Friday, October 24, 2014

Deuteronomy (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) -- Review

DEUTERONOMY (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible).  By Deanna A. Thompson.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xvii + 270 pages.

Reading biblical commentaries is a necessary but often daunting task for a preacher or bible teacher.  This can be especially true if the focus is on textual or historical intricacies. This work is essential, but for the non-specialist a trip down such methodologies can mean getting lost in the weeds.  When the biblical book under review is a book like Deuteronomy, which seem so distant from our own world, getting lost in the weeds can keep us from finding anything of true value.  For the preacher and teacher, what is needed most are commentaries that show understanding of the theology and practices contained within those books, so that we might hear something of value for own time.  The Belief Commentary series, edited by the late William Placher and Amy Plantinga Pauw offers us just such trove of riches.  Deanna Thompson's contribution to this series, focusing on Deuteronomy, is a splendid example of what can happen when a scholar engages a text with exegetical rigor but also theological sensitivity.

Thompson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She is Lutheran by confession. Yes, she does bring in Luther and acknowledges her indebtedness to her tradition, even as she is not captive to it.   She is an excellent and thoughtful writer, making her commentary a joy to read.  Yes, this is a commentary on a book we rarely read that is a joy to read.  Understanding the narrative ark and the theological issues present, Thompson tales is on a journey into a world very different from our own, revealing to us ways in which to receive from this text of scripture a word for today.   

While the commentary is rooted in Thompson’s own exegetical work, she focuses her attention on theology of this concluding chapter of the Pentateuch.  Here we find Moses’ final testament and a summation and restating of the Law.  We find definitions of the covenant obligations imposed on Israel along with both blessings and curses. 

Encased within this book is a book within a book.  In chapters twelve to twenty six, a section that is by most accounts the oldest part of Deuteronomy, and perhaps of the entire Hebrew Bible, we find the core definitions of the Law. She notes there is some evidence that his section of Deuteronomy could be the Book of the Law that was discovered during Josiah’s renovation of the Temple, a book that reconnected Judah to its foundations. Surrounding this core of the Law is a series of addresses by Moses, given as Israel is on the verge of leaving the Sinai for the Promised Land. Here we find the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith in the one God that continues to define Jewish experience.  Yet, despite the riches present here, the lectionary rarely visits.

Why should we pay attention to this book? Thompson notes that there are many barriers.  First is the emphasis on Law, something that Protestants especially find off-putting, but we also encounter descriptions of a rather warrior like God. She asks: “What, then, are Christians to do with such a book, where most of the laws are seen as irrelevant to our contemporary context and m any of its images of God make us squirm?” (p. 2).  In other words, how do we hear the Word of God in this text?  To start with, it’s important not to place law and gospel in opposition, so that the law has no word of instruction for us.  The focus here is on covenant, and it is in the exploration of covenant that we will find that word we seek.  More specifically, Thompson notes that Deuteronomy is the only book in the Pentateuch with a strict monotheism, as opposed to a monolotrous vision in which Israel worships Yahweh alone among the gods.  This God, whom they serve and worship, is defined by the act of liberation from slavery.  In Deuteronomy we learn what it means for Israel to be chosen by the God who liberates. 

As the narrative proceeds, Thompson discerns three major speeches.  Chapters 1-4 have Moses retelling the story of Israel. In the second speech that runs from chapter five through chapter eleven and then picks up again chapter 27 and runs through chapter 28, the focus is the role that the rules/law play in the life of the people. Encapsulated within this speech is that older section of Law, which Thompson entitles “A New Vision for a New Land:  Comprehensive Covenantal Living.” The chapters that follow the explication of the rules (chapters 27-28) record both blessings and curses, along with the choice between a direction that leads to blessing or that to being cursed (and there are fifty-three verses of curses).  In the third address, the Covenant is reiterated on the Plains of Moab.  This appears to be another covenant beyond the one made at Horeb in the Sinai.  While this covenant is mentioned nowhere else it contains three elements:  first it recalls God’s faithfulness to Israel, speaks to Israel’s ability to obey the commands, and third it offers “a glimpse of God’s future activity to overcome Israel’s very human limitations” (p. 205).  The book of Deuteronomy concludes with the passing of the torch of leadership to a new generation (Joshua) and Moses’ death in Moab.  God gives Moses the opportunity to see the Promised Land, but Moses will not cross the river. Moses is honored as a great prophet, one who has no equal, and yet he cannot cross to the other side.  Rather he dies and is buried in Moab by God in an unmarked grave.              

In her commentary Thompson helps us wrestle with texts that speak of divine wrath and even divine calls for genocide. She speaks to the sense of exclusiveness present in the text.  These are, she reminds us, expressions of an expectation of holiness.  She writes that “God’s anger and jealousy over Israel’s straying from its relationship with God bespeaks a passion and a zeal for God’s beloved people and a fervent desire on God’s part to be in right relationship with Israel” (p. 44).  The writer of Deuteronomy many cast God in anthropomorphic fashion, but in doing so reminds us that God is engaged and concerned and not distant.  We might find the anger off-putting, but as she notes, Liberation Theologians have taught us that a God without wrath probably won’t do much liberating.

Topics such as wrath, jealousy, warrior images for God, exclusivity, economic justice, sin, and more are dealt with in strategically placed "Further Reflections."  These sections, which appear in a separate font, take us deeper into issues of importance not only to understanding the text but bringing that understanding into the present.  In addition to these “interruptions” in the text one will find side-bars containing excerpts/quotes both from Scripture and from multiple authors from Luther to Edward Said.  Each of these tidbits add to our ability to engage the text theologically so we can hear a word from God from this oft avoided book, a book that likely emerged out of the exile.   

