Five scripture scholars pick their golden oldies

Maybe you've heard them since childhood and know them by heart, but what do some of those Old Testament stories really mean?

A SON BETRAYS HIS FATHER. A wealthy man has an adulterous affair. Sound like the plot lines from the daytime soap operas? Actually, these are themes from some Old Testament stories. But however intriguing the plot lines may be, readers of the Old Testament may struggle to make sense of the tales. "The Old Testament does baffle people," says Old Testament scholar Robert Schoenstene.

"But that is the good part. It does not leave everything out in the open. You have to mull over it a while. Stories where everything is clear do not last very long."

Schoenstene, professor of Old Testament studies at the University of St. Mary's of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, adds, "The Old Testament contains really good stories. People who are not specifically religious still know the stories." These stories, he says, serve as a common thread that runs into the New Testament. "The New Testament is a continuation of the themes from the Old Testament—from Genesis, from the gospels."

Five of Schoenstene's colleagues attempt to unravel the mystery of the Old Testament in the following interviews. Each has chosen his or her favorite story and has provided insights, which may pique new interest in the book of the Old Testament.

David and a goliath sin

Favorite story: One story that is particularly interesting to me is the succession narrative, which occurs in 2 Samuel, chapters 9 through 20, and concludes in 1 Kings, chapters 1 and 2. It's the story of how Solomon emerges as David's successor. The story is well worked out from a literary point of view.

It begins with David committing adultery with Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, a common man. David decides to have Uriah killed by sending him into battle and then takes Bathsheba as his wife. She bears David a son, Solomon, who will eventually be his successor.

At that point David's family begins to fall apart. There is internal conflict among his sons. One of David's sons, Amnon, rapes one of David's daughters, Tamar. Tamar's brother, Absalom, has Amnon killed, then flees the kingdom, and returns to initiate an unsuccessful revolt against David.

At one point, Nathan the prophet says to David, "Now what you did in secret, your successor will do in public" and Absalom proceeds to take David's harem to the roof of the palace and have sex with them so everyone can see.

Another son, Adonijah, then challenges Solomon for the throne of David. Each son has his group of supporters, Bathsheba intercedes on Solomon's behalf, and Solomon wins out. We see the disintegration of David's family. Succession to a monarchy in antiquity was not as clear as we think of it today.

One of the things I like about this story is that it can be read as a political statement, which is definitely antimonarchical. Read this story today and think about where the author is coming from; he is not just giving us information—we know that Solomon succeeded David—what he is doing is criticizing an absolute system based on monarchy. It shows, in essence, a royal family acting out of control, as if they are somehow above the law. I think the writer is saying if you want a monarchy, this is what you get: rapists, murders, adulterers.

The key moment: When Nathan the prophet confronts David about his adultery with Bathsheba, Nathan tells a story about two men: a rich man and a poor man.

The rich man has many flocks; the poor man only one lamb. When the rich man is visited by a traveler, instead of taking one of his flock to feed the guest, he takes the poor man's only lamb.

David is outraged by the actions of the rich man in the story. Nathan replies, "You are that man." David recognizes and confesses his sin, but he has to bear the consequences of his actions. And because he is a ruler, his actions affect an entire country.

The point of the story: The caricature of the Old Testament is that God is intervening all over the place. What I like about this story is that God is mentioned only four or five times. The story is about human failure and responsibility, or irresponsibility.

God allows people to claim their freedom and live with the consequences. It is a theology of God that most people do not see in the Old Testament. We, by our actions, create our own judgment.

On a surface level, people may interpret the story of David as a moralistic tale—let us not be like David and commit adultery—but the key is to go beyond the surface and read the story more than once. You have to allow the story to evoke a response, and to do this you have to probe a bit deeper. The more mature reader can find more in the story because while the story doesn't change, the reader does.

A tough Job

Favorite story: I like the Book of Job. Job is a man who is described as being almost the perfect example of righteousness. Then he has a tremendous series of misfortunes befall him, which he has done nothing to precipitate. In the first part of the book, he appears to be quite willing to accept his lot. But then, beginning with chapter 3 until about 33, he really begins to struggle with his particular plight and believes it unfair. Some friends who come to visit Job say that righteous living results in prosperity and happiness, and sinful living results in misfortune. Job is experiencing misfortune; therefore, they believe he must have sinned. Job also operates out of that theology, but he claims he has done nothing to deserve his fate, and blames God for being unfair.

