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

Historical Books

Joshua in Ancient and Contemporary Perspectives

I’ve just encountered powerful curriculum on Joshua.  It’s entitled Joshua:  A Journey of Faith and is the 2009-2010 Horizons Bible Study for Presbyterian women.

The primary author is Mary Mikhael, President of Near East School of Theology in Beirut (NEST).  The editor is W. Eugene March, professor emeritus from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.


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Exodus: Good News or Bad News?

One of the fascinating, if maddening, aspects of biblical interpretation is that the story embraced by one community as the greatest good news is often rejected by another as the worst bad news. Take the Exodus story, for example.

First, the good news.

For Jews, the Exodus story tells of God’s compassion on the suffering Hebrews and the divine willingness to act on their behalf.  Built into the story, especially in Exodus 3, is also the promise that this band of refugees will become a “people” special to God’s heart; this God will be the object of their worship and will bring them into a land of milk and honey.  The Exodus is commemorated yearly in the Passover, where through song, story, and symbolic foods God’s act of liberation is celebrated.  This video comes with a light-hearted song, but it explains the symbolic foods pretty well.

Exodus plays a major role in the African American tradition.  Songs, preaching, and speeches over the decades have pointed to this narrative of slaves freed from oppression as a model for the people’s own story. (A good survey can be found in Allen Dwight Callahan’s, The Talking Bible.)  In many spirituals, the distance between Israelites and African Americans is erased:  the latter are the former. “Go Down, Moses.”  “Wade in the Water.”

Liberation theology within the mesoamerican context also mined the Exodus story for its liberative potential. George Pixley and others interpret the biblical story as one of class struggle–of peasants resisting oppressive social structures.  “Hebrew” is a marker for those in situations of material deprivation, and the story affirms God’s “preferential option for the poor.” (Pixley’s classic book is often hard to find; but his position is well summarized in his “Exodus” entry in the Global Bible Commentary.)

The Exodus as the founding story for the Jewish people.  The Exodus as proof that slavery is not God’s intention for humanity.  The Exodus as affirmation that what matters to God is not just the state of people’s souls but also the physical conditions in which they live.  What’s not to like about such powerful stories?

What’s not to like is what happens next in the story.  Those who are freed from oppression, says the biblical narrative, claim possession of a land inhabited by others.  Exodus is followed by Joshua.  Exit is followed by entrance.  Going out is followed by charging in.

And that’s the bad news.   Many in the modern world, especially those in postcolonial situations, have seen themselves not as freed Hebrews but as the Canaanites forced from their land.

In the North American context, Native Americans have been treated as Canaanites and at times explicitly called such, as in sermons preached in the colonial period.  The title of Robert Warrior’s article sums it up well:  “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians.”

African biblical scholars speak powerfully about how the Exodus was used to justify the white colonization of the continent and support the apartheid system in South Africa. Dora Mbywayesango’s entry on “Joshua” in the Global Bible Commentary underscores just how damaging the legacy as been.

Palestinian Christians struggle to establish their own claims to the land of their ancestors in the face of such stories.  Naim Ateek’s classic statement of Palestinian liberation theolgy, Justice and Only Justice, understandably takes on the Joshua narrative and argues for reclaiming the Christian tradition of treating the Promised Land in spiritual and not Zionist terms.  Many Christians throughout the Middle East struggle to find any meaning in an Old Testament that as been interpreted by most Jews and Western Christians as settling the question of Jewish claims to the land of Israel.  I talked about the problem–inadequately–in my lecture at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut several years ago.



Exodus as the prelude to extermination.  Exodus as the prelude to colonialism.  Exodus as the prelude the loss of homeland.  What’s to like?

Exodus: Good news or bad news?

For me, as a biblical scholar interested in what difference biblical interpretation makes in the real world, this is where the conversation gets interesting.

From my own standpoint, this question is not one that can be answered by a simple quoting of biblical passages.  As I’ve suggested, the tradition itself acknowledges that Exodus and Joshua are linked.  Rather, the story’s “goodness” depends on where you stand in the text, either through self-identifcation or by having been unchosen identification as the “other.”

I am not willing to ignore or minimize how diverse people hear this text.  I’m not willing to dismiss the suffering of ancient or modern people by saying, “if it’s in the Bible it must have been God’s will.”  But neither am I willing to dismiss the testimory of those who have found this story meaningful in times of oppression.

Maybe the first step in taking seriously the power of texts like these is to get interpreters to quit fighting about whose interpretation is right–whose side the Bible is on– and to own up how this powerful text can be used in oppressive and liberative ways.  If we can acknowledge that, then maybe we can own up to our own reponsibility for our actions instead of hiding behind the biblical text.



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Why Question David's Hero Status?

What good can come from challenging David’s status as a hero?

This question took center stage this morning as I worked with an adult church school class at a local Presbyterian church.  We used some of the questions from my Reading the Bible as an Adult session on “David:  Really a Hero?” to see how childhood versions of the heroic David stand up to the biblical narrative itself.  We did close reading of 1 Samuel 17 and then placed it in the larger sweep of Joshua through Kings.

We all agreed that the biblical David isn’t as sweet, brave, and heroic as many of us were taught. Sure, he kills Goliath.  But he isn’t exactly a little boy with the slingshot:  he inquires repeatedly about the reward being offered, boasts of his earlier prowess against wild animals, cuts off Goliath’s head, and sends it as a trophy to Jerusalem, while keeping the champion’s armor.  As the story progresses, he commits adultery, arranges murder, fails his children, and may be complicit in the death of Saul’s descendents. (For more on David, see this blog post.)

But then we asked the important question:  Why is it important to see David as something other than a hero?

For me, resisting the hero-ification of David is important politically and personally.  On the political level, it reminds me of how easy–and dangerous–it is to put leaders on a pedestal.  As long as we read David’s story expecting to find a hero, it’s easy to overlook his self-interest, self-promotion, and complicity in murder.  When modern leaders are made into heroes, we don’t put enough checks on their power; we expect them to behave perfectly, and it takes a lot to make us see when they don’t.  When they finally are caught in the Big Lie, we often accept too readily their Big Apology, the spectacle of  public contrition. One member of this morning’s class claimed that David redeemed his hero status when he acknowledged his sin with Bathsheba; the king’s willingness to admit his failings showed his humility and worthiness to rule.  Of course, the person didn’t consider  how quickly David’s public spectacle ended and how quickly it was back to royal business as usual.

The tendency to make influential people into untouchable heroes also has personal dimensions.  I see myself and people that I care about struggling with how to relate to the “heroes” of their own lives–parents, teachers, mentors, bosses, friends.  I see heroes given too much leeway, too much uncontested control.  It’s hard to recognize, much less challenge, the inappropriate behavior of those we’ve been taught only to admire. And for some folks, seeing influential people as heroes makes it difficult to trust their own paths to wholeness or to be open to the possibilities beyond those that the hero chose.

I find David’s story important not because it gives me someone to imitate or admire but because it shows me something that I need to see again and again:  the need to see people for all of who they are.

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Changing (?) Definitions of Rape

I just published a new session in my Reading the Bible as an Adult project:  Bathsheba, Tamar, Absalom, Solomon:  David’s Family Curse? The entry deals primarily with the trans-generational dynamics of 2 Samuel 11-18, how the themes of David’s later life spill over into those of his family.  I talk about David’s fukú , the language that Junot Díaz  uses in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to describe a family curse. But there’s a lot more to discuss  in these stories of David and his children, including the way that different people and different cultures think about rape.

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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.

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.