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What is the Old Testament Good For?

As I reflect on two semesters of study of the Hebrew Bible I think about the ways in which the Old Testament has contributed to our culture at large. Countless biblical allusions are embedded in our speech:  Adam and Eve, my brother’s keeper, manna from heaven, the scapegoat, and feet of clay.  The stories of the Old Testament have provided inspiration for beautiful works of art.  Words from the Psalms have provided solace and comfort in times of trouble.  The Prophets of old with their attention to the helpless and the oppressed have called us to act on behalf of those who are marginalized in our own day.  These are some of the most basic ways in which we are affected by the legacy we have received.

The Old Testament is a testimony to the struggles of a group of people who, over time, forged an ethnic and national identity and began to offer answers to some of the most basic questions in life:  Who are we?  How did we get here?  What’s it all about?  Though our answers may not be the same today, the writings of the Old Testament provide a glimpse into how these questions have been addressed by past generations in different times and places under very different circumstances.

As Christians, one important function of the Old Testament is to provide an understanding of the heritage out of which the first-century world was born.  Knowledge of the Hebrew canon provides us with insights regarding the voices that spoke into the conversation occurring between Sadducee, Pharisee, and Zealot in ancient Palestine. [Instructor’s Comment:  direct line between OT & these voices?]  Rather than drawing simple black-and-white conclusions such as "Law – bad, Jesus – good," we are able to see how the various forces at play during the formation of the New Testament canon could each have developed from a combination of cultural influences and attempts at faithful interpretation of tradition and scripture.  Such an understanding can go a long way in our own day towards counteracting the tendency to dehumanize our opponents and, instead, attempting to dialog with divergent points of view.  Perhaps it is this acceptance of differing interpretive models that provides the most valuable lesson we can learn from the Old Testament.

During our studies we have discussed the idea of multiple "Judaisms" that existed at the time the Hebrew canon was taking shape.  There was no "orthodox" way of thinking that could define the exact parameters of right belief.  This is reflected in the various points of view presented within the scriptures.  Rather than placing an imprimatur on a single way of looking at and interpreting the past, the rabbinic tradition [Instructor’s Comment:  explain the jump [from scriptures to rabbinic tradition] ] embraced a diversity of voices that represented various points of view within the community.  Is the right way to live found simply in the worship of Yahweh?  Or does it include keeping Torah?  Or perhaps actively pursuing social justice, providing for the welfare of widow and the orphan?  If bad things happen is it because we have sinned?  Or is this perhaps the nature of human existence?  By including multiple voices, the rabbis have given us the gift of making our own discoveries and drawing our own conclusions.  In an age of polarized economic, political, and religious sensibilities, this ancient example of the embrace of a plurality of views provides an inspiration for living within the tension rather than seeking a single, concrete answer.

[Instructor’s Comment:  Not clear how you are using "rabbis" – a term that only applies to those after 70 CE.  Thoughtful. ]

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