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


Why Question David's Hero Status?

What good can come from challenging David’s status as a hero?

This question took center stage this morning as I worked with an adult church school class at a local Presbyterian church.  We used some of the questions from my Reading the Bible as an Adult session on “David:  Really a Hero?” to see how childhood versions of the heroic David stand up to the biblical narrative itself.  We did close reading of 1 Samuel 17 and then placed it in the larger sweep of Joshua through Kings.

We all agreed that the biblical David isn’t as sweet, brave, and heroic as many of us were taught. Sure, he kills Goliath.  But he isn’t exactly a little boy with the slingshot:  he inquires repeatedly about the reward being offered, boasts of his earlier prowess against wild animals, cuts off Goliath’s head, and sends it as a trophy to Jerusalem, while keeping the champion’s armor.  As the story progresses, he commits adultery, arranges murder, fails his children, and may be complicit in the death of Saul’s descendents. (For more on David, see this blog post.)

But then we asked the important question:  Why is it important to see David as something other than a hero?

For me, resisting the hero-ification of David is important politically and personally.  On the political level, it reminds me of how easy–and dangerous–it is to put leaders on a pedestal.  As long as we read David’s story expecting to find a hero, it’s easy to overlook his self-interest, self-promotion, and complicity in murder.  When modern leaders are made into heroes, we don’t put enough checks on their power; we expect them to behave perfectly, and it takes a lot to make us see when they don’t.  When they finally are caught in the Big Lie, we often accept too readily their Big Apology, the spectacle of  public contrition. One member of this morning’s class claimed that David redeemed his hero status when he acknowledged his sin with Bathsheba; the king’s willingness to admit his failings showed his humility and worthiness to rule.  Of course, the person didn’t consider  how quickly David’s public spectacle ended and how quickly it was back to royal business as usual.

The tendency to make influential people into untouchable heroes also has personal dimensions.  I see myself and people that I care about struggling with how to relate to the “heroes” of their own lives–parents, teachers, mentors, bosses, friends.  I see heroes given too much leeway, too much uncontested control.  It’s hard to recognize, much less challenge, the inappropriate behavior of those we’ve been taught only to admire. And for some folks, seeing influential people as heroes makes it difficult to trust their own paths to wholeness or to be open to the possibilities beyond those that the hero chose.

I find David’s story important not because it gives me someone to imitate or admire but because it shows me something that I need to see again and again:  the need to see people for all of who they are.

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Finding Contemporary Value in Old Theories

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.


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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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Eat Like an Israelite?

This summer has not been kind to my backyard garden.  After a few weeks of prolific production, my squash and cucumber plants succumbed to powdery mildew.  Now, just as they are supposed to ripen in full glory, my tomatoes (the bread and butter of my garden) are waging war with late blight.  It’s been too wet here in south central Pennsylvania.  Not hot enough.

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Hebrew Bible, Old Testament: What's in a Name?

My title at the seminary recently changed:  instead of “Professor of Old Testament,” my business card now reads “Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.”   This was my idea. Why did I ask for such a long, cumbersome title?

For years now, I’ve been willing to stick with “Professor of Old Testament,” the title I was given upon hiring even though, as I’ll explain, I wasn’t totally happy with the title. The matter was raised again for me when my new colleague, Valerie Bridgeman, asked that her title include the label “Hebrew Bible.”  Valerie, a scholar of diverse gifts, joins Lancaster Theological Seminary this fall with responsibilities for teaching worship, preaching, and biblical studies.  Her title is even longer than mine: Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible/Homiletics and Worship.

Old Hebrew. Hebrew Bible.  What’s the difference?  And why did I finally choose both?


Old Testament is a distinctively Christian designation.   It signals that the collection does not stand alone but in relationship with a collection that the church calls New Testament.

One of the early controversies of the church was how to define its relationship with the Jewish faith from which it emerged.   The theologian Marcion of Sinope (on what is now the northern coast of Turkey) advocated a full break, insisting that the wrathful God of Jewish documents was not the same loving God of Jesus.  Other theologians such as Melito of Sardis and Tertullian of Carthage argued to the contrary:  they advocated keeping the old documents alongside new documents about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The second group won.

That is not to say, however, that these latter “church fathers” embraced Jewish documents or Jewish people.  They kept books like Genesis and Leviticus on very non-Jewish terms, insisting that the writings matter because they point forward to the coming of Jesus as Messiah.  They ranted that that Jews who deny christological meanings of biblical texts are willfully blind.  The early church’s stance on the Old Testament, then, is a mixed legacy:  the church did insist on the continuing validity of these books but limited that validity to Christian interpretation.   The unequal status of the two collections is reflected in their respective titles–Old and New.  (see, too, an article by Brooks Schramm of Lutheran Theological Seminary)

Christian anti-Judaism was not a passing fad of the patristic period.  Quite the contrary, it has thrived throughout all stages of Christian history.  Multiple times and places reveal anti-Jewish rhetoric, legal rulings, art, music, and overt violence.  Visitors to European cathedrals can still see images of the Church Triumphant and the Blind Synagogue and Jews portrayed as monkeys.


Most of the world also knows about the Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of 6 million Jews.   In the decades after the Holocaust, scholars struggled to understand not only Hitler as an individual but also the community mentality that made the extermination of Jews possible.   While a range of factors has been named, many Christian theologians have acknowledged that the church’s negative teachings about Jews helped create the groundwork for this horror. (see my earlier blog post on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Easter)


In light of this recognition, there has been a concerted effort in the past 30 years or so to counter Christian anti-Judaism.  In a wide array of churches, new emphasis has been placed on the Jewishness of Jesus, and study guides for Holy Week now blame Jesus’ death on selected Jewish leaders and/or the Roman empire rather than the Jewish people has a whole.

