Saturday, September 4, 2010

A brief reflection on what I am currently reading

If Abraham is our father because of his faith, then Sarah is certainly our mother because of hers. I am enjoying reading Marek Halter's historical novel Sarah along with Kugel's magisterial book on the Jewish Scriptures. Halter is a Jew of Polish extraction who lives in France. He is the author of a series of historical novels on Jewish women of the Scriptures, including the enigmatic figure of Zipporah, Moses' wife, and Mary of Nazareth. It is always fun to note that, in addition to being an accomplished painter, Halter studied pantomime with Marcel Marceau.

Mesopotamian Ziggurat in the land that was ancient Ur in Chaldea

It is fascinating to look at the Scriptures from a Jewish point-of-view, which is something Christians don't do nearly enough. Of course, if you read the writings of St. Paul, especially Romans and Galatians, you will have some idea of what this means. When reading St. Paul you have to keep in mind that, looked at objectively in this regard, his interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures is idiosyncratic because his point of origin is his encounter with our risen Lord while on his way to Damascus.

It is also interesting to read a straight-up scholarly take on the Scriptures by Kugel, a highly respected Scripture scholar and professor of Hebrew, who is also an observant Jew, along side a highly knowledgeable work of historical fiction about one of the central female personages side-by-side, as it were. Because Halter knows the world of the ancient Near East well, these works are complimentary, not at odds. In other words, Halter, even writing as a novelist, does not write using any of the four assumptions Kugel identifies in his book:

1) The Bible is fundamentally a cryptic text- "when its says A it might really mean B"

2) The Bible is a book of lessons "It is instruction, telling us what to do: be obedient to God just as Abraham was and you will be rewarded, just as he was"

3) The Bible contains no contradictions and is perfectly harmonious "It is perfectly harmonious, despite its being an anthology...that everything the Bible says ought to be in accord with the interpreter's own religious beliefs and practices" For example: even as portrayed in Genesis, was Abraham an ethical monotheist?

4) That the Bible is God speaking directly- "the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text"

One could write a treatise, a dissertation, a dense monograph on each one of these assumptions and the role it has played in both Jewish and Christian reception of these texts and how these interpretations shape religious praxis from worship to living everyday life. However, it is important to note that Kugel does not introduce these assumptions only to dismiss them as nonsense. He simply states that a scholar cannot operate on the basis of these assumptions. By having an intricate knowledge of the world, the cultures, the geography, and people of the ancient Near East and simply trying to locate Sarah, our mother because of her faith, in her milieu, Halter performs a great service both to people of faith and to people who do not have faith, both to those who see and those who do not see the Bible as a sacred text. After all, Kugel, Halter, and I are numbered among those who see the Jewish Scriptures as sacred texts.

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