By Barb Arland-Fye
When I first began reading the Old Testament, without guidance or commentaries, I sometimes came away from the experience mystified.
Who was speaking in a particular Scripture — God, a prophet or someone else? Who was the author of a particular Scripture and when was it written? Why did some passages of Scripture conflict with others? Why did God seem so vengeful toward his chosen people and jealous of gods that weren’t real?
A few of these questions lingered, even as I began classes two months ago in St. Ambrose University’s Master of Pastoral Theology program with the deacon candidates of the Davenport Diocese, their spouses and others.
Since then, I’ve been on an incredible journey of learning that is currently focused on the Old Testament.
For this weekend’s class, our assignments included writing exegesis reports based on Scriptures that Assistant Professor of Theology Micah Kiel had assigned. Exegesis is a process of interpreting a text by paying close attention to such factors as context, cultural and historic details, religious traditions, characters, form and the characterization of God.
“Let the details of the text build the content of what the text communicates,” Kiel told us.
We are to use “patient engagement” in studying the text in our efforts to understand what the author intended to convey.
Exegesis has been challenging for a reporter/editor like me, who is accustomed to using multiple sources to tell the full story.
How can I convey the depth of Jeremiah 31:7-9 by patiently studying those few verses?
But one aspect of exegesis, fortunately, is to pay attention to what happens before and after the particular text. When I did that, the author’s intention became clearer in my mind.
While exegesis is not a scientific process, it is one that gives me an opportunity to enhance my exploration of who God is and how he has and continues to interact in the lives of human beings.
For example, in the passages leading up to and including the comforting words of Jeremiah 31:7-9, I discover a God who has been with the Israelites throughout their exile, and who tells them he loves them deeply and will relieve them of their suffering. God promises to wipe away tears, to lead his people to brooks of water, on a level road so that none shall stumble.
To me, the message speaks to God’s unconditional love for us no matter how many times we fail and sin against God. But something else I took away from this passage was God’s intention that we find fulfillment in a community of faith-filled believers who follow the road God has prepared for us. In a world reeling from war, natural disasters, a global financial crisis and widespread hunger and poverty, God is telling us we need to work together to help one another to make the world a better place.
Participating in this class has made me reflect more on the Scriptures we’ve been assigned to read, even when the Bible is on the bookshelf. I noticed that a song we sang at Mass last Sunday, by Michael Joncas, is based in part on Jeremiah 31:3, a passage I had read as part of my exegesis exercise.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love,” the song begins. “With age-old love I have loved you,” the Scripture reads.
My understanding of God in the Old Testament is evolving, and that’s a good thing. Our final paper for this class asks us to answer one question: What do I think the depiction of God is in the Old Testament?