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


When Sarah Palin isn't Conservative Enough: Visionary Daughters Headed for a Breakdown?

When you encounter a website that slaps the face of all you believe in, makes your blood pressure rise, and basically ticks you off, should you speak against it or ignore it in hopes that it withers from lack of attention?  That’s the dilemma I face when I view the Visionary Daughters website. Continue reading

Sermon on youtube: Being a Man in the Restroom and Everywhere Else

My web-support friend alerted me to this sermon on youtube.  It’s based on a phrase that appears in the King James Version, though not in other translations (including the New King James):  “the one who pisseth against the wall.”  Watch it for yourself before reading further, so that I don’t spoil the surprise (or not) ending.{readmore}For this preacher, the divine purpose of this phrase is to reinforce gender roles:  men need to be manly, standing up to their responsibilities (so to speak).  Although he doesn’t say it directly, he also suggests that for a man to act like a woman demeans him.

The KJV translation is actually a pretty good one.  In Hebrew, the phrase means “the one who urinates against the wall.”  In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, it’s always used in the context of a curse/threat. For example, in 1 Kings 14:7, God announces that because the king Jeroboam has forsaken God’s ways, God will strike down everyone in the king’s family and/or court who “pisseth against the wall.”  The remnant of the house of Jeroboam, the threat continues, will be thrown out like “dung.”  The preacher is right, I think, that modern English translations of “males” or “men” lack the punch of the original.  In all six contexts (see also 1 Sam 25:22; 25:34; I Kings 16:11; 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8), the language is harsh and exaggerated.

But, strictly on the level of word usage, the pastor is on thin ice when he argues that the phrase dictates the way men should be.  The word for “male/man” (‘sh) shows up far more often than this phrase.  “The one who pisseth against the wall” is used for men only in cases in which men are threatened with extinction.  In fact, in all six instances,  men who urinated sitting down would have lived to see another day.

What fascinates and repels me about this sermon, though, is not its exegesis.  It’s the way that minor phrases, taken out of context, become an opportunity to wield the implied authority of the Bible to reinforce gender stereotypes.  You have to act a certain way because the Bible (= God) said so.  Even more, I hear in this sermon and in other rants about men being men a devaluing of women.  Of course folks could claim that they want men to be like men and women to be like women and that they equally value both, but in my experience there’s always an unequal value placed on offenders: a man acting like a woman demeans him in a way far different than a woman acting like a man.

This is one reason that I find gender scripts so confining.  They come with implied value.  But, even more, they just don’t work.  It’s easy to see how scripts for how to be a man or a woman don’t fit LGBT folks, but I don’t think they serve anyone well.  Human life is too wonderfully messy and complex to have to fit in a gender box, or even to have to use the toilet in a particular way.

Does God Really Get Angry? Differing Views

In an earlier blog post, I referred to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s understanding of divine pathos—God’s passionate care about humanity.  In a 2007 article in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Matthew Schlimm compares Heschel’s views with those of two other biblical scholar/theologians:  Walter Brueggemann and Terence Fretheim.  (“Different Perspectives on Divine Pathos” An Examination of Hermeneutics in Biblical theology” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 2007: 673-694.)   Schlimm finds the biggest differences between Heschel and Brueggemann, with Fretheim’s views often falling inbetween that of the others.

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It's the (Biblical) Economy, Stupid

It’s easy to read the Bible as if it contained disembodied doctrine, eternal truths about the divine being and the cosmos floating above the mundane concerns of human living. But biblical materials were shaped by the people who wrote them–not only by their beliefs but also by the economies in which they lived.  And as ancient Israel’s economy changed over time, so too did the assumptions and the agendas of the writers of the documents that we now have in the Bible.

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Quoting the Bible in Intelligence Briefings

A recent article in GQ revealed that when Secretary Rumsfeld presented daily intelligence briefings to President Bush in the early days of Iraq war, he presented them with cover sheets emblazoned with biblical quotes.

Click here to see some of those images on the GQ site.

Although most press has been given to the quotes from Isaiah, also in the mix are citations from Ephesians, Psalms, Daniel, Proverbs, Joshua,1 Peter, and 1 Chronicles.

In his blog on beliefnet.com, Steven Waldman asks why Bush didn’t distance himself from such overt displays of religiosity and wonders if Rumsfeld and others thought their plans would be more credible if the President thought they were sanctioned by the Bible.

On MSNBC’s Ed Show, panelists debate whether Christian quotes belong in the public sphere and ponder how Americans would have reacted if the quotes had come from the Quran instead.  The issue is cast as one of pluralism and the separation of church and state.  Interestingly, panelists also engage in a brief discussion about “what Isaiah really says,” noting that many passages in Isaiah call for a time of peace and the cessation of war.

The choice of quotes for these documents isn’t surprising.  They appeal to a sense of mission to do the right thing (“here I am, send me”).  They promise victory to the faithful (“commit to the LORD and your plans will succeed”).  They clearly identify the good guys and the bad guys (“It is by God’s will that by doing good you shall silence the ignorant talk of foolish men”).   They publicly attribute success to the hand of God (“the king is not saved by a mighty army”).

