Sunday, July 30, 2017

Works of Imagination in the Hebrew Bible by C.A. Briggs 1897

Works of Imagination in the Old Testament by C.A. Briggs 1897

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The Bible approaches all classes of people in the way in which they can best be reached. Accordingly, the Bible has been given to men in the varied forms of the world's literature. A great division of Hebrew literature is the poetical. This embraces a collection of lyric poetry,—the Psalter; a collection of sentences and poems of wisdom,—the book of Proverbs; a collection of dirges,—the book of Lamentations; and three elaborate pieces,—the book of Job, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. The three last named are not collections, but rather pieces of composite poetry of a more artistic kind than anything found in the three great collections. Job is a gnomic, didactic drama, presenting a combination of poetic skill that is unique in the world’s literature, only approached in modern times by Goethe's Faust, which indeed was modeled after it. The older writers thought that Job was prose and the story historical, but it is now conceded that the book is a masterpiece of poetry, and it is commonly recognized that the story of Job in whole, or in part, is a work of the imagination. It is a drama of human experience under divine discipline, human persecution, and Satanic temptation, which is a masterpiece of literature as well as a marvel of grace. The Song of Songs has been the most abused of all the writings of the Old Testament. Its divisions in the authorized version and the revised version are bad. The arrangements of chapters are wrong. The headings of the chapters are misleading. It was for centuries interpreted as allegorical and Messianic, and in later times as typical. No wonder that many discarded it from the canon, and regarded the reading of it as unprofitable. As the climax of the sins against the book, it was rendered, in many verses. in indelicate and immodest language. There is not an immodest or impure word or thought in the book from beginning to end. Modern scholarship finds in this book a drama of love, five acts of an operatta. each act having its refrain. In it are solos, duets, trios, responsive choruses, and a dance. The Song of Songs is the drama for women as the book of Job is for men. The Shulemite, a rustic maiden of northern Palestine, of wonderful beauty, affianced to a shepherd whom she dearly loves, has been enticed to the pavilion of Solomon, in northern Palestine. She is taken to Jerusalem. and every effort is put forth at the court of the great monarch by sensuous temptation, by enticing flattery, by brilliant promises, and even by love philters, to win her love for Solomon. But all this extraordinary temptation fails; she is faithful to her lover and conquers by the simple and irresistible energy of her own purity and virtue. She is permitted to return at last to her mountain home, leaning on the arm of her beloved. The drama closes with her song of the triumph of love and with the marriage feast. If love is holy and Christian—and who can doubt it?—no piece of poetry has a better claim to be in the canon of Holy Scripture than the Song of Songs. The book of Ecclesiastes is the most difficult book in the Old Testament. The traditional theory that it was written by Solomon in his old age is scarcely worthy of mention at the present time. The book has the latest form of the Hebrew language known in Holy Scripture, and if there is any such thing as a history of the Hebrew language, the book was one of the last in composition in the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes gives us the victory of the sage who triumphs over internal soul-conflicts and trials. There are two sides of the soul’s experience, the dark side of doubt, and the bright side of piety. These come in regular succession in the book until the victory is gained. The difficulty in interpreting the book is in distributing the material between these two sides. No one can use the book with profit who does not possess the key to its interpretation.

