Kings, Bad Reading, Good Reading

kingsI have recently returned to my first love in terms of theology and Biblical studies. That is, I decided to return to me former specialization in Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). It was my concentration in undergraduate school and in my Masters degree at Emory University. My Masters thesis was on the Elisha stories, “Elisha and the King: The Elisha Narratives and Prophetic Authority.”

Over the years, as I got into dialogue on Jewish matters and sought a way to understand Yeshua (Jesus) as a man in the context of his times and his Judaism, my interest shifted to New Testament and Second Temple Jewish writings (apocrypha, pseudepigrepha, apocalyptic, and so on).

Of course I am still fascinated with Second Temple Jewish writings and the New Testament is still central to my faith.

But I am back to trusting my early instinct, developed within months of deciding to follow Jesus as I encountered life in a modern church setting. I decided that even though I knew less about the Bible than my teachers at that church, that these men and women had a massive gap in their knowledge. It was so pronounced, even a beginner could see it. They knew next to nothing about what they called the Old Testament.

I was put off by language I heard repeatedly demeaning the Hebrew Bible, “You can’t live by the Old Testament and you have to interpret it by the New Testament.”

In fact, I later learned a saying that I believe still guides many Christians, “The Old is in the new revealed and the New is in the Old concealed.”

Yuck. How terrible. What an offense to the prophets and wise men of old. What an offense to God who stands behind the writing of the Hebrew Bible.

So, to get to the point, I am casually studying the books of Kings. I am not teaching or writing about Kings at the moment, so this reading and study is pure fun and is proceeding at a slow pace.

I just ordered a commentary on 1 and 2 Kings by Ian Provan in the New International Biblical Commentary series. So far I have only read the introduction, yet I find I like this scholar and what he has to say. He knocked me over in his introduction with a section called, “Kings as Narrative Literature.”

He says several things I hope Bible readers will learn from. I will illustrate with a few citations and then draw a few guiding principles:

Given this general perception of the nature of Kings [that many authors/editors worked on it over centuries with conflicting ideas], it is hardly surprising that scholarly reading of the book as a book in the modern period has generally ceased. It is not difficult at all to find monographs and articles written in the last two centuries that hypothesize about the original source material used by the editors of Kings or about the various levels of editing that might exist in the text. It is not difficult to find discussion of the theology or theologies of various people supposed to have been responsible for the book. What is scarce before the last decade is writing on the book itself in its final form as a piece of narrative.

Is there anything that compels us to see incoherence in Kings? Or is it simply that OT scholars, often lacking in general competence in literary matters and approaching Kings with inherited presuppositions about its incoherent nature, have largely found what they expected to find?

Even conservative commentaries on the OT narrative books tend to supply coherence to the story from elsewhere, rather than drawing it out of the story itself. They show little interest in reading the text as a text–even though they assert most firmly that it is a text inspired by God himself.

Provan is saying that scholars who are not committed to the text of the Hebrew Bible as a God-inspired book read it piece-meal because of their theories of conflicting editors and ideas in the text. Meanwhile, scholars who are committed to divine inspiration behind the Hebrew Bible also tend to fail to read the books as books in themselves, but feel they must look to history or the New Testament to supply meaning.

Why not read the book as a book?

That would be too simple, or not simple as we get into the details and find that the kind of storytelling the Biblical writers used is not much like the storytelling we are used to. The drama is not like a modern movie or novel. The style is very concise and the points are subtle.

Bad reading of ancient narrative and especially these divinely inspired narratives is to chop them into pieces, considering this or that theory of editing or history. Good reading is to understand the parts and the characters and the voice of the narrator. Bad reading from a conservative point of view is to abandon all hope of finding meaning in a book like Kings and instead relate everything to stories about Jesus or attempt to relate to New Testament theology. Good reading is to start at the beginning, read to the end, and consider the meaning of the parts adding up to the whole.

In fact, this is the solution I have proposed and I will continue to propose to Bible lovers about the best way to read the Bible. Many people read the same fifty pages of the Bible over and over, rarely venturing out to the other 1,400 or so pages. The best way to read the Bible is from start to finish, Genesis to Revelation.

Don’t follow a plan that has you read a little Old and a little New each day (the assumption of these Christian reading plans is that the Old will bore you or have too little value, so mix in a little of the New).

We need to recapture the reading of the Bible, as well as its individual books, as a book. It has a canonical narrative (over-arching story). We need to read it that way. Thanks to Ian Provan for putting it so well.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Kings, Bad Reading, Good Reading

  1. mchuey says:

    I understand your frustration with Christians who think that the OT must be interpreted in light of the NT, failing to just appreciate the OT as is, reading a text like Samuel-Kings on its own for the events that occurred within it. I think this is beginning to change, at least in evangelical theological circles. Of course, there are Messianic-significant issues within Samuel-Kings and other Tanach texts that should not be overlooked, but we should not try to make square pegs fit into round holes.

    One of the best summaries I have seen on how Believers can approach the Tanach comes from Chris Wright’s book The Mission of God. He says,

    “To speak of the Bible being ‘all about Christ’ does not (or should not) mean that we try to find Jesus of Nazareth in every verse by some feat of imagination. Rather we mean that the person and work of Jesus becomes the central hermeneutical key by which we, as Christians, articulate the overall significance of these texts in both Testaments” (p 31)

    Even if we do not see a Yeshua-specific prophecy or foreshadowing, we are still informed as to His worldview and mission. We absolutely read events that get us to His ministry, as there are both good–and bad–things in Samuel-Kings. I think many contemporary Christians want to find J-E-S-U-S embedded in some secret code in the OT, when it is better to read the story with Yeshua being its climax.

    Another good read, even though it is produced from the critical tradition, is John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel.

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