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


Psalms and Def Jam Poetry

It’s one thing to acknowledge that the book of Psalms is written as poetry.  It’s quite another to consider what difference the poetic style makes to interpretation of the Psalms. What if we encountered Psalm 139’s claim that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” not in private devotion or from the mouth of a lector in church but in a context more like that of def jam?  This great piece is Marty McConnell’s “Instructions for a Body.”

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The Sacrifice of Isaac in Visual Art and Poetry

There’s been some discussion over at the Changing Lives through Literature blog about an article I wrote this summer.   You can click here to learn more about this program, which engages offenders in a process of reading and self-discovery as an alternative to incarceration.

In the thread, someone mentioned a poem about Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of Isaac: Bert Stern’s poem “Midrash: Abraham” in his new book  Steerage:

…his knife raised and the
cascading weight of everything
crashing down, to leave him
broken there, complete and alone,
bent by perfection.

That got me thinking about how many poets and visual artists have responded to the horrific story in Gen. 22, known in Jewish tradition as the Akedah or “binding” of Isaac.

Some that have been most powerful to me:

  • Eleanor Wilner,  “Sarah’s Choice” (published here), which provides Sarah’s refusal to sacrifice her son
  • the 12th c poem by Ephraim of Bonn, included in Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial, which searingly sets the slaughter of Jews as a on-going Akedah
  • Caravaggio’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (a print hangs over my desk at LTS), which graphically shows the terror of Isaac
  • Yehudah Amichai, “The Real Hero of the Sacrifice of Isaac,” which sees the ram as the only hero of the story
  • the sculpture of George Segal, which uses the Akedah as a focal image for the Kent State shootings


I look forward to learning about which artistic presentations that others find powerful.

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When Challenging the Factuality of the Bible Serves the Faithful

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.


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The Many Uses of the Psalms

Thanks to all those who responded to my call for Psalms stuff. Here, I report on the array of objects we handled in our first Psalms class.

Not surprisingly, there were an array of musical settings of psalms. These included psalms marked for chanting within Christian and Jewish services, as well as those made into hymns for congregational singing.


Psalm-based performance pieces ranged from anthems and chorale pieces to contemporary praise music to Psalms passages in Coolio and U2 lyrics.  We looked at hymnals from various denominations, as well as CD’s and could have watched youtube clips of contemporary artists.  Among our collection were loans from the the rare book collection of the Lancaster Theological Seminary library:

1. Sternhold, Thomas and John Hopkins. The Whole Booke of Psalmes… London: Company of Stationers, 1625. The first English language version of metrical Psalms in use from at least 1562.

2. Tate, Nahum and Nicholas Brady. A New Version of the Psalms of David. Amsterdam: Henry Gartman, 1772. This version of the Psalms with music notation (first published in 1696) replaced the earlier Sternhold and Hopkins psalter in use most of the 17th century.

3. Lobwasser, Ambrose. Die Psalmen Davids... Budingen: Joh. Friedr. Regelein, 1733. With music notation. Lobwasser prepared this version of the Psalms for German Reformed churches. It was popular in both Germany and the U.S. and reprinted many times through the first quarter of the 19th century.

4. Lobwasser, Ambrose. Neu-vermehrt und vollstandiges Gesang-Buch worinnen sowohl die Psalmen Davids…  Marburg; Frankfurt: Heinrich Ludwig Bronner, 1797. An edition of Lobwasser’s expanded hymnal with the Psalms bound in a decorative vellum binding.

We admired several children’s books illustrating the 23rd Psalm–one with a bucolic setting, another in an urban context.

We looked at visual images drawn from Psalm texts–the Psalm illustrations from the St. John’s Bible and images on one of the seminary president’s stoles.

I brought in bulletins from weekly services as well as my dad’s funeral that utilize Psalms texts as parts of the liturgy–call to worship, assurance of pardon, etc.

Many students were drawn to the pictures I’d downloaded from the internet of Psalm verses on jewelry and tattoos.  We imagined ways this body art might function–for protection, for advertisement, as identity markers.  (This use of Psalms reminded me of the tiny psalters I saw at the Walters Art Museum, described in an earlier post.)

We considered Psalters designed for private devotions, both those in devotional booklets and in David Ker’s Cyber Psalms project.

The books I’d brought in from the library reminded us that psalms are used to reconstruct the worship practices and daily lives of ancient Israelites.

And we recognized that there are important aspects that didn’t show up in the objects: Psalms as poetry and Psalms as the basis for doctrine and theology.

I’m sure we’re missing other major uses of Psalms, but we were struck by the many different ways in which Psalms as a book and as individual pieces have been used and continue to be used. We look forward to exploring different aspects of the Psalms as the class unfolds.


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Calling for Psalms Stuff

On Wednesday, I begin teaching a seminary course on the book of Psalms.  After months immersed in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, a turn to poetry/liturgy will take some adjustment.

I will begin the class with Psalms artifacts–concrete examples of the diverse ways in which biblical psalms are used in the present and have been used in the past.  I have funeral bulletins, hymnals, Psalters, CD’s, children’s books of Psalm 23, and some images of Psalm verses on jewelry. The idea is for students to reflect on how the psalms are used as poetry, liturgy, music, instruction in prayer, atropaically, etc.

Do readers have other examples that I can add the mix of how Psalms are used?

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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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