The Heart of Torah: Jewish and Christian Voices on the Relationship of Biblical Exegesis to Theological Interpretation

The latest issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review (the journal of the Canadian-American Theological Association) has just been published. This is a theme issue, which collects the papers presented in a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature last year (November 2019) on Shai Held’s two-volume work, The Heart of Torah, (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). These papers were given by Jewish and and Christian biblical scholars.

Although it hadn’t been planned that way, the presentations (hence the published essays) all focused, in one way or another, on the question of the relationship of biblical exegesis to theology. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the relationship between peshat (literary-contextual readings of the Bible) and midrash (readings that go beyond the intent of text, in order to explore contemporary significance).

While all the articles are agreed that these are both legitimate approaches to the Bible, there is some disagreement about how these should be related, and Held’s response addresses this issue head on.

This has a parallel with recent discussion among Christian biblical interpreters about the value of the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” and whether this is at odds with historical-critical study of the Bible. For an excellent discussion of why these two shouldn’t be severed, see Joel Green’s essay, “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2011).

An Introduction to Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics.

The Heart of Torah

Held’s latest publication, The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

Along with approximately 7,000 others, I subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I then organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, November 24, 2019 and I collected the papers for publication in the Canadian-American Theological Review.

You can download my introduction to the theme issue of the journal here.

If you want to read the entire issue (consisting in my introduction, six papers on The Heart of Torah, Held’s response, and some excellent book reviews), you will need to log on to the website of the Canadian-American Theological Association. This requires an inexpensive one-year membership (which includes subscription to the journal).

Depending on your library’s subscription to online materials, you might be able to access the journal that way.

This the lineup of articles.

  • Marvin Sweeney, “Human Participation with G_d in Perfecting Creation”
  • Ellen Davis, “Moral Theology in an Exegetical Key”
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, “The Perfect Craft Cocktail on a Sweltering Day”
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, “Jewish Theology Rooted in Biblical Texts”
  • David Frankel, “A Critical Review of Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah
  • Dennis Olson, “A Place to Stand: Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah in Dialogue with Pentateuchal Scholars and Literary Theorists”
  • Shai Held, “A Response to My Respondents”

Coming Full Circle to Bristol—Twice!

This is the ninth (and final) post about my UK speaking tour.

After giving eleven talks in the previous two weeks in Scotland and England, I traveled to Bristol to speak at Trinity College—my last stop before returning home via Heathrow airport.

Coming Full Circle 1—Jamie Davies and Tom Wright

My contact at Trinity College was Jamie Davies, Tutor in New Testament.

Jamie is the author of Paul Among the Apocalypses? An Evaluation of the “Apocalyptic Paul” in the Context of Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature; Library of New Testament Studies (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

He also wrote a sympathetic review of my book A New Heaven and a New Earth (2014) for the Review of Biblical Literature (published last year).

I first met Jamie at the 2014 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Diego. At the time he was a doctoral student at St. Andrews, studying with Grant Macaskill; but I met him because he was Tom Wright’s research assistant and the three of us had lunch together.

Jamie worked with Tom on PFG, the acronym they both use for Tom’s massive (1700 pages) two-volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013); Jamie worked on copy-editing and often had to track down missing footnotes and other references.

So there was a Tom Wright connection both at the start of my UK visit and at the end—full circle 1.

Presentations on Job and Eschatology

I did two presentations at Trinity College.

The first was an afternoon Research Seminar for faculty and postgraduate students, which focused on God’s second speech to Job from the whirlwind. My paper addressed what God was trying to communicate by reference to the monsters Behemoth and Leviathan; the paper is being published in the current issue of St. Mark’s Review (an Australian journal).

At the Seminar I met John Bimson, formally retired from being Tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, but who still teaches a course on Job; he was a great dialogue partner and later shared with me one of his published papers on the monsters in Job, which articulated an interpretation very close to my own.

Later that evening I gave a public lecture on biblical eschatology, in essence summarizing the argument of A New Heaven and a New Earth. You can listen to the lecture here.

At least half the evening attendees came at the urging of Richard Russell (yellow shirt, above). I first encountered Richard by reading his MA thesis from Bristol University (called “The Growing Crisis of the Evangelical Worldview and Its Resolutions”) when I was doing my initial graduate studies at the Institute for Christian Studies in the nineteen-seventies.  Over the years Richard has been an Anglican priest, a philosophy teacher, and a bookseller; he brought an array of relevant books for sale during the evening event.

