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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon

Proverbs is a difficult book to read, no sense pretending otherwise. It is repetitive, and its lectures and pithy proverbs alike too often sound like tired cliches. Nonetheless it is worth mining for some striking images; I particularly enjoy the scoundrel who goes around "winking the eyes, shuffling the feet"! (6:12-13) And beginning in chapter 8, we find a wonderful personification of wisdom as a feminine aspect of the divine, created by God in the beginning: "before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth." (8:25) The opening of John's gospel, with its invocation of the Word, is clearly modeled on this section.

While skimming through the rest of Proverbs, take particular note of the "antithetic parallelism" that is found in chapters 10-15 and compare this inversion of the standard form of Hebrew poetry to what we have been seeing in the psalms. The oppositional nature of the images can be quite striking. And don't miss the close of the book, 31:10-31, the hymn in praise of the perfect wife – while the feminine role is carefully circumscribed by societal (male) strictures, this image also points to a woman who develops as much independence as the constraints permit. This tension between gender roles in a patriarchal society has already informed such readings as the stories of Sarah and Hagar, and the Book of Esther.

Ecclesiastes is known as a "cynical" book for its refrain that "all is vanity," yet it is perhaps more of a resigned faith: we are all to die, nothing will change that, but "this is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot." (5:18) And I defy you to read the opening of chapter 3 without the Byrds' song, "Turn, Turn, Turn," bouncing through your head (if you're of a certain age, that is…).

As to the Song of Solomon, this collection of gorgeous and erotic love poetry has been explained away by those shocked by its imagery for two-and-a-half millennia now. This is the other book, after Esther, that never mentions God; Christians have tried to turn it into a love story between Christ and the Church; I think we should relax and enjoy the imagery and the passion. Don't try to make the dialogue between lovers make sense or fit together in a schematic way, just let the poems wash over you as a celebration of the beauty and pleasure and pain of human love.

As with all things Biblical, there is always more to it than there seems!

Psalms 76-150

We finish the Psalms this week, and I'd remind you to look back at last week's blog (below) to remind yourself about how to read these poems in context. I know, they're all beginning to blur and sound alike - skim when you need to, especially when it comes to the nearly-endless Psalm 119 (enjoy its structure in passing, however - it's like a little anthology of its own). Take a moment to focus on the ones listed as essential on the reading schedule. For example, Ps 137 is a stunningly beautiful evocation of the homesickness of exiles and a desire to never forget what matters most, suddenly followed by two particularly vicious verses crying out for revenge for the oppression suffered; this change of mood captures the ways sadness and rage commingle. Psalm 139 contains powerful imagery of the overwhelming presence of God that is sometimes too much to bear, followed by a wonderful series of images of our inability to escape God's love (some of us compare it to the children's classic, The Runaway Bunny!). And Psalm 150 finishes the collection with a lovely sense of the entire creation rising up in a song of praise to the Creator. Powerful stuff here.

Psalms 1-75

A few thoughts about working your way through the Psalms this week and next:

- Try a couple different translations: NRSV, King James, and particularly the Book of Common Prayer's translations, which are quite wonderful.


- Bounce around in the book; that may be easier than trying to read the psalms straight through. See which ones grab your interest.


- Know the classics – see the list on the reading schedule for the bare minimum.


- Enjoy the ways different poets use the standard Hebrew poetic form of parallelism: it sets up an expectation of repetition and deepening within each verse, but some psalms cut against that grain for other effects (Ps. 14:7, for example, uses the parallelism to contrast the hope that deliverance would come from the people with the faith that it will come from God).


- Explore the variety of emotions and subjects covered in these poems: lamentation, triumph, pleading, assurance, revenge, careful teaching, etc. Do any catch your heart as you read?


- Note that these were probably written for use in worship much as we use our hymns: to offer praise, to offer prayers, and to teach the standard images of the faith, so think of them as sung or chanted as well. Attend to the rhythms and musicality and imagine a congregation singing them, or medieval (and modern!) monks chanting them.


- Many of our classic lines in prayer and literature come from the psalms; keep an eye out for them and see how finding them in their original context changes your sense of how others then use them.


Stay the course, and enjoy!


This is one of the most powerful and profound books of the Bible, and it rewards patient reading. You may find the poetic chapters of dialogue between Job and his friends (initially, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, later joined by Elihu) to be repetitive, and some skimming would be understandable, but I urge you to try to work your way through the whole thing if you can. An annotated Bible may be helpful to follow the spiraling development of the argument. You may well find yourself appalled at God's behavior, in the fable that bookends the poetry and sets up the theological issue, as God inflicts terrible suffering on someone we know to be a good man just to make a point. But again, attend to the development of the arguments and I think you will be moved by the depth of the relationship between Job and God.

