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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

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.


First, my thanks to all of you who were able to be at our third meeting this past Thursday! And to one and all, I hope you can make it to the next session, on January 3rd - I know it's soon in the new year, but just think how far along you'll already be on a resolution to read the Bible in 2019...

This week we continue and in odd ways deepen some of the themes we've been talking about, especially - strangely enough - the idea that forgiveness is central to the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Remember the importance of the covenant, now not with any individual but with the people as a whole: keep the commandments, be God's people. Yet the people keep failing to hold up their end of the bargain, and God keeps not walking away but rather giving them another chance. This is central to Judges. Despite the sense of triumph the Book of Joshua conveyed about their entering finally into the Promised Land, Judges is the story of Israel's cycle of apostasy, oppression at the hands of others in the land, return to the Lord, and armed triumph over their oppressors. This occurs over and over again, and shows how unsettled their possession of the Promised Land remains, and how tenuous their hold on it is. These stories, then, are the stories of great warriors – and occasionally great and crafty women as well –  rising up to lead their people, making this book the Biblical equivalent of the Iliad. The same vicissitudes in the attitudes of the Homeric gods and of the people toward them, here about God and God's people, are offered as explanations for failure and success on the battlefield. Enjoy, then, the tales of heroes Gideon, Samson, and the like, along with the gruesome trickery of Jael, as emblems of those vicissitudes. Remember, this part of the early history of the people of Israel reflects the concerns of those who wrote it upon their return from exile some five centuries later, as those later Israelites tried to determine – just as their ancestors newly entered into the Promised Land did – how to choose their leaders, how to resist the lure of strange peoples and strange gods, how to know what God wants of them, and how to live their lives with faith in the God who guides them and upholds them.

Deuteronomy 14 - Joshua 24

Another week of tough sledding – no use denying it. Skim as you need to: read the section headings at least, as you turn the pages; or try reading the first and last sentences of paragraphs - whatever will keep you moving and yet give you a sense of the flavor of these books. We're covering the farewell speech of Moses (Deuteronomy), in which he both repeats much of the history we've read and tosses in many imprecations about what will happen if the people fail to stick with God. We're also covering all of the Book of Joshua, with the entry into the Promised Land accompanied by enormous amounts of slaughter. To give these difficult passages one angle of context: Moses wouldn't need to go on and on about what terrible things God will do if the people stray if he weren't worried about how easy it is to stray and how attractive the more tangible neighboring gods were. And Joshua wouldn't hear God telling him to kill all the neighboring peoples if it weren't for the same problem. Idolatry – understood as worshiping something that isn't really God, but understood also as following a competing god – was clearly the key issue for the writer of this history.

Questions to consider while reading:

- A society does not make laws for situations that have never occurred; thus laws are an historical insight into the workings, and conflicts, within an ancient society. As you skim through all of these laws (many of them repetitions here of earlier versions), what insights do they offer into the functioning of ancient Israel?


- Is God made more tangible through the specificity and complexity of the many laws Moses passes on? Or just more difficult to grasp?


- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a "spiritual" God who has no corporeal reality and no physical representation?


- How do the Joshua stories reflect the unresolvable paradox between human free will and the divine will?

Leviticus 17-Deuteronomy 13

I'm late with my blog post - yikes! Thanksgiving did me in. I hope you're just continuing on anyway...

This is a long reading – half of Leviticus, all of Numbers, a good bit of Deuteronomy – and so our mantra: just keep going! Don't be discouraged by length or repetitiveness or bizarre details – just keep going! Here's where a good study Bible (if you don't have one already, I highly recommend you get one - see the "Suggested Bibles" section on the Home page) can really help: section headings and synopses are useful if you need to just keep yourself moving through much of this section. Just keep going!

And do take the time to work through our focus passages: the story of the spies in the Promised Land (Numbers 13 and 14), and the self-contradicting tale of Balaam and his talking donkey (Numbers 22). One way of looking at these stories, and at much of this section, is through the issue of authority.

Some questions to consider while reading, then: Who has the authority to speak for God? Who granted him/her that authority? How does a person of faith tell if a spiritual leader's authority is authentic or not? Ten of the twelve spies say the people occupying the Promised Land are too dangerous, while Caleb says they're not; how are the Israelites to know whom to believe? Balaam is a foreign "prophet" who is believed to be for sale; how is Balak the king supposed to know that he's actually speaking for the Israelites' God? And what about that strange story of the earth swallowing up the people who challenged Moses' authority (Numbers 16) – is there no right to ask whether Moses is perhaps not understanding God as well as he thinks? This relationship with God is still new to these people, and the question of who speaks for God is a vexing one.

Exodus 21-Leviticus 16

Now we start to see why we are doing this as a group. Chapter after chapter about how to build an ark, how to make a priest's robe, how to sacrifice an animal, how to decide which animals to eat (the kosher food laws!), how to treat a skin disease – it's enough to make us throw up our hands and toss in the towel. No! Don't do it! Now is when you need to commit to just keep going. So skim! Skim to get a sense of what's going on, but remember, this is a group project - you're in it together, so do it for each other. You can literally just keep turning pages and looking at the headings if you're really flagging or running out of time. Focus, though, on the story of the golden calf, Israel's immediate turn to idolatry – this is an important part of the story of the difficulty of becoming a particular kind of people with a particular kind of faith in a particular kind of God. Note that many of the laws about diseases and sacrifices are about how to restore someone to the community. And just take a quick look at all those instructions, all those laws in Leviticus about how to do things: these are records of the development of ritual, the development of the practice of religion among a people still creating their own identity. Finish with a glance at the observance of a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the practice of the scapegoat.

Questions to consider as you read/glance over/skim:

- The people of Israel understood these rituals and laws to come directly from God, lending the practices enormous weight – does the history of the church institution and its traditions lend similar weight and importance to our rituals and our religious laws?


- The golden calf is such a tangible image of idolatry – defined broadly as treating anything as God that is not God – how is it that God's people can be so quick to lose track of God?


- Why does Aaron acquiesce to the demands of the people for an idol so quickly and so easily? What does this tell us about the difficulties of leadership in a faith community?