A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Occasional Posts

The Bible as a Book

My life has been filled with books. My father, a U.C.C. pastor, always was reading 2 or 3 novels at a time and filled the shelves of our home with hundreds of volumes (including The Great Books series).  My mother, a 10th grade English teacher, piled textbooks and classics on the kitchen table after dinner, consulting them over and over as she meticulously graded papers.

I am their daughter.  Even as the world goes more digital, I read bound books. They fill my home study.  Stacks loom beside the bed and couch.  Strays find their way to the car, the kitchen, on the steps. Under a paperweight on my desk, a dozen slips of paper list books that I want to track down.  In this time of economic crisis, I am grateful to be employed and to enjoy the luxury of having my own office at work, one with yards and yards of bookshelves, and easy access to a good library.

It’s not surprising that I entered college as an English major or that when I turned to the academic study of religion it was not to the phenomenon of religion itself but rather to a religious book.  Better said, I gravitated to the collection of diverse and complex and fascinating books that make up the Bible. And it’s not surprising that I read these books in much the same way that I always read–paying attention to the writer’s craft, how she transports me into another world, teaches me while entertaining, pleases and/or infuriates me.

As a modern person, I encounter the Bible as a book.  It is a fixed collection of words that I can read and reread and talk about with other people.  In church, we can all follow along as the lector reads from Isaiah 6, or in class I can expect that when we all turn to Genesis 3 the students and I are all reading about Adam and Eve.

And yet, as a scholar, I am very aware at how recent the fixed nature of the Bible is.  It surprises many Christians to learn that the Bible as particular words bound between two covers is a relatively late phenomenon in religious history.  Most folks have a general sense that Old Testament books were originally written on scrolls and have been told that religious stories circulated orally before being written.  But few have encountered the concept that ancient Israel had no Bible and for much of its history no scripture.  Much of the material was written very late and what was available probably didn’t circulate widely.  Although Protestant Reformers interpreted Isaiah 40’s affirmation that “the word of the LORD remains forever” as referring to the Bible, that was not what the ancient author had in mind.

It shocks many of my students to learn that no original of any Old Testament (or New Testament) book survives.  That what we have instead are copies of copies of copies, no two of which are identical.  While the early buzz about the Dead Sea Scrolls was that these first-century manuscripts of the Bible are miraculously similar to the Hebrew text we have today, that judgment turned out only to be true for the large Isaiah scroll.  Later manuscripts found at Qumran, such as that of 1-2 Samuel, differ significantly from the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew tradition on which most English translations were based before 1950.

Many Bible dictionaries and internet sites claim that all this textual diversity and all the debates about which books belonged in the Hebrew Bible were settled in one fell swoop, that at the rabbinic council at Jamnia in 90 C.E. the Hebrew Bible was “fixed.”   But more recent research makes the picture fuzzier.  Jamnia didn’t function like the authoritative councils of Christianity, and for hundreds of years Jewish writings about the Bible continued to list books in different orders.  Some have even suggested that the Jewish Bible wasn’t truly “fixed” until the invention of the printing press, when book technology forced things to be settled.

What all this means to me is that when I read the Bible as a book I am not reading it just like ancient people did.  As much as I can try to understand their world and imagine how they might have heard these words, I have to remember that I read in my own cultural context.   Unlike ancient people, I read the Bible as book that I can stack on a shelf alongside my other books, a book that my tradition says is authoritative, a book that people debate on the editorial pages of my local newspaper.

That awareness keeps me humble about claiming to know how ancient people thought or felt.  Or at least I hope it does.  It also leads me to think about how the packaging of the Bible, metaphorically and practically, affects its interpretation.




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Holocaust Remembrance and Easter

April 21, 2009, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Hebrew Yom haShoah.   A time to remember the 6 million Jews who died in Nazi Germany, the day is a national memorial day in Israel and is observed around the world.

For Christians, the contrast between Yom haShoah and Easter (observed just a week and a half before) is stark.  The beauty of Easter–the lily, the butterfly, the chorus of alleluias-is assaulted with images of emaciated children, piles of bodies, and smoke rising from the crematoria.


auschwitz fence

But the Christian Easter needs Holocaust Remembrance Day.   It serves as a reminder that theology can kill as well as bring life. In the history of Jewish-Christian interaction, more pogroms and other anti-Jewish violence have taken place during Holy Week than during any other time of the year. Throughout history, the claim that Jews are Christkillers has fueled not only anti-Jewish sentiment but also anti-Jewish violence.  Elie Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest weaves a compelling story of how this happened in the past.  A quick look at neo-Nazi websites confirms that it does the same in our own time.

