Weekend Reads: Studying and singing the Word of God

by Caleb Nelson
Posted on Saturday, March 30, 2013, at 9:01 am

Ronald Hendel knows more than he believes about the book of Genesis. Editor of The Oxford Hebrew Bible and a Jewish Studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Hendel is well qualified to write this entry in this Lives of Great Religious Books series.

Rather than a tedious entry-by-entry catalogue of where and how Genesis has been cited, interpreted, or used, Hendel imposes an overall plot structure on the reception of the first book of the Bible. Taken at face value by its original audience, it eventually succumbed to apocalyptic and Platonizing interpretations around the time of Christ—interpretations it has largely shaken off, so that we can again read it realistically. For those with a background in biblical studies, The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Princeton, 2012) will contain little new information. For those lacking such a background, the work is liable to be misleading.

Hendel authoritatively assumes the commonplaces of mainstream “critical” (read: liberal) thought about the origins of Genesis, which he considers to be to the work of a “Yahwist,” an “Elohist,” and a “Priestly redactor” sometime around the Exile of Judah in the sixth century B.C. For readers who don’t know that this “JEDP” hypothesis has been the subject of several devastating scholarly critiques (and that no evidence has ever been found for it), the brazen hubris of Hendel’s presentation could be convincing.

The Biography acknowledges that Genesis speaks with authority and demands submission. Hendel evades this authority by quoting Franz Kafka, no friend of Christianity: “What has once happened cannot be annulled; it can only be blurred.” If the Fall actually took place, as Christians must believe it did, then the blurring operations conducted by liberal scholarship are not merely predictable, but downright banal. Hendel’s goal is “to read the stories as fictions.” He would do better to believe them as facts. 

Laying Down the Sword

Philip Jenkins’ latest work is so nuanced that summarizing it seems unjust. The vast majority of Laying Down the Sword (HarperOne, 2012) is devoted to framing the problem posed by the subtitle: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. The Bible is a very violent collection of texts, far more violent than the Quran. Just as some Islamic groups justify violence by appeals to the Quran, writes Jenkins, some Christian and Jewish groups justify violence by appeal to the Bible. Most believers instinctively write such behavior off as fringe fanaticism, and the conclusion of this book more or less endorses this view. But Jenkins spends almost the entire book raising concerns, trying to make believers actually wrestle with the genocidal commands of Deuteronomy and Joshua.

For Jenkins, as for Christians, the Bible is a theologically unified book. His reasons for thinking that are wrong: He uses source-critical theory (the view that the Bible is a collection put together after the Babylonian exile, not written by its ostensible authors) to argue for the Bible’s unified message. Thus, the supremely destructive commands of the Pentateuch come from the same era as the mighty messages of love and reconciliation delivered by the prophets. These messages are not mutually exclusive; together, the prophets and Pentateuch teach that genocide is evil.

The violent texts, according to Laying Down the Sword, should be brought into greater prominence, even preached on regularly. They mustn’t be explained by appealing to God’s incomprehensible higher wisdom, the destroyed peoples’ wickedness, or common practice in ancient warfare. Rather, the texts must be proclaimed for what they are: signposts to an exclusive monotheism. The very ethnic particularism that seems so offensive is the foundation of Christianity’s global vision of reconciliation.

Jenkins is an honest historian, and his work challenges believers so that it might deepen their faith.

Forgotten Songs

The memorial at the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany is a brutal piece of artwork (see photo below). Upon learning it is not barbed wire but a tangled mesh of human beings crying out, the viewer ought to weep. And it is precisely those tears the worshipers of God need to recover, argues Calvin Seerveld in his essay included in Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship (B&H Academic, 2012).

The Psalms teach us how to feel. They provide a paradigm for those who read them, think them, sing them, and worship with them. “Relevant” worship is not found in imitating the methods of Hollywood, but in Bible words that teach us how to praise, how to repent, how to fellowship, and even how to despair (see Psalm 88). The Psalms, Forgotten Songs teaches, are a comprehensive “anatomy of the soul.” Every human emotion and aspiration is represented in their pages. They are valuable both for corporate worship and private devotion. The church has sung and read them for millennia. Yet many churches today no longer sing or pray the Psalms regularly. They are effectively forgotten.

Forgotten Songs does not bore readers with endless “practical” suggestions. A set of essays delivered at a conference on psalmody at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., the work explains the theological and liturgical paradigm behind Psalm-singing and broadly sketches the practical implementation, giving just enough instruction to get churches started.

Besides the more academic and ecclesiastical essays in this volume, two sermons are included. Ray Ortlund’s message on Psalm 1 is decent, but Richard Wells’ sermon on Psalm 22 is magnificent, worth the price of the book, even for those already expert at praying the Psalms privately and singing them publicly.

We have the resources for dealing with tragedy, for the Psalms can teach us to cry in church. We just need to remember them.


(Associated Press/Photo by Christof Stache)

Caleb Nelson

Caleb is the pastor of Harvest Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Gillette, Wyo.

Read more from this writer