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


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.

Continue reading

The Many Uses of the Psalms

Thanks to all those who responded to my call for Psalms stuff. Here, I report on the array of objects we handled in our first Psalms class.

Not surprisingly, there were an array of musical settings of psalms. These included psalms marked for chanting within Christian and Jewish services, as well as those made into hymns for congregational singing.


Psalm-based performance pieces ranged from anthems and chorale pieces to contemporary praise music to Psalms passages in Coolio and U2 lyrics.  We looked at hymnals from various denominations, as well as CD’s and could have watched youtube clips of contemporary artists.  Among our collection were loans from the the rare book collection of the Lancaster Theological Seminary library:

1. Sternhold, Thomas and John Hopkins. The Whole Booke of Psalmes… London: Company of Stationers, 1625. The first English language version of metrical Psalms in use from at least 1562.

2. Tate, Nahum and Nicholas Brady. A New Version of the Psalms of David. Amsterdam: Henry Gartman, 1772. This version of the Psalms with music notation (first published in 1696) replaced the earlier Sternhold and Hopkins psalter in use most of the 17th century.

3. Lobwasser, Ambrose. Die Psalmen Davids... Budingen: Joh. Friedr. Regelein, 1733. With music notation. Lobwasser prepared this version of the Psalms for German Reformed churches. It was popular in both Germany and the U.S. and reprinted many times through the first quarter of the 19th century.

4. Lobwasser, Ambrose. Neu-vermehrt und vollstandiges Gesang-Buch worinnen sowohl die Psalmen Davids…  Marburg; Frankfurt: Heinrich Ludwig Bronner, 1797. An edition of Lobwasser’s expanded hymnal with the Psalms bound in a decorative vellum binding.

We admired several children’s books illustrating the 23rd Psalm–one with a bucolic setting, another in an urban context.

We looked at visual images drawn from Psalm texts–the Psalm illustrations from the St. John’s Bible and images on one of the seminary president’s stoles.

I brought in bulletins from weekly services as well as my dad’s funeral that utilize Psalms texts as parts of the liturgy–call to worship, assurance of pardon, etc.

Many students were drawn to the pictures I’d downloaded from the internet of Psalm verses on jewelry and tattoos.  We imagined ways this body art might function–for protection, for advertisement, as identity markers.  (This use of Psalms reminded me of the tiny psalters I saw at the Walters Art Museum, described in an earlier post.)

We considered Psalters designed for private devotions, both those in devotional booklets and in David Ker’s Cyber Psalms project.

The books I’d brought in from the library reminded us that psalms are used to reconstruct the worship practices and daily lives of ancient Israelites.

And we recognized that there are important aspects that didn’t show up in the objects: Psalms as poetry and Psalms as the basis for doctrine and theology.

I’m sure we’re missing other major uses of Psalms, but we were struck by the many different ways in which Psalms as a book and as individual pieces have been used and continue to be used. We look forward to exploring different aspects of the Psalms as the class unfolds.


Continue reading

Trying to Understand a Ripped Jesus

I’ve never thought of Jesus as meek and mild, but I also never imagined Jesus the way I saw him depicted on a billboard in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a few years ago.



Ever since I saw this billboard, I’ve been curious about its origin, whether it’s unique or part of a genre, etc.

But I’ve never taken up the task of researching it.  So instead I’m asking folks around the world.  Have you ever seen billboards or other public depictions of Jesus like this? Know anything about its origin?  Those of you who’ve been to Myrtle Beach lately, is it still there?  Do you know who paid for its display?

Continue reading

Claims about the Bible Work Best if You Don't Actually Read It

Last weekend, two biblical scholar friends and I visited the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and spent time in an exhibit entitled “Shrunken Treasures:  Miniaturization in Books and Art.” It features tiny books and objects from the museum’s permanent collection.


In case after case, we saw all things small.  There were small mosaics, small sculptures, small shipping guides, but mostly small religious texts.  Small Psalters.  Small Qurans.  And small Bibles.

Some of these minatures were functional, actually used by readers even before the days of bifocals. They allowed people to have words that were portable and private– pocket editions.

But many were clearly too small to be read.  It’s hard to imagine how they were even produced.  These texts weren’t reading material; they functioned atropaically–as amulets , talismans, good luck pieces.  These Bibles were owned, touched, tucked away, treasured.  But not read. The idea of the Bible mattered more than its content.