Problematically, Christian anti-Judaism finds its roots in the Bible itself.  In Matthew’s passion narrative (ch 27), the Jews are reported to have willingly accepted the guilt for Jesus’ death-for themselves and for their children. In Matthew, Pilate, the only one with the legal authority to sanction a crucifixion, tries but fails to talk any angry mob out of sending Jesus to his death.  The same Pilate that Luke describes as “mingling the blood of Galileans with sacrifices” and who other sources describe as brutally squashing any rebellion, is described by Matthew as so afraid of the crowd that he relinquishes his power and washes his hands of responsibility.

Some scholars attempt to take away the scandal of Matthew’s account by setting it in the context of 1st century Christian attempts to avoid the wrath of Rome. They see in Matthew the beginning of a trend toward shifting blame from the Romans to the Jews.  They remind us that the gospel writers had political as well as religious motives, and that biblical language about the Jews (as well as about everything else) reflects as much the concerns of later Christian communities as those of the time of Jesus.

But understanding Matthew historically doesn’t the power of its words away.  Rather, it calls interpreters to take responsibility for the implications of the texts they read.  For Christians, it calls for taking ownership of the power of our texts and for finding new energy and new energies for eradicating hate.   Good beginning reading includes Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide and Clark Williamson’s Has God Rejected His People?

One complication of attention to the Holocaust is that it has made it difficult for many Jews and Christians to question the policies of the state of Israel or to acknowledge the claims of Palestinians.  Marc Ellis’ Unholy Alliance traces this problem within Judaism, and Palestinian authors talk about the problem as well, such as Mitri Raheb.

In my judgement, combating anti-Judaism doesn’t demand uncritical support of the state of Israel or denying the claims of Palestinians.  Rather, the goal is to counteract hate wherever it is found.

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Listening to Stories, in the Past and in the Present

I’m a big fan of audiobooks.  I download titles from our county library to my .mp3 player and listen in the car.  Mostly, I listen to the works of Lee Smith, who sets moving stories in the American South, often tracing the contours of a family through numerous generations.

Listening to the tales aloud is a very different experience than reading the print versions. When I read, I often go too fast, pushing ahead to the gist of the material and unconsciously skipping a lot of it.  With an audiobook, I can’t control the pace of the story.  Unless I choose to fast-forward, I have to listen at the speed the narrator (director?) has chosen.  And I have to listen carefully, since I can’t flip back to re-read about characters. I hear more in the story than when I read silently, especially Smith’s gift at capturing the nuances of different classes and regions within southern culture.

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Opening Sermon at Bangor Convocation 09

Bangor Theological Seminary Convocation
January 26, 2009

Opening worship for a 3-day event devoted to the Old Testament, which will include the inauguration of Rev. Dr. Kent J. Ulery as the 10th President of Bangor Theological Seminary. 

Julia M. O’Brien
Lancaster Theological Seminary
All rights reserved


 “Between Wilderness and Promised Land”
Joshua 3:7-17

      Change is in the air. Fresh starts, new faces, new possibilities for the future, new life breathed into our dreams.  
      That certainly was the mood that pervaded President Obama’s inauguration last week.  Folks shivering on the mall and folks glued to their screens all knew that they were witnesses to something unprecedented, something saturated with possibility. As inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander gave it words, in that day’s sharp sparkle, that winter air, anything could be made, any sentence begun.  On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, she sang:  praise song for walking forward in that light. On that day last week, it was easy to believe that things will change for the better, that, if we work together, all things might yet be possible. 
     Our mood is hopeful this week as well, as Bangor seminary prepares to inaugurate a new president of its own.  President Ulery has stepped forward with vision, energy, and commitment, allowing us to dream new dreams for this institution, for the church, and for the world we serve.
   Of course, the electrical jolt of a fresh start is nothing new to those who have entered seminary. Whether they have come most recently from college or from another life altogether, all have embarked on this new stage in their lives in buoyant hope for the church’s future and an unquenchable thirst to be part of it.  The earnestness and determination of new seminarians, their ideas and their insights, year by year, decade by decade, infuses the rest of us with hope.
 In this day’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, we are ready for change. 


    Appropriately, our text for today form Joshua paints for us a picture of transition. We see, through this narrator’s eyes, the Israelites about to enter to enter the Promised Land.  They are perched on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp of entering the land they believed was their legacy.  In the past is the wilderness–its deprivations, its betrayals, and its complaints. In the past are Moses and his generation—those who murmured, those who suffered in the desert.  The scene has shifted to that of a new leader and new generation ready to claim a land of milk and honey.  Surely these folks are singing a praise song.  After so much waiting, it is finally time to move forward.
   But just as they begin to turn their faces from wilderness to promised land, to leave the past behind on their way to the future, this narrator grabs our chin and makes us see clearly that the two are not so radically different after all.   Joshua’s new leadership, we are told, is but a continuation of that of Moses. I will be with you, Joshua, says the divine one, no less and no more than I was with Moses. And this new thing about to be done by a new generation follows in the footsteps of an old, old story.  The symbolism the story develops is crystal clear:  this generation’s crossing of the Jordan into Canaan is like the wilderness generation’s crossing the Sea of Reeds.  The stories are not exactly the same, of course.  They differ in details and in the cast of characters.  But our narrator goes to great lengths, in this chapter as well as in the following one, to make sure that we connect the future with the past.
   We want to move forward, but our narrator slows us down.  We are given incessant reminders of the past, and a plot that is slo-o-w. For a long time—two full chapters–we are left suspended between wilderness and promised land.  And it is clear that’s where the narrator wants us to stay for a while.
You shall stand still in the Jordan, the text says.  Rest in the waters of the Jordan. 


     In some ways, I’m glad for the delay in the narrative.  I’m glad it stops where it does.  Where the story of the Israelites goes from here doesn’t fit so well with my liberation tendencies.  That land that the text claims is promised to Abraham’s descendents just so happens to be inhabited by other people who call it home:  the narrator’s already told that it is God’s intention to get rid of those Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzitres, Gergashites, Amorites and Jebusites.  If you know what’s ahead in the other stories of the book of Joshua, you know that all those “ites” aren’t simply going to be given financial incentives to relocate to a better home.   The Pentateuch’s story of murmuring in the wilderness will become in Joshua the story of conquest and killing.
     The promised land is a morally complicated one in the Bible.
     On the brink is not a bad place to pause. That ability to sit still and pay attention to the complex realities of our past and our present, even as we are pulled forward into new beginnings, might serve us well, too, as we take up the theme of this Convocation—the Scriptures that the church calls the Old Testament. 
Throughout its history, the church insisted that these texts provide valuable symbols for our faith and indispensible testimonies to the power and love of God.  Myriads of the faithful have found hope and inspiration in these words.    
     But the church has also struggled to interpret these texts, as well as those that it calls New Testament.  Each generation has found aspects of the Bible distasteful, even immoral.  Some have chafed at animal sacrifice; some at the claim that God changes; some that the book repeats itself too much.
Our generation finds its own list of things to be bothered about:  the Bible’s treatment of women and children; its tendency to blame the victims of national catastrophe; its nationalism and marginalizing of the foreigner; the fact that the genealogies are just too boring.  We might not be the first generation to struggle with the Bible, but our struggles are nonetheless real.
     Many in the past and the present have attempted to fix these problems in some way—trying to exegete the problems away through word study or understanding the historical background of the text; by reading allegorically; by lifting up good texts over bad ones; or by creating their own canon of what in Scripture truly witnesses to God.
     This convocation and the Joshua text this morning offer us a different path forward:  an invitation to sit with Scripture and talk honestly together about it.  


