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Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament

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Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament

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Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition

Lisbeth S. Fried

The historical Ezra was sent to Jerusalem as an emissary of the Persian monarch. What was his task? According to the Bible, the Persian king sent Ezra to bring the Torah, the five books of the Laws of Moses, to the Jews. Modern scholars have claimed not only that Ezra brought the Torah to Jerusalem, but that he actually wrote it, and in so doing Ezra created Judaism. Without Ezra, they say, Judaism would not exist. In Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition, Lisbeth S. Fried separates historical fact from biblical legend. Drawing on inscriptions from the Achaemenid Empire, she presents the historical Ezra in the context of authentic Persian administrative practices and concludes that Ezra, the Persian official, neither wrote nor edited the Torah, nor would he even have known it. The origin of Judaism, so often associated with Ezra by modern scholars, must be sought elsewhere. After discussing the historical Ezra, Fried examines ancient, medieval, and modern views of him, explaining how each originated, and why. She relates the stories told about Ezra by medieval Christians to explain why their Greek Old Testament differs from the Hebrew Bible, as well as the explanations offered by medieval Samaritans concerning how their Samaritan Bible varies from the one the Jews use. Church Fathers as well as medieval Samaritan writers explained the differences by claiming that Ezra falsified the Bible when he rewrote it, so that in effect, it is not the book that Moses wrote but something else. Moslem scholars also maintain that Ezra falsified the Old Testament, since Mohammed, the last judgment, and Heaven and Hell are revealed in it. In contrast Jewish Talmudic writers viewed Ezra both as a second Moses and as the prophet Malachi. In the process of describing ancient, medieval, and modern views of Ezra, Fried brings out various understandings of God, God’s law, and God’s plan for our salvation.

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Gleaning Ruth

A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives

Jennifer L. Koosed

The biblical story of Ruth celebrates the power to begin life anew, to gather what has been scattered, to glean what one needs. In this original approach to understanding an ancient love story, Jennifer L. Koosed crafts a multifaceted portrait of the Old Testament character of Ruth and of the demanding agricultural world in which her story unfolds. Highlighting the most complex aspects of the book—the relationships Ruth has with her mother-in-law, Naomi; sister-in-law, Orpah; future husband, Boaz; and infant son, Obed—Koosed explores the use of pairings to define Ruth's aspirational fortitude. Koosed also touches on the narrative's questions of sexuality, kinship, and law as well as the metaphoric activities of harvest that serve to advance the plot and illuminate the social and geographic context of Ruth's tale. From the private world of women to the public world of men, Koosed guides readers through the book of Ruth's revealing glimpses into the sociology of the ancient Hebrew world. The study concludes with a discussion of the postbiblical fascination with Ruth and her later representations in a variety of literary and visual media. Koosed's approach is eclectic, employing a host of methodologies from philology and theology to literature, folklore, and feminism. Thoughtful of the interests of both scholarly and lay audiences, Koosed presents inviting and compelling new insights into one of the Old Testament's most enigmatic characters.

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Have You Considered My Servant Job?

Understanding the Biblical Archetype of Patience

Samuel E. Balentine

The question that launches Job’s story is posed by God at the outset of the story: “Have you considered my servant Job?” (1:8; 2:3). By any estimation the answer to this question must be yes. The forty-two chapters that form the biblical story have in fact opened the story to an ongoing practice of reading and rereading, evaluating and reevaluating. Early Greek and Jewish translators emphasized some aspects of the story and omitted others; the Church Fathers interpreted Job as a forerunner of Christ, while medieval Jewish commentators debated conservative and liberal interpretations of God’s providential love. Artists, beginning at least in the Greco-Roman period, painted and sculpted their own interpretations of Job. Novelists, playwrights, poets, and musicians—religious and irreligious, from virtually all points of the globe—have added their own distinctive readings. In Have You Considered My Servant Job?, Samuel E. Balentine examines this rich and varied history of interpretation by focusing on the principal characters in the story—Job, God, the satan figure, Job’s wife, and Job’s friends. Each chapter begins with a concise analysis of the biblical description of these characters, then explores how subsequent readers have expanded or reduced the story, shifted its major emphases or retained them, read the story as history or as fiction, and applied the morals of the story to the present or dismissed them as irrelevant. Each new generation of readers is shaped by different historical, cultural, and political contexts, which in turn require new interpretations of an old yet continually mesmerizing story. Voltaire read Job one way in the eighteenth century, Herman Melville a different way in the nineteenth century. Goethe’s reading of the satan figure in Faust is not the same as Chaucer’s in The Canterbury Tales, and neither is fully consonant with the Testament of Job or the Qur’an. One need only compare the descriptions of God in the biblical account with the imaginative renderings by Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Franz Kafka to see that the effort to understand why God afflicts Job “for no reason” (2:3) continues to be both compelling and endlessly complicated.

