Whither Procrustes? The Old Testament as a Standalone Narrative

In rhetoric there is an often invoked concept of a Procrustean Bed, in which ideas are likened to a Greek myth of a character named Procrustes who showed his “wisdom” and “strength” by either lopping off limbs or stretching out limbs to make one the right size for his bed. The torturous images conjured have always spoke to me about what we can do with certain ideas or people. We can often add on to our perception of something or someone to make it seem fitting to us when it is considered deficient to some degree. Conversely, we can take away aspects of people or ideas when we find that there are unwelcome characteristics of those people or concepts and we would rather not think about those realities. In reflecting on the Old Testament, I would argue that many Christians including myself have been quick to adopt the Procrustean model in reading the Old Testament. This can be seen both with regard to people and spiritual concepts that are often stretched or selectively edited to fit our own preconceptions, particularly in the light of the New Testament. The implications of thinking this way are then drawn out from a pastoral perspective, in that we can then see ways in which we are Procrustean not only with the Old Testament but with our 21st century world. By considering the Old Testament as a standalone narrative, I would argue that the pitfalls of a limited and Procrustean mindset can be evaded, which not only helps our understanding of it as Scripture and literature, but may aid in our human formation to see each person as unique and worthy of consideration on their own.

The famous dictum attributed to Augustine that the New Testament is concealed in the Old Testament and that the Old Testament is revealed by the New Testament is worthy of consideration. The distinct authors, literary genres, cultures and ages leads one to see different perspectives on God and the world that has similarities to those in the New Testament, and at the same time those differences can arguably be seen most clearly in the stories of people such as Judith or Job. In seeing the New Testament concealed in the Old Testament, however, it is possible that the differences that come to us when we read the Old Testament as a standalone text can be lost due to our New Testament focus. The messages that are forced to fit a New Testament image may align perfectly with each other, but is this done at the expense of the message of the Old Testament itself? In our discussions of the Old Testament, we can see how the love of Christ is seen in the loving kindness seen in Ruth or the suffering of Job. This speaks precisely to St. Augustine’s phrase where Christ is concealed in books like Ruth and Job. However, this correlation is hardly a perfect one to one correspondence. When the focus on seeing the New Testament becomes all consuming, the message of the Old Testament can be lost (or at least diluted) in a Procrustean manner, and I would argue that this has implications with how we go about understanding the Scriptures and even living our daily lives.

One can be arguably Procrustean with the Old Testament in that the message and story of a particular person is one where we may omit aspects of that person’s life to make them more similar to the New Testament and ultimately to Christ. In the case of Ruth, I would argue that we are in this case of cutting off someone’s feet to make them fit the Procrustean bed. The union of the Moabite woman Ruth to become family to her mother in law Naomi, where her love makes the God of Naomi the God of Ruth speaks of the adoption of all nations into God’s plan of salvation (viz., Galatians 3:28). The loving kindness of Boaz as a kinsman redeemer has reflections of the love of Christ for His church who is His Bride (viz., Ephesians 5:25). All of these mystical allegories have been familiar to my understanding of this book of the Old Testament as I saw the Old Testament holding the New Testament concealed in its bosom. But did I really allow the story of Ruth to speak to me? In some ways, the answer to that question is no. For example, a common way of reading Ruth is to gloss over the narrative of Naomi’s counsel to go into the threshing floor and wait for Boaz. It is very clear that Ruth chapter 3:7-14 includes some affection and expression of sexuality prior to an as yet future marriage (which occurs in chapter 4) that could make moral theologians uncomfortable. Without coming to a point of reconciling the saintliness of Ruth and Boaz in light of this story, I want to emphasize here that this is an example of taking a story of salvation and union with the God of Israel and cutting out the parts that do not neatly fit into the context of this being a foretelling of the New Testament reality where all nations can be united to the God of Israel through the Church. Instead, there is a tendency to water down the text here to make the interaction in the threshing floor more familial or friendly affection in character, and yet our discussion of covering feet and the discussion of Boaz’s “cheerful heart” show that that would be an act of white washing the narrative. As such, I believe that we are being Procrustean with the story of Ruth by removing unwanted components of the story that are central to her union with Israel via both Naomi and Boaz.

