Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash

Posted in Ancient Near East, Books Worth Reading by Bacho on February 5, 2011

The Talmud is a body of Jewish law and lore accumulated over a period of seven centuries 200 BC to 500 AD, both in Israel and Babylon. The word Talmud derives from Hebrew root  l-m- d which means “to study” or “teach”. The Talmud is comprised of Mishnah and Gemara.  Mishnah is the oldest collection of Jewish oral law, as rabbis deliberated and interpreted the law found in the Tanakh [Hebrew Scripture that Christians refer to as the Old Testament].  In essence it was an attempt to supplement the written laws in the Tanakh.  Mishnah was compiled by a series of scholars over two centuries and was given final form in the 3rd century AD by rabbi Judah ha-Nasi [ יהודה הנשיא].  Gemara means “completion,” from the Hebrew gamar גמר: “to complete” or “learning”-from the Aramaic “to study”. It is a discussion of the Mishnah and related writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Tanakh.  Gemara emerged as a result of In the rabbinic discussion of the Mishnah.   For three centuries following the emergence of the Mishnah, rabbis throughout Palestine and Babylonia analyzed, debated, and discussed that work.  Around 500 AD the majority of this discussion was put together and printed.  The word “Gemara” is also used for the Talmud in its entirety.

There are two Talmuds: The Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli). For many centuries the Jerusalem Talmud, though older, was largely neglected and the term “Talmud” came to be applied exclusively to the Babylonian Talmud.

I am looking for a good introduction to the Talmud.  A basic text that would be a first port of call for anyone interested in the Jewish oral law and the rabbinic literature.

What I have in my library is H.L. Strack’s Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. A recent review of this book in The Jewish Quarterly Review claims that “there is no other book similar in scope and value.”  Is this true?  Is this indeed the best intro?  Any other suggestions?

Resources for Reading and Praying the Psalms of Lament

I was rereading Psalm 137 and thinking about the psalms of lament…So here are few things that have been helpful for me:

1.In her Getting Involved with God Ellen F. Davis comments, “No personal vendetta is authorized…On the contrary, the validity of any punishing action that may occur depends entirely on its being God’s action, not ours.  And readers of the Bible recognize that this is in fact a severely limiting condition. For God’s action is free, directed not only to our healing but to the healing of the whole moral order.  Through these psalms we demand that our enemies be driven into God’s hands.  But who can say what will happen to them there? For God is manifest in judgment of our enemies but also, alas, in mercy toward them.  Thus these vengeful psalms have a relationship with other forms of prayer for our enemies.”  [27]

2.Eric Zenger in his book God of Vengeance? sums up this psalm in this way, “Psalm 137 is not the song of people who have the power to effect a violent change in their situation of suffering, nor is it the battle cry of terrorists.  Instead, it is an attempt to cling to one’s historical identity even when everything is against it.  Still more, it is an attempt, in the face of the most profound humiliation and helplessness, to suppress the primitive human lust for violence in one’s own heart, by surrendering everything to God- a God whose word of judgment is presumed to be so universally just that even those who pray the psalm submit themselves to it.” [48]

3. According to Eugene Peterson, “Most of us suppress our negative emotions (unless, neurotically, we advertise them).  The way of prayer is not to cover them up so we will appear respectable, but to expose them so we can be healed.”

4.A fascinating poem by Anne Porter titled After Psalm 137:

We’re still in Babylon but

We do not weep
Why should we weep?
We have forgotten
How to weep
We’ve sold our harps
And bought ourselves machines
That do our singing for us
And who remembers now
The songs we sang in Zion?

We have got used to exile
We hardly notice
Our captivity
For some of us
There are such comforts here
Such luxuries

Even a guard
To keep the beggars
From annoying us

We have forgotten you.

Prophecy and Prophets in the ANE

Posted in Ancient Near East, PhD Research by Bacho on April 13, 2010

Here are few gleanings on the identity of ANE prophets and the nature of ANE prophecy…

1.0.Identity and Role of the Prophet in ANE:

“Some biblical scholars have argued that the Israelite prophets were essentially religious poets…Poetry was also a feature in the NE prophecies, although the poetic nature of the Mari texts is more pronounced than in the Neo-Assyrian exemplars.  In the oral culture of Ancient Mesopotamia, the poetic qualities of the oracles would have enhanced the receptivity of the listening audience.  The same can be said of the biblical prophecies.” [Kenton Sparks, “Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible”, 235.]

Vocabulary for prophets: The word “prophet” most frequently translates the Heb. Word nabi. This word is probably not of Hebrew origin; the Akk.nabitu seems the closest cognate, although the title nabu “diviner” (?), is now attested at Mari…Other words are also used by the biblical tradition to describe persons who acted in the way that Israel saw its prophets behave.  One passage claims that in former times the prophet (nabu) was known as a seer (roeh) (1 Sam. 9:9).  Two other terms also are occasionally used for the role: man of God (is elohim) and visionary (hozeh).”  [ABD, vol. 5, 482.]

“Prophecy…is human transmission of allegedly divine messages…Prophets do not employ methods based on systematic observations and their scholarly interpretations, but act as direct mouthpieces of gods whose messages they communicate…Other aspects, like religious and social conditions of the activity, personal qualities of the human beings involved, the possible prediction and other distinctive features of the message and the means of obtaining them, are subordinate to the basic understanding of prophecy as a process of transmission.”  [Martti Nissinen, “Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East”, 1]

2.0.Nature of Prophecy in ANE:

“Mesopotamian prophecies were delivered orally and then preserved in writing.  During this process the prophecies underwent at least three stages of editorial shaping:

1.As we see in Mari texts, the oracle repots were strongly influenced by the ideological perspectives and concerns of those who wrote them down.

2.In Neo-Assyrian texts, the state apparatus decided to preserve some oracles in an archival form for later consultation.  In this case, it was the choice to preserve the oracle in a certain way that gave it a kind of nascent canonical status.

3.In Neo-Assyrian practice of creating small oracle collections, which joined together disparate oracles on the basis of theme and content.”  [Kenton Sparks, 235]

“With the exception of a few instances from Mari, the ancient states tended to preserve only prophetic oracles that supported the state apparatus.  Indeed Neo-Assyrian law specifically forbade prophecies that openly criticized the state.  By comparison the Hebrew prophets frequently disparaged the government of Israel and Judah.”  [Kenton Sparks, 236]

“One feature that clearly distinguishes the biblical prophetic books from their much shorter and less complex Near Eastern counterparts is the presence of biographical narratives about the Hebrew prophets.”  [Kenton Sparks, 236]

Huffmon’s definition of prophecy, “inspired speech at the initiative of a divine power, speech which is clear in itself and commonly directed to a third party.”   [ABD, vol.5, 477]

“The prophetic process of transmission consists of the divine sender of the message, the message itself, the human transmitter of the message, and the recipient(s) of the message.  These four components should be transparent in any written source to be identified as a specimen of prophecy.”  [Martti Nissinen, 2.]