Life and Language in the Old Testament

I’m currently reading a little treasure of a book entitled “Life and Language in the Old Testament” by Mary Ellen Chase. I happened upon this book by chance in a used book store on the South Side of Pittsburgh. Having no first-hand knowledge of this author I was skeptical at first, but I took it to be a low stakes gamble with a price tag of 8$. I’m always eager to read something different in the realm of Old Testament studies, and this book did not disappoint.

Chase is no theologian, and when her comments do broach the realm of theology there is the slight hint of higher-critical leanings. However, her great strengths are her appreciation for the literary uniqueness of the Old Testament and her grasp of Hebrew thought patterns. She writes like a novelist, with vivid, descriptive language, and has an unmistakable love for the rich literary features of the Hebrew Bible. The categories and tendencies of Hebrew thought and language, so different from out own, are masterfully described with enthusiasm that is contagious to the reader.

Chase’s approach is an important one. In the Reformed tradition we tend to see any given Hebrew text as a theological nut to crack, the seed of which will come out in the form of a Shorter Catechism question. Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, all Scripture carries deep theological freight, but I can not help but think we often under appreciate the literary perfections of the Hebrew Bible, its vibrant language, and its pure power to stir the imagination. This is the level at which Chase writes, and her work fills a gap that many Old Testament theologians have missed. Her literary analysis does not rehash the common structures, such as parallelism and chiasm, but instead tries to uncover the spirit of the text.

For instance, she writes on the nexus between wonder and worship in the Old Testament; how awe over the creation leads to worshipful reverence for the Creator

“The sense of wonder and the instinct for worship are always recurring in narrative, prophecy, and poetry. These are closely related, or better, interrelated. Wonder, the sense of astonishment and mystery, is in the impressionable and sensitive mind complimented and at length completed by reverence and worship. Worship, the elevation of that mind to the Source of wonder, is thus inseparable from wonder itself.”

Chase brings this perspective to the creation account, which is refreshing. When Creation comes up I usually, with Pavlovian instinct, brace myself for the text to be convulsed by speculative over-analysis. For an amusing contrast to the quote below, bear in mind Meredith Kline’s tedious philosophizing about a “two register cosmology.”

“The reader of the first chapter of Genesis misses most of its power unless he is aware of the wonder latent in the simplicity of its words. It is as though creation itself were so incredible that any elaboration would dim the stupendous achievement. Nor is ‘wonder’ absent from the mind of God…which is so vast, at least in the awed tone of the writer, that after each day He sees what He has done as good, and at the close of the sixth day, when He sees everything that He has made, as very good.”

Chase discusses several dimensions of Old Testament thought that are not often treated, such as conscience, imagination and consciousness. She also draws out interesting comparisons between Greek and Hebrew narrative.

In all, Chase’s book fills an important role. It is a helpful supplement to the typical treatment of the Old Testament by commentators and theologians. She is neither theologian nor exegete, but she draws out the vibrant spirit of the text and highlights the literary and conceptual features that exegetes often overlook.

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