One can also be Procrustean with the Old Testament in that the message and story of a particular person is one where we may add on to certain aspects of their life to make them more similar to Christ and the New Testament. I believe that this act of addition can be seen with people such as Job. In some ways his story is one where we add on or stretch him out to allow for him to fit into our theological Procrustean bed. The book of Job is a deep and sometimes puzzling account of a righteous man who suffered much and accepted much of that suffering in the presence of his wife who asked him to forsake God and his friends who tried to rationalize the whole experience. The story concludes with a dialogue between Job and God and ultimately Job is blessed greatly for enduring the suffering and the story ends relatively happily. In the Byzantine lectionary, some of the key passages of Job are placed in the spotlight during Monday through Friday of Holy Week. As we unite ourselves to Christ and the journey to the Cross during this season of the liturgical year, this important book in the Old Testament is a key point of reflection. Again, St. Augustine would praise this act of seeing the New Testament concealed in the Old Testament, and I would join him in doing so. Nevertheless, in seeing that Job suffered much as did Christ, we may miss something fundamentally different about Job as compared to Christ. In suffering, Job did not sin (Job 2:15) which speaks of the spotless lamb of God who is Christ our God (1 Peter 1:19), and it is clear that Job suffered so much more than the average person to show Satan that Job is a faithful servant no matter what befell him (Job 2:4). But the devil is in the details, as they say. Job 2:16-37 begins a section of this trial where Job and his 3 friends all talk and pray to God about the trials and tribulations that Job is facing. At times Job Himself complains and he even curses the day that he was born. The discussion considers many reasons as to why Job is suffering, from the idea that Job has sinned to the idea that suffering is just what we deserve, but these words of complaint and condemnation are silenced by the Lord Himself who begins to speak. In demonstrating the sovereignty and might of God in Job 37-41, Job speaks out in Job 42 with very stark words confessing his utter inability to truly comment or respond, closing by saying “therefore I depreciate myself, and I waste away, I regard myself as dust and ashes.” After these words we go to the story of God blessing and chapter 42 closes the book of Job, but in many ways I believe I have operated under a methodology that glosses over the starkness of Job’s words. It seems striking that Job does not have the vision of Christ who suffered and yet after dying is risen and then shows his disciples the message of resurrection and joy (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20). Job is blessed materially and his friends sins are forgiven (Job 42:10) but Job ends his religious journey in silence and hope is less clear than with Christ. As a recovering Procrustean, I believe that I took the clarity of Christ as Son of God and added that on to the narrative in Job to make the stories of Old and New Testaments more aligned.

What are the implications of having this mindset of molding Old Testament figures into perfect corollaries of a New Testament figure or Christ Himself? Two key consequences come to me as I have studied the Old Testament this year. First, with regard to the Old Testament people themselves, I have realized that in many ways I dehumanized them by adding or subtracting from their stories to make them fit my New Testament notions of the ideals. That Ruth may have done something in the area of sexual ethics that would not be counseled by some Apostles or Christ Himself for some reason is intuitively unsettling, and yet this is not done uniformly it seems. For example, the story of David and Bathsheba can be rationalized because of his strong repentance exemplified in Psalm 50. Be that as it may, the narrative of Ruth includes a story of her love that is not considered a perfect expression of love according to moral theology but that does not negate the reality of her story. Job’s lack of full understanding about God and his concluding statements on faith being focused on the silence at not understanding the mystery of God and his emphasis on repentance as opposed to restoration with clarity as is seen in resurrection may be called lacking. But it may also just be one of many rough edges wherein one can do as St. Augustine said and see the New Testament concealed in the Old, but that does not mean that the 1:1 correspondence is accurate. What might be missing in lacking the rough edges where there is a lack of 1:1 correspondence in Ruth or Job? They may be imperfections between Old and New Testament saints, but these may also simply be other manifestations of how the journey of faith may exist between two real people who are being aligned. In missing those uniquenesses, my faith experience runs the risk of being less manifold and three dimensional in its understanding of what the Scriptures can show to my eyes. If instead I am less Procrustean and allow each person’s life in Scripture an encounter with the invisible God, the visibility of these particular people will bring more dimensions to my encounter with the Scriptures.

Closer to my heart and daily life is the fact that being Procrustean is something that can be done with any person, in Scripture or otherwise. Pastorally, my ability to see Christ in my brothers and sisters will be hindered if being Procrustean is a status quo. Appreciating the overlap between the love of God and those who are transformed by it should not, I believe, be a filter that hinders my ability to see that love of God when a person is doing more or less than what I understand God’s ways to encompass. If I am Procrustean with my brethren it is possible that I would not be able to love them because I feel some sense of lack or discord between who God is and who my neighbor is. My appreciation of the Old Testament as being a standalone document and therefore not a 1:1 correspondence with the New Testament reminds me of the uniquenesses of people made in God’s image, and calls me to love even when those uniquenesses would force me to either add or take away from that person’s life to make them “just like” Christ. Realizing that I myself am also not “just like” Christ as well allows me the freedom to live without losing hope that Christ is presently in my brothers and sisters no matter if they seem to lack something Christ has or have some sin that Christ lacks. After all, salvation is a journey. Pastorally I believe that will allow for a deeper connection with all people and will provide a fertile ground for more faithful Diakonia in Christ.

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