A couple of OT explorations

According to my study plan I should be focusing on Kingdom of God, Gospel, Jesus and fist century Judaism and the like. However, an opportunity came up to listen to Dr Stephen C.K. Lee lecturing on Old Testament Ethics came up so I went and has been thinking through some of the materials from his lectures. Dr Lee until last year was the academic dean of Chinese Graduate School of Theology in HK.  He took leave to spend more time with his family here in Toronto. His is an OT specialist graduate from Princeton and Edinburgh. His academic credential is implacable whereas he also has a strong pastoral instinct that makes his lecture not only theologically insightful but spiritually penetrating. I had the opportunity to take Intro to Hebrew under him using the Jonah text which once and for all changed not only my understanding of the book of Jonah but also started my interest in the OT. He was the one who through his lectures inspired me to spend two years in teaching the first three chapter of Genesis in Sunday school.   True to form as an OT scholar he bought his own agenda to this series of lectures. It had been four weeks now and he had not even mentioned a single ethical issue except in passing. His method was ambitious to say the least. He basically survey the entire OT to outline what he perceive as the underneath guiding principles behind OT ethics. For incident, he said one of the assumptions of OT ethics was God working through history. He also said one of the most important guiding principles is to acknowledge God in all matters.  

In his fist lectures on the Torah, he mentioned the “eternal covenant” (olam birith). Eternal Covenant occurred on three occasions in the Torah section of OT with three different persons: Noah (Gen 9:12-17), Abraham (Gen 17:1-14) and Moses (Exodus 31:12-18). I am presuming that “eternal” means the covenant relationship is not to be retracted. In a previous lecture citing Psalm 23 Dr. Lee mentioned that in Hebrew “olam” does not infinite time but rather very long time. I am inferring that ‘eternal” is not necessary a quantitative term but rather a qualitative term. There is more concern about the essence of this entity then the duration of this entity.   

I may be inferring too much here because I am making a secondary inference. Now I go to the NT and specifically the gospel of John and look at “eternal life” in John 3:16. The phrase “eternal life” (Aionios in Greek) is quite common in the Gospel of John (occurred 15 times at least just in the gospel). If we apply the Hebrew thinking to this term John may very well be refer to the quality of the life instead of the duration of life here. The “eternal life” may not mean the life “after” but rather the quality like the “eternal” father or “heaven” life quality. I think “eternity” is more a detached abstraction while “a very long time” indicates certain continuity with the present. Not only then is the life not an abstraction but is life here and now which resonant “thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. In many of his exegetical sections he used extensive the idea of Chiasmus or Chiasm. This is most interesting.What is Chiasmus? Here is a serviceable definition from “A Glossary of Literary Terms” by Robert Harris. 

A crossing parallelism, where the second part of a grammatical construction is balanced or paralleled by the first part, only in reverse order. Instead of an A,B structure (e.g., “learned unwillingly”) paralleled by another A,B structure (“forgotten gladly”), the A,B will be followed by B,A (“gladly forgotten”). So instead of writing “What is learned unwillingly is forgotten gladly,” you could write, “What is learned unwillingly is gladly forgotten.” Similarly, the parallel sentence, “What is now great was at first little,” could be written chiastically as, “What is now great was little at first.” Here are some examples:  

He labours without complaining and without bragging rests. 

Polished in courts and hardened in the field, Renowned for conquest, and in council skilled. –Joseph Addison  

For the Lord is a Great God . . . in whose hands are the depths of the earth; the peaks of the mountains are his also. –Psalm 95:4   

The keys to the device are inversion and balance. The following is a site dedicated to this literary device used in biblical interpretation:  Introduction to Chiasmus. 

I was introduced to the idea in the Genesis commentary by Gordon Wenham when he used this device to interpreted Gen 2-3 and this device highlighted the portion by pitting parallel but inversed scene as in a play and through this draw the readers towards the central passage (Gen 3:6-8).  Another example is the narrative on Noah’s. We may wonder what this is really about. If we look at this structure the central portion is which told us God remember us even in the darkest time. (U. Cassuto and B. Anderson have worked out similar structure) 

Transitional introduction (6:9-10)   

1. Violence in God’s creation (6:11-12)      

2. First divine address: resolution to destroy (6:13-22)         

3. Second divine address: command to enter the ark (7:1-10)         

4. Beginning of the flood (7:11-16)        

5. The rising flood waters (7:17-24)           


6. The receding flood waters (8:1-5)     

7. The drying of the earth (8:6-14)     

8. Third divine address: command to leave the ark (8:15-19)      

9. God’s resolution to preserve order (8:20-22)   

10. Fourth divine address: covenant blessing and peace (9:1-17)

Transitional conclusion (9:18-19) 

Then there are also many examples in the Psalms and Isaiah.  

I find that recognizing this literary device very helpful in locating the message of the text. I am finding more and more attention given to it in literature that I read. I do not know when this structure was discovered and how it is used in Hebraic literature in general. I am trying to understand it more. I am also concern whether like some hermeneutic trend that it can be abused to bring more than what the text intended.


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