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

Bible as literature

Ancient Literature for Modern Healing

A recent New York Times article reports that the U.S. military has turned to a new resource  to help soldiers name and heal from the trauma of war:  the very old literature of Sophocles.

The Pentagon has provided $3.7 million for an independent production company, Theater of War, to visit 50 military sites through at least next summer and stage readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” for service members.


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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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Reading for All That We Are

“Why are We Still Reading Dickens?” is the title of an article in The Guardian blog.  It’s also a question asked by myriad high school and college students.


Change the last word and it’s the question asked around the globe about a long list of classic texts, including the Bible.

The blogger, Jon Michael Varese, suggests that one of his students offers the best answer to the question:

“because they [Dickens’ novels]  tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”

Varese concurs and adds his own testimony:

Like most people, I think I knew who I was without knowing it. I was Oliver Twist, always wanting and asking for more. I was Nicholas Nickleby, the son of a dead man, incurably convinced that my father was watching me from beyond the grave. I was Esther Summerson, longing for a mother who had abandoned me long ago due to circumstances beyond her control. I was Pip in love with someone far beyond my reach. I was all of these characters, rewritten for another time and place, and I began to understand more about why I was who I was because Dickens had told me so much about human beings and human interaction.

Why am I still reading the Bible?  Because biblical narratives tell me who I am. I am Eve, who knows that the only way to be a mature adult is to accept the fallenness of yourself and the world.  I am Esther, who in negotiating my responsibilities to everyone else sometimes forgets to name her own desires and is emeshed in a culture convinced that safety justifies violence. And Jacob. And Rachel. And the women conspicuously absent from the story of the Prodigal Son.

I am all these and more. Biblical stories help me see these things about myself, about those around me, and about the world.  They aren’t the only way to see ourselves, but, to use the words of  Varese’s student, they help us see in the “grandest way possible.”


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Biblical Delebs

This week, 60 Minutes ran a piece on firms that represent delebs:  dead celebrities.  Turns out there’s a big business in merchandising Elvis, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and the most recognizable face of our time, Albert Einstein.


As one firm explained, it’s a lot easier to make money on dead celebrities than the living.  There’s no need for damage control after your client goes into rehab, tweets something stupid around the globe, or steals Taylor Swift’s moment in the spotlight.  Marilyn Monroe’s agent doesn’t have to worry that Ms. Sexy willl get fat or wrinkled.  James Dean’s doesn’t lose sleep wondering how to repackage Mr. Rebellious if a stroke leaves him in need of round-the-clock care. Both have ceased being moving, changing human beings and have been reduced to a one word brand.

In some ways, the same is true for biblical characters: dead and reduced to single-word attributes.  Abraham the Faithful.  Jacob the Trickster. Jephthah’s daughter the Victim.  Ruth the Loyal. Daniel the Faithful. Thomas the Doubter.  Peter the Hothead. Mary Magdalene the Fallen.


But biblical characters have some things going for them that most delebs don’t.  One, a lot of people really, really care about the “real” story of their lives.  Biblical scholars and fiction writers make careers pitching new biographies of the biblically famous, trying to change people’s minds about Moses and Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Moreoever, these delebs come to us through books, in stories. They may have been real people (some, maybe not) but they are primarily literary characters, ones that can be discussed and argued about.  Readers have a way of always finding something new in stories, finding new connections between the words on the page and their own lives.

Mainly, though, biblical delebs don’t have exclusive agents. As much as interpreters may claim that theirs is the only authentic portrait of the past, no one firm or person owns rights to these stories.  Even though Hebrew University of Jerusalem receives the proceeds from the marketing of Albert Einstein’s image, Abraham or Peter haven’t made those who claim to be their heirs rich. But the open source status of biblical characters has helped keep them talked about, argued about, and studied by the faithful and skeptics alike.   Now, that’s real fame.

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When Challenging the Factuality of the Bible Serves the Faithful

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins respond to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?”   Not surprisingly, Armstrong answers in a way that respects religious belief, while Dawkins uses the opportunity to further disparage religion.

Armstrong argues that evolution challenges only one understanding of religion, one in which truth is reduced to facts and the meaning of the Bible is limited to the information it can provide.  She insists that this is not the only or even the most historic understanding of religion.  Instead, much of the Bible is myth and story– poetic and imaginative rather than informational.

