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.


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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The Family Curse

When folks talk about the Bible as literature, they often have in mind the importance of biblical literacy for understanding fiction and poetry:  the Bible as background.  Who is the Absalom of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom?  What biblical currents run throughout Yeats’ “The Magi” and “The Second Coming”?  Was Toni Morrison the first person to name a book Song of Solomon?

Recognizing biblical allusions is important for reading fiction and poetry, as well as for fully appreciating art, U2 lyrics, and South Park episodes. But reading the Bible and reading novels together can work in another way.  Sometimes reading a novel can alter your understanding of a biblical text.

That’s what happened for me earlier this year after reading Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  It’s an incredible book.  I’ve never read anything quite like it in terms of style.  Untranslated Spanish, street talk, gamers’ speech, and footnotes about the politics of the Dominican Republic all tumble together on the page. The prose is both dizzying and exhilarating.


The book’s theme grabbed me, too—the way in which one man’s refusal to surrender his daughter to a lascivious dictator becomes the family’s curse, sucking generation after generation into a common pattern of tragedy. Díaz calls the curse fukú. I’m not sure how he intends it to be pronounced, but I have a pretty good idea.  In my session on Bathsheba, Tamar, Absalom, Solomon in Reading the Bible as an Adult, I explain the novel’s plot more fully.

As you might infer from the way I’ve organized that session, Oscar Wao affected the way I read the story of King David’s later years, the story often called the Succession Narrative and which runs from 2 Samuel 11 into the early chapters of 1 Kings.  This is the part of the Bible that talks about David sleeping with Bathsheba, Amnon raping Tamar, Absalom’s revenge on Amnon, Absalom’s rebellion against his father, the rise of Solomon to the throne, and Solomon’s downfall.

After reading the novel, I noticed more than before that every story after David’s taking of Bathsheba follows a similar theme:  a man acts out of inappropriate desire and everyone gets screwed.  According to the biblical narrator (who is much less concerned about consent than I am), David errs in taking the wife of another man and, in turn, the child conceived in the encounter  dies.  But the repercussions don’t stop there.  His children just keep doing the same thing.  Amnon takes his (off-limits) half-sister,  which leads to Tamar’s seclusion, Amnon’s own death, and Absalom’s estrangement from his father.  Absalom seizes the concubines that “belong” to his father as part of his rebellion.  At first, Solomon seems to have escaped the family curse; wise and pious, he makes good judgments and builds the Temple.  But he, too, succumbs to inappropriate desire:  according to 1 Kings, Solomon allows foreign women to lead his heart astray, and the kingdom of his father David is splintered forever.  In these narratives, the David  family curse just keeps on going.

This theme of determinism, perhaps fatalism, leads to reflect on a lot of things.  First, on my own life.  As much as I want to be different from my parents and grandparents, how much am I really?  What decisions did they make that continue to shape my life? What decisions have I made that will doom my daughter?


The musings also take pedagogical and political turns. How much does family history determine people’s abilities to change their fortunes?  How helpful is the American mantra of “you can be anyone/anything you want to be?”  What social policies recognize cross-generational dynamics?

Or is belief that we are free to change, to determine our destinies, a necessary illusion?  Something that we have to believe in order to make it through the day, that a president needs to say to children to give them hope?

I realize that the themes of this post have turned out to be very similar to my musings on Jacob’ lack of change.  Why am I being drawn to stories about inevitability, continuity, sameness?


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