Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther -- known as the Five Scrolls in Jewish tradition -- are books of the Bible that are centrally involved in the liturgies of major Jewish holidays including Passover, Sukkot and Purim.
But according to Hendrix College religious studies professor Robert Williamson Jr., when it comes to Christian tradition, the texts don't show up often enough in sermons and Sunday School.
"[They're] pushed to the side in Christian practice, at least in my experience," Williamson said. "They're in our Bible, but they are very rarely preached or taught or ... even talked about."
It's Williamson's interest in bringing attention to these books of the Bible that resulted in his latest book, The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today.
Released in August, The Forgotten Books of the Bible is his first work intended for a nonacademic audience, and he is teaching the book as a six-week class at Little Rock's Second Presbyterian Church, where Williamson's wife is an associate pastor. He is also the founding pastor of Mercy Community Church, where he leads and serves a congregation comprised largely of members who are homeless and currently meet inside Little Rock's Christ Episcopal Church.
Williamson's interest in the Five Scrolls dates to his time in seminary school, when a Lamentations scholar with whom he was studying gave her perspective on the story of those who remained in Jerusalem after its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, in the fifth century BC.
Lost and in despair, the people expressed anger, disbelief in the loss of their city and the shattering of their belief -- termed Zion Theology, according to Williamson -- that since Jerusalem was the location of God's Temple, he would never allow it to be destroyed.
"She was reading that book as a theology of witness, [that] we need to pay attention to the suffering of others simply by acknowledging that people are suffering," Williamson said of his teacher. "That is in itself a way of ministering to them or comforting them, [and] I thought that was a really beautiful idea.
"And so I got kind of hooked on this possibility, that these little quirky books of the Bible that don't really fit into the big sweep of the tradition have ... these interesting interventions that they can make."
Williamson debuted a set of ideas about the Five Scrolls in a lecture he gave several years ago at Presbyterian Kirk in the Pines Church in Hot Springs Village, and developed them further in talks he gave at other locations, including Little Rock's Temple B'nai Israel and First Presbyterian Church in Conway.
When churches study the Old Testament, known in Judaism as the Hebrew Scriptures, the focus tends to be on "big traditions" like Genesis, Exodus or the Prophesies of Isaiah, said Williamson -- texts "[that] point the way forward to Jesus," but that he believes that since the Christian tradition was given the Bible as a whole, that all the texts in it have value.
"All of these texts tell us something about God," Williamson said. "So Ruth is helping me think about immigration. Esther is helping me think about ethic nationalism and politics. Lamentations is helping how I think about protests. Song of Songs is about sex and sexuality, which is clearly related to the #MeToo movement that is happening.
"While it is dealing with ancient texts, it is simultaneously dealing with urgent issues in our own time and trying to show how these texts can help us think more deeply, ask better questions or re-examine our positions."
Lamentations, a text which has five characters including that of Daughter Zion -- the personification of a wounded Jerusalem -- is no different.
"To me, what the book of Lamentations has to offer in particular is the idea that voices that disagree with one another can still be held together in a community," said Williamson, who noted that no one voice in Lamentations is declared to be correct. "It seems to be saying, 'We need to find ways of valuing the community more than we value always agreeing with each other.'
"In our current climate we often have a difficult time relating to people who have different views than we do religiously or politically ... and I feel like Lamentations is suggesting we need to figure out a way of holding the community together, even across our differences."
The Book of Lamentations is usually read during Tisha B'Av, the holiday of fasting associated with Jerusalem's destruction. It appears just once in the three-year cycle of readings, as does Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Esther; Ruth appears twice.
The understanding of his faith (Williamson is Presbyterian) emphasizes a God who is "more merciful than we can imagine and therefore always bringing in people that we ... tend to think are beyond the scope of God's love or God's reach ... so I think that reaching out to the edges is formed in my faith."
Williamson said he didn't make that connection between what he called his focus on "marginal books" and his work with the members of Mercy Community Church until after he'd completed the book, but that Mercy Church's informal mission statement is "Because we believe that Jesus Christ welcomes all people, so do we."
"[It's] kind of interesting that the things that I tend to be drawn to are voices that don't get much of a hearing in the public sphere," Williamson said. "So to me I think that that's the connection of, 'I work and worship with people who are pushed to the edge of society, and I study difficult books that are kind of pushed to the edge of the biblical canon.'
"That seems to be kind of something that motivates me in multiple areas of my life: How do we reach out from the center and embrace more voices in our community? I don't know where that comes from, but I think it's a consistent theme, and that is the thing that I care about."
The class Williamson is leading on Forgotten Books of the Bible is being held at 9:50 a.m. on Sundays through Nov. 11 in Second Hall of Second Presbyterian Church, 600 Pleasant Valley Drive in Little Rock.
Religion on 10/20/2018
Print Headline: Author: Five Scrolls have modern interpretations