Archaeology of the Word
Light of Torah offers biblical reflection tools for parishes and grassroots communities, inspired by traditional Jewish approaches to Torah.
The phrase ‘Archaeology of the Word’ describes this method well. Like an archaeologist digging into layers of soil to uncover hidden treasures, we dig gradually into God’s Word, sifting layers of text, examining this piece and that, and rejoicing when we discover precious insights. Clues on the ‘surface’ of the text direct the reader to a spot to ‘dig’.
Some examples that have fired the enquiries of the Rabbis (and ours too!) are:
In Exodus 18, reference to Jethro as Moses’ ‘father-in-law’ is repeated 13 times in just 27 verses. Why the constant repetition?
USE OF NUMBERS
In the Bible numbers are often symbolic. E.g., the number 3 can suggest the entry of divine power into the story. When we read, ‘On the third day…’ what might the text be saying?
Questions in the text are often meant to be answered by the reader. In Genesis 3:9, the Lord calls to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ How do I answer if the Lord asks, ‘Where are you’ (physically, spiritually...)?
In Numbers 22 the name of the pagan sorcerer ‘Balaam’ may be derived from bala (‘to swallow’), and am (‘nation’). So he is the ‘one who swallows nations’, or perhaps bli am, ‘without a people’. How does this knowledge affect our grasp of the text as a whole?
“May the Lord bless you and keep you...” (Num. 6:24). Most English versions present Aaron’s blessing in poetic form. But even more clearly in the Hebrew we notice that the three poetic lines are of increasing length. What can we learn by pondering this structure?
PUZZLING WORDS, PHRASES
In the Crossing of the Red Sea, wouldn’t you expect God to tell Moses to split the sea before urging the Israelites to go forward into it? Why the puzzling word order in Exodus 14:15-16?
In Genesis 22, as Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son, there is a steady, almost robotic, rhythm underlying this terrifying activity. What can we make of this?
‘Abraham started-early in the morning’ (Gen.22:.3). Why the early start? Why might the time of day be noteworthy?
In the Sacrifice of Isaac (Gen.22), there is no mention of Sarah. Why is the wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac, absent in a story with such drastic familial consequences?
REFERENCES TO OTHER PASSAGES
In Leviticus 11 we hear: ‘creatures that swarm’ … ‘every creature’ . Where have we heard such terms before? Genesis 1, the first creation account! Why would a passage from Leviticus about ancient dietary laws be reminding us of the creation of the world?
Inspiration from Jewish methods
Christian Scripture tools, inspired by Jewish tradition
“What ought to emerge now is a new respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament... Christians can learn a great deal from a Jewish exegesis practised for more than 2000 years.”
- Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, 2001. See Preface by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Traditional Jewish interpretative insights into Torah are a rich source of learning for Christians. Jewish approaches to the Bible put us in touch with a tradition that was dear to the heart of Jesus, himself a Jew. These methods, honed over millennia via oral and written processes, offer interpretative tools that are new to most Christians.
For an accessible introductory article, read:
Kevin McDonnell, 'Traditional Jewish Methods of Bible Study for Christians: Reading the Bible as Jesus Read It' (first pub. 2005 in Grace and Truth 22,1, 45-53). Read it here.
Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures In the Christian Bible (2001)
What relations does the Christian Bible establish between Christians and the Jewish people? The general answer is clear: between Christians and Jews, the Christian Bible establishes many close relations.
Firstly, because the Christian Bible is composed, for the greater part, of the “Holy Scriptures” (Rm 1:2) of the Jewish people, which Christians call the “Old Testament”;
secondly, because the Christian Bible is also comprised of a collection of writings which, while expressing faith in Christ Jesus, puts them in close relationship with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures. This second collection, as we know, is called the “New Testament”, an expression correlative to “Old Testament”. (no. 1)
Without the Old Testament, the New Testament would be an unintelligible book, a plant deprived of its roots and destined to dry up and wither. (no. 84)
Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion. Both readings are bound up with the vision of their respective faiths, of which the readings are the result and expression. Consequently, both are irreducible. (no. 22)
Source: Vatican website