2015 Lent 8

midrash

Deuteronomy 9:23–10:5

I struggle with a certain tension regarding the Old Testament.

A lot of it is difficult to understand, so I hold it at arm’s length.  When given the options to preach on passages from the Old Testament, a New Testament epistle, and a Gospel–as I am most Sundays–I’ll more often than not preach on the Gospel, with the epistle coming in second.  The Old Testament passage mostly gets pushed aside, relegated to a casual allusion or two on a good Sunday.

But at the same time the Old Testament holds a certain fascination for me.  There’s something really holy-feeling about the ancientness of these texts, a connection to a world far removed from the world I know today, far removed even from the Greco-Roman world, from Hellenism, upon which so much of our world today is founded.  Here is a window into things beyond and above me, a world something like Hogwarts, that I can enjoy only from afar, as an observer: if I try to delve too deeply, to go beyond the casual observer’s place, I play with fire (like a burning bush?).

Dungeons and Dragons held a similar fascination for me as a youth.  So did Alice Cooper.

And so here I am this Lent, trying to add intelligent devotional commentary to the Old Testament but feeling a bit in over my head.  Is it time to start flailing my arms in an effort to get the lifeguard’s attention?  Or is the current still manageable?

I look at today’s passage and I see Moses calling out the rebellion of the Israelites.  God was angry at them for their rebellion, Moses says.  But just a few statements later Moses acknowledges his own rebellion, when he smashed the very tablets of God, the very Ten Commandments, in a fit of a loss of temper.  (And I think, I’m sure glad my dad wasn’t like Moses!)  So is it true that God was angry with the Israelites?  Or, maybe, as discussed yesterday, is it more that Moses was angry and projected this emotion on God?

Then I remember that there is a millennia-long tradition that throws around questions like this.  It’s called Midrash.  An image of how it looks today appears at the beginning of this post.

In the middle of the image (which is simply a page from the Talmud) is a passage from the Torah, what Christians call the Old Testament scriptures.  The words written around the holy writ, in the margins, are essentially commentary.  But this is not the same type of commentary we moderns typically think of when we hear the word.  Rather, this is commentary from Rabbi after Rabbi, commentary upon commentary, stretching back in some instances for more than a thousand years.

In some sense it’s like an extended family argument–or debate if you prefer.  And always it sheds important if not authoritative light on how to interpret the Old Testament, which (if you’re like me) is both held at arm’s length and fascinating.

But–confession here–I’ve never actually sat down and given any Midrash a serious reading.  So, with my blog this Lent, you might feel (and I like to think) that I am approaching the Old Testament with fresh eyes.  But I cannot help but feel like I did when I “discovered” the Pythagorean Comma when I was a younger man.  I’d come to it on my own, yes, in some sense; but (as I’ve since realized) musicians have been discussing this mathematical-musical phenomenon at least back to the Renaissance (14th century), probably a lot earlier.

To change the metaphor then, am I just reinventing the wheel?

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4 Responses to “2015 Lent 8”

  1. Lately I’ve been doing a book by book comparative study of the Old Testament and the New Testament (sometimes making my own line by line or even word by word translations into Hebrew or Greek).

    It has been fascinating and my respect for and fascination with each book I have studied has only grown that much more immensely.

    As for much of the Old Testament, especially as in the original tongue, well, to rephrase a famous observation: “It is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

    However my study of the more bizarre aspects of the Old Testament has also given me much deeper appreciation for and a far greater understanding of the miracles of Christ and the bizarre events of the New Testament as well.

  2. Reblogged this on The Missal.

  3. Sally Lindsay Says:

    Whether reinventing or not, I am along for the ride… Got to see you in person yesterday as we marched in at council!

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