The real struggle in the Book of Job is not that he lost everything or that he suffered physically, the real struggle, as I understand it, is that he doesn't understand why this has happened to him. And he tries to understand his situation within the context of a retributive theology.

Job constantly rejects the advice that his friends give. Then another visitor—whom Job experiences as God—appears and gives his interpretation of Job's situation. While through the entire drama Job has struggled with the question of justice in his life—his human situation and how unfair it is—God never discusses that, instead God asks about the cosmos.

The key moment: When Job responds to God speaking to him at the beginning of chapter 42, Job says, "I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with things too great that I do not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know." I think that is the resolution of his dilemma.

There is also an interesting anthropological view. Job and his friends are constantly discussing what goes on in human life, and that is very anthropological. What God speaks about is not what is going on in human life, but what is going on in the broader universe. What Job admits by saying there are things "I cannot know" is the limitations of human knowledge. In the beginning of the dialogues and in his struggle, you get the sense that he presumes he should understand what is going on.

What God is showing him is that human things are important. But as wonderful as we are, in the broad cosmos we don't have the same importance that we think we do in our own little sandbox. That's what I mean when I say that the author takes the anthropological focus of Job and places it in a more cosmological context.

Point of the story: One has to understand that in the wisdom tradition of Israel, the function and activity of nature is frequently used as an educational tool to teach something about human nature. So, for example, what Proverbs looks at is the order in the universe, and the lesson one is to learn is to make sure there is order in your daily life.

What God teaches Job is that there is mystery in the universe because all of the questions he asks Job have to do with "Can you understand this?" and "Can you control this?" The lesson that Job is intended to learn is that there is a lot in human life you do not understand and you cannot control.

At the end of God's speeches, Job seems to be satisfied with his lot; he learned a lesson. His situation was not changed, but rather he changed the way he understood things.

The last verses of the book show that Job has been reinstated. Many people have understood this to mean that Job continued to be faithful and in the end was rewarded for his faithfulness. I do not believe that is what the story is about. The meaning of the story is that there is a lot in life that you do not understand—can never understand or control. You just have to accept it, and trust in God. And if we can do that, then we are transformed, even though the circumstances of life may not be transformed.

Blind love and ambition

Favorite story: In Genesis 27, Jacob steals the blessing of his father, Isaac, from his brother, Esau. It is the tension between God's purposes and the use of this family as a vehicle that makes this an interesting story.

Isaac is old and blind and wants to give Esau his blessing before he dies—the right to his flocks and land. Isaac tells Esau to go out and get him some venison. "Bring me savory meat," he says.

Isaac's wife, Rebekah, who favors her other son, Jacob, hears this and decides to deceive Isaac. She sends Jacob out to the flock and tells him to bring her a goat, and she will make the meat Isaac desires.

To make Isaac believe that Jacob is Esau, Rebekah gives Jacob Esau's clothes and puts the goat's fur on Jacob's arms and neck because Esau was hairy. Jacob goes to Isaac and gives him the meat. When Isaac asks, "Is that my son Esau?" Jacob says yes. Isaac grants him the blessing, giving him all of his flocks and land. When Esau returns to Isaac, both realize what has happened, and in that moment of coming to awareness, Esau shrieks in anger.

The key moment: When Esau returns, and he and Isaac both realize they have been duped, the old man just falls apart. It is an extraordinarily moving scene, which exemplifies how things go awry. When we discover a bad situation, it is profoundly shattering.

The point of the story: This family doesn't have to qualify morally to be a participant in God's plan. Here we have two parents busy trying to outwit each other. The scandal of the Bible is that God uses such flawed characters to do these things without denying their failures, flaws, and dysfunction; yet they still turn out to be important in the story.

The power of the story is that it is so close to the way the rest of us live. Each of us in our family experience has a moment when we find out that things don't turn out the way we want.

I think the Book of Genesis is trying to show that God's blessing is not an absolute but a power that is embodied in real people.

Hagar wasn't so horrible

Favorite story: The story of Sara and Hagar, which occurs in Genesis, chapter 16. One reason I like it so much is that when you apply today's techniques of biblical scholarship, the story affords meanings that are far richer and more amenable to a modern mentality than the traditional reading.

It begins with Sara not being able to produce a child for Abraham, so she gets an Egyptian concubine, Hagar, and gives her to Abraham. As the story continues, things go awry for Sara, and she loses status within the house. Somehow this pregnant slave has become a rival, even though she started out as a slave.

