Five Old Testament books you should get to know betterWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Ruth. Song of Songs. Ecclesiastes. Lamentations. Esther. To modern readers, these five short books appear to dot the Old Testament at random, like a handful of biblical vignettes. Wildly diverse in style and content, they seem to have little to do with each other or with the main flow of the scriptural narrative.
They do, however, share a few things in common. In the Hebrew arrangement of the Old Testament, they’re grouped together in a collection known as the Megilloth, or Five Scrolls. In modern Judaism, they’re read or sung in the synagogues during various feasts and holidays of the Jewish calendar.
At the same time, they’re among the least read books of the Bible, especially in Christian circles. They fly under the devotional radar and rarely appear in sermons. Some biblical scholars find them puzzling or even embarrassing. On occasion, their subject matter and interpretive challenges have led to questions about their place in the canon of Scripture.
And yet there they are by God’s providence, a part of his inspired Word that he’s preserved through the centuries. They bring choice and tasty morsels – some sharp and some sweet – to the banquet of biblical truth. As such, they’re worth getting to know better and savouring as part of our spiritual diet.
Ruth is read on Shavuot, or Pentecost, celebrating wheat harvest and the entry of Israel (and gentiles like Ruth) into covenant with God.
The best known of the Five Scrolls, Ruth is also one of the most appealing stories (and people) found anywhere in the Scriptures. A young Moabite widow who had married into a Jewish family, Ruth expresses her fierce devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi, and to Naomi’s God, from the outset:
Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you (Ruth 1:16-17).
Ruth’s faith empowers her to care for her bitter mother-in-law, even in the direst of circumstances. It leads to her marrying Boaz and becoming an ancestor of King David, and eventually of Jesus the Messiah. In the end, the other women in the story characterize her as being better to Naomi than seven sons.
The book of Ruth is often described as a pastoral romance, no less true for being beautiful and dramatic. Its dominant theme is kindness – of Ruth to Naomi, of Boaz to Ruth, of God to all of them. Still, it posed a problem for some Jewish scholars by presenting an immigrant Moabite woman as an ancestor of David and the Christ. And yet for all that, it offers a concrete portrayal of God’s heart toward widows and foreigners, and of his adopting, redeeming love that can’t help but overflow to others.
Song of Songs
The Song of Songs is read during Pesach, or the Passover, recalling the Exodus from Egypt and the relationship between God and his people.
If there’s one book of the Bible that gives fits to commentators, whether Jewish or Christian, it’s the Song of Songs. The book is notable for never mentioning God, as well as for its zesty language about sexual desire between young King Solomon and his new bride. Older writers tend to reduce it to a symbol for the relationship between God and his people, or between Christ and his church, while glossing over all the suggestive metaphors. One can almost feel the pages of their commentaries blushing.
Such an approach, however, does little justice to the evocative poetic imagery of the Song, with its gardens and fruits and spices, and its longings in the middle of the night. The poetry must be allowed to sing with its own voice, as a ringing endorsement of sexuality as a beautiful gift from God.
At the same time, it’s not a carte blanche for sexual expression without boundaries. The context is limited to the relationship between the bride and the groom. This is underscored three times by the bride’s warning to her unmarried friends:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases (Song of Songs 8:4; cf. 2:7; 3:5).
To be sure, the Song of Songs is also a metaphor for the love between God and his people, between Christ and his church. But this isn’t a cool, prosaic, almost platonic relationship, the way some people of faith have pictured it. According to the Song, it’s a bond marked by the highest possible levels of intimacy, passion and delight.
Ecclesiastes is read during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, symbolizing the ephemeral and transitory nature of life on Earth.
With its existential musings on the meaning of life, or lack of same, Ecclesiastes reflects a remarkably modern mindset. King Solomon, writing his memoirs as an old man, has done it all. He has explored everything life has to offer. He’s lived wisely and foolishly, thrown himself into work and pleasure, checked off several bucket lists’ worth of experiences.
His conclusion? From a strictly human perspective (life “under the sun”) everything is meaningless, a passing vapour without purpose. Whether good or bad, everyone dies the same way, just like the animals. There’s nothing new or original in the world. Everything that has been, will be again. And long after you’re gone, no one will remember you or anything you ever did. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s not the sunniest of books, to be sure. And yet there are shards of light in the existential gloom. For everything there’s a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Enjoy the simple things, eating and drinking, family and work, as good gifts from God. And remember, God is in heaven, and you’re not. The bottom line: fear God and keep his commands, because that’s the whole duty of humankind.