This rich development of the poetic imagination among the Hebrews raises the question whether there may not also be in the Bible prose works of the imagination. Works of the imagination play a very important part in Hebrew literature outside the Old Testament. The Haggadistic literature of the Hebrews, used chiefly for the instruction of the people in the synagogues and in the schools, was largely composed of such writings. The apocryphal literature has many such stories, which have been the favorite themes of art in all ages. These writings are all regarded as canonical in the Roman Catholic Church. There are no a priori reasons therefore why we should not find such prose works of the imagination in the Old Testament. We should not stumble at such literature even if the idea be new to us or repugnant to us. A careful study of the literature of the Old Testament shows that we have at least three prose works of the imagination in the Old Testament, all written in the times of the restoration. These are Jonah, Esther, and Ruth. The reasons for regarding the book of Jonah as essentially an inspired work of the imagination are these: It was not the aim of the writer to write history; the story is given only so far as it is important to set forth the prophetic lessons of the book. The prophet Jonah is mentioned in the history of the book of Kings, and a prediction of minor importance is mentioned as given by him. It seems very remarkable that the book of Jonah, on the one hand, should omit this ministry in the land of Israel, and on the other hand that the author of the book of Kings should give such comparatively unimportant ministry and yet pass over such important prophetic ministry as that given in the book of Jonah. The two miracles reported in Jonah are marvels rather than miracles. They are more like the wonders of the Arabian Nights than the miracles of Moses, of Elijah and Elisha, of Jesus and the apostles. We have such a faith in God’s grace and holiness and majesty that we find it difficult to believe that he could work such a grotesque and extravagant miracle as that described in the story of the great fish. The repentance of Nineveh, from the king on his throne to the humblest citizen, the extent of it, the sincerity of it, the depth of it, are still more marvelous. Nineveh was at that time the capital of the greatest empire of the world. The history of the times is quite well known, and the history makes such an event incredible. The prayer given in the book is not suited to it, if the story be historical, but it is entirely appropriate if it be regarded as ideal and symbolical. The prayer is a piece of poetry of two complete strophes concluding each with a refrain, and then half a strophe without a refrain. It is a mosaic from several more ancient psalms and prophecies. It is objected that Jesus in his use of Jonah gives his sanction to the historicity of the story. But this objection has little weight; for his method of instruction was in the use of stories of his own composition. We ought not to be surprised therefore that he should use such stories from the Old Testament likewise. He does not make a more realistic use of Jonah than he does of the story of Dives and Lazarus. Paul makes just as realistic a use of the story [from the Jewish Haggada] of Jannes and Jambres withstanding Moses; and compares them with the foes of Jesus in his times (2 Tim. iii., 8). Jonah represents only too well the Jew of Nehemiah's time. the Jew of the New Testament times, and also the Christian Church in its prevailing attitude to the heathen world. If the church had learned the lesson of Jonah, its theologians would not so generally have consigned the unbaptized heathen world to hell fire. The present century, brought face to face with the heathen world, is beginning to learn the lesson of Jonah.

The book of Ruth in our Bible is placed between Judges and Samuel, among the historical books. That was the arrangement in the Hellenistic canon, which mingled the apocryphal books with the books of the Palestinian canon. But in the Rabbinical canon, which is based on an earlier arrangement, Ruth is placed in the third division, among the miscellaneous and later writings, chiefly poetical. The language of the book is tinged with Aramaic, making it probable that it was not written until after the exile. The scene is put in the times of the Judges, but there is nothing to remind us of that time except certain antique customs which the author thinks it necessary to explain to his readers. The book is an ideal picture of primitive simplicity and agricultural life in Bethlehem, separated from all that was gross and rude and rough in the real life of those times. This story of Ruth and Boaz, the ancestors of David, is all the more striking that it comes into conflict with a law of Deuteronomy and its enforcement by Nehemiah. The book of Ruth sees that the grace of God to Moabites overrides legal precepts, and their zealous enforcement by painstaking magistrates. It was written probably soon after the return from exile under Joshua and Zerubbabel, to encourage Israelites to take advantage of the imperial decree and return to the Holy Land; and with the special purpose of encouraging those who had married foreign wives, and also the foreign widows of Israelites, to return with their children and seek refuge under the wings of the Lord in rebuilt Jerusalem. It is an Old Testament parallel to the Syro-Phoenician woman of the New Testament. Although we regard the book of Ruth as a work of the imagination, we do not deny that Ruth and Boaz were historical characters. The historic persons Ruth and Boaz and the events of their courtship and marriage were embellished by the imagination in order to set forth the great lessons of prophecy. The book of Esther is one of the miscellaneous writings of the Rabbinical canon. Esther is not used in the New Testament, and has been regarded in all the centuries as the most doubtful of the biblical books. The language is one of the latest specimens of biblical Hebrew. The style is dramatic, and rapid in its development of incident. Scene after scene springs into place until the climax of difficulty is reached and the knot is tied so that it seems impossible to escape. Then it is untied with wondrous dexterity. All this is the art of the story-teller and not the method of the historian. The things which interest the historian are not in the book. The book is connected with the Purim festival, and is supposed to give the historical account of its origin. This is denied by many modern scholars. It is held that Esther is a piece of historical fiction designed to set forth the importance of the Purim festival, as a national feast, and to teach the great lesson of patriotism. The feast of Purim, in all probability, had another origin than that reported in the story of Esther. But if patriotism is a virtue, and belongs to good morals in the Jewish and Christian systems, then the book has its place in the Bible, as teaching this virtue, even if everything else be absent.

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