The problem of suffering (the technical term in theology is "theodicy") is the entire thrust of this book: why does evil exist? why does a good man suffer? The friends see this second version of the question, worded that way, as in itself a logical inconsistency, and therefore demand that Job acknowledge his sinfulness – and then find him arrogant when he maintains his innocence and righteousness. God's answer out of the whirlwind is ultimately less an answer - to Job or us - than an assertion of the distance and absolute difference between the Creator and his creation; we cannot comprehend the workings of the creation, but can in the end only accept that its existence and purposefulness are on a plane beyond our knowing. The conclusion, in which Job's family and community are restored to him, does not negate the suffering he has endured, but God does definitively state that the efforts of the friends to blame all suffering on the sufferer are in error. Taken as a whole, then, the book can be seen as a cry of the heart by humanity about our state, responded to by a God who sees and knows our pain but cannot and will not explain it away. I find this portrait, finally, to be of a deeply sympathetic God.

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

What better way to come in and out of Super Bowl Sunday than by reading the Bible? And even better, by reading a book that features much duplicity, bad behavior by men (including binge drinking and temper tantrums), and a woman who saves her people?

OK, first give Ezra and Nehemiah a skim, noting how they combine to form an interesting picture of a people trying to rebuild themselves on their return from exile: establishing a new Temple, setting up the priesthood all over again, hearing the reading of the Law to remember who they are – it's a poignant picture of the revitalization of a community that was nearly destroyed, and these two books (organized as a single book in Jewish Bibles) cap the sweeping historical narrative we've been working through this past month. As always, focus on the essential stories on the reading schedule - but here I would also suggest a quick look at the last two chapters of Ezra (9-10) and the problematic issue of intermarriage that scapegoats "foreign women." (And don't get lost in the genealogies!)

But then turn to Esther, the strange and wonderful book to which I was referring in the opening paragraph. Set in the Persian capital, it never mentions God by name, and scholars enjoy debating whether its heroine is a portrait of a proto-feminist learning to wield power or a compliant woman using her subordinate position and "feminine wiles" to get what she wants. You choose! Seriously: Esther invokes an early attempt at a genocide of the Jewish people, yet mixes humor, faith, and quick thinking to provide us with the story that lies behind the Jewish festival of Purim.

1 & 2 Chronicles

This is a week to skim - and I mean really skim! The two Books of the Chronicles are filled with either genealogies and lists of people, or narratives that largely repeat what we've already read in the Books of Samuel and Kings with many minor variations. It's worth noting the much more positive narrative tone - especially the constant emphasis on "rest" and "peace." Note too how the Chronicler passes over the foibles of David and his family, in keeping with that positive tone - there's no hint here of David possibly being a usurper. But as I say, most of this we've seen before and it doesn't bear close reading. The story of Asa (2 Chr 14-16) provides a paradigm of the Chronicler's perspective of both good and evil in the kings of Israel and Judah; take a look at that and wave hello to the rest.

1 & 2 Kings

My apologies for missing last week's blog entry! I hope you've kept going nonetheless - but here are some thoughts on both the First Book of Kings, which was last week's reading, and the Second Book of Kings, which is on tap for this week.

These books continue the narrative of I & II Samuel, beginning with David's death. Then we get the machinations that put Solomon on the throne, the famous stories of his wisdom, and the building of the Temple. All would seem to be going well - until Solomon sins, the kingdom is divided, and then it's nothing but trouble. Don't get hung up in the historical details, the lists of kings and why they're so bad, let alone which are kings of which kingdom, Israel or Judah. Note them in passing, as they continue the deep-seated belief that all of Israel's misfortunes hinge on the failure of these kings to properly follow God and God's commands – indicative of an underlying uneasiness, still, about whether and how the people of Israel should be a nation like other nations. Let's focus, instead, on the stories listed on the reading schedule, especially those about Elijah and Elisha, which really flesh out this uneasiness: who should have greater authority, the king or the prophet? Our narrator is easily convinced that it should be the prophet who speaks with God's authority, of course, but that does leave the king in a difficult position, doesn't it? Moving on from the dividing of the kingdom, we then see the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria and its re-population by other peoples conquered by Assyria, and then the destruction of the Temple and the Exile to Babylon - the worst misfortune of all. Remember that our author here probably compiled/composed this long history during the Babylonian Exile (ca. 587-538 BCE), and was therefore seeking some way to make sense of this narrative of decline. Solomon's prayer in his new Temple early in our reading is founded on a profound recognition of the reality of the human condition that dominates this history: "there is no one who does not sin" (I Kgs 8:46). Forgiveness, then, remains an important theological element.

