Ancient Interpreters and the Bible’s Historical Contexts; Ideologues and Moderates

1.  In my reading today of Rolf Rendtorff’s The Old Testament: An Introduction, I noticed the following on page 123:

The incorporation of apocalyptic texts into the prophetic books shows that there was a connection between the two for the final authors of the Old Testament books.

I wonder why.  Was it because the prophetic texts described the defeat of God’s enemies and the establishment of some sort of paradise, and that was consistent with the message of the apocalyptic texts?  Of course, the final authors probably interpreted the prophetic texts apart from their historical contexts.  The prophetic texts were discussing specific historical settings—in which Assyria and Babylon were influential.  Once the global-political situation changed, however, perhaps Assyria and Babylon were viewed by interpreters as allegories for other nations.  We see this sort of thing in the Septuagint, in which nations that the prophets discussed were replaced with the prominent nations of the translators’ day.  Such a mindset may have influenced those who incorporated apocalyptic texts into the prophetic writings.

But there were also interpreters who tried to be faithful to the original historical contexts of the prophets.  One rabbi said that Hezekiah could have been the Messiah, had he played his cards right (my paraphrase).  And so Isaiah’s descriptions of the paradise that he hoped would occur in his day were not off-base: they just weren’t fulfilled because of Hezekiah’s blunders.

2.  Last night, I watched two episodes of the West Wing late into the night (which was probably why I got up at 11 a.m. this morning).  The first was called “The Supremes”, and it was from the fifth season.  And the second was called “Let Bartlett be Bartlett”, and it was from the first season.

In “The Supremes”, President Bartlett is trying to fill a vacancy for the Supreme Court, to replace a conservative justice who has passed on.  Some of his aides really like liberal Judge Evelyn Lang, played by Glenn Close, but they fear that she won’t fly before the Republican Senate.  And so Bartlett leans towards nominating moderate Judge Brad Shelton, played by Robert Picardo, the holographic doctor on Star Trek: Voyager.  Then, Josh Lyman has an idea: why not encourage an elderly liberal justice to retire, assuring him that the liberal Judge Lang will take his place.  Then, there will be two vacancies.  For the other vacancy, the President can appoint someone whom the Republican Senators recommend.  The name that the Republicans propose is ultra-conservative Judge Christopher Mulready.

The episode has some classic moments, such as the scene in which Mulready is critiquing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) from a conservative perspective, while Lang defends it from a liberal point-of-view.  That should show that ideologies are not always predictable!  Then there’s the scene in which Mulready is debating affirmative action with Charlie, and he actually offers Charlie some tips on how to make a better pro-affirmative action case.  “I should be writing some of this down!”, Charlie says.  That reminds me of a slogan that’s on the back of the Opposing Viewpoints books: “Those who do not know their opponents’ perspectives do not entirely understand their own.”

But Mulready’s meeting with President Bartlett is awesome!  Mulready says that Bartlett can appoint a moderate like Shelton, but the thing about having a conservative or a liberal on the bench is that you’ll get that lone dissent that will inspire a future law-clerk to make history—such as John Marshall Harlan’s harsh criticism of Jim Crow, or Potter Stewart’s rant against censorship.

And yet, Shelton himself was impressive in his own meeting with President Bartlett, and it wasn’t just because of my love for Star Trek: VoyagerShelton made a good case for judicial moderation—for judging on a case-by-case basis, with regard for the “eccentricities” of each case, rather than approaching each case with a heavy-handed ideology.  When Bartlett asked Shelton for his stance on affirmative action, Shelton responded that he did not know, for he’d have to look at the specific case that came before him.  I was waiting for Bartlett to pounce on Shelton like he was a dunce.  Instead, Shelton offered an even-tempered, reasonable defense of judicial moderation.

Then there was the episode, “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett”.  The point of that episode was that President Bartlett was not aggressively promoting liberal values, for he was afraid of losing the next election.  At the end of the episode, his Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, encourages him to be himself: to take unpopular liberal stands and to elevate the political dialogue and debate in America.  Some battles they’ll lose, Leo says, and they may lose re-election.  But, from now on, it’s time to let Bartlett be Bartlett!

Both of these episodes reminded me of what I was watching on ABC’s This Week yesterday morning.  I believe it was Cynthia Tucker who was taking President Obama to task for trying to be all things to all people.  She contrasted Obama with Ronald Reagan, who had to deal with a serious recession in the first two years of his Presidency.  In the midst of all that, Reagan continued to proclaim his faith in free-market economics—tax cuts, deregulation, the whole biz.  Obama, however, is not doing that sort of thing for his own viewpoints.  Instead of aggressively defending his unpopular stimulus, he’s saying that we should balance the budget to avoid economic catastrophe, the sort of message that his conservative detractors are proclaiming.  Whereas Reagan stuck with his ideology even when it was unpopular and didn’t appear to be working, Obama is equivocating about his agenda.

(I should mention: “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett” was based on the slogan, “Let Reagan Be Reagan”.)

It’s good to have moderates who are open to different ideas, but it’s also nice to have people who rock the boat and make us think.  And yet, those who try to rock the boat can be inflexible at times, as they make the perfect the enemy of the good.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Politics, Rabbinics, Religion, Television, West Wing. Bookmark the permalink.