The Great Story of Israel

Bishop Robert Barron’s latest book on the Sacred Scriptures is both intellectually honest and deeply formed by the Church’s interpretive traditions.

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Great Story of Israel”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Great Story of Israel” (photo: Public Domain)

“The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed,” wrote St. Augustine on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. What the great Church Father meant by this statement is that the two testaments, even if separated by centuries and different languages, cooperate as a coherent whole. The Hebrew Bible, not only in its prophecies but even in its stories and wisdom literature, makes sense of the New Testament; the Old Testament, especially in its strangeness or obscurity, takes on new, wonderful meanings in light of Christ.

Bishop Robert Barron understands the importance of this patristic exegetical method, which he expertly applies throughout his new book, The Great Story of Israel: Election, Freedom, Holiness. In this first of what will be two volumes, Bishop Barron covers Genesis to Esther, as well as 1 and 2 Maccabees, which amounts to everything except the prophets and wisdom literature. In a sense carrying on the important work of Pope Benedict XVI’s three-part series on Jesus, Barron’s book amounts to a tour-de-force that navigates patristic and medieval commentaries, contemporary scholarship and practical application.

Also following the path of Benedict XVI, Barron in his introduction acknowledges that the historical-critical method, often criticized by conservatives for undermining trust in the authenticity of biblical texts, possesses some virtues. For example, the historical-critical method helps us to remember that as much as the Scriptures are divinely inspired, they are also historical documents written in particular contexts. The method also blunts the tendency for “wildly imaginative or irresponsibly speculative interpretations of biblical texts.”

Nevertheless, the historical-critical method has its limits. For one, an overemphasis on the human authorship of the Bible can obscure the reality that God remains its principal author. Overemphasizing each individual book’s contextual uniqueness can also undermine our understanding of Scripture as a coherent, divinely-inspired whole. Moreover, the more we approach Scripture with an exclusively critical eye, the more inclined we are to read it as something archaic and irrelevant, rather than something that speaks to us now.

Although Barron is willing to draw upon the interpretive benefits provided by the historical-critical method, his is not primarily a work of historical criticism. It is, rather, like Benedict’s work on Jesus, a scholarly work that is both intellectually honest and deeply formed by the Church’s interpretive traditions. Each chapter not only draws on contemporary biblical scholars such as Robert Altar, John Bergsma, Brant Pitre and N.T Wright, but Church Fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine, Ephrem the Syrian, Irenaeus, John Chrysostom and Origen. And, showcasing Barron’s impressive intellectual curiosity, he regularly cites not only prominent Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II, but Protestants such as Karl Barth, Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich are regularly cited.

Barron’s ability to shift between these many sources gives his exegesis a welcome freshness, while still being grounded in the Catholic tradition. It also enables him to address some of the most important challenges to Christian teaching, such as Nietzsche’s “will to power” or those offered by the “new” atheist of the early 21st century, such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

For example, in his study of Genesis, Barron refutes a position commonly associated with Hegel and Tillich which classifies Adam and Eve’s disobedience as sort of maturation out of naiveté and inexperienced innocence. Rather, following St. John Paul II, eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents a thoroughly wicked act that aims to claim something that belongs uniquely to God. Indeed, the serpent’s words that man and woman will be “like God” represents not simply the negative side of free will, but an attempt to define good and evil, and thus reality itself, according to man’s own whims. To wit, the rest of human history has reflected this human inclination to play God.

We see this only a few chapters later, when one particular group of people attempt to “build [themselves] a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens,” so that they could “make a name” for themselves (Genesis 11:4). As Barron explains, this is a vivid example of men attempting to ascend to, and even supplant God. “Therefore, Promethean projects, designed to grasp at divinity and inflate the ego, are spiritually poisonous,” writes Barron. One need not think hard of contemporary examples of this: surrogacy and in vitro fertilization enable humans to dictate the genes of children, while transhumanism seeks to alter human nature itself.

Readers with a more apologetic bent will be interested in Barron’s take on the controversial and much-debated passages discussing “herem warfare,” in which Israel is divinely commanded to entirely eradicate various pagan people groups inhabiting Palestine. Barron explains the most popular interpretations within the Catholic tradition, which include St. Irenaeus’ articulation on “divine pedagogy,” in which God reveals himself in ways that Israel in its “spiritual infancy,” as it were, is able to understand. Another interpretation is that offered by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, which more straightforwardly argues that because all people merit death through original sin, God is free to take their life in any manner he so chooses.

Finally, there is the interpretation associated with Origen of Alexandria, according to which the accounts of invasion and conquest are best read as allegories of a spiritual struggle. This hermeneutic is the one Barron prefers. I find that choice dissatisfying: if certain chapters of Joshua are to be read allegorically — even though the book describes the historical conquest of Palestine by the Israelites — then what prevents us from interpreting all of the book allegorically? Moreover, what prevents us from reading all of the Old Testament this way?

Elsewhere, Barron quite persuasively argues that the flaws of Israel’s heroes underscores the likely historicity of the Old Testament. Consider, for example, Abraham’s cowardice before the pharaoh in Egypt. Or think of David, who at one point during his conflict with King Saul, fights for Israel’s greatest enemies, the Philistines. And, most famously, there is David’s affair with Bathsheba, which results in David murdering one of his most loyal soldiers, Uriah the Hittite. These are not stories one typically fines in the annals of ancient Near Eastern kings.

For its scholarly and patristic depth, its theological coherence, and its impressive practicality, Bishop Barron has done a great service to the Church in his very accessible text. Readers should look forward with anticipation to the second volume of The Great Story of Israel.

Blessed Mother painted by artist Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Museu da Casa Brasileira.

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