Interview with Heath Thomas
I've got some really great colleagues who teach Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern, and one of them, Heath Thomas, agreed to the following interview. Enjoy!
1. You have just published a book called "Until He Looks Down and Sees": The Message and Meaning of the Book of Lamentations. What led you to write this book, and what makes it a unique contribution to Old Testament studies?
First, I would like to offer thanks to Dave Black for inviting me to talk about my work – what an honor. So many thanks, Dave! Great opening question. I wrote this book because I have found that Lamentations has been neglected in the life of the Church. Historically, of course, this has not been the case. In the traditions of the Church, Lamentations has been read in the services for Holy Week, particularly from Wednesday to Good Friday. We see beautiful implementation of Lamentations in these services…reflecting on the debilitating reality of sin that led to the Suffering One, Jesus Christ, bearing that sin on the cross. The text of Lamentations was brought to bear on this historical reality in the services.
But before doing this research on Lamentations, of course, I did not know any of this. It was for me, a “dead text,” except when I heard hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness” which comes out of Lamentations 3:21-24.
Another reason I wrote this book is because I found that Lamentations draws together three things which I find unavoidable in life: poetry, suffering, and prayer. I love poetry. And Hebrew poetry is something that draws me in again and again. Lamentations is beautiful and complex Hebrew poetry. Lamentations also deals with suffering – a reality that is unavoidable in life in general but inescapable for the faithful follower of Jesus. How does Lamentations engage the question of suffering? It does so through prayer. I have found in Lamentations a deep well from which to draw on the issue of prayer.
It is the issue of prayer that leads me to the most significant contribution that I hope my book makes. Lamentations teaches spiritual formation. It teaches God’s people how to relate to God in times of disaster. The prayers of Lamentations shape life before God. I like to call the little five-poem masterpiece of Lamentations an “encounter mechanism” – God in His goodness has given this little gem to drive His people to an encounter before the very throne of God, together in prayer.
2. Many commentators see Lamentations as reflecting the period immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Is this your understating also? How does understanding the historical background of an Old Testament book help us to better grasp its message?
I do believe Lamentations was composed between 587-539 BCE. Placing Lamentations in this timeframe is very helpful as we read the book theologically. First of all, this book was written in a time of great upheaval in the life of Israel. The unifying political, social, and theological structures and symbols of Israel were shattered. How would life continue? How would God’s people relate to Him and to one another? Lamentations gives a glimpse of how God’s people negotiated this challenge. And the book in part reveals God’s answer: when the rainbows of paradise lie shattered on the ground, God offers the opportunity to address Him in vibrant prayer.
3. Most scholars believe that Lamentations is comprised of several separate poems. Do you agree?
I believe Lamentations displays five separate poems. That is unavoidable – there are five distinctive poems in the book, each displaying the alphabetic acrostic structure (except Lam 5, which has some indication of an acrostic, but not to the degree of the other poems). BUT, the poems are not to be read as if they do not belong together. They do belong together and were written in a span of roughly fifty years. They were designed to be read as a whole. This is true even for Lamentations 3, which is often thought to belong to a different historical and theological milieu than Lamentations 1, 2, 4, and 5. No, Lamentations 1-5 are unique poems, but are meant to be read corporately. That is how they were composed and so you can’t slice and dice the poems from one another. To do so would be like murdering the book in order to dissect it. It shouldn’t be done.
4. You argue that Lamentations should be viewed as Christian Scripture. What do you mean?
When I say this, I am wrestling with the fact that Lamentations is but one of many books in the Scriptures. So Lamentations is part of the distinctive testimony of God, but not in and of itself the full word. To get that, you need to read the full Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. When we do, we discover that some Old Testament books interact with Lamentations directly at an intertextual level (like Isaiah and Zechariah). The cries of God’s people are answered by God in Isaiah and Zechariah. In these books, God speaks comfort to the uncomforted cries of Lamentations.
Further, when we look at the book in the whole testimony of Scripture, we see that Israel’s longing for consolation in Lamentations is ultimately responded to by Jesus, who is the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25-35). He provides comfort, consolation, and the removal of sin and disgrace that is so present in Lamentations. This is why, no doubt, that the Church historically has used Lamentations in Holy Week.
Further, it seems to me that in light of the person and work of Jesus – his life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension – we do not attempt to read Lamentations like an ancient Israelite. Rather, the Church looks at what God has done in the past as He responded to Lamentations (in Isaiah and Zechariah), and then looks at how God has offered the final response to Lamentations in the Christ-event. He deals a death blow to the disgrace of sin, the shame of exile, and the tyranny of pain.
Once we see this interaction, we see that Jesus ultimately provides the end to these things that Lamentations surfaces. Interesting, though, is that Jesus’ work presents a “now/not yet” picture to the end of sin, death, and suffering. In Jesus, all things are made new (Rev. 21:5), but we’re waiting for that new day to be here in its fullness. It’s sure to come but in the meantime, we pray “come quickly Lord Jesus!”
5. On a broader scale, what place do you think rhetorical analysis has in Old Testament exegesis?
As I understand it, rhetorical analysis recognizes the best way to understand biblical passages/texts is to note their structure, style, and persuasive force. Rhetorical analysis is helpful because it gives a close, exegetical focus upon the text, but also allows the text to say what it wants to say. Rhetorical analysis as a general approach allows the Scriptures to engage the reader with the variety of things that the Scriptures do: to give information, to promise, to persuade, to announce, to convict, offer thanks, or confront, to draw one to prayer, or to bless. I find it extremely helpful.
