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


When Sarah Palin isn't Conservative Enough: Visionary Daughters Headed for a Breakdown?

When you encounter a website that slaps the face of all you believe in, makes your blood pressure rise, and basically ticks you off, should you speak against it or ignore it in hopes that it withers from lack of attention?  That’s the dilemma I face when I view the Visionary Daughters website. Continue reading

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.

It's the (Biblical) Economy, Stupid

It’s easy to read the Bible as if it contained disembodied doctrine, eternal truths about the divine being and the cosmos floating above the mundane concerns of human living. But biblical materials were shaped by the people who wrote them–not only by their beliefs but also by the economies in which they lived.  And as ancient Israel’s economy changed over time, so too did the assumptions and the agendas of the writers of the documents that we now have in the Bible.

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Quoting the Bible in Intelligence Briefings

A recent article in GQ revealed that when Secretary Rumsfeld presented daily intelligence briefings to President Bush in the early days of Iraq war, he presented them with cover sheets emblazoned with biblical quotes.

Click here to see some of those images on the GQ site.

Although most press has been given to the quotes from Isaiah, also in the mix are citations from Ephesians, Psalms, Daniel, Proverbs, Joshua,1 Peter, and 1 Chronicles.

In his blog on beliefnet.com, Steven Waldman asks why Bush didn’t distance himself from such overt displays of religiosity and wonders if Rumsfeld and others thought their plans would be more credible if the President thought they were sanctioned by the Bible.

On MSNBC’s Ed Show, panelists debate whether Christian quotes belong in the public sphere and ponder how Americans would have reacted if the quotes had come from the Quran instead.  The issue is cast as one of pluralism and the separation of church and state.  Interestingly, panelists also engage in a brief discussion about “what Isaiah really says,” noting that many passages in Isaiah call for a time of peace and the cessation of war.

The choice of quotes for these documents isn’t surprising.  They appeal to a sense of mission to do the right thing (“here I am, send me”).  They promise victory to the faithful (“commit to the LORD and your plans will succeed”).  They clearly identify the good guys and the bad guys (“It is by God’s will that by doing good you shall silence the ignorant talk of foolish men”).   They publicly attribute success to the hand of God (“the king is not saved by a mighty army”).

That is, they use the Bible to make a case for something the preparers already believed.

As someone who listens to how the Bible is used in church and in culture, I find the “cherry-picking” of quotes (the language used on MSNBC) to be nothing new.  People trying to advance very different perspectives turn to the Bible to defend their positions.  I have heard the Bible invoked as proof for anti-gay legislation and for marriage equality for LGBT people; for and against the ordination of women; for eco-friendly lifestyles and for believing that Jesus’ impending return leaves us no time to fix global warming.  “Cherry-picking” is nothing new.  Many of us call it “proof-texting.”

That’s why I find that simply quoting biblical passages is unhelpful in resolving debates.  There are always other passages to quote.  And, more importantly, the significance of words (their meaning) is never self-evident.  Even verses as apparently straightforward as the Ten Commandments have to be interpreted to apply to contemporary settings.  After all, literally, the text says that God spoke those words to Moses to tell to the Israelites.  Using them as universal rules for all people isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, but it is the result of dozens of assumptions about the connection between ancient Israel and the world at large.  My claim isn’t that those assumptions are necessarily wrong, but that they do need to be acknowledged, discussed, and debated.

As an educator and as a citizen, I long for people to take ownership of their own views.  Rather than shutting down conversation by quoting the Bible, can we talk about what matters most to us and why?   Too often, “that’s what the  Bible says” really means “shut up.”

Of course, many people’s views derive from their reading of the Bible.  The Bible has changed people’s minds and led them to particular conclusions.  So let’s talk about that.  Let’s discuss how you understand what you read, listen to what other people make out of the same verses, and consider why all of us may read the way we do.

The Bible and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The pope’s comments during his recent visit to Israel spurred a reader of the website to ask me this question:   “Why would the pope support the creation of a Palestinian state, since the Bible claims that God has given the Holy Land to the Jewish people?”

I thought others might be interested in my reply.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?   Since the Bible insists that God promised land to Abraham’s descendants, and since Jews are descendants of Abraham, then obviously Israel always and only belongs to Jews.

But the issue is far more complicated than such a simple formula implies.

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