Starting April 1, I began posting chapters for a book I am writing online. Perhaps when I have more material, I will create a site just for this book. Meanwhile know that the postings are not in order. This third posting, for example, is the introduction.
To say that the Hebrew Bible speaks is to reject simplistic ideas about the Bible. It is not a book which simply confirms religious institutions in their complacent activity. It is not either a rolled, leather scroll or a black, leather book functioning as a holy symbol for Judaism or Christianity. It neither confirms a simplistic Jewish message — just say your prayers and be a good person — or a naive Christian message — have faith and attend church.
To say that the Hebrew Bible speaks is to have progressed on a journey, since few of us understood much about it the first decade or so we read from its pages. It is not merely a book that has spoken, has been absorbed by the clergy and scholarly community and condensed to us in comprehensible form. It is a book that speaks because its voices are varied and complex and its challenges unmet.
To say that the Hebrew Bible speaks is to participate in a shared conviction that the messages contained herein stand over us and not we over these messages. Some would demand proof before allowing the voices of the Hebrew Bible to judge and compel them. To a degree something like proof is wanted in the beginning, or at least evidence to make it worthwhile to begin. Yet over time these voices become a part of you and your experience brings you down paths you would not want to return by. The authority of these voices only grows over time.
Doubt or skepticism is, however, only one obstacle to allowing the Hebrew Bible to speak. An equally common one is complacent acceptance of religious paradigms which render the Hebrew Bible itself mute. It is not that most religious denominations and communities have completely missed the voice of the Hebrew Bible. Much is good and right in these communities. It is the loss of a voice calling for more, of many voices urging unceasing questioning of paradigms and frequent repentance of thought and deed that is lamentable.
In addition to these considerations, realizing that the Hebrew Bible has voices is a model for interacting with it. The Hebrew Bible is not merely a collection of stories and prayers and poems. Neither is it simply a piece of literature to be dissected and explained — though such detail work is crucial — but is more than that. It is an unfolding compendium of ideas and voices which challenge us at the roots. That is, the Hebrew Bible is not merely the sum of many little parts. It is filled with ideas and voices and lends itself to theological inquiry and conversation.
It is insufficient to learn the parts of the tabernacle or know how to compare Israel’s system of animal sacrifices with those of their neighbors. The Hebrew Bible is more than literary or historical categories can illuminate. The Hebrew Bible speaks of God and life and wisdom and death. It is in the realm of ideas, ideas which challenge humankind, that we find the full worth of this ancient but unmuted text.
These are ideas that shaped the course of the world, revealed to Israel and spread largely via Christianity. Some of these ideas are well-known and have been examined from many angles and differing interpretations. Others are lesser known including a few discussed only by academics, relegated to the slush-pile of humanity’s numerous philosophies.
Religion has a domesticating tendency. This is due to the alarming implications of allowing a community to continually be shaped by interaction with the voices of revealed texts. It is only natural that over time these voices will be muted and tamed. Yet there will also always be those who, while lovers of the communities and denominations that mediate the divine words, will want to keep listening. No book, including this one, can do the voices of the Hebrew Bible justice. Yet the joy is in the conversation and not in imagining that we have learned all.