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

Occasional Posts

Can a Theological Textbook be Too Theological?

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.

collins Making_Wise_the_Simple6

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In Psalms, is the Whole Greater than the Parts?

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.


Finding Value in Biblical Law

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?

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Scary Gender Roles

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)

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Exodus: Good News or Bad News?

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.



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Thinking through Biblical Violence

In the spring 2010 semester at LTS, I’ll be teaching a new course:  Violence and the Bible.

I first envisioned the course 5 years ago, as an extension of a course I already teach (Prophets of Divine Wrath:  Nahum, Obadiah, and Malachi), work I’d done in my Nahum volume, and workshops I’d given in churches.

Now it’s time to give the course shape and select readings.  So, I turn to readers with questions:


  • Which violent biblical stories most deserve attention?
  • What readings have been helpful to you as you consider biblical violence?
  • What approaches to biblical violence do you find most helpful?
  • What does this course just have to talk about?
  • What concrete examples can you offer of the “spillover” of biblical violence into the world?
  • What other questions should I be asking?
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Moses Bigger than Jesus? Let the Action Figures Decide

In his book America’s Prophet:  Moses and the American Story, Bruce Feiler makes a bold claim: “Moses is bigger than Jesus.”

Feiler’s argument is about the relative influence of these two great figures on the North American psyche.  But there’s another way to evaluate the powers of these men: by comparing their action figures.

First, there’s Moses.

moses-box-sm moses-sm

Moses’ stats on the back of the box list his accomplishments, as well as the powers of his weapon, the staff.

box-back-sm box-weapons-sm

Moses is Liberator, Prophet, Lawgiver, Historian. His weapon does incredible things.

Then, there’s Jesus.

jesus-box-sm jesus-sm

The description on the back of his box is more measured.

jesus-box-back-sm jesus-box-bk-detail-sm

Jesus comes with no weapons but he with signs of his miracles–loaves and fishes and a wine jug–as well as a backdrop.

loaves-fis-sm wine-jar-smjesus-scene-sm

Jesus also has glow-in-the-dark hands, which didn’t show up well in my photography.

Based on their action figures, I’m not sure who wins.


Unlike Moses, Jesus doesn’t get weapons, but then again he doesn’t need them to work his miracles.  Moses’ staff has special powers, but Jesus himself has special powers. Moses is listed with more superlatives, but more religions seem to have opinions about Jesus (though they seem only to agree that “Jesus was an extraordinary man”).

To settle this, I thought about bringing in the Pope Pius action figure that belongs to my colleague, but I thought that would be rigging the fight.


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The Sacrifice of Isaac in Visual Art and Poetry

There’s been some discussion over at the Changing Lives through Literature blog about an article I wrote this summer.   You can click here to learn more about this program, which engages offenders in a process of reading and self-discovery as an alternative to incarceration.

In the thread, someone mentioned a poem about Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of Isaac: Bert Stern’s poem “Midrash: Abraham” in his new book  Steerage:

…his knife raised and the
cascading weight of everything
crashing down, to leave him
broken there, complete and alone,
bent by perfection.

That got me thinking about how many poets and visual artists have responded to the horrific story in Gen. 22, known in Jewish tradition as the Akedah or “binding” of Isaac.

Some that have been most powerful to me:

  • Eleanor Wilner,  “Sarah’s Choice” (published here), which provides Sarah’s refusal to sacrifice her son
  • the 12th c poem by Ephraim of Bonn, included in Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial, which searingly sets the slaughter of Jews as a on-going Akedah
  • Caravaggio’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (a print hangs over my desk at LTS), which graphically shows the terror of Isaac
  • Yehudah Amichai, “The Real Hero of the Sacrifice of Isaac,” which sees the ram as the only hero of the story
  • the sculpture of George Segal, which uses the Akedah as a focal image for the Kent State shootings


I look forward to learning about which artistic presentations that others find powerful.

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Phyllis Trible and Sojourner Truth on Eve

How to respond to the Christian tradition’s blaming Eve for The Fall of Humanity?

Phyllis Trible systematically shows how the tradition has misread the text.

Sojourner Truth picks up on how much power the tradition implicitly grants Eve and runs with it.  If a woman has the power to do that much damage, she argues, then certainly women working together can turn the world around.  Here’s a reading of Sojourner’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.


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Why Question David's Hero Status?

What good can come from challenging David’s status as a hero?

This question took center stage this morning as I worked with an adult church school class at a local Presbyterian church.  We used some of the questions from my Reading the Bible as an Adult session on “David:  Really a Hero?” to see how childhood versions of the heroic David stand up to the biblical narrative itself.  We did close reading of 1 Samuel 17 and then placed it in the larger sweep of Joshua through Kings.

We all agreed that the biblical David isn’t as sweet, brave, and heroic as many of us were taught. Sure, he kills Goliath.  But he isn’t exactly a little boy with the slingshot:  he inquires repeatedly about the reward being offered, boasts of his earlier prowess against wild animals, cuts off Goliath’s head, and sends it as a trophy to Jerusalem, while keeping the champion’s armor.  As the story progresses, he commits adultery, arranges murder, fails his children, and may be complicit in the death of Saul’s descendents. (For more on David, see this blog post.)

But then we asked the important question:  Why is it important to see David as something other than a hero?

For me, resisting the hero-ification of David is important politically and personally.  On the political level, it reminds me of how easy–and dangerous–it is to put leaders on a pedestal.  As long as we read David’s story expecting to find a hero, it’s easy to overlook his self-interest, self-promotion, and complicity in murder.  When modern leaders are made into heroes, we don’t put enough checks on their power; we expect them to behave perfectly, and it takes a lot to make us see when they don’t.  When they finally are caught in the Big Lie, we often accept too readily their Big Apology, the spectacle of  public contrition. One member of this morning’s class claimed that David redeemed his hero status when he acknowledged his sin with Bathsheba; the king’s willingness to admit his failings showed his humility and worthiness to rule.  Of course, the person didn’t consider  how quickly David’s public spectacle ended and how quickly it was back to royal business as usual.

The tendency to make influential people into untouchable heroes also has personal dimensions.  I see myself and people that I care about struggling with how to relate to the “heroes” of their own lives–parents, teachers, mentors, bosses, friends.  I see heroes given too much leeway, too much uncontested control.  It’s hard to recognize, much less challenge, the inappropriate behavior of those we’ve been taught only to admire. And for some folks, seeing influential people as heroes makes it difficult to trust their own paths to wholeness or to be open to the possibilities beyond those that the hero chose.

I find David’s story important not because it gives me someone to imitate or admire but because it shows me something that I need to see again and again:  the need to see people for all of who they are.

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