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

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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.”

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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.

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Fighting over Manuscripts in the Digital Age: The Blockbuster

It’s a common plot of novels and movies:  while the superstitious public clings to outdated religious beliefs, people in power compete for access to ancient manuscripts which reveal the powerful, if shocking, truth about the past. Think The DaVinci CodeIndiana Jones movies. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Irving Wallace’s The Word.

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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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Can a Theological Textbook be Too Theological?

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.

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In Psalms, is the Whole Greater than the Parts?

Does it matter what order you read psalms?  Would it matter if Psalm 22 were really Psalm 122 instead?

Most folks would answer “no” to those questions. The book of Psalms is usually treated as a semi-random anthology of poetry and prayer.  Individual psalms may differ from one another (some are laments, some are praise, some praise the king, etc) but those genres run throughout the Psalter.

Read it front to back 

back to front  

from the middle outwards  ←   →

It really doesn’t matter.

 

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.

 

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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.

 

 

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Rereading Trible's Rereading of Eve and Adam

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.

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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).”

ventriloquist

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?

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