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Jeremiah and God's Plans of Well-being

Barbara Green

In Jeremiah and God's Plans of Well-being, Barbara Green explores the prophet Jeremiah as a literary persona of the biblical book through seven periods of his prophetic ministry, focusing on the concerns and circumstances that shaped his struggles. Having confronted the vast complexity of scholarly issues found in the Book of Jeremiah, Green has chosen to examine the literary presentation of the prophet rather than focus on the precise historical details or the speculative processes of composition. What Green exposes is a prophet affected by the dire circumstances of his life, struggling consistently, but ultimately failing at his most urgent task of persuasion. In the first chapter Green examines Jeremiah’s predicament as he is called to minister and faces royal opposition to his message. She then isolates the central crisis of mission, the choice facing Judah, and the sin repeatedly chosen. Delving into the tropes of Jeremiah’s preaching and prophecy, she also analyses the struggle and lament that express Jeremiah’s inability to succeed as an intermediary between God and his people. Next Green explores the characterizations of the kings with whom Jeremiah struggled and his persistence in his ministry despite repeated imprisonment, and, finally, Green focuses on Jeremiah’s thwarted choice to remain in Judah at the end of the first temple period and his descent into Egypt after the assassination of Gedaliah. In Jeremiah and God's Plans of Well-being, Green shows the prophet as vulnerable, even failing at times, while suggesting the significance of his assignment and unlikelihood of success. She explores the complexities of the phenomenon of prophecy and the challenges of preaching unwelcome news during times of uncertainty and crisis. Ultimately Green provides a fresh treatment of a complex biblical text and prophet. In presenting Jeremiah as a literary figure, Green considers how his character continues to live on in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity today.

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Qoheleth

The Ironic Wink

James L. Crenshaw

Rarely does a biblical book evoke admiration from a Nobel laureate in literature, a newspaper columnist, a prize-winning poet, and a popular songwriter. Ecclesiastes has done that, and for good reason. Its author, who called himself Qoheleth, stared death in the face and judged all human endeavors to be futile. For Qoheleth observation is the only avenue to understanding; an arbitrarily wrathful and benevolent deity created and rules over the world; and death is unpredictable, absolute, and final. His message is simple: seize the moment, for death awaits. James L. Crenshaw begins by examining the essential mysteries of the book of Ecclesiastes: the speaker’s identity, his emphasis on hidden or contradictory truths, and his argument of the insubstantiality of most things and the ultimate futility of all efforts. Moving from the ancient to the contemporary, Crenshaw again analyzes Qoheleth’s observations about the human condition, this time testing if they can stand up against rational inquiry today. In exploring Qoheleth’s identity, the foundations of his outlook, and his recommendations, Crenshaw engages modern readers in a conversation about one of the most disagreed upon biblical books. In Qoheleth, Crenshaw draws on related literature from the ancient Near East and traces the impact of Qoheleth in both Christian and Jewish traditions, summarizing a lifetime of scholarship on the book of Ecclesiastes. While exploring Ecclesiastes and its enigmatic author, Crenshaw engages scholars and modern interpreters in genuine debate over the lasting relevance of Qoheleth’s teachings and the place of Ecclesiastes in the biblical canon.

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Samuel and His God

Marti J. Steussy

Samuel and His God explores the relationship among a prophet, his deity, and their people in 1 Samuel. Marti J. Steussy illumines the vexing elements central to this multifaceted narrative and probes the questions it raises, particularly with regard to the authoritative voice of Samuel, of God as portrayed in this account, of the narrator or narrators, and of the Bible itself. In this sense, Samuel becomes a case study in how the Bible's authors use stories to argue for who may speak for God. In the biblical account, Samuel hears the Lord's calling as a boy, becomes a servant to the priest Eli, and later becomes Eli's successor. As a leader of the people of Israel and a conduit for God's message, Samuel is a figure of immense authority, ultimately anointing the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David, and thus precipitating the transformation of Israel from a collection of tribes into a nation under a monarchy. But in biblical and historical portrayals of Samuel's interactions with his God, their people, and these early kings, the narratives introduce significant discontinuities and disruptions, most famously with respect to the question of whether kingship came to Israel as a sinful human initiative or as a divine gift. Steussy takes up the challenge of helping readers grapple with the possibility that a multitude of storytellers representing disparate agendas may be responsible for aspects of Samuel's tale, and this makes mapping the cumulative story a problematic but revealing task. The relationship between Samuel and God is often contentious, and Samuel is presented as an irascible and ambitious character whose own stakes in his community at times govern how he interprets and represents his relationship to his God. Steussy's close readings negotiate the plethora of viewpoints to be found here—those of the narrator(s), the characters, and other scholars of Samuel's story.

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