     We saw at President Obama’s inauguration just how empowering the past can be.  How we need symbols from the past to energize our lofty goals and desire to see ourselves as part of the long arm of history.    In placing his hand on Lincoln’s Bible, President Obama lived out his desire to see his success as a culmination of courageous stances taken in the past.  In their prayers and speeches, those at the microphone evoked the hopes of the founding fathers, of Martin Luther King, Jr., the history of America’s veterans, and the writers of the Constitution.  The past belonged in that pregnant moment—including biblical language.  The old gave energy to the new.
     But to do so, they had to ignore or minimize parts of those stories.  To find inspiration in the Constitution, they had to go beyond the intention of the authors of the document and even sometimes beyond its plain sense.   They had to minimize the on-going struggles of race and class in the United States. 
Maybe the day for inaugurating our nation’s first African American president, one who embodied as well as promised a break from the past, wasn’t the day to talk about all the messy truths of our founders and our nation.  Maybe it was a day when the sole role of the past was to renew conviction.
But there must be times for talking about all of the legacies of the past, and it is my hope that these 3 days at Bangor seminary might be a time of talking about the complex legacies of the Bible.   In invite—I challenge—us to talk honestly with each other, as people of faith, about what Scripture is and isn’t; how it wounds as well as heals.


     But, as we do so we must be willing to face honestly our own stories. Ancient Israel is not the only one implicated when we protest against self-interest and nationalism and believing that the goal of having a safe place to live justifies mistreatment of others.  The Bible is not alone in romanticizing violence in intimate relationships or in authorizing authoritarian parenting.  These stories and their moral complications are our own, and in reading them with eyes wide open we might not only come to access the past honestly but ourselves as well.  We can’t talk about the Bible honestly if we’re not willing to be just as honest with our individual and our corporate selves. 
     Perhaps it’s a good time to pause in our efforts to reach our own lofty goals– of ordination, serving people, pushing ahead to what we believe God has promised us and the world—and to sit (rest, this audacious text says) in the middle, in the boundary, between past and ture.
Perhaps it is a good time to reflect on our past and how it has shaped and limited our imaginations.  Just as the Moses story gets rewritten all over Joshua, so we too are shaped by what has come before—for good and for ill.  Families, churches, institutions, governments, ideologies, imperfect people—they have all left their marks on us.
     Perhaps it is a good time to reflect on where we see ourselves headed.  Just as I wonder if Joshua understood correctly God’s intentions about those other people, I also wonder how holy our own goals are.    What are the limits of our imaginations?  What are the moral complications of the way we’ve thought about God’s plans for us?
     Being left in the middle, between the past and the present, just might be a holy place to be.
     Praise be to God that here, in the middle, is precisely where the table stands.  At the table, we remember God’s acts of faithfulness in the past and seek glimpses of where that story of faithfulness may yet lead.   Here, we confess not only the failings of our past but also the limitations of our own visions and seek forgiveness and renewal.  Here, we commit ourselves once again to each other and to the well-being of all people.  Here, at this very human place, a place that remembers one who was human and gave us human food and drink, we come near to God’s presence.
      Sit and rest, here on the brink of a new venture.  Talk and listen to your neighbors about the messy dynamics of these texts and of our lives.
     Today, sing a praise song for truth-telling as well as for new beginnings. 




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The Violence Lurking in “Gorgeous Gestures”

“Gorgeous gestures backed by a thousand years of tradition may not be much different from wars and other acts more stark and obvious in their capacity for violence.”

I came across this sentence while reading Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (Penguin, 1997), a novel about the experience of a Vietnamese daughter and mother living in Virginia in the 1970’s.
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An Old Testament Scholar Watches NBC’s Kings

Old Testament scholars get excited when anyone pays attention to "our" documents.  So I was anxious to watch NBC’s Kings, a contemporary story of David.  I hoped that viewers would be so enthralled that they would run right out and (re)read the accounts in 1 and 2 Samuel and heated conversations would break out around the coffee pot.  Maybe the series would be so successful that everyone would jump on the biblical-story-as-TV-series bandwagon, setting Esther in a racially-divided nation in which the heroine initially "passes" as an insider but ultimately stands up for "her" people in times of danger. I imagined Jacob’s story as Dallas, siblings fighting over family money and Rebekah looking like Miss Ellie (or maybe Glenn Close).

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Family Violence in Poetry and Prophetic Metaphor

 I just finished reading a book of poems by Lucille Clifton: Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems. BOA Editions, 2000).

Clifton’s poems sometimes include humor, but they almost always speak the hard truth about the brokenness of the world.  In this collection, she writes powerfully about the death of her brother, dialysis, cancer, lynching, menopause, and racism.  The poems are short with no capitalization, but they are not small things.  Her words burn on the page. Continue reading
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