Brandon's Notepad

July 24, 2014

People Of The Covenant

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People of the Covenant: An Invitation to the Old Testament
This is a short review of People of the Covenant: An Invitation to the Old Testament, written by Dianne Bergant, CSA. Publication information can be found under [Bergant-1] in the Bibliography

People of the Covenant is a nice primer on key figures of the Old Testament. The author summarizes their stories and provides insight regarding the spiritual importance of each. It is a short read and might prove to be a good survey of the Old Testament for someone preparing to embark on a more in-depth study. It’s not in-depth enough to be a considered a good reference book in my opinion.

The figures are classified into general categories, such as the Ancestors, Judges, Kings, Prophets, Priests, etc. These categories should sound very familiar to those who already know Scripture. The list of figures covered is not exhaustive. For example, the Ancestors include Adam, Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Joseph, but there is no specific treatment of Noah. Also, only three of the twelve Judges whose stories are contained in the Book of Judges — Deborah, Gideon, and Samson — are covered, though both Joshua and Samuel are (correctly) included in this section. Eli is classified as a Priest, even though he was also a Judge. The Prophets include Moses and a mix of (five) major and minor Prophets after whom books of their teachings are named. Understandably, not all of the Kings are covered, only Saul, David, Solomon, and two of the (eight) good kings of Judah. There are additional sections covering some of the Wisdom writings, the poems and songs, and the novellas. Finally, there is a discussion about certain mysterious figures described by the Prophets that foreshadow the Christ.

This book was written for those who have an interest in a Catholic interpretation of Sacred Scripture. The author, Dianne Bergant, is a sister in the Congregation of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and is a professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. It was refreshing to find a primer that gives preference to a literary interpretation over a literalist (fundamentalist) one. It covers quite clearly the meaning of the novellas (including Tobit and Judith) as works of contemporary religious fiction of the time, as well as a cursory view of the Hellenistic period and Maccabean Revolution. All of these are omitted from the Protestant version of the Bible, of course.

I felt it necessary to comment further on the literary/literalist distinction mentioned above. By literary I mean to say that the Scriptures are read and understood as literature of various genres, some of which lean heavily on figurative language. This doesn’t mean that the Bible was written in a secret code, but that linguistic semantics and phraseology (e.g. idioms and euphemisms) can change one’s interpretation if they are not understood. In contrast, a literalist interpretation means that all of Scripture is taken as strictly literal in meaning. This sort of interpretation strips away any meaning intended by the authors based on cultural and historical context.

Some may find Bergant’s analysis of Scripture somewhat shocking because Christians (Catholics included) are generally taught (or at least assume) that Bible stories have some basis in historical fact. It seems that Bergant (implicitly) begins with the assumption that these stories are actually pure myth, not based on any historical fact but that nonetheless convey profound truth. [p. 22] Consider the stories of the Ancestors, for example, which are primordial and have survived far longer than the historical evidence that might substantiate their accuracy. [p. 19] Even though the stories of these patriarchs form a genealogy and family history, Bergant claims that they were contributed by various tribes as they joined together to form the Hebrew nation and were later stitched into a single tale. [p. 20] Moreover, with no evidence to the contrary, important figures could very well be hypostatizations of various concepts that are central to the faith. Likewise, she also claims that the Jewish feasts began as seasonal celebrations and were eventually given historical meaning, such as the commemoration of the release from slavery in Egypt (Passover) and the giving of the Law at Sinai (Pentecost), and that over a long period of time, the agricultural reasons lost their importance and the historical meanings remained. [pp. 15-17] Claims such as these are what draw such strong criticism against Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis, since they appear to reduce Scripture to a mere fabrication that (contrary to the definition of myth) holds no truth at all, only simple fiction. Afterall, if these stories can be so easily dismissed, why not dismiss the stories of Jesus as well? Bergant does not claim that Jesus is a fictional character, of course. In the final analysis, even if the entirety of the Old Testament is indeed myth, it would still point toward the very real Redeemer and Savior. And if so, perhaps this was the Holy Spirit’s way of preparing the people of God for his advent.

This presupposition that Old Testament stories is pure myth is still problematic for the Catholic, however. The story of Adam and Eve is a good example. These characters are often discounted as mythical people by those who cannot reconcile their faith with the discoveries of science. It was definitively asserted at Trent that sin originated with one man, Adam, and that all of mankind was injured as a result. [Session V, Decree on Original Sin; c.f. Romans 5:12] Pope Pius XII later expounded that polygenism (origin from two or more distinct ancestors) is irreconcilable with the doctrine of original sin. [Humani Generis, ¶37] Thus, the Church teaches that a single male ancestor did indeed exist, strongly implying that Adam is not a hypostatization of sinful tendencies, nor is the story of the Fall an etiology of the same.


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