Again, this commentary was a joy to read.  It is thoughtful, provocative, and well-written.  While it is written with Christians in mind, it does so in dialogue with Jewish readers and interpreters.  With volumes like this, it is clear that the Belief series is a keeper -- especially for preachers who want to get at the theological heart of the text.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bob Gray -- Remembering a Childhood Hero

Bob Gray -- far right -- on a Cornwall-Gray picnic
When you are a child you probably have a hero or two.  These are the people whom you want to emulate in life.  It might be a parent or an older sibling, or maybe a neighbor.  In my case, as a child living in Mt. Shasta, California my hero was Mr. Gray.  My father was a rather detached parent, and into that role in many ways stepped my neighbor.  

The Gray family became my family too.  There were four children.  Doug was the oldest and already nearing high school.  Mary was younger, but old enough to serve as a baby sitter.  David was just a couple of years older and Don was my age -- and my first best friend.  We moved to Klamath Falls when I was nine, but during that six year period living in Mt. Shasta, we were like family.

4th of July "float" -- Bob Gray Truck
Bob Gray was a kind, gentle father to his own children and he reached out to me as well.  What gave excitement to the story, however was Bob's job.  He was a Fire Control Officer with the US Forest Service.  With lots of National Forest land in the area, the Forest Service was a major employer.  All the personnel had their green and white trucks parked in front of their houses.  When a fire occurred, perhaps up on the mountain, the trucks would all head off to the fire.  Because the Forest Service office was just a block from our elementary school, Don and I often road to school in that very same truck.  So, it's no wonder that at that moment in time I wasn't thinking about becoming a professor or a pastor.  No, I wanted to be like my hero Bob Gray, Fire Control Officer.

Bob died the other day at the age of 92.  It's been a few years since we've seen Bob and Betty at their McCloud log cabin, which Bob built after retirement, but Bob remains a hero to this day.  It is good to have heroes -- like a neighbor who is a Fire Control Officer -- heroes who are not only in the imagination or on the big screen, but in one's life.  And yes, Bob and Betty are people of deep faith!

Godspeed, good and faithful servant!  And my thoughts and prayers to Betty and all the extended Gray family -- who are part of my family as well.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Religion Unites or Divides -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Does religion unite or divide? That's a complex question. Why know lots of stories about religiously inspired or at least rationalized violence. It is present in every culture and religious context. We also know stories of how it unites and serves. The question raised by Martin Marty in this essay concerns why in the United States there has been so little religiously inspired violence. It's not that it is totally absent, but it is less than many other places in the world.  Could it be a result of something present in our "constitutional polity"?  One that is in its essence secular but allowing for full expression of religious expression (as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others or injure them in some way)?  I invite you to take a read and offer your thoughts.  

Religion Unites or Divides
Monday | Oct 20 2014
Rally in Pensacola to support educators on trial in federal court for praying in school (2009)             Image Credit: Cheryl Casey /
“ISIS CRISIS.” . . . “EBOLA CRISIS” . . . “ECONOMIC WORRIES” . . . Headlines about these and others point to realities which often have religious dimensions. One of them is posed in a featured interview with Jodi Picoult, the novelist author of Leaving Time, in the New York Times Book Review (Oct. 9, 2014). She was asked, “What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?” She was ready with a clear response: “One that explores why our country is so contentiously divided along the fault line of religion.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Finals Week -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20A

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

            If you’ve been to college, or even experienced high school, you likely know the meaning of the words “Final’s Week.”  That’s the dreaded week that papers are due and major tests are given. If you’re lucky your professor won’t give a comprehensive test, but only one that covers the material presented since the last test. Looking back to the tests I gave as a professor, I didn’t put greater wait on the final that the other tests.  I did, however, require students to take and pass the final in order to pass the class. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

God Is Not Afraid of New Things

Like m any I've been watching with great interest reports on the recently concluded Roman Catholic Synod on the Family. Pope Francis has been at the very minimum calling for a change of tone in the church, along with moving the focus away from a narrow spectrum of issues to a a broader, more open agenda.  This turn has not been welcomed by all. Indeed, a vocal group of "traditionalists" has been resisting this change with all their might, which goes to show you that the Papacy might be a monarchy, but it's not an absolute one.  

While earlier messages from the Pope have focused on economic justice, provoking much angst on the part of politically conservative Catholics -- especially those working for Fox or in Congress.  This time it has been issues of the family, and whether the church should be more welcoming to those who are divorced, who live together before marriage, and of course LGBT folks.  The initial reports were very promising.  The report from preliminary report from the Synod showed real movement toward openness and acceptance. This raised much hue and cry from conservatives.  In the end those paragraphs of openness were toned down.  But even in this form they couldn't get the required 2/3rds vote to move forward.  The paragraphs had a majority of supporters, just not enough.  What is interesting is that normally such paragraphs would be stricken from the final document published by the church.  The Pope, however, wanting the church to be more open, requested that they be included for discussion by the faithful.  

The Pope is steering an interesting course. The Roman Catholic Church will not see overnight change, but there does seem to be a new spirit. And as is seen with the demotion of one of the leading traditionalists -- Raymond Burke -- the Pope will use whatever power at his disposal to sideline his critics.  Monarchs can do that!!

What I find fascinating here is the message Pope Francis delivered to worship yesterday morning in a Mass that concluded the Synod:  "God is not afraid of new things."  That is an important word from the midst of a church that has seen itself as the protector of tradition.  May we who stem from the Reformation, with its message of "semper reformanda" (always reforming) hear that message in our own contexts.  What is the new thing that God is wanting to do in our midst?