Tuesday, July 24, 2007


I will not let you go until you bless me.

The next chapter of Frymer-Kensky is on Israel. In all three essays, no one mentioned wrestling. The writers are Irving Greenberg, Judaism and Christianity, Covenants of Redemption, David Fox Sandmel, Israel, Judaism, and Christianity, and R. Kendall Soulen, Israel and the Church, a Christian Reponse to Irving Greenberg's Covenantal Pluralism. (Soulen's link is not a solo link but he is teaching with Mary Jill Levine and a few other important sounding names (Hays, Wright, Witherington)- so in good company.)

So what did they say? Greenberg is very philosophical, attempting to reason towards the call to 'fix the world' (tikkun olam) in a long essay that has a few points that are agreeable, but on the whole, it is a difficult subject to approach from first principles and I do not find his assessment convincing. For example:

The concept of partnership [humans with God] implies joint and parallel efforts and mutual obligations. This is one of the revolutionary insights of the Israelite religion. The covenant mechanism is intended by its Initiator to give over a sense of stability and dignity to humans and to make them feel that God is deeply and equally involved with them.
Well, I don't want to be too severe, since I did take this out of a long and stretching bit of reasoning. But if Maskil is an insight, it is not about 'partnership', it's about love, and it's about lament, and it's about trouble, and it recognizes that it is a struggle with God - and that God takes our part also in the struggle (this is all in the Psalms). Greenberg has the traditional attitude about special creation for humans. "All other living forms are genetically programmed to maximize creation of life and to live in the natural order." Not in my book they aren't. This is not a sentimental thought - even Baalam's ass and Ninevite cattle get a better press from God. Behemoth and leviathan too, God's puppies, not to mention the animals at the crib (Job 39-41). Redemption goes beyond our tranditional anthropology.

Later he writes: "the link bewteen circumcision and covenant was directly challenged by the Apostle Paul and by Christian hermeneutics during and after the break between the two religions." I take this as a serious oversimiplification. Particularly I think it is in error with respect to Paul. Even if Paul did not write Ephesians and Colossians, the impact of his ministry is illustrated in these epistles as faithful within his Jewish roots including circumcision - but not required for Gentiles because of the cross of Christ.

I think it is very difficult for us to imagine both the strangeness and the conflict in a single assembly in which some are God-fearers, some Gentile believers in Christ, some Jewish believers in Christ and some not believers in Christ. Think of all these in one assembly, without Bishops, Priests and Deacons, with whatever liturgy was common to the Diaspora, with competing demands for your submission to the local cult of the Emperor if you were not a Jew. Not the kind of 'religion' we are used to. I think the best reconstruction comes from a careful reading of Romans with imaginative attention to the people mentioned in chapter 16. It should also be noted that circumcision of the heart is not solely a New Testament metaphor. And covenant will need a better analogue than mechanism!

Skipping several other areas that I would seriously dispute, I come to the attempted distinction of Jesus as 'failed' rather than 'false' Messiah. Unfortunately, there is a typographical error on page 157 where I am sure he intended to say 'failed', but wrote 'false'. The distinction could not be maintained but how can "false Messiah... be a tribute to Jesus' extraordinary accomplishments"? Still for all his difficulties that I see in this essay he ends with an allusion to the Song of Solomon: "I adjure you who love Jerusalem, by gazelles or by hinds of the field, let me not wake that love or rouse that enmity until the time please!"

I give him credit for trying, though I think the time has come for more. Rendall Soulen is gentler with his essay than I am.

Sandmel's essay is much shorter. In dealing with Paul's conception of Israel, he focuses on Romans 9-11. This is a structural error. Certainly, it is part of the pattern, but only one end of it. The other end is chapters 1-3 - to the Jew first and also the Greek. It is important to ask the right questions and dismantle the wrong ones.

One theme that emerged in the first two essays is the threefold aspect of Israel as people, covenant, and land. I see the NT dealing with people and covenant. The promised land is not on the table in an economic sense. But the danger to see it as extra-terrestrial (I want to avoid using some terms, because they are so misleading) - i.e. the danger of linear time models and dualism is severe. I think the economics of jubilee are important, and personally, with an Aboriginal child and another child of African descent, and myself European, I wonder what land and belonging to the land means to me. It seems to me that the Levites got the best deal, the inheritance of the LORD himself. I'll take that any day!

In all these theological essays, many dealing with traditional uncritical 'beliefs' going back many years, it is difficult for the outsider to enter into the reality of the other. Soulen ends on an interesting note:
Christians and Jews will continue to disagree about whether God's promises have been 'filled up' in Jesus of Nazareth, ... but from the Christian point of view at least, the dispute will no longer be about whether the other community enjoys a rightful and indispensable place in God's economy, but about how this is so. On these terms, I do believe that even the remaining element of rivalry between Jews and Christians can serve the faithfulness of both communities and the glory of God.
I am reminded of my daughter's mother-in-law at the picnic asking: are we having fun yet?

other chapter reviews in this series: 1-4 5 6

1 comment:

Beyond Words said...

I am. :)

(Having fun)

In the midst of the struggles and the laments. I know my inheritance is the fullness of the Triune God and of heaven and earth! (Hands fly up!!!!)