The takeaway: thought provoking though under-supported book on the moral dimensions of reading the OT theologically
Richard S. Briggs, director of biblical studies and hermeneutics at Cranmer Hall, St. John’s College at Durham University, explores moral aspects that the Old Testament Scriptures demand from their implied readers. After an introductory chapter outlining virtue ethics he spends 5 chapters illuminating 5 different “test cases” of virtues for the purpose of “broadening and deepening our understanding of the kind of reader one should be in order to be best situated to receive, understand, and embody the life-transforming concerns of the Old Testament” (44). Each virtue is explored through a biblical character. I will take one of these aspects as an example of his treatments:
- Humility (Moses; Numbers 12) Briggs discusses various interpretations of the Moses-the-most-humble-man-on-earth passage (12:3) 1) Moses is not humble, 2) Moses’ humility related to his wife, 3) Moses’ humility before God and he applies these studies to the task of hermeneutics by noticing that readers should be both humble as they speak for God, “The contribution of Numbers 12:3 suggests that humility before the text translates as saying that spiritual life is one key to faithful handling of Scripture…to pursue God, through all the range of spiritual disciplines available, including but not limited to the unique discipline of exegesis, if one wishes to see how the text speaks in the wider world of life before God” (67).
His other character traits include: wisdom (Solomon), biblical trust (Hezekiah), interpretive charity (Ruth and Elisha), and receptivity (Isaiah).
I found his discussions of the biblical characters/virtues to be thoughtful, however, I do not think he adequately demonstrated why these characters or virtues are important for the act of reading. Few will quibble with the virtues that Briggs extols but why are they necessary for interpretation in particular? Unlike Alan Jacobs who linked a requirement for love/charity on the part of the reader with loving your neighbor (and defining a book as a neighbor), Briggs does not provide a link between these figures and modern readers. However, the book is still worth a read for his creative and engaging reflections on the biblical characters included.