Between attending sessions and meetings at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting, I’m living in Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. I say “living in” because that’s how I interact with books. I live in them and they live in me—some for a few days, some for decades.
In a recent New York Times review of the new movie 2012, Manohla Dargis twice links the destruction-of-the-world movie with the Bible.
She describes the unlikely pairing off of survivors as the “Noah’s ark theory of onscreen hookups (two of every kind),” and her final tag claims that the movie depicts “Old Testament style destruction served with a smile.”
This semester, my students in the Introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament class at LTS are working with new textbooks: John Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2007) and Johanna van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). We also read from other sources (the Global Bible Commentary, the Women’s Bible Commentary, the Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, and some internet pieces), but Collins and Bos have been our primary introductions to the Pentateuch.
Why bother reading the laws of the Bible if you’re not going to live by them?
That’s the question that comes up–explicitly and implicitly–every year in teaching the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Students, especially those from more progressive-to-liberal traditions, can’t figure out what to do with the laws in Exodus 20-23 (commonly called the Covenant Code or the Book of the Covenant). They are shocked to learn that Exodus 20 softens rather than condemns slavery and recognizes but doesn’t protest the sexual vulnerability of female slaves. They interpret “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” literally as a barbaric approach to justice. I can see the cultural and religious superiority kick in: aren’t we glad we’re more sophisticated than this?
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.
In his book America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, Bruce Feiler makes a bold claim: “Moses is bigger than Jesus.”
Feiler’s argument is about the relative influence of these two great figures on the North American psyche. But there’s another way to evaluate the powers of these men: by comparing their action figures.
First, there’s Moses.
Moses’ stats on the back of the box list his accomplishments, as well as the powers of his weapon, the staff.
Moses is Liberator, Prophet, Lawgiver, Historian. His weapon does incredible things.
Then, there’s Jesus.
The description on the back of his box is more measured.
Jesus comes with no weapons but he with signs of his miracles–loaves and fishes and a wine jug–as well as a backdrop.
Jesus also has glow-in-the-dark hands, which didn’t show up well in my photography.
Based on their action figures, I’m not sure who wins.
Unlike Moses, Jesus doesn’t get weapons, but then again he doesn’t need them to work his miracles. Moses’ staff has special powers, but Jesus himself has special powers. Moses is listed with more superlatives, but more religions seem to have opinions about Jesus (though they seem only to agree that “Jesus was an extraordinary man”).
To settle this, I thought about bringing in the Pope Pius action figure that belongs to my colleague, but I thought that would be rigging the fight.
How to respond to the Christian tradition’s blaming Eve for The Fall of Humanity?
Sojourner Truth picks up on how much power the tradition implicitly grants Eve and runs with it. If a woman has the power to do that much damage, she argues, then certainly women working together can turn the world around. Here’s a reading of Sojourner’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
Every year since the late 1980’s, I have assigned Phyllis Trible’s “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread” in introductory Bible courses. From 1989-1997, my students were undergraduates at Meredith College, the women’s college from which Trible herself graduated in 1954. Since 1997, the students to whom I’ve assigned Trible have been those preparing for theological vocations at Lancaster Theological Seminary.
If you haven’t read Trible’s article or need a refresher, here’s a link. Begun as a paper read to her colleagues at Andover New Theological School in the 1970’s, this iconic article claims that Gen. 2-3 is not a misogynist manifesto but instead affirms the equality of women and men.
My reasons for assigning the article have varied over time. Early on, I used the article in the way that many biblical scholars use the results of our work: to challenge (dare I say bash) particular pillars of religious tradition. What better way to show that the Bible doesn’t say what many preachers claim it says than to have students read a methodical, careful dismantling of the claim that Gen. 3 subordinates women? Trible employs source criticism, concordance work, and literary analysis. She even finds an inclusio! Who could argue? I believed (and still do) that the content of the article is important for women (and men) from traditional religious backgrounds, especially those whose churches wield Gen. 3 as an argument against women’s ordination.
In my early years of seminary teaching, I probably used Trible in the same way, pitting biblical studies against the Tradition. More recently, however, I’ve pointed to Trible as a model for using the skills of biblical studies in the service of one’s own passions. Assigned early in the term, the article becomes a way to demonstrate how the tools of biblical studies can be used for causes of liberation. Trible acknowledges her agenda but she argues for it based on textual evidence that can be evaluated as textual evidence; she never expects readers to agree with her because of personal experience or a vague sense of justice. Some semesters, we’ve walked through the article, naming the skills she’s using and identifying how the conclusions she draws could be tested.
This year, I did underscore how Trible’s approach might work within some religious traditions: when the Bible is used against something you profoundly believe in, study the text carefully to see if it really can stand up to that interpretation. If someone’s going to throw the (good) book at you, pick it up and read it better.
But this year we talked more about how this approach encourages (even tempts) interpreters to find in the text support only for what they believe. Craig Martin calls using the Bible this way “ventriloquism”–treating the text as a puppet for one’s own perspective. Rather than claiming, “here’s what I believe and here’s why it’s important,” readers can say instead, “The Bible says it. (So shut up).”
I‘m not accusing Trible herself of ventriloquism. In this article, she doesn’t hide behind the text, and she invites scrutiny of her evidence. Rather, my concern is that the approach itself invites ventriloquism of the left as well as of the right. If the only argument for liberation is “The Bible says you have to support liberation,” then I don’t think we’ve gotten very far.
That’s why I will follow Trible’s article with ideological approaches to biblical texts, voices that do not find the text so liberative and who are willing to contest its worldview. In previous semesters, I’ve found that ideological approaches are far more challenging to students of all theological persuasions than Trible’s is. She’s able to reread the text in ways that mesh with her own convictions. What happens when readers acknowledge that the biblical text works against the interests of liberation?Continue reading
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.
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.