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.

April 30, 2010

The Book of Genesis

Filed under: Christianity — Brandon @ 12:00 am
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Genesis is the history of the relationship between God and man beginning with the creation of the world and leading up to the time of the prophet Moses. This relationship is bonded by covenants, or “agreements”, between God and man, which are essential to Jewish identity. Christians interpret the stories in Genesis as prefigurations, or “types and shadows”, of the faith and the covenants as promises fulfilled by the coming of Christ. Truth is robed in literary garb that people of the time would understand: this was done to preserve the Word. (NAB Intro to Genesis)


Jewish Tradition, supported by Scripture, ascribes the authorship of the Torah to Moses, though some Jewish and Christian scholars accepted that additions, such as the account of Moses’ death, were added by later authors including his successor, Joshua. Modern scholars believe that the Torah probably evolved through the work of many authors and editors. See the Wikipedia entries for the Torah and the (Wellhausen) Documentary Hypothesis for more details.


New American Bible. The NAB divides Genesis into four parts. The first is labelled “Primeval History” (1:1-11:26), which ends with the Tower of Babel and the Descendants of Shem up through the generation of Abram. The remaining three sections concern the Patriarchs Abraham (11:27-25:18), Isaac & Jacob (25:19-36:43) and Joseph & Brothers (37:1-50:26). (NAB, p 8)

Nelson. Nelson’s Bible Handbook divides Genesis into two major parts, “Primeval History” (1:1-11:9) and “Patriarchal History” (11:10-50:26). These are further divided into four parts each: The Creation, The Fall, The Judgment of the Flood and The Judgment on the Tower of Babel under the first, and the Lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph under the second. This differs from the NAB only in that the Descendants of Shem are included in Patriarchal History. Nelson notes some interesting differences between the two major parts. The Primeval History deals with events and the human race in general, is primarily historical in style and is set in the Fertile Crescent; whereas, the Patriarchal History focuses on four people and the Hebrew race, is biographical in style and is set in Canaan and Egypt. (Nelson-1, p6)

Baker. In Inside the Bible, Baker divides the two major parts cleanly between chapters 11 and 12. (K.Baker-4, pp28-29)

Summary & Commentary

First Story of Creation [Gn 1:1-2:4a] God created Heaven and Earth. Creation was a process beginning with the mot basic elements (light, water, etc.) and ending with the most complex (man). This process spanned six days. God saw that what he had created was good. God then gave man dominion over the earth. His rest on the seventh day emphasizes the holy importance of the sabbath.

  • God almost always works through a process, not instantaneously. (NIV, Gn 1:31 sidebar)
  • This is not intended to be a scientific account. (RSV-2CE, fn.)
  • Six days were used illustratively. (NAB, Gn 1:5 fn.)

Second Story of Creation [Gn 2:4b-2:25] Man is created first and then the garden is created for his benefit: plants for food, animals for companionship. Two special fruit trees were placed in the center of the garden: the Tree of Life & the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Only the latter was forbidden. Man was put in charge of the garden and he named the creatures. There being no fitting companion, woman was made from man’s flesh; thus, marriage was instituted by God in the beginning (they become one flesh).

  • The second story is probably from an earlier source with a different style. (RSV-2CE, fn.; NAB, fn.)
  • Another statement that this is not intended to be a scientific account. (RSV-2CE, fn.)
  • “…became a living being” can be literally translated as “…became a living soul”. (NAB, Gn 2:7 fn.)

The Fall of Man [Gn 3:1-3:24] The serpent claimed that God was withholding knowledge from man, and that eating the fruit would not cause them to die, despite God’s own warning. When they ate, their eyes were opened and they felt shame for their nakedness. God cursed the man, the woman, the serpent and even the ground, yet promised man a saviour to come. The man and woman were banished to the east of Eden to prevent them from eating from the Tree of (Eternal) Life. Eve became the mother of all the living.

  • God asks rhetorical questions. “Where are you?” “Who told you that you were naked?” Like he doesn’t know. (observation)
  • Like a teenager, man took God’s protection (Eden) for granted. (radio sermon, Msgr. Don Fischer)

Cain and Abel [Gn 4:1-4:16] Adam and Eve begat Cain, a farmer, and then Abel, a shepherd. God favored Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. Cain killed Abel and avoided taking responsibility for it. God then cursed Cain, forcing him to become a nomad, as well as the ground, so that it would no longer produce. God also places a mark of protection on Cain to protect him from murder, forcing him to live with his punishment.

