I attended a drama evening staged by the Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre on Friday night. I arrived well in time, and as I settled into my seat, I realized that sitting right beside me was a former professor of mine.
Dr. Waldemar Janzen taught the Old Testament course I took at Canadian Mennonite University in 1971. I told him what an impression that course had made on me in my first year of religious studies. One of our assignments was to do a book review and I had to read the book Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan by Albright.
I remember how shocked I was to learn that the Israelites had been so heavily influenced by the mythology and religion of the Canaanites and Phoenicians who lived around them. There were many similarities between the Israelites’ god Yahweh and the Canaanite god El and the Canaanite hymns to El appeared to have been adapted by Israel. I was also taken aback to find that the creation story in Genesis had many similarities with Canaanite creation myths. I remember going into Dr. Janzen’s office one day and telling him how upsetting it was for me to discover that the Israelites may have sort of cobbled together a creation story using the stories of those people living around them. I was pretty naive and this was my first time studying the Bible academically. I had never given the origins of the Biblical material much thought or any study. Dr. Janzen was very reassuring. I left his office with a new realization that it had been the purpose of the story that was the primary concern. The Israelites wanted it known there was only one God and that God had created the world. The possible source of the story was not as important as its message.
Dr. Janzen had several often repeated themes that ran through our Old Testament class. I took that class over forty years ago but I haven’t forgotten them. One was promise and fulfillment and the other was the important link between geography and faith. For the essay question on our final exam Dr. Janzen asked us to write about the geography of our own faith. How had the places we and our families had lived impacted the development of our faith? I remember how much I enjoyed thinking about and answering that question. Having grandparents whose faith had sustained them when they were forced to leave their country of birth for a new one, and growing up in a relatively conservative, almost exclusively Mennonite town, there were certainly geographical influences that had impacted my faith. ( I’d like to write that essay now again. This time I would describe how living and working in Asia influenced my religious ideas.)
Dr. Janzen had also taught my daughter-in-law Karen and remembered her because she had been such a good student. He asked about my family and told me what his own children were doing. It turns out both my son Joel and his son were working on masters degrees at the University of Ottawa at almost the same time.
What next? Dr. Janzen told me he had finished an autobiography that traced the early years of his life called Growing Up in Turbulent Times. I certainly want to read it. I looked it up today and discovered that it has received excellent reviews. He told me he was also working on a response or commentary speaking to a recently published piece by another scholar that suggests the Old Testament should be censored, I suspect to purge it of some of its more blood thirsty and explicit materials. Dr. Janzen, is suggesting helpful ways to look at those sometimes troubling parts of the Old Testament. That sounds like it would be interesting reading as well.
Dr. Janzen has written many books perhaps most notably a book about Old Testament ethics and a commentary on Exodus.
Dr. Janzen was obviously a good teacher. Four decades after I was in his class I still remember some of the things I learned from him. He is also an interesting person to visit with and a thoughtful listener. I’m glad I happened to be sitting beside him on Friday night.