Coming Full Circle 2—J. Alec Motyer

I first heard of Trinity College in Bristol when I was an undergraduate student at Jamaica Theological Seminary. During my B.Th. degree I attended a Keswick Convention in Kingston, Jamaica when J. Alec Motyer, then Principal and professor of Old Testament at Trinity, was the preacher.

It turns out that Motyer’s first speaking engagement outside of the UK was at a Jamaican Keswick Convention in 1964. I’m not sure how many times he spoke in Jamaica, but I heard him in the mid-seventies.

He did a series of expositions on Ezekiel 1–3 throughout the week of Keswick meetings, and these expositions were so inspiring that I have always credited them as one of the primary impetuses behind my growing desire to study and teach the Old Testament.

Beyond that, in my first year at JTS all the students were given a free copy of The New Bible Commentary: Revised (IVP, 1970), a one-volume Bible commentary edited by Motyer (along with three other biblical scholars). Although it has since been revised (there is a 21st Century Edition published in 1994), and is a somewhat predictable evangelical commentary, I found it to be a very helpful first reference work as a new undergraduate student.

When I first came to the UK to speak in 1997 at the invitation of David Hanson, I mentioned the importance of Motyer’s influence on me and David immediately phoned him up and put me on the line. I was able to thank Alec Motyer in person for his impact on my life and my sense of calling to Old Testament studies.

J. Alec Motyer (1924-2016) passed away the August before my second visit to the UK. His funeral was held September 2016 and Trinity College had a memorial service for him not long after I headed back to the States.

 

Perhaps the book Motyer was most proud of writing was A Commentary on Isaiah (IVP 1993), which he published in his retirement (he published some fourteen books after retiring!). As is typical of old-school evangelical scholars, he held firmly to the compositional “unity” of Isaiah, arguing that the entire book comes from the hand of the 8th century Isaiah of Jerusalem.

Almost all contemporary OT scholars (including evangelicals like myself) think it makes more sense to think that the oracles in chaps. 1-39 (with the exception of chaps. 24-27) are from the 8th century Isaiah; that chaps. 40-55 come from a prophet of the Babylonian exile who took up Isaiah’s mantle; and that chaps. 56-66 (and probably 24-27) are oracles from the post-exilic period, when Israel had returned to the land.

Beyond the three “Isaiahs,” there is clearly editing discernible throughout that weaves the entire book together. Despite its complexity, deriving from different historical periods, it is still the word of God, and constitutes a complex theological unity that speaks powerfully to our day.

At Motyer’s funeral, a story he sometimes told was recounted. He is reported to have said that when we get to heaven if you notice three men beating him up over in a corner, not to worry; their names are all “Isaiah” and he deserved it.

So, from hearing Alec Motyer speak as an undergraduate student in Jamaica, which fanned my love of the Old Testament, to myself speaking at Trinity College, where he used to teach—full circle 2.

Well, it was quite a trip; I got to speak to lots of different groups and I met old friends and made new ones. But I was very glad to get home, and even take a vacation!

No Need to Fear Evolution

An excellent blogger on science and religion issues, who goes by the handle RJS, has just posted an introduction to my first BioLogos blog (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) on the website Musings on Science and Theology. RJS’s posts are then re-posted on the Jesus Creed website, where comments are allowed (Jesus Creed is a blog run by New Testament scholar Scot McKnight; it is hosted by Patheos, which hosts a variety of religion blogs).

The post by RJS is called No Need to Fear and it goes beyond introducing my BioLogos blog. It goes on to explain (very well) my argument about Genesis 1 and what it means to be made in God’s image from my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

But then RJS has blogged about The Liberating Image before in no less than nine posts! And I did an invited follow-up post on how my thinking about the imago Dei has developed since the book. RJS also did a nine-part series on my more recent book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. (For anyone who doesn’t have time to read either book, these blogs give a pretty accurate portrayal of my argument).

Having done my introductory BioLogos post on my approach to evolution (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) and then a second post on cosmic creation (The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple), my next post will be on what it means to be created in God’s image according to the Scriptures and how that might intersect with what science is telling us about human evolution.

Interestingly, the blog by RJS (No Need to Fear) introduces some of the themes I will touch on in my third BioLogos post. So you can check it out if you want an advance taste of what I might say on that topic.