II Samuel

This is one of the most interesting stretches of historical writing, or any writing, in the Bible. It incorporates what is known as the Court History (though much disputed about where it begins - chapter 8? chapter 11? chapter 13? - and whether it might really have been written by a member of David's court), with its intimate narrative perspective. The machinations of David's children, advisors, generals, and various priests and prophets are told with both theological significance and some gossipy relish. The sins of fathers are visited upon sons, the choices made by those who would be king lead to terrible ends, and yet faith in God continues to survive even in the midst of court maneuverings – a faith marked in David by a willingness to endure the punishment of God for sin even while hoping for and often receiving God's forgiveness and ultimately favor. This is the story of ancient Israel's one brief period of glory and finally peace, and while it comes at a steep price, our historian sees it primarily as a manifestation of God's faithfulness to the promises God has made to his people. Don't get lost in the oddities of chronology that crop up occasionally; instead, focus on the dramatic, moving, and powerful portraits of those who would establish and rule God's kingdom.

Questions to ponder while reading:

- Power and faith are dangerously entwined for David, as the choices he makes to secure his rule are not really to be admired; how do we see these same conflicts play out in the history of Christianity, in our nation today, and in our own lives?

- Nathan tells a parable of a man and his lamb in order for David to convict himself of his sin in setting up Uriah's death and stealing his wife, Bathsheba; how might this parable be understood as a call for justice in our time as well as then?

- II Samuel continues the issue we discussed in our meeting last week: what sort of leader (messiah, remember, is the Hebrew word for God's anointed one) does God seek? How does this portrait of David shape or shift our answer to that question?

- Finally, note that Jerusalem becomes David's new capital in chapter 5; what role does place, especially this sacred place, play in this story?

I Samuel

I hope you all had a very merry Christmas and are still having some relaxation time as we head into the new year - but I also hope you've been at least thinking about some Bible reading as well! There was no blog last week as I thought we could all enjoy some time off, but now it's time to get back to work and take on part one of this great pair of historical books.

While the two Books of Samuel have a good bit of repetition, some moments of loose chronology, and some shifting points of view, they nonetheless contain some wonderful writing, complex plotting, and well-developed characters. This first book entails the narrative arc from the call of Samuel to be the last great prophet/judge through the anointing of Saul as the first king and then into the civil wars that put David on the throne. Think of all of this as more steps in the ongoing evolution of ancient Israel's understanding of their relationship to God.

There are some great stories along the way, including the most famous of all, the story of David and Goliath (I Sam 17), that are worth noting:


- I Samuel 2 opens with the Song of Hannah, the model for Mary's response in Luke's Gospel to Gabriel's annunciation, known as the Magnificat

- Don't miss the strange offering of gold tumors and mice (evidently symbols of bubonic plague) with which the Philistines return the ark of the covenant to Israel so that the plague will leave them – I Samuel 6

- I Samuel 8, the debate about whether to have a king, provides a fabulous picture of the pros and cons of this transition

- the complicated and somewhat contradictory set of occasions on which Saul is chosen king (I Sam 10:1 I Sam 10:20-24), and then David being anointed in his stead (I Sam 16)

- for fans of the old TV show Bewitched (and its more recent incarnation as a movie), here's where the mother-in-law Endora gets her name, from the famous story of the witch at Endor: I Samuel 28

Note also the varying portrayals of the relationship between Saul and David. We are looking here at a history written centuries after the events it describes, but incorporating materials that may well have been contemporaneous, and the result is a complicated picture of a complicated situation.


Many have argued that the Book of Ruth can be read as perhaps the earliest short story. In four short chapters, another "foreign woman" (like Hagar, Rahab, Jael, e.g.) becomes essential to the development of the people of Israel. The plot neatly encapsulates the transition from the period of the Judges, a time of lawlessness, to the founding of the kingdom of Israel in the Books of Samuel – and does so in a story about love and loyalty rather than war. Most importantly, this story illustrates a theme that scholar Jack Sasson articulates as, "common people achieving uncommon ends when they act unselfishly toward each other."

Note the literary qualities of this work. It is neatly divided into four scenes (which in this rare case correspond to the chapter divisions), enclosed within an opening and an epilogue - and the latter (4:18-22) points us to the story's importance to the future. Moreover, each scene ends with a summary linking to the next episode (1:22, 2:23, 3:18, 4:13-17). Two-thirds of the story is told in dialogue, lending an intimate quality to the narrative. And the intricate workings of the plot - in some sense, pre-figuring the "marriage plot" of 18th- and 19th-century English novels - bring together insights into both social and legal conventions of the time. The Book of Ruth bears close reading.  

The timing of this reading was not deliberate, but it is a fortunate coincidence. The Book of Ruth foreshadows the Christmas story in two powerful ways: most of it takes place in Bethlehem, and it is the story of the coming together of the great-grandparents of David, greatest king of ancient Israel and ancestor of Jesus. Thus Ruth leads quite directly to the babe in the manger.