Why I Preach from the Hebrew Bible
Most Christian preachers do not make much use of the Hebrew Bible. Black church leaders are the main exception to this rule. As a result, many churchgoers know little of the Hebrew Bible beyond a few beloved psalms, the exploits of legendary heroes, and, alas, their certainty that it testifies to “a wrathful God.” Well-traveled parishioners who have had direct experience of many other preachers have confirmed for me how unusual it is for a church to drink deeply from the Hebrew Bible during the worship hour.
Not so in the congregations I have served. There, the Hebrew Bible sounded a major chord along with the New Testament. We journeyed through Genesis and Job, the Psalms and the Samuels, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, prophets major and minor, the histories, and more. Very much hangs on whether a Christian congregation is offered spiritual nourishment from Jewish scripture, or whether, by contrast, silence teaches Christians to ignore Judaism and the Jewish people.
My own journey with this question began in seminary in a crisis not of faith, but of vocation: for a time, I felt impelled to relinquish the aim of becoming a Christian pastor. In spite of the anxiety that attends any passage with “no direction home, like a complete unknown” (as Bob Dylan sang), in that clearing, a path to learning Judaism opened for me. My Hebrew language professor infused lectures and practice with love for the tradition. I studied Hebrew texts with scholars whose knowledge and passion formed one light. I experienced Jewish cultural and religious practices, so far as seemed fitting for a non-Jew. I developed a deep appreciation of Judaism and goodwill and humility toward the Jewish tradition and people. My journey through this landscape revealed to me a mystical path for apprehending truth. It is this: adorned in a thousand names, love bids the lover discover the unknown love. This is the blood in the body of true religion, not the known, but the unknown.
Drawing on these insights, I would like to offer up seven reasons why other Christian pastors ought to join me in preaching from the Hebrew Bible.
Reason #1: Jesus Was a Jew
Not seldom, a Christian reminds others, “After all, Jesus was a Jew.” However elementary, this is the first reason to preach from the Hebrew Bible and the only one many will ever hear. This brief commentary is often offered with gladness by a Christian who wants to emphasize unity with, not separation from, Jews and Judaism. The phrase is also meant to chasten those who seem to think Jesus was sent straight from heaven to earth unburdened with so much as a history lesson about the land he would land in. The ugly fact is that while ignorance of Christianity’s birth within Judaism does not necessarily degenerate into anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism does necessarily feed on ignorance of Jesus the Jew. The preacher of the Christian gospel who cares about the people’s lack of knowledge must keep close in mind the rutted, bloody roads of violence against Jews throughout Christian history—and ride a different road.
Preachers need not shame people for their fears and ignorance. This only drives the fears deeper, which are better left by the wayside. Preaching frequently from the Hebrew Bible can clear a path along which anyone unused to seeing Jesus as a Jew can simply join in celebrating the manifold voices of the Jewish people’s devotion. These are beginning steps in wisdom for a Christian. In my experience, those who first took these steps long ago seem not to mind retracing them. A vaster prospect beckons.
Reason #2: Jesus’s Bible Was the Hebrew Bible
In the New Testament, Jesus speaks several times of “what is written in the law and the prophets.” If a preacher teaches that this phrase refers to the Hebrew Bible, the people learn a little something. If, however, a preacher teaches directly from “the law and the prophets,” she can propose a great deal more. Provided the preacher does not force the texts to point to Jesus, teaching from the Hebrew Bible invites Christians to learn something of what lay in Jesus’s heart and mind—to step in paths of thought in which he stepped. It invites Christians to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there.” It invites Christians to see in Jeremiah and Ezekiel models of how a prophet acts and speaks in public. It invites Christians to “let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you” as “we tried to sing the Lord’s song when we remembered Zion” and to long that “instead of the thorn, there shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier, myrtle; that it be to the Lord a memorial, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
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Phelps, Stephen H. 2015. Why I Preach from the Hebrew Bible. Tikkun 30(2): 43.