That is, they use the Bible to make a case for something the preparers already believed.

As someone who listens to how the Bible is used in church and in culture, I find the “cherry-picking” of quotes (the language used on MSNBC) to be nothing new.  People trying to advance very different perspectives turn to the Bible to defend their positions.  I have heard the Bible invoked as proof for anti-gay legislation and for marriage equality for LGBT people; for and against the ordination of women; for eco-friendly lifestyles and for believing that Jesus’ impending return leaves us no time to fix global warming.  “Cherry-picking” is nothing new.  Many of us call it “proof-texting.”

That’s why I find that simply quoting biblical passages is unhelpful in resolving debates.  There are always other passages to quote.  And, more importantly, the significance of words (their meaning) is never self-evident.  Even verses as apparently straightforward as the Ten Commandments have to be interpreted to apply to contemporary settings.  After all, literally, the text says that God spoke those words to Moses to tell to the Israelites.  Using them as universal rules for all people isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, but it is the result of dozens of assumptions about the connection between ancient Israel and the world at large.  My claim isn’t that those assumptions are necessarily wrong, but that they do need to be acknowledged, discussed, and debated.

As an educator and as a citizen, I long for people to take ownership of their own views.  Rather than shutting down conversation by quoting the Bible, can we talk about what matters most to us and why?   Too often, “that’s what the  Bible says” really means “shut up.”

Of course, many people’s views derive from their reading of the Bible.  The Bible has changed people’s minds and led them to particular conclusions.  So let’s talk about that.  Let’s discuss how you understand what you read, listen to what other people make out of the same verses, and consider why all of us may read the way we do.

The Bible and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The pope’s comments during his recent visit to Israel spurred a reader of the website to ask me this question:   “Why would the pope support the creation of a Palestinian state, since the Bible claims that God has given the Holy Land to the Jewish people?”

I thought others might be interested in my reply.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?   Since the Bible insists that God promised land to Abraham’s descendants, and since Jews are descendants of Abraham, then obviously Israel always and only belongs to Jews.

But the issue is far more complicated than such a simple formula implies.

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Tombs of Anonymous Prophets

The longer I study the prophetic books, the less I talk about the prophets as people.  I see more and more how the authors of the books shaped the words and used stories about prophets to speak to later concerns. More and more I quit looking for who Amos or Jeremiah really were and focus on why writers presented these figures in the way they have.

And yet, the more I follow this path, the more I distance myself from what many people find most compelling about the prophets:  how real they were.  I’ve listened to enough sermons, read enough books, and done enough internet searches to know that people on all sides of the theological spectrum find the prophets interesting as people.  Whether you think ancient prophets predicted the future, called folks back to pure worship, or challenged unjust social systems, chances are that you conjure in your mind the face of a fiery preacher rather than a bookish writer.

I’m reminded of this distance between my own interests and those of most folks whenever I see mention of a prophet’s tomb.  This week I read an article about the purported tomb of Ezekiel, south of Baghdad. And that reminded me of my own experience of visiting the Tomb of the Prophets in Jerusalem in the early 1990’s.

When I saw this sign on the Mt. of Olives, I smiled.  When I found out that it claimed to contain the bones of Malachi, I laughed.  Just a few years before, I had completed my dissertation on Malachi, arguing to my own satisfaction that the book was functionally anonymous.  Others have gone further, claiming that the book isn’t really a separate composition at all but rather a piece of Zechariah made independent so that the collection could be The Book of the Twelve rather than The Book of the Eleven.

The tomb of an anonymous prophet.  Of course, I had to visit.  I had to take a picture.  Which I did. (Sadly, those glasses were in style at the time.)

Maybe it was the darkness of the cave or the fact in Jerusalem everything oozes holiness.  But I did experience something mysterious and sacred peering into the tomb of a prophet I suspect never existed.  It became a place of honoring what the prophet had come to mean, what people had made of a story about him, what chain of significance linked back to this place.  For me, it was also place to think about what writing about Malachi had meant to me.

The article mentioned above suggests that the tomb of Ezekiel functions not only to honor a prophet but also to hold on to a religious past that is too quickly being lost.  Tombs give us a place to go to honor someone and something, a way to make the abstract more concrete and touchable.

I’m not surprised at the excitement that erupts when someone claims to have found the tomb of Jesus’ brother or Caiaphas.  Artifacts help us feel a connection with stories that matter.  A former teacher of mine says that Jerusalem itself is one big icon.  It is a window into contemplation of sacred things.  Things that might not have happened happen in our own experience.


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The F-word, the P-word, and bell hooks

In my academic writing, I speak often of feminism and patriarchy.  The terms are charged with emotion, as well as stereotypes.

A lot of people would embrace another f-word a lot faster than they would the label “feminist.”  They associate feminists with angry women who run around burning bras and fanning hatred of men.  In my Women and the Bible class, I’ve often asked students to draw their stereotypes of a feminist.  The pictures are not pretty.

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