Tuesday, November 25, 2014

David M. Carr's "Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins"

David M. Carr is professor of Old Testament at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a leading specialist on how the Bible was formed.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins, and reported the following:
In Holy Resilience, I tell the story of how the Bible, Judaism and Christianity took shape during a series of communal traumas, from the Assyrian destruction of Israel and domination of Judah to the Roman destruction of Second Temple Judaism and prohibition of Christianity. The Jewish and Christian scriptures reflect these traumas, as well as hard-earned lessons of survival.

Page 99 of my book finds me discussing stories about Abraham in Genesis as stories about an ancient ancestor that are actually comforting words to much later Judean exiles in Babylon. These exiles have come to see themselves as an emblem of "curse" among their neighboring nations. The prophet Zechariah, for example, speaks of how the people of Judah, in exile, became so pathetic that foreigners used them as a byword of the sort of curse they would wish on others (Zech 8:13).

This, I argue on page 99, is the background for the reshaping and retelling of Abraham's promise in Genesis 12, a promise that concludes with a phrase often translated as "all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you." I point out at the outset that the famous Jewish commentator Rashi argued strongly for a different translation of this promise, one where Abraham is promised instead, that "all clans of the earth shall bless themselves by you."

Page 99 continues:
The idea is not that other nations will be blessed, but that they will bless themselves. Abraham will have become such a beacon of blessing that other nations will wish on themselves the kind of divine blessing that Abraham is famed to have.

Understood this way, God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis probably builds on the model provided by an older prayer for the king found in Psalms, one that prays that all nations will “bless themselves by” the Davidic king and “declare him happy” (Ps 72:17). We see a similar idea later in Genesis where Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, saying “may Israel bless itself by you, saying ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’” (Gen 48:20). The exilic storyteller who wrote Genesis 12 took these ideas and applied them to Abraham. Countering the perception of Judeans as cursed, he describes their forefather, Abraham, as receiving a promise that “all clans of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” When the exiles “looked to” this “father Abraham” in Genesis, they found an answer to concerns about their supposed cursedness. As Abraham’s children, they too were destined to be examples of blessing not curse. And Genesis reinforces this message as this promise is repeated by God to Abraham’s heirs. Jacob, for example, is told “all clans of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants” (Gen 28:14). For the exiles, "and your descendants" meant them. This exilic story about ancient Abraham’s divine blessing comforted and encouraged them.
Learn more about Holy Resilience at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue