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

Finding Contemporary Value in Old Theories

Returning to the classroom after sabbatical is always a shock.  After months of focusing on my own interests and communing with others primarily via a computer screen, I’m now face-to-face with real people, responsible for helping them understand and respond to diverse perspectives on the Bible.

In the Introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament class, that includes making sure folks have heard and can think about some of the “standards” of biblical scholarship: the Documentary Hypothesis, what it means to call Genesis 1-11 “myth,” and the difference between a timeline based on the biblical narrative and one constructed by modern historians.

After having spent so much time this spring reflecting on the value of Hebrew narratives as literature, I’m struck by how important and relevant these older attempts at historical reconstruction still are to me. This week, I saw again how the Documentary Hypothesis, for all its anti-Jewish and modernist assumptions, still “works” for much of the material.  It’s a decent explanation of inconsistencies, and its linking of textual features with particular sociological settings makes sense.

JEDP

But mostly, I saw how it trains readers to look at biblical materials as dialogic rather than monologic–as an anthology of diverse points of view.

Such an attitude toward biblical texts in general and the Pentateuch in particular is foundational for sociological and ideological analysis of biblical texts.  When Carol Meyers or Ronald Simkins track the changes in Israelite family structures, they are discerning the differences between biblical accounts as well as how those accounts match up with extra-biblical findings.  They might not accept the Documentary Hypothesis as Julius Wellhausen framed it, but they are following a path he helped clear.

In today’s political and ecclesial climate, I applaud any approach to the Bible that underscores the diversity of its perspectives, especially in the realms of marriage, gender roles, and sexuality.  Whether or not you assign Gen 1:1-2:4a to “P,” it does underscore procreation as the purpose of human partnership; whether or not you assign Gen 2:4b-25 to “J,” it does stress companionship instead.  Whether or not you believe Deuteronomy was written during the reign of King Josiah, it does prioritize the nuclear family, while Leviticus prioritizes the extended family. And whether or not you accept the Documentary Hypothesis as articulated by nineteenth century German scholars, the differences are significant.  (See also my blog post entitled, “It’s the (Biblical) Economy, Stupid.”)

When those of us who call for new definitions of human partnership are accused of being “unbiblical,”  the diversity of the Bible (especially the creation narratives) is worth shouting about.  Calling for family structures to adapt in response to economic and political changes is actually following a very “biblical” path.

 


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