A Christian pastor bridges faiths while teaching ‘forgotten books’ of the Bible
Book of life'This literature helps us live in the world we’re in'

A Christian pastor bridges faiths while teaching ‘forgotten books’ of the Bible

As a minister to people on society’s margins, Robert Williamson Jr. finds contemporary themes of immigration, mindfulness in the texts of Ruth and Ecclesiastes

Biblical scholar and author of 'The Forgotten Books of the Bible,'  Robert Williamson Jr. (Courtesy)
Biblical scholar and author of 'The Forgotten Books of the Bible,' Robert Williamson Jr. (Courtesy)

For many Jewish communities, the holiday of Sukkot means reading the Book of Ecclesiastes in synagogue on Shabbat. Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet, is a meditation on mortality, summed up by its opening statement that “all is vanity” in the face of death.

Yet it’s also a reflection on the cycles of life, with lines such as “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” made famous by ’60s rock band The Byrds in their hit “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Ecclesiastes is one of five separate books of the Hebrew Bible that are associated with five separate Jewish holidays, with a specific book being read on a particular holiday: Ecclesiastes on Sukkot; Esther on Purim; the Song of Songs on Passover; the Book of Ruth on Shavuot; and Lamentations on Tisha b’Av.

Collectively, they are called the Five Scrolls, or Chamesh Megillot. And according to a recently published book, they deserve much greater attention.

In “The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Reclaiming the Five Scrolls for Today,” biblical scholar Robert Williamson Jr. finds both contemporary relevance and timeless meaning within the scrolls.

Williamson, an associate professor of religious studies at Hendrix College in Arkansas, and the founding pastor of Mercy Community Church in Little Rock, makes his case through a unique approach. He connects each scroll to an issue from today’s headlines, linking the Song of Songs with sex and sexuality, Lamentations with Black Lives Matter, Ruth with immigration, Ecclesiastes with death anxiety and Esther with ethnic nationalism.

‘The Forgotten Books of the Bible,’ by Robert Williamson Jr. (Courtesy)

“What they’re doing in that literature can help us think about ways to live in the world we’re living in — the intersection of biblical literature and lived reality,” Williamson said. “The way I was able to do that was to ask, ‘What are the pressing issues of our day that the book speaks to?’”

He compares Black Lives Matter to the Daughter of Zion in Lamentations, who expresses righteous indignation over the destruction of Jerusalem.

“Her orientation to God is protest and anger and lament,” Williamson said. “She does not make a move toward hopefulness or toward submission. I suggest that’s a legitimate way to engage, even as a person of faith in the world — anger at things that deserve to be angry with.”

Black Lives Matter “is a contemporary piece I connect to,” he said, “not trying to force people who are angry to come to a resolution before they are ready, just letting anger and protest have space in the world. I worry some will struggle with that, but I think it’s really important.”

Some of the texts “could have gone in multiple directions” regarding which contemporary issue he connected them to, but “they kind of naturally raised issues of immigration, ethnic nationalism, protest, death anxiety and sex and sexuality,” he said. “Maybe they are perpetual human questions.”

Williamson’s interest in the Hebrew Bible and the Five Scrolls began when he was studying at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta almost two decades ago. There, he developed an interest in the Old Testament, which he said was not read or preached about much in the church he grew up attending.

Protesters attend a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York on April 29, 2015. (CC BY-SA Wikimedia commons, The All-Nite Images)

“I knew who Abraham was, who Moses was, who David was, but I had not dug in very deeply,” he recalled.

But he said that at Columbia, he benefited from two “extraordinary” professors — “Kathleen O’Connor, who taught me to read Lamentations, and Walter Brueggemann, a well-known Protestant reader of the Old Testament, as he would call it.”

“One thing they were able to do is show me how much textural change there is in the Hebrew scriptures,” Williamson said, “a lot of different ideas, different voices, not really competing with each other, kind of engaging with each other, internal arguments going on about what God is like, what people are like, and showing how to live in a relationship with God and each other.”

This set Williamson on a path toward further study of the Five Scrolls, continuing through PhD work in the Hebrew Bible at Emory University. He noted that God and humans have a different relationship in the Five Scrolls than in other books of the Hebrew Bible, with God not appearing at all in Esther and present only as a character in Ecclesiastes and Lamentations.

“God does not show up to part the Red Sea or hand down tablets from the top of a mountain,” he said, adding that God leaves it up to humans to figure things out.

The human perspectives in the Five Scrolls “resonate with people living on the margins of our own society,” he said. “The Book of Ruth as an immigrant woman trying to make her way in the Land of Israel, or thinking about Lamentations dealing with people who have experienced trauma, loss of city and community, trying to figure out how to start over again.”