Interestingly enough, allowing the Scriptures to challenge its readers with the full range of possibilities is not a new thing. The great translator and English reformer William Tyndale, in his Doctrinal Treatises and Introduction to Different Portions of the Holy Scripture, identified something like eighteen different functions of the Bible, most of them beyond merely providing accurate information. One of them was to foster communion…I think this is one of the major functions of Lamentations. Rhetorical analysis gives us some methodological tools to begin to explain and understand this phenomenon.
6. Tell us about your own academic pilgrimage and especially what studying in the United Kingdom was like.
My own journey into the academic world was somewhat strange – I guess we all can say that!! Academics are a strange lot (God loves us anyway). I originally was training to be an English teacher. But in my second year in college, I made one of about a dozen trips to Israel. The black-and-white pages of the Bible became full-color-digital-pictures for me. I began an intensive reading process through the gospel of Luke. At the same time, I began Hebrew language. So, I fell in love with the land of Israel – the stage on which the story of the Bible unfolded. I fell in love with the person and work of Christ – the one on whom the story centres and has its climax. And I fell in love with the Hebrew language – the language of the foundational texts for Jesus and the NT Church (of course the LXX fits in there as well, but at that time I did not know that!!).
From there, I finished my BA English lit degree, and went to seminary to do an MA in theology, with an emphasis in Old Testament. I loved the work. I took about seven languages, some ancient and some modern, as well as a wonderful set of book-specific classes in the original Greek and Hebrew, as well as some very helpful classes like Personal Evangelism (which was a real joy for me), dogmatics, and biblical theology. It was then that I began to look for doctoral programs for which I could continue studies.
Now I did not take this lightly. In fact, I had profs prodding me here and there. I have a couple of spiritual mentors (that I have had for about 20 years) that I prayed with through the decision. And I searched far and wide for the best fit for my interests: Hebrew poetry, theological interpretation, and underexplored OT books in Evangelical scholarship. I spent about a year in research looking for the best professors who could supervise along my interests and who would be able to take me on. I made exploratory trips to Oxford, Edinburgh, Cambridge, and Cheltenham (UK). In the USA, I contacted scholars from Maryland to Louisville KY.
When it was all said and done, I decided that the best fit for me was the research PhD overseas, particularly in the British system. I liked the self-starting research environment with no classes. I liked that I would have a major supervisor with whom I would work closely for three or four years. I also preferred this because I had already done an academic MA that prepared me for this kind of work.
Gordon Wenham, a major Pentateuch scholar had established a major center of biblical studies at the University of Gloucestershire over about twenty years, had wooed Gordon McConville, lecturer at Wycliffe Hall University of Oxford, to Gloucestershire. I knew of his work and ended up thankfully being supervised by Prof. McConville. He is an incredible scholar, churchman, and (I am honored to say) friend. And incidentally, he has a new Festschrift for him coming out in April 2011 dedicated to him by former colleagues and students (a T&T Clark publication). Definitely a must read.
My second supervisor was Dr. Paul Joyce, lecturer at St. Peters College, University of Oxford, and now chairman of the Theology faculty Board at Oxford. His push was for me to go theological with my research. I have found him to be a sharp thinker and encourager. And a world-class Lamentations specialist. And a friend. That’s one of the privileges of the British PhD system, I think. I know it is different for everyone, but for me it gave the opportunity to see these scholars and really be mentored by them in and out of the school contexts. I have found it to be extraordinary.
Now I can say that being trained in that way was not really my doing, not my smarts, not my skills. I worked hard and all, but when I look back, the whole process was orchestrated solely by the Lord, and I am where I am because of his good grace. So I give Him the glory.
But it was very hard and not terribly glamorous. Sometimes drudgery. But God called Jill (my wife) and I to do this work. It was our calling, and so we just did it. Many nights crying (yes crying) because of the difficulty. We served in two churches while in the UK. I preached regularly. I had children overseas, and count it as one of my greatest blessings. Through hardship (my son in hospital with no family within 5,000 miles, loss of job, financial stresses, new birth of daughter with no family around within 5,000 miles, marriage issues, and general new way of life), my wife and I thrived. Maybe it was because of the hardship that we thrived. God was really good to us. I would encourage those who are willing to go ahead and do this kind of important work. You will find God faithful even when things seem dark and impossible (or at the very least dim and unlikely to work out well).
7. Finally, where should aspiring Old Testament scholars go for their Ph.D. today?
This is a really difficult question. The state of the field is moving towards theological interpretation. Studying with Gordon McConville at Gloucestershire is a fabulous option. Oxford is always good, but very traditional in orientation. Durham University (UK) is definitely worth a look. Richard Briggs and Walter Moberly are producing some phenomenal research. Some interesting and exciting work is being done at Trinity College, Bristol (UK), which has a first-rate OT faculty. You cannot go wrong there. Each of these schools are good. Now of course, you see that I prefer the UK programs. That’s my own leaning as this is how I was trained. For more traditional research, you can of course go to the bigs: Harvard, Oxford, Johns Hopkins, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen.
If a student wants to stay in North America and is interested in theological reading of biblical texts, then I would suggest looking at (our very own) Southeastern Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and Wycliffe College (University of Toronto). Another option would be to look at the Paideia Centre for Public Theology in Canada, which offers PhD’s through the University of Bristol. The faculty there is first rate and is doing some extraordinary work.
That gives a broad spectrum, but that’s my thinking on it at the present!! Again, thank you to Dave Black for the opportunity to chat together…
October 30, 2010
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.