It’s a common plot of novels and movies: while the superstitious public clings to outdated religious beliefs, people in power compete for access to ancient manuscripts which reveal the powerful, if shocking, truth about the past. Think The DaVinci Code. Indiana Jones movies. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Irving Wallace’s The Word.
Between attending sessions and meetings at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting, I’m living in Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. I say “living in” because that’s how I interact with books. I live in them and they live in me—some for a few days, some for decades.
In a recent New York Times review of the new movie 2012, Manohla Dargis twice links the destruction-of-the-world movie with the Bible.
She describes the unlikely pairing off of survivors as the “Noah’s ark theory of onscreen hookups (two of every kind),” and her final tag claims that the movie depicts “Old Testament style destruction served with a smile.”
A recent New York Times article reports that the U.S. military has turned to a new resource to help soldiers name and heal from the trauma of war: the very old literature of Sophocles.
The Pentagon has provided $3.7 million for an independent production company, Theater of War, to visit 50 military sites through at least next summer and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” for service members.
It’s one thing to acknowledge that the book of Psalms is written as poetry. It’s quite another to consider what difference the poetic style makes to interpretation of the Psalms. What if we encountered Psalm 139’s claim that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” not in private devotion or from the mouth of a lector in church but in a context more like that of def jam? This great piece is Marty McConnell’s “Instructions for a Body.”
This semester, my students in the Introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament class at LTS are working with new textbooks: John Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2007) and Johanna van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). We also read from other sources (the Global Bible Commentary, the Women’s Bible Commentary, the Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, and some internet pieces), but Collins and Bos have been our primary introductions to the Pentateuch.
Does it matter what order you read psalms? Would it matter if Psalm 22 were really Psalm 122 instead?
Most folks would answer “no” to those questions. The book of Psalms is usually treated as a semi-random anthology of poetry and prayer. Individual psalms may differ from one another (some are laments, some are praise, some praise the king, etc) but those genres run throughout the Psalter.
Read it front to back →
back to front ←
from the middle outwards ← →
It really doesn’t matter.
Why bother reading the laws of the Bible if you’re not going to live by them?
That’s the question that comes up–explicitly and implicitly–every year in teaching the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Students, especially those from more progressive-to-liberal traditions, can’t figure out what to do with the laws in Exodus 20-23 (commonly called the Covenant Code or the Book of the Covenant). They are shocked to learn that Exodus 20 softens rather than condemns slavery and recognizes but doesn’t protest the sexual vulnerability of female slaves. They interpret “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” literally as a barbaric approach to justice. I can see the cultural and religious superiority kick in: aren’t we glad we’re more sophisticated than this?
Over at the Lingamish blog, David Ker has been talking about marriage and about gender roles within it.
He describes his own position as complementarian, though to read his description of complementarianism you wouldn’t know he’s talking about the same thing as many other folks. Traditionally, complementarianism has argued that women and men have natural, God-given roles that complement one another: women are designed by God to bear and raise children and to accept the authority of their husbands, while men are designed by God to lead–in home, church, and society. Men and women may be equal in God’s eyes, say complementarians, but their roles are determined by God and are not the same. Complementarianism offers a way to claim that scripture treats women and men equally while still denying to women roles of authority over men. The Visionary Daughters, for example, espouse this understanding of gender roles. (see my blog post)
One of the fascinating, if maddening, aspects of biblical interpretation is that the story embraced by one community as the greatest good news is often rejected by another as the worst bad news. Take the Exodus story, for example.
First, the good news.
For Jews, the Exodus story tells of God’s compassion on the suffering Hebrews and the divine willingness to act on their behalf. Built into the story, especially in Exodus 3, is also the promise that this band of refugees will become a “people” special to God’s heart; this God will be the object of their worship and will bring them into a land of milk and honey. The Exodus is commemorated yearly in the Passover, where through song, story, and symbolic foods God’s act of liberation is celebrated. This video comes with a light-hearted song, but it explains the symbolic foods pretty well.
Exodus plays a major role in the African American tradition. Songs, preaching, and speeches over the decades have pointed to this narrative of slaves freed from oppression as a model for the people’s own story. (A good survey can be found in Allen Dwight Callahan’s, The Talking Bible.) In many spirituals, the distance between Israelites and African Americans is erased: the latter are the former. “Go Down, Moses.” “Wade in the Water.”
Liberation theology within the mesoamerican context also mined the Exodus story for its liberative potential. George Pixley and others interpret the biblical story as one of class struggle–of peasants resisting oppressive social structures. “Hebrew” is a marker for those in situations of material deprivation, and the story affirms God’s “preferential option for the poor.” (Pixley’s classic book is often hard to find; but his position is well summarized in his “Exodus” entry in the Global Bible Commentary.)
The Exodus as the founding story for the Jewish people. The Exodus as proof that slavery is not God’s intention for humanity. The Exodus as affirmation that what matters to God is not just the state of people’s souls but also the physical conditions in which they live. What’s not to like about such powerful stories?
What’s not to like is what happens next in the story. Those who are freed from oppression, says the biblical narrative, claim possession of a land inhabited by others. Exodus is followed by Joshua. Exit is followed by entrance. Going out is followed by charging in.
And that’s the bad news. Many in the modern world, especially those in postcolonial situations, have seen themselves not as freed Hebrews but as the Canaanites forced from their land.
In the North American context, Native Americans have been treated as Canaanites and at times explicitly called such, as in sermons preached in the colonial period. The title of Robert Warrior’s article sums it up well: “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians.”
African biblical scholars speak powerfully about how the Exodus was used to justify the white colonization of the continent and support the apartheid system in South Africa. Dora Mbywayesango’s entry on “Joshua” in the Global Bible Commentary underscores just how damaging the legacy as been.
Palestinian Christians struggle to establish their own claims to the land of their ancestors in the face of such stories. Naim Ateek’s classic statement of Palestinian liberation theolgy, Justice and Only Justice, understandably takes on the Joshua narrative and argues for reclaiming the Christian tradition of treating the Promised Land in spiritual and not Zionist terms. Many Christians throughout the Middle East struggle to find any meaning in an Old Testament that as been interpreted by most Jews and Western Christians as settling the question of Jewish claims to the land of Israel. I talked about the problem–inadequately–in my lecture at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut several years ago.
Exodus as the prelude to extermination. Exodus as the prelude to colonialism. Exodus as the prelude the loss of homeland. What’s to like?
Exodus: Good news or bad news?
For me, as a biblical scholar interested in what difference biblical interpretation makes in the real world, this is where the conversation gets interesting.
From my own standpoint, this question is not one that can be answered by a simple quoting of biblical passages. As I’ve suggested, the tradition itself acknowledges that Exodus and Joshua are linked. Rather, the story’s “goodness” depends on where you stand in the text, either through self-identifcation or by having been unchosen identification as the “other.”
I am not willing to ignore or minimize how diverse people hear this text. I’m not willing to dismiss the suffering of ancient or modern people by saying, “if it’s in the Bible it must have been God’s will.” But neither am I willing to dismiss the testimory of those who have found this story meaningful in times of oppression.
Maybe the first step in taking seriously the power of texts like these is to get interpreters to quit fighting about whose interpretation is right–whose side the Bible is on– and to own up how this powerful text can be used in oppressive and liberative ways. If we can acknowledge that, then maybe we can own up to our own reponsibility for our actions instead of hiding behind the biblical text.