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

politics

Against Christian Seder Meals during Holy Week

It’s becoming relatively common for Christian churches to observe a seder meal on Maundy Thursday, followed by Holy Communion. Since the gospels describe Jesus’ last meal as held during Passover, these churches attempt to honor the occasion by teaching about Passover.  Some believe they are honoring Jesus’ Jewish roots and seek out Jewish texts and rabbis for help in making the meal feel “authentic.”

But Passover meals don’t belong in the Christian Holy Week.

Continue reading

Statehood Dependent on Archaeological Finds?

I’ve read several articles in the past few weeks relating the presence of archaeological finds to the question of statehood.

This one from Ha’aretz explains that the Dutch government hopes to support the cause of Palestinian statehood by financing archaeology at Tell Balata, an ancient site within the city of Nablus:

“The creation of institutions can only be sustainable if it goes hand in hand with the strengthening of the cultural identity of the Palestinian people ahead of a negotiated agreement on statehood,”  [representative to the PA] Twiss said, adding that “sites like Tell Balata are simply too important to be neglected.”

Continue reading

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.

joshuacvrsml

Continue reading

West Bank and Israel Travel Log #2: Walls

The first of many unsettling experiences during the LTS West Bank/Israel trip was my introduction to the Wall.  While I had read much about the “separation wall” between Israel and the Occupied Territories and even seen photos from friends, I wasn’t prepared for the reality.

On the bus ride from Ben Gurion airport to our hotel in Bethlehem, the wall seemed everywhere–zigzagging across the landscape, chopping up fields, and blocking roads.

We had to pass through the wall in order to enter Bethlehem, where we stayed for much of our trip.

wall_outside_terminal2_sm

West Bank and Israel Travel Log: Purposes

From January 6 to January 25, I joined my colleague Anabel Proffitt in leading a group of 21 students from our institution through the West Bank and Israel.  I’ve recently returned, my camera full of pictures and my head full of realities to process and responses to formulate.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be reporting on my evolving experience of the trip.

group-at_sepulchre

Continue reading

Returning from the West Bank and Israel

I’ve recently returned from co-leading a group of seminarians on a 17-day trip to the West Bank and Israel.  It was an intense experience, and I’ll soon start blogging and uploading photos.

For now, you might want to read my first written response,  published over at Bible and Interpretation:  “Biblical Scholarship and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

Continue reading

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.

 

julia-lecture1

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.

 

 

Continue reading