Several times a year, I have an opportunity to discuss stories from the Bible with Christians. My synagogue community, Kehilat Yedidya, is unusual among Orthodox synagogues in occasionally hosting Christian groups for Friday night services and dinner. This time the customary dinner table discussion of the section of the Torah-the Five Books of Moses-read in synagogue that week continued when the Catholics returned to Yedidya ("Kehilat" means "community") after our Saturday morning services.
The Catholics who visited Yedidya last month had come to Israel to study the Gospel of Mark in the framework of a program called Ecce Homo, conducted in a convent in Jerusalem's Old City.
Such ecumenical discussions of Bible stories can be both rewarding and frustrating. Jews and Christians share the text of the Old Testament, but come from different reading traditions. It's impossible to say that there's a hard and fast rule, and each such discussion contains its share of surprises. But in general, in my experience, there are two major distinctions.
First, of course, we each read the stories against the background of our own religion's history, theology, and spiritual concerns.
Christians are often focused on issues of faith and belief, whereas Jews tend to be more focused on actions. Second, Jews who have engaged in serious study of biblical and rabbinic texts are trained to do what literary scholars call "close readings." We are trained to pay attention to word usages, syntactical structures, and parallels between the text we are studying and other texts. We also read the texts along with a battery of traditional and modern commentators. Christians often find such readings too technical, even boring, and prefer to take a broader view of the narrative.
The differences can sometimes mean that each group is baffled, and sometimes annoyed, by the way the other group reads the text. But, with some patience and experience, such discussions can often enrich each side, by allowing it to see the story from a different perspective.
The story of the spies (Numbers, chapters 13 and 14) is a good one for illustrating these differences, because on the surface the story seems to be one of simple equivalencies-faith brings divine reward and lack of faith brings divine retribution. But, like all Bible stories, it is much more complex and ambiguous than it seems at first reading. The discussion that took place in Kehilat Yedidya last month is worth considering, because it illustrates these different ways of reading and understanding a scriptural text.
Were former slaves forbidden entrance to the Promised Land?
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When the spies return, they stand before Moses and Aaron and the people of Israel and report: "We came to the land where thou dist send us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. But the people are strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are fortified, and very great" (Num. 13:27-28). They report that here are giants in the land, and each part is populated by a different people. Their conclusion is that the Israelites cannot conquer the land.