Beyond all this, Solomon also offers the key for grappling with the mystery of existence, and for understanding what drives the hopes, fears and longings of life in an uncertain world:
[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Humans are unique in all of creation. We appreciate beauty, reflect on the meaning of life, and yearn for something beyond it that’s out of our reach. In so doing, we demonstrate that we’re not pointless meat puppets but divine image bearers, fashioned by God with value and purpose. As C.S. Lewis argued:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
Lamentations is read on Tisha B’Av, the day of fasting for the destruction of the two temples by the Babylonians and the Romans.
Unlike the dark musings of Ecclesiastes, Lamentations is an impassioned elegy, a funeral dirge for the destruction of Jerusalem. And in contrast to the vibrant bride in the Song of Songs, Jerusalem is personified as an abandoned widow bereft of her children who have been killed or sold into slavery.
The tone of the book is marked by unrelenting grief, punctuated by graphic descriptions of the horrors in a besieged city. Children beg their mothers for bread, but are instead eaten by them for lack of food. But despite the grim subject matter, Lamentations isn’t merely a spontaneous outpouring of raw emotion. Rather it’s an artful set of five highly structured acrostic poems, the lines or stanzas of each poem beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The author, Jeremiah, acknowledges that God’s righteous judgment has fallen on the city because of the persistent sin of the people. He recognizes that God is the author of both well-being and calamity, and that the Babylonians are an instrument of judgment in his hands. He further calls for their punishment because of their cruelty and lack of regard for God and his people.
However, at the literal and figurative heart of the book, the central poem affirms a hard-won hope in the midst of disaster:
Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him” (Lamentations 3:19-24).
Sin and judgment aren’t popular topics at present, either in the church or in the culture at large. We either tend to ignore them, or we allow them to drive us to despair. But Lamentations presents a third alternative, a life of repentance in light of God’s faithful, ever-present mercies. It echoes with the words God often speaks to sinful people when they’re convicted by his holiness: “Do not fear.”
Esther is read on Purim, the feast day instituted as a memorial of Esther and Mordecai saving the Jewish people from extermination.
Along with Ruth, Esther is the only other book of the Bible named after a woman. Both books are in the form of dramatic narratives with a strong female protagonist at the centre.
But that’s where the similarities end. Whereas Ruth is a pastoral romance set in the grain fields of rural Israel, Esther is a tale of court intrigue set in the capital of Achaemenid Persia, one of the largest land empires in history. Both women are strangers in a strange land, but in reverse from each other. Ruth is a gentile who has joined herself to Israel, whereas Esther is a Jew in exile among gentiles. Most notably, while Ruth is brimming with expressions of faith in God, Esther doesn’t mention God at all, the only Biblical book (other than the Song of Songs) not to do so.
For this reason, Esther’s place in the canon of Scripture has been questioned more than any other book of the Old Testament. And yet, God’s fingerprints are all over this remarkable narrative. His hand is behind all of the events – the chance meetings, the dinner parties, the thrilling reversals – orchestrating deliverance for his people and ensuring that his Messiah would eventually come into the world.
The closest the book comes to acknowledging divine agency is in Mordecai’s admonition to Esther, after she shows reluctance to appear before the king uninvited:
Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:13-14)
That’s wise advice for all people of faith, at all times. We may not understand what’s going on in the world, or even in our own lives, but we know that God is sovereign, working all things for the good of his people. He simply calls us to remain faithful, and to trust him.
When approaching the Bible, there’s always a risk of creating a canon within the canon, of cherry-picking favourite books while ignoring the rest as being of secondary importance. There’s also the opposite risk of homogenizing the Scriptures, of treating every word of every book as if it carries the same weight.
The five short, eclectic books that make up the Megilloth challenge both of those perceptions. No one would suggest that they’re at the core of the scriptural narrative, but they are an essential part of it. Their unconventional tone and content reveal angles and insights that stretch the boundaries of our theology. They’re a reminder that truth and beauty don’t always come in the forms we expect or are even comfortable with.
If nothing else, the Five Scrolls demonstrate that God is far bigger than our conception of him, that he doesn’t fit neatly into our theological boxes. And they underscore the fact that God loves wondrous variety, and has woven it everywhere into his created order, even into his written Word.
Indeed, these little books are like five colourful, diverse threads in the larger tapestry of divine revelation. They invite us to savour and enjoy their stories and their art, as well as the God whom they reveal, each in its own unique way. We honour the Lord and feed our souls when we accept that invitation.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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