“In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis. Some cosmologies taught people how to unlock their own creativity, others made them aware of the struggle required to maintain social and political order. The Genesis creation hymn, written during the Israelites’ exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC, was a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion. Its vision of an ordered universe where everything had its place was probably consoling to a displaced people, though—as we can see in the Bible—some of the exiles preferred a more aggressive cosmology.”

“The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.”

I share Armstrong’s conviction that debating the factuality of Genesis 1 misses its point.  I don’t believe is a transcript of how the universe was formed, but the story is incredibly important to me for what it says about the human condition and how it challenges me to understand the world and the humans in it as gifts.  As a professor of mine once said, it’s a whole lot easier to believe that the world was created in six days than to really believe that every person who encounter is created in the image of God.

At the same time, I recognize how all stories, including Genesis 1, can inscribe the power of particular groups, how what is consoling to the teller can work against the interests of others.  What Armstrong calls the “gentle polemic” against Babylonian deities didn’t comfort those who worshipped Marduk.  And it often serves in the present to privilege heterosexual relations and set procreation as the basis for human bonding.  Moving into Genesis 2 and 3 and onward, the stories of the Bible do all sorts of things to the imagination–some that I celebrate and others that I resist.  Claims about families and gender and land and whose story is worth following.

I find conversations about how Genesis sparks and restrains the imagination far more interesting and important than how it relates to fossil remains and flood deposits.  Biblical stories are far too important–for good and ill–to quit talking about them just because they don’t answer questions of science.


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In the First Person

There’s an interesting article this week in The Chronicle Review about the role of first person in writings in the Humanities.  It’s primarily a review of Cynthia Franklin’s Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today (University of Georgia Press) and a reiteration of her belief that scholars talking about their own experiences “may help to rehumanize the ailing humanities.”

Franklin’s claim is one that I’ve been reflecting on myself, as I think about the best style for my Reading the Bible as an Adult project.  If I really want to engage people in conversation about how literature, including the Bible, encourages them to think about their lives, shouldn’t I spend at least some time modeling the process–showing how reading the Bible encourages me to think about my life? 

What role should autobiography/memoir have in biblical studies?

I had mixed reactions to some of what came out of the Autobiographical Criticism phase of biblical scholarship in the1990’s and 2000’s. Some was really interesting and helped me think in new ways about biblical texts and about myself.  Some was just TMI (too much information) about the author and TLI (too little insight) into what in the text provoked such musings. I also had mixed feelings about my first foray into the genre:  “On Saying ‘No’ to a Prophet” in Semeia 72 (1995) and I thought the criticism of one of the responses was on target. I’ve gotten better responses to my autobiographical examples in Challenging Prophetic Metaphor (WJK 2008); several people have told me that the book primarily works because of them.

Autobiography–in writing, in preaching, in scholarship–is a tricky business. Done poorly, it is self-indulgent exhibitionism.  Look at me!  Look at how important/tragic/interesting/pathetic my life is!  Autobiography for the sake of self-exposure or catharsis might work for celebrities, but few people go to church or read biblical scholarship primarily to learn about the childhood of its speakers. Done well, self-disclosure can provide a window into the topic and bring writers and readers closer together.  The writer becomes human; the passions become more understandable. When done well, the autobiographical style is an invitation for the reader to reflect on her own experiences, to consider how her own life compares with that of the author.

So, my real questions become these:

  • what kind of autobiography invites others to share their own experiences?  how can monologue encourage dialogue?
  • how can autobiography aid in political and social analysis?
  • how can autobiography allow/demand that readers not take what authors say about themselves as the last word?


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Does Jacob Change? Does Anyone?

(This post covers some of the same ground as my session on Jacob in Reading the Bible as an Adult but talks more about how the themes of the story resonate with me.)

It’s common to read the Jacob narrative (Genesis 25-36) as tracing the main character’s transformation.  According to a lot of folks, Jacob begins his life as trickster but several key events help him to change.  One is his experience of being on the receiving end of deception, when his uncle Laban manipulates him into taking not just one but two cousins and hatches one scheme after another to keep Jacob down on the sheep farm. The other episode seen as pivotal shows up in chs. 32 and 33: on the night before he is to face the brother he has wronged, Jacob wrestles with and prevails over a man whom he later perceives as God.  Not only Jacob’s name but his very character is altered by the experience, enabling him to reconcile with Esau.

That’s one way of looking at this story.  But paying close attention to particular literary features of this narrative makes Jacob’s story look different– less about change than about how themes established at the beginning of a life continue to weave throughout it.


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