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


Fighting over Manuscripts in the Digital Age: The Blockbuster

It’s a common plot of novels and movies:  while the superstitious public clings to outdated religious beliefs, people in power compete for access to ancient manuscripts which reveal the powerful, if shocking, truth about the past. Think The DaVinci CodeIndiana Jones movies. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Irving Wallace’s The Word.

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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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Reading Novels, Reading the Bible

I love to read. I read non-fiction for my professional work as a biblical scholar, and the information and new perspectives transform the way I understand the biblical text.  Learning about the pervasive malnutrition of ancient diets and the infant mortality rate in ancient Israel (1 out of 2 children died before the age of 5) changed the way I approach Genesis, the prophets—indeed all of the Bible.  I occasionally read popular non-fiction, too–related to the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically) or to issues that I care about (The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap).  Non-fiction changes my thinking in useful ways.

But I am passionate about novels.  I read them whenever I can.


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Lock 'em up or Give Them a Book?

I’ve been learning more about the Changing Lives through Literature program, in which “criminal offenders with charges ranging from drug violations to assault with a deadly weapon read and discuss literature as a condition of their probation.”  In the program, offenders join judges and others in a democratic discussion of literature.


The group’s website is filled with testimonies of how discussing literature in a group can lead to transformation:

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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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It's Not Just P.C. Theory: Critique Matters to People's Real Lives

In the May 29, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review, two articles underscored the power of literature to transform students’ lives.  In “Life Stories Unlocked by Literature,” Margot Mifflin invited us to witness a female haunted by rape find strength in reading Alice Sebold’s Lucky and a male abused by a babysitter affirm his sexuality in response to Shelley Jackson’s “My Body: A Wunderkammer.”  In “Great Books 2.0,” David Clemens introduced us to Joshua, jazzed up on the Great Books, convinced they are the “real deal.”  In the classics, Clemens proclaims, students hungry for meaning feast on perennial questions of human existence-a repast far more wholesome and satisfying than the empty calories of an educational diet of multiculturalism and pop culture.

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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.

The Shack and the Book of Job

My main complaint about The Shack is that it isn’t very interesting as a story. The book starts out well enough, with an interesting (if disturbing) plot, and I find myself wanting to know what has happened to Missy, the main character’s daughter.  I am ready for characters to be developed, details to be filled in, the mystery to be solved.  I am ready for something to happen. 

But The Shack quickly abandons plot for the sake of dialogue–really alternating monologues– about theology.  Speeches about the nature of the Trinity, the fairness of God, and the tragedies caused by freewill go on and on, with Missy’s fate remembered only occasionally.  At the very end of The Shack, we get a little action.   But not much.

To be fair, I have to make the same critique of the book of Job. 

Job starts out with an interesting (if disturbing) story about a man whose life is tormented by the death of his children and the ruination of his health.  All this takes place, readers learn, because of  what’s transpiring in another realm.  God is allowing The Adversary (not really Satan in the full sense) to orchestrate Job’s suffering not in order to teach him anything (since Job has no knowledge of what’s going on) but in order to prove a point with The Adversary. 

Two chapters into the book of Job, the plot evaporates and alternating monologues begin. One of Job’s friends talk.  Job talks. Another friend talks.  Job talks. And on and on.  The maddening cycle of speeches only ends when God gives the final monologue, the “speech from the whirlwind” in chs. 38-41 that confronts Job with rapid-fire rhetorical questions.  As in The Shack, the speeches address God’s fairness and whether bad things really do happen to good people.  Only at the very end of Job does the plot return.  Job’s life begins again.  He has new children.

For a long time, scholarly interpreters have treated the book as the result of pious editing.  The speeches are so harsh–these interpreters believe–so borderline heretical, that a folktale was added to soften its edges.  The bitter filling of Job might be more palatable if sandwiched between two slices of a bland tale about a patient sufferer.

That’s not the way I read the book of Job.  I think the book’s prologue and epilogue make its theology more rather than less disturbing.  If you take the prologue seriously, human suffering has nothing to do with human action:  Job’s life is determined by actors of whom he remains unaware and not by what he thinks, feels, or does.  If you keep the prologue in mind when you listen to God’s Great Speech, then the divine one isn’t telling the whole truth.  God talks at length about controlling the world but never mentions the real cause of Job’s suffering.  The narrator may let the reader know that the struggle between God and The Adversary started everything, but the divine one doesn’t let Job in on the secret.

The Shack offers readers a much more comfortable theology than the book of Job does.  In The Shack, God is tirelessly kind and nurturing and always wants the best for humans. Bad things only happen because people do bad things.  There’s nothing scary about God.  Such is not the picture of God in the book of Job.  There are lots of ways to understand God’s speech in chs. 38-41,  but almost all point to the complex and unknowable nature of God.

