Thursday, April 7, 2011

Now Reading: Pesherim, Companion to the Qumran Scrolls

Timothy H. Lim, vol. 3, Pesherim, Companion to the Qumran scrolls (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2002).


"The pesherim are some of the best-known biblical exegeses to be found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are scriptural commentaries named after the technical Hebrew term pesher (pl. pesherim) which characteristically appears in formulae that introduce an exposition of a biblical verse (e.g., 'the intepretation [Hebrew: pesher] of the matter is …')."

I purchased this book as part of a set through Logos. I read it last night in utter fascination. This book is more than an exegetical tool to unwrap the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), it is also a fantastic view into the second temple period and the community of Qumran.

Ever since visiting the DSS exhibit at the Minnesota Science Museum last year, I am particularly drawn to the findings at Qumran and the studies that continue to pour forth from this extraordinary archeological discovery.

I love writing. Or rather, I love to study writing. There is something magical about ink and paper that excites me. I must have ink in my veins as a result of my dad's print shop. Or maybe it's from my early experiments in calligraphy. I'm not sure of the source, but I seem to have the sickness. Even today I buy fountain pens and use them on a fairly regular basis. As much work as I do on a computer, I love to step back in time and pen my thoughts with liquid ink.

When I visited Israel several years ago I spent part of a day at Qumran. We saw the caves from a distance. We toured a cheesy replica of the scriptorium (or whatever the Hebrew name is), and viewed the baptisteries and the foundations of buildings. I was interested but not overwhelmed.

However, we later went to the Shrine of the Book, where the actual copies of the DSS are stored and displayed. As I stood inches away from the copies of the writing and I read the words from the scroll of Isaiah I was moved to tears. Goose bumps formed on my arms and the back of my neck tingled as I stood so close to words written on parchment sometime prior to the time of Christ.

So it was with some real interest that I opened this book on the Pesherim and read with delight and fascination about a time and place when the study and copying of God's Word were the calling of the Essenes.

Lim's book has a lot of helpful background information on the Qumran community, the dating of the scrolls, how they fit together. There is an interesting piece on paleography and some comparative studies of the handwriting styles. Unfortunately I only have an English translation of the scrolls so I couldn't do my own comparison. (I know, you can go online to the database somewhere and see some recent digitalized photos, but haven't pursued that yet.)

The Pesherim are essentially short, highly personalized commentaries on the words of Scripture. Actually, in some ways these are similar to my own discipline of devotional journal writing (SOAP: Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer), which you can read on this blog.

Each section begins with a recitation of the passage. (This helps validate much of the Old Testament Massoretic manuscripts, but also creates a lot of discussion. Are these copies of the actual words or are they paraphrases? For textual criticism, this is a very important distinction!)

Following the Scripture is an interpretation (Pesher is the Hebrew word that can be translated, "interpretation".) This is where my devotional writings and the Pesherim differ. The Persharim, according to Lim, offer a continuous revelation of prophetic speech rather than a merely contemporary fulfillment paradigm (p 24). The community at Qumran believed that the fulfillments of prophecies in Isaiah, Habakkuk, and Nahum, for example, were linked to events that were unfolding in their present day.

The role of the "Teacher of Righteousness" was that of interpreting the words of Scripture for the community. This example shows the pattern of the Pesherim as well as provides insights into this teaching figure. (The text of Habakkuk is italicized and the Pesher is normal font.)

I will take my stand to watch and will station myself upon my fortress. I will watch to see what He will say to me and how [He will answer] my complaint. And the Lord answered [and said to me, 'Write down the vision and make it plain] upon the tablets, that [he who reads] may read it speedily (Hab. 2:1–2) []. And God told Habakkuk to write down that which would happen to the final generation, but He did not make known to him when time would come to an end. And as for that which He said, That he who reads it may read it speedily (Hab. 2:2): interpreted this concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the Prophets (ll.1–2).

Other figures that are mentioned are "the wicked priest" and "the liar". These names are recorded in the writings, but are not necessarily identified with historical personalities. Like I said – fascinating glimpses into history.

I found myself drawn into the discussion surrounding Psalm 37, which is perhaps my favorite psalm. I have viewed this as David's autobiography in which he characterizes his life contrasted with Saul's. The Pesher on this passage links David with the "teacher of righteousness" and Saul with "the wicked priest". Not knowing about whom they were speaking leaves a gap in our understanding, but I can appreciate how they have personalized the text to their own setting.

As a 21st Century student of the Bible I struggle with their hermeneutic. It seems to make large assumptions of the text. Most of my work today is in uncovering the socio-historical-linguistic clues to understand the text and then bridge it to contemporary settings. They seem to circumvent the heavy lifting and get right to the personal application. That's sort of like the comments I always got from my math teachers, "Randy, show your work." Even if you get the right answer, sometimes it's helpful to know how you got there.

Although this text provides a wealth of background information into the time of Christ, it still is only from a small piece of the pie. It is a history seen through the eyes of a small sect that lived on the far outreaches of civilization at their time. They copied and wrote extensively, but only from a limited point of view. Very helpful, for sure, but it needs to be studied in the context of other extra-biblical material from the time.

In short, I loved it! I found it to be a captivating glimpse into a unique set of documents that reveal a lot about a unique group of scholars, writers, and devout followers of the Lord. I recommend that if you get it, you also have an English copy of the DSS. It is a technical book aimed at the graduate level, but not entirely unapproachable. I struggled at times, but even with my limited Hebrew, I got a lot out of it. And it sure beats nighttime reality TV.

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