I spent last Wednesday night with the Canberra Region Presbytery’s Reading The Old Testament class, working through the first eleven books of Genesis. It’s the third night of sixteen for a group of 14 adult students, facilitated by myself and Anne Ryan at Tuggeranong Uniting Church.
Wednesday night was a chance to get our heads around the complexities of a collection of writings from different sources. The first creation story, and parts of the Flood story, appears to have been written by someone or a group of someones during the Exilic period in Babylon. The stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, parts of the Noah flood story, and the Tower of Babel, reflect the language and style of the period of David and Solomon in Jerusalem. Which leads to the question, “So did Moses not write the Law of Moses”? We had a healthy and respectful conversation on the origins of these writings and their significance for readers through the centuries.
We spent the second half of the evening reflecting on the concepts of mythology and legend. Mythology is a term used to describe stories that have symbolic significance, helping us reflect on our origins, our shared humanity and in some cases the reasons things are as they are now. Legends are stories that have become larger than life, often for a reason. For example, the stories of people like Methuselah living for 969 years, could be seen as ways to remind readers/listeners that these events were a long, long, long time ago, and yet are connected with us through real people. Poetic or epic language, such as the creation of everything in six days or phases, points us to the deeper significance of a benign creator creating a universe that is inherently of value.
I remember the first time I grappled with the Documentary Hypothesis for the Old Testament, posed by Julius Wellhausen, which proposes a four-stage development of the Torah through the J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist) and P (Priestly) streams. Years later I’m still committed to caution about buying into any such theory with absolute certainty. However I’m sure that Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in their current form were not written by Moses.
I’m encouraged by Walter Brueggemann, who in his commentary on Genesis reminds us that we need to get past speculation on the origins and accuracy of these texts, and discover again the powerful, subversive and empowering messages found within. Sure, there are elements that reinforce patriarchal and religious prejudices. However we find here counters to the arrogance of expanding empires, and a reminder that life is worth nurturing. We discover that even when we stuff things up, there are opportunities for ongoing relationship with God.
We’re using “Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, written by Lawrence Boadt in 1984, revised and updated by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington in 2012. It came out a couple of weeks ago on Kindle.