  • The relative value of the offerings is not why one was favored over the other. (NAB, fn.)
  • Cain made his offering after a time, whereas Abel’s was from the firstlings. (observation)
  • God asks more rhetorical questions. “Where is your brother?” “What have you done?” (observation)
  • The mark of Cain is one of protection, not cursedness. (NIV??)

Descendants of Cain and Seth [Gn 4:17-4:26] Five subsequent generations of Cain are enumerated, Lamech being the seventh generation of man. He took two wives who produced several offspring, each being a patriarch of some trade. Lamech kills a boy for wounding him, for which he claims protection from God eleven-times greater than Cain’s. Also, Adam and Eve begets Seth to replace Abel, who then begets Enosh.

  • The Yahwist source claims that man began to use the name of the Lord long before the time of Moses as the Elohist source suggests. (NAB, Gn 4:25-26 fn.)
  • Cain is a nomad (vv12,14) who settles in the land of nomads (Nod, v16), yet he founds a city (v17). (NAB GN 4:16,17-22 fn.)
  • The Wikipedia entry for Lamech has some interesting interpretations of the Hebrew names, likening this story to stories in other cultures that explain the origins of various arts and trades.

Generations: Adam to Noah [Gn 5:1-5:32] The generations from Adam to Noah number ten inclusive. The ages of each first-born male are recorded indirectly, based on the age of each man when his first son was born and the subsequent number of years that followed until his death.

  • The generations have been summarized here in table form.
  • The flood occurred in “1656”, Noah’s 600th year, as calculated based on Gn 9:28-29.
  • This genealogy is from the priestly source. It establishes authority or a claim, but also progresses the story. The lifespans are symbolic, common in Mesopotamian literature. (NAB, fn)
  • The Septuagint, Peshitta, and Masoretic texts differ. (NAB, fn; Wikipedia) However, I compared online versions of the NAB, DR, NIV, KJV, and Peshitta, and all contained the same numbers.

Origin of the Nephilim [Gn 6:1-6:4] The sons of God took human wives and produced a race of giants that the Israelites called the Nephilim. God shortens the expected lifespan of man.

  • Giants were usually heroes in folklore. (NAB, fn)
  • The “sons of God” commonly referred to fallen angels. (Antiquities, Book I, Chapter 3, fn; c.f. The Book of Enoch)
  • This phrase is used to refer explicitly to angels in Job. (Wikipedia)
  • Scouts sent by Moses into Canaan found there a people ‘of great size’. (Num 13:26-33) Their adversary, Anak, was supposedly a descendant of the Nephilim. This is interesting since all creatures on the face of the earth that breathed air were supposedly destroyed by the Flood. (Gen 7:21-23)
  • Other races of ‘giants’ are mentioned in Deut 2:10.

Noah and the Great Flood [Gn 6:5-9:29] God saw the wickedness of mankind and decided to destroy his creation. He instructed the only man who pleased him, Noah, to build a large ship that he and his family may be saved (by covenant) from the forthcoming flood waters. The designs for this ship were very specific. He was to take onto the ship every kind of animal (seven [pairs?] of clean animals and one pair of unclean), that they may be preserved as well. Noah faithfully obeyed. Noah’s family entered the ship and all of the animals came to him. After seven days, the floodwaters came, from underground springs and from rain in the sky. It rained for forty days, until the mountains were covered. All creatures on the earth perished, including all of mankind, save for those on the ship. The flood waters remained 150 days, at which time the ship came to rest in the mountains at Ararat. Noah sent out birds to determine if the land was dry enough to exit the ark (if not, they would return). Once the land was completely dry, God commanded Noah to exit the ark with his family and all of the animals, and to repopulate the world. Noah made a worthy offering of burnt sacrifices using clean birds and animals. God then made a promise to all of creation (by covenant) to never again destroy all living creatures by flood, for he recognized that the desires of mens’ hearts are evil. He set a rainbow in the sky as a sign of this covenant. A farmer by trade, Noah planted a vineyard. Having become drunk one day, he was disgraced by one of his sons, Ham (or “Cham”; father of Canaan) who he cursed, lowering him to the status of a slave to his brothers. Noah died at an old age.