Many Christians distance themselves from Job’s picture of God:  to them, it represents “the Old Testament God,” one far inferior to the God of love that Jesus preached. They believe Jesus came to reveal God as comforting and easily-accessible, like Papa in The Shack.

But I do not dismiss Job as an old or inferior way of thinking.  I don’t claim to know the full truth about God, but I have listened to enough people who claim to have experienced the dark side of divine sovereignty to know that Job speaks to their experience. I have heard this testimony especially from people whose children have died:  they testify that reading Job is more helpful in a time of breath-choking pain than hearing simplistic explanations  about why people suffer. 

I read Job as human testimony to pain and to the experience of divine absence. I’m glad it’s in the Bible, even if I wish there were more plot and less talking.  I wish The Shack had more plot, too, but mostly I wish it witnessed to a more complex view of God.

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The Bible as a Book

My life has been filled with books. My father, a U.C.C. pastor, always was reading 2 or 3 novels at a time and filled the shelves of our home with hundreds of volumes (including The Great Books series).  My mother, a 10th grade English teacher, piled textbooks and classics on the kitchen table after dinner, consulting them over and over as she meticulously graded papers.

I am their daughter.  Even as the world goes more digital, I read bound books. They fill my home study.  Stacks loom beside the bed and couch.  Strays find their way to the car, the kitchen, on the steps. Under a paperweight on my desk, a dozen slips of paper list books that I want to track down.  In this time of economic crisis, I am grateful to be employed and to enjoy the luxury of having my own office at work, one with yards and yards of bookshelves, and easy access to a good library.

It’s not surprising that I entered college as an English major or that when I turned to the academic study of religion it was not to the phenomenon of religion itself but rather to a religious book.  Better said, I gravitated to the collection of diverse and complex and fascinating books that make up the Bible. And it’s not surprising that I read these books in much the same way that I always read–paying attention to the writer’s craft, how she transports me into another world, teaches me while entertaining, pleases and/or infuriates me.

As a modern person, I encounter the Bible as a book.  It is a fixed collection of words that I can read and reread and talk about with other people.  In church, we can all follow along as the lector reads from Isaiah 6, or in class I can expect that when we all turn to Genesis 3 the students and I are all reading about Adam and Eve.

And yet, as a scholar, I am very aware at how recent the fixed nature of the Bible is.  It surprises many Christians to learn that the Bible as particular words bound between two covers is a relatively late phenomenon in religious history.  Most folks have a general sense that Old Testament books were originally written on scrolls and have been told that religious stories circulated orally before being written.  But few have encountered the concept that ancient Israel had no Bible and for much of its history no scripture.  Much of the material was written very late and what was available probably didn’t circulate widely.  Although Protestant Reformers interpreted Isaiah 40’s affirmation that “the word of the LORD remains forever” as referring to the Bible, that was not what the ancient author had in mind.

It shocks many of my students to learn that no original of any Old Testament (or New Testament) book survives.  That what we have instead are copies of copies of copies, no two of which are identical.  While the early buzz about the Dead Sea Scrolls was that these first-century manuscripts of the Bible are miraculously similar to the Hebrew text we have today, that judgment turned out only to be true for the large Isaiah scroll.  Later manuscripts found at Qumran, such as that of 1-2 Samuel, differ significantly from the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew tradition on which most English translations were based before 1950.

Many Bible dictionaries and internet sites claim that all this textual diversity and all the debates about which books belonged in the Hebrew Bible were settled in one fell swoop, that at the rabbinic council at Jamnia in 90 C.E. the Hebrew Bible was “fixed.”   But more recent research makes the picture fuzzier.  Jamnia didn’t function like the authoritative councils of Christianity, and for hundreds of years Jewish writings about the Bible continued to list books in different orders.  Some have even suggested that the Jewish Bible wasn’t truly “fixed” until the invention of the printing press, when book technology forced things to be settled.

What all this means to me is that when I read the Bible as a book I am not reading it just like ancient people did.  As much as I can try to understand their world and imagine how they might have heard these words, I have to remember that I read in my own cultural context.   Unlike ancient people, I read the Bible as book that I can stack on a shelf alongside my other books, a book that my tradition says is authoritative, a book that people debate on the editorial pages of my local newspaper.

That awareness keeps me humble about claiming to know how ancient people thought or felt.  Or at least I hope it does.  It also leads me to think about how the packaging of the Bible, metaphorically and practically, affects its interpretation.




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