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.
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.