  • Noah was “righteous” and “blameless”, and that he had “found favor” with God. (The Douay-Rheims phrases it differently: “Noe found grace before the Lord [and] was a just and perfect man”.) In light of Church teaching, this could be interpreted to mean that he was free from serious personal sin. This does not mean, however, that he was justified from original sin.
  • Moreover, it states that he “walked” with God, indicating that he was considered righteousness not just because he was faithful, but also because he lived out his faith.
  • The word “ark” comes from the Greek κιβωτὸν (kibótos), which simply means wooden box
  • Many agree that Noah was instructed to take more than a single pair of clean animals as provisions for sacrifice. Some also suggest that several pair were allotted for food, clothing, etc. needed during and after the Flood, for Noah was also instructed to take onto the ark ‘every kind of food’. The number of clean animals (seven, seven pairs, etc.) differs by translation. Source
  • That Noah understood the difference between clean and unclean animals seems to be an anachronism. It is quite possible that sacrificial norms existed prior to the Law. It is also possible that this detail was edited into the story by later redactors to bolster the authority of the Law.
  • Noah initially released a raven, followed by a series of doves. The popular understanding is that since the raven feeds on dead flesh, it had no need to return and was thus a bad indicator. A dove, however, would return until it could find an exposed treetop in which it could nest.
  • Utnapishtim released birds for the same reason in the Gilgamesh Epic. Wikipedia
  • Parallels between Genesis 1 and the story of Noah point to this being a story of new creation.

Table of the Nations [Gn 10:1-10:32] Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. From these three sons came all of the nations of the world.

  • Japheth’s line is listed three generations deep after Noah (great-grandsons).
  • Ham’s line is listed four generations deep after Noah (great-great-grandsons), and includes the Canaanites and other inhabitants of the land that will be promised to Abraham in a later chapter.
  • Shem’s line is listed six generations deep after Noah (great-great-great-great-grandsons), and is the bloodline that leads to Abraham (Gn 11) and thus, eventually, to Christ (Mt 1).
  • Nimrod, son of Cush and grandson of Ham, is highly regarded as a warrior and builder of cities.

The Tower of Babel [Gn 11:1-11:9] The world shared a common language. Pride led men to build a city with a tower reaching heaven. God confused their language, stopping the effort.

  • This story probably originated from the Yahwist source. (Wikipedia)
  • According to Josephus (c 94 A.D.), the construction of the tower was ordered by Nimrod so that man may reach heaven, safe from flood waters, and avenge the deaths of their forefathers. (Antiquities, Book I, Chapter 4)

Generations: Shem to Abram [Gn 11:10-11:32] The generations from Shem to Abram number ten inclusive. The first-born males are listed following the same pattern as the generations from Adam to Noah in Genesis 5.

  • The generations have been summarized here in table form.

Abraham [Gn 12:1-25:11] Abram came from Ur in the land of the Chaldeans. He settled with his family for a time in Harran. God then called him to the land of Canaan. Near the town of Shechem, God promised Abram that the land there would be given to his descendants, so Abram erected an altar to God at that place. He erected a second altar nearby, between the towns of Bethel and Ai. The family travelled through the Negev desert and lived in Egypt for a short time due to a severe famine. The Pharaoh of Egypt tried to take Abram’s wife as his own, not knowing she was already married, and for this offense, God plagued him and his household with disease. Abram and his family were sent away. They returned to Bethel by way of the Negev, and had become so wealthy that the land could not support the herds of both Abram and his nephew, Lot. The two parted ways, Lot settling in the east and Abram in the west. God then showed to Abram all the land his people was to inherit. He then settled in Hebron and erected a third altar. When Lot became a prisoner of war, Abram was able to defeat the enemy coalition with a small army, thus rescuing his nephew and winning back his possessions. After the victory, he was blessed by the priest-king Melchizedek, but refused to accept worldly praise, owing the victory to God alone.

Left off at Gn 15:1

Isaac (& Ishmael)

Jacob (& Esau)


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