From my vantage point, that attitude toward the Bible is ubiquitous, even for folks whose Bibles are big.  A lot of verbage gets thrown around about the Bible  (its perfection, its authority, its goodness) that makes sense only if you don’t read it–or read it seriously.  I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t say something about the Bible that isn’t true about all of it.  If you’re going to talk about the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice, then you should be prepared to explain why you don’t live your life by all of it.

I spend my energies trying to get people to spend less time spouting claims about the Bible and more time actually reading it, being honest about it, and valuing it for what it actually is.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 8, 2009.


Continue reading

Beyond the Flannel Board

My “What’s your Earliest Memory of a Bible Story?” poll has been up for 6 weeks.  As of today 75 people voted.  Thanks for all who joined in.

Since I’m not a trained poll-crafter, I’m not sure if the results really provide fresh data or are skewed by my selection of stories. But the winners of the poll didn’t surprise me. Continue reading

Why Read the OT (1): As Background

A lot of folks treat the Old Testament as “background” reading for something else.  For Christians, it’s treated as the prequel to the New Testament, the part you have to read in order to understand the stuff you want to read. Who is Melchizedek and why does the book of Hebrews link him to Jesus?  Why was circumcision important to Jews of the first century?  What does atonement mean?  What’s a covenant? The Old Testament offers the answers for the New Testament reader who wants to know.


In non-religious circles, students of art, music, and literature are encouraged to learn the Old Testament in order to understand the references in their own subject matters.  After all, it’s the well from which Handel (actually his librettist) drew most of Messiah, including the Hallelujah chorus. Of course you can appreciate the stylistic dimensions of Rembrandt’s “Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s wife” at the Met and Rubens’ “The Meeting of David and Abigail” at the National Gallery without understanding the stories behind them.

But Goltzius’ “Lot and His Daughters” in the Rijksmuseum is more deliciously creepy when you know what’s going to happen after the guy drinks that bowl of wine.

Old Testament literacy also helps folks “get” the references in pop culture.  It explains what half of U2’s lyrics are about.  It shows up over and over in South Park episodes, as when Kyle’s parents read him the Book of Job.  And it’s been great fodder for Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments, allowing him to poke fun at people who don’t know biblical stories–Noah, Cain and Abel, the 10 Commandments. (see blog post on biblical literacy in popular culture)

Especially in the U.S., the political arena is filled with allusions to and arguments about the Old Testament.  Obama’s inauguration speech alluded back not only to the founding fathers but also the Old Testament prophets, and a few hot passages from Leviticus are common weapons for those who stand against same-sex marriage.

But reading the Old Testament as only as background overlooks the true riches of this collection.  In the next few blogs, I’ll share some other reasons to read the Old Testament.

David, David, David: It's Always about David

King David is on the entertainment circuit these days.  He’s the focus of an off-Broadway musical, not so creatively titled “King David,” now at the Promise Theater. He’s already a TV regular,  starring in the NBC series Kings (see earlier blog post).

In all the media hype, he hasn’t risen above the humble book.  Robert Pinsky’s The Life of David was published in 2008.   For the literary-minded, there’s a new version of his story by Robert Alter: The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel.  And to show that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, David continues to appear as a vegetable version of himself in “Dave and the Giant Pickle” in the Veggie Tales series.


What accounts for David’s timeless appeal?

Continue reading

The Iconic Books Project

I just learned about the Iconic Books Project at Syracuse University, run by Jim Watts and Dorina Miller Parmenter.  The goal of the project is to catalogue the way in which iconic books (“texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight”) are displayed, read, covered, represented in art, etc., etc.

Here’s how the website describes the project’s goals:

The project’s collecting and cataloguing activities aim to do basic research, but its study of iconic books has implications for understanding phenomena as diverse as the marketing of e-books, political ceremonies, legal conflicts over religion, artistic and media depictions of books, the reproduction of scriptures, the architecture of libraries and museums, radical religious uses of media images, the relationship between image and text, the role of religion in law, and the historical influence of “book religions.”

If you’re interested in how the Bible and other books have become decoration or advertising or the fodder for fine or pop art, have a look at the site. The database itself isn’t open to the public, but the project’s blog is.

You can contribute images there as well.

Continue reading