostolic writings.

    However, the study of the apostolic writings and their complexities is not what the above essay addressed, so perhaps we should stick with the Jewish Bible for the sake of this discussion, and not worry about the quality of a given English translation of the Hebrew (or the Aramaic of the first half of Daniel).

  2. Thanks, Derek, I´ve learned to appreciate the rhythm of the Hebrew Bible and to learn with you more about those parts I previously skipped over. You help me greatly to get a better understanding.

  3. Hi Derek… reading your post where you say: “Daybreak. Daylight. What is it doing in a text about Sheol, Hades, the underworld? Daybreak, of course, comes after nighttime darkness. Is the psalmist talking about people going down to the grave and later seeing daybreak, emerging again into the light?”…

    It reminds me of the rhythm we find in Genesis for each day or creation…

    “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
    Genesis 1:4‭-‬5 ASV”

    I hope it helps in your quest… Shalom!

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