Sara realizes she has no authority over Hagar, so she goes to Abraham and asks him what to do. Abraham says, "Your handmaiden is in your hands," and gives her back authority over Hagar.

Then the text says, "She degraded her." What Sara did to Hagar we don't know, it's left unsaid. Hagar, however, does not put up with the degradation; she runs away to the desert. An angel who appears says to Hagar, "Your reward for being enslaved is that your descendants will never be enslaved, and you will name your child Ishmael because God has heard your affliction."

What we have here is a direct promise to Hagar, the slave. God speaks to her as God spoke to Abraham. God makes promises of progeny and a special future on the proviso that Hagar must first be an afflicted slave. She accepts this condition, goes back, and bears Abraham a son—Ishmael.

The key moment: The point of the story becomes more clear in chapter 21. Hagar and Ishmael are now freed slaves who wander the desert and almost die until God miraculously brings water and reiterates his promise.

I don't think this could miss an Israelite's eye. Who else wandered in the desert and almost died from thirst at least twice? And who else did God miraculously bring water to in the desert and repeat the promise of the future?

Hagar is the prototype of Israel. Everything that happens to Hagar is paralleled by the story of Israel's sacred history: the liberation, the wandering in the desert, and the promise from God. The unsettling nature of the story is that Sara is our mother, but Hagar is us. You sympathize with Hagar and feel uneasy about it. That is the technique of the storyteller. Hagar is the double of Israel, yet so is Sara.

The point of the story: I like the story so much because Hagar is the "other." She is the mother of the Ishmaelites and the Hagarites and all the others who live wherever they want and cannot be subordinated.

Right in the middle of the story of the father of Israel, Abraham, the "others" are experiencing their own compact with God; they have their own destinies to work out. As a people, your life must be worked out knowing that you are not the only ones that have a destiny from God, yours is to live in a particular land, theirs is to live wherever they want freely and be respected.

I also like this story because it gives a hard view of reality. It doesn't romanticize either Sara or Abraham. It is telling the reader in a very simple way that the others are not inferior.

I also like this story because it gives a hard view of reality. It doesn't romanticize either Sara or Abraham. It is telling the reader in a very simple way that the others are not inferior.

I love the stories that have been misunderstood because they show how complex these apparently simple stories really are. We need to look at these stories over and over because when we do, we start seeing where we are unconsciously filling in gaps and putting in things that aren't there, where we are romanticizing, where we are demonizing. When we get past all that, the stories are ready to be infused with more meaning and new meaning. Sure we bring our own assumptions to the text, but I like to think that our assumptions are closer to ancient Israel.

A burning desire to answer our prayers

Favorite story: Exodus, chapter 3, the story of the burning bush, is probably my favorite. The story tries to capture the experience of Moses as he discovers a God who cares about people and their suffering. The story begins after Moses has escaped Egypt because of the threat to his life and the oppression of his people. Moses is in the desert at Sinai tending to his flock when he sees the burning bush. Now, did this really happen?

Well, I don't think that is important, perhaps the author is using a type of literary genre. The point is that something happened to Moses in the desert, and he begins to have a conversation with God.

God tells Moses he has heard his suffering and will bring Moses and his people to the land of milk and honey. But Moses wants to know who is talking to him. God says, "I am who I am."

There is the human temptation to want to know and control God, but God is always going to be bigger than a name. But Moses does what human beings do, he tries to get to the bottom of a mystery. God says to Moses, "Do not worry about my name. You will find out who I am." That God is more than a name also implies this is a mystery we can continue to discover.

What Moses has discovered is a God who wants to bring people to the best of their human dignity—physically, materially, psychologically, and spiritually. I find this story setting the paradigm for the rest of the Bible. Almost everything after God announced his promises to Moses is the carrying out of those promises.

The key moment: When God says to Moses, "I have heard the cry of your people," readers must be careful not to spiritualize this passage too much.

As Christians, we tend to read it as, "I'm going to save your soul." I would not eliminate that as part of the story, but I think the larger and greater meaning is that God saw people in physical slavery and oppression and promised them total well-being. What God is saying is, "Tell pharaoh, let my people go." This is a God who knows about concrete reality. The unique experience of the story is that it's not the first time in the Bible we have a people enslaved or oppressed, but it is the first time God answers their plea.

The point of the story: The story of the burning bush keeps God mysterious and unknown. Even as he reveals himself to Moses, you do not see God directly. God remains for us somewhat mysterious, and while there is hope, there is not always an answer. The point is that the search is an ongoing process. You keep discovering God.

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