Illustrative: Demonstrators, many of them recent immigrants to America, protest the lack of a deal on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) outside of Federal Plaza on January 22, 2018 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Ecclesiastes was harder to connect to. “When I first started reading Ecclesiastes, I found it really quite depressing,” Williamson recalled. “Its basic orientation to the world is that we are going to die, death cancels out everything we accomplish, you’ve got to deal with that.”

But, he said, “The more I lived with the text, it just was really honest about the nature of human existence. We do die. Five hundred to 1,000 years from now, no one is going to remember we lived. What do you want to do with the time we have? I’ve come to find it really beautiful, an emphasis on eating well, enjoying your life, spending time with the partner you love, understanding these are the moments you’ve got.”

Despite such revelations, he said, much of the world does not sufficiently appreciate the Five Scrolls.

“In Christian circles, the books themselves have been marginalized relative to the rest of the biblical text,” he said. “People don’t often read Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, the Song of Songs.”

His book attempts to make amends. “It percolated in the back of my head for a while, eight to 10 years,” Williamson said. “Finally I had the time and opportunity to put my thoughts down on paper.”

Illustrative: An Ecclesiastes scroll that survived the Holocaust found in western Poland. (photo credit: courtesy/Shem Olam)

Williamson has not had much spare time as a professor, a pastor and — most recently — a father. Last year, he and his wife, Lindy Vogado, became parents to daughter Anna Kate, now a 10-month-old. There are also the family dogs: Siduri and Ruth Bader Ginsbark. Siduri is named after an immortal alewife in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.

“Siduri says [to Gilgamesh], ‘You can’t live forever. Eat bread, drink wine, enjoy your life,’” Williamson explained. “It shows up in Ecclesiastes 9. It’s a good sentiment for a dog.”

Younger dog sister Ruthie, now almost three years old, was brought as a sickly seven-week-old puppy to Mercy Church.

“My wife and I tried to think of a name of someone who’s a little feisty and could overcome the odds,” Williamson said.

Somehow, between his many responsibilities, everything came together for Williamson’s book. He found inspiration from congregants at Mercy, a multi-denominational church with no fixed location and worshipers who include people living on the streets or in homeless shelters.

Illustrative: Members of Egypt’s Social Solidarity Ministry ‘Children Without Shelter’ program train homeless children in first aid in Cairo’s low-income district of Sayeda Zeinab, May 11, 2017. (AFP/KHALED)

“I realized that in my person, I was committed to books pushed to the edges, and also committed to a group of people pushed to the edge of society in Little Rock,” such as Donny and Fred, a gay homeless couple, Williamson said.

When Donny proposed to Fred before the congregation, he read Ruth 1:16-17, which begins with the declaration, “Wherever you go, I will go; and where you stay, I will stay.”

The couple “taught me how to read Ruth in a new kind of way, their own lived reality,” Williamson said. “Learning to pay attention to people outside the center as purveyors of wisdom and truth, who can speak into the center, is important to me.”

When consulting academic sources, “I was especially attentive to people who read from social locations other than my own as a straight white Christian man,” he explained. “Reading Jewish scholars was important to me, reading women scholars was important to me, scholars from ethnic minorities, LGBTQ scholars.”

Williamson is working to increase his understanding of the Five Scrolls in Judaism. While writing his book, he taught a class on Lamentations at a Little Rock synagogue, describing it as “an interesting experience for me.”

“Lamentations is at the core of the Jewish liturgical process around suffering and loss, the Tisha b’Av text,” Williamson said. “I felt like the text was very personal to the community in a way it was not personal to me, and so I was very cautious about claiming too much what I thought I knew about the text.”

Illustrative: Jewish men pray at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Tisha B’Av fast marking the destruction of the Temples, on August 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“They were very gracious with me,” he said. “It was nerve-racking for me to go into the Jewish community as a Christian interpreter of the Hebrew Bible scriptures and trying to teach anything.”

The learning process continued when Williamson taught another class in a synagogue, this time on Ruth.

“For me, she was an immigrant trying to make her way in ancient Israel,” he recalled. “To them, she was the first Jewish convert. There were a little bumpy conversations at the beginning. It can be both [interpretations] at the same time. It took a little while to figure out how to talk.”

Yet he’s continuing the dialogue. Next March, Williamson will discuss “The Book of Esther as Resistance to White Nationalism” at Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock.

“I don’t know how it’s going to go,” Williamson said, “but I’m really excited [that it will be] at Purim during the Trump administration.”

And he’s enjoying the chances he’s getting to speak about his book.

“I’m just excited people are reading my book and want to talk to me about it,” Williamson said. “I love the opportunity to get out and engage in conversation.”

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