Post-Holocaust Christian theology also has challenged the church’s continuing use of the term Old Testament.  If the origins of the label are less-than-affirming of Jews and sounds negative to modern ears (the opposite of new and improved), shouldn’t the church give up the label in the interest of econciliation?   Shouldn’t secular settings for biblical studies, like universities, seek the most neutral term possible for this collection of documents?

In the academy, the change has been widespread.  Ph.D.s in this field are regularly named Hebrew Bible (including my own, from Duke University), and Introduction to the Hebrew Bible is the usual nomer for undergraduate classes and textbooks.  It would be hard an institution that is not church-related offering classes in “Old Testament.

I fully share post-Holocaust commitments and strive to help students see that the Christian interpretation of Old Testament texts is not the only or even obvious one.   I find it arrogant to assume that the problems of ancient people mattered any less to the divine one than our own:  if Isaiah 7:14 is only the prediction of Jesus’ birth through a virgin, then what hope was being offered to the people in the text who were staring into the faces of the Assyrian armies?   If the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53 is only a prediction of Jesus, is everyone else who has ever found meaning in the text just deluded?    I count myself among post-Holocaust biblical interpreters who work to fight anti-Judaism at every turn, and I also try to fight the self-centeredness of most biblical interpretation.  So, I don’t teach these documents as relying on the New Testament for their value.  In that regard, I don’t really teach “Old Testament.”

But then again, I’m not completely comfortable with “Hebrew Bible.”

First, the term isn’t  the term isn’t inherently Jewish-friendly.  It’s certainly not a Jewish term. In Judaism, the books that make up Genesis through Chronicles are called simply “Bible” or “Tanak,” an acronym for the three major sections of the collection:  Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

Second, the term implies that Christians and Jews are reading the same documents but calling them by different names.  That’s not really true. The Old Testament and the Tanak are similar collections, but they aren’t identical.  In Roman Catholic Christianity, the Old Testament has more books than the Tanak, including books like Tobit and Maccabees. The Protestant Christian Old Testament includes the same roster of books as the Tanak, but the books come in a different order.  In the Protestant Old Testament, the collection ends with prophets, while Chronicles is the last book in the Tanak. (See chart comparing canons) These differences signal differences in the way these books are understood.  Do prophets point forward, as they do in the Christian Bible (from the Old Testament to Jesus), or do they point back to the Torah, as they do in the Jewish Bible?

Third and of even greater importance, the term obscures the fact that the text itself isn’t all that matters to interpretation. Neither Judaism nor Christianity read these books “straight.”   Even if they don’t go as far as the church fathers in seeing every verse as pointing forward to Jesus, Christians read with some attention to the New Testament.   Jews read Tanak in light of Mishnah, Talmud, and other rabbinic writings. (a great introduction to Jewish readings of the Bible can be found at the Kolel center site)  That is, even when Jews and Christians read the same books, they don’t read them in the same way.  Simply changing the name of the Old Testament to Hebrew Bible won’t mean that a Christian will read like a Jew or necessarily respect Judaism. In a Christian worship service, as long as “a reading from the Hebrew Bible” is followed by “a reading from the New Testament,” traditional understandings of the relationship between the testaments likely will remain.

There are smaller problems, too. For instance, if “Hebrew” is understood to refer to the language of the documents, then the label isn’t totally accurate. While scholars do believe much of the writing was composed in Hebrew, some books also contain Aramaic and the longer Roman Catholic Old Testament contains materials first composed in Greek.  Few modern people who read the “Hebrew Bible” are reading it in Hebrew, and few are clamoring to rename the New Testament the “Greek Bible.”

As I sorted through the options, then neither title seemed totally accurate. On the one hand, I resist the anti-Judaism implied in “Old Testament.”  On the other, I can’t deny that my teaching stands apart from Christian perspectives. Even if I  don’t teach the Old Testament as predicting Jesus (which I don’t) and don’t treat the Old Testament  as the background of the New (which I don’t), I still teach in a Christian seminary that privileges claims about Jesus Christ.   Moreover, as much as I invite students to appreciate these writings on their own terms, my own thinking has been shaped by my own heritage.  I have been profoundly shaped by liberal Christianity’s values of inclusion, diversity, non-violence. Of course, these aren’t distinctively Christian values, but  I encountered them via Christianity.  To use a neutral term for these writings seemed like trying to pretend that I read the texts apart from my context.  (I never seriously considered a third term, since one of my own creation wouldn’t recognize the faith communities that preserved the book and since I couldn’t with good conscience claim that I’m teaching Tanak. As much as I want students to appreciate Jewish understandings, I don’t spend enough time teachng Mishnah, Talmud, Rashi, and responsa to claim that students can “do” Jewish interpretation on their own.)

For a long time I’ve been willing to keep the Professor of Old Testament title because the alternative didn’t seem any better.  But I also have lamented that my title didn’t signal my commitments.

After sorting through all of this again, I concluded that a hybrid title would come closer to honestly reflecting my hybrid teaching of this collection: situated within a Christian context but insisting that these documents witness to multiple ways in which humans experienced God in the past and continue to do so in the present.  I believe that such an approach is not only important in disarming anti-Judaism but also in helping people appreciate the diverse ways in these powerful texts resonate with their lives and experiences of God. 

The title is long.  It’s cumbersome.  And it’s not perfect.  But it’s the closest I can come to honestly naming what and how I teach.


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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