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


The F-word, the P-word, and bell hooks

In my academic writing, I speak often of feminism and patriarchy.  The terms are charged with emotion, as well as stereotypes.

A lot of people would embrace another f-word a lot faster than they would the label “feminist.”  They associate feminists with angry women who run around burning bras and fanning hatred of men.  In my Women and the Bible class, I’ve often asked students to draw their stereotypes of a feminist.  The pictures are not pretty.

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The Bible as a Book

My life has been filled with books. My father, a U.C.C. pastor, always was reading 2 or 3 novels at a time and filled the shelves of our home with hundreds of volumes (including The Great Books series).  My mother, a 10th grade English teacher, piled textbooks and classics on the kitchen table after dinner, consulting them over and over as she meticulously graded papers.

I am their daughter.  Even as the world goes more digital, I read bound books. They fill my home study.  Stacks loom beside the bed and couch.  Strays find their way to the car, the kitchen, on the steps. Under a paperweight on my desk, a dozen slips of paper list books that I want to track down.  In this time of economic crisis, I am grateful to be employed and to enjoy the luxury of having my own office at work, one with yards and yards of bookshelves, and easy access to a good library.

It’s not surprising that I entered college as an English major or that when I turned to the academic study of religion it was not to the phenomenon of religion itself but rather to a religious book.  Better said, I gravitated to the collection of diverse and complex and fascinating books that make up the Bible. And it’s not surprising that I read these books in much the same way that I always read–paying attention to the writer’s craft, how she transports me into another world, teaches me while entertaining, pleases and/or infuriates me.

As a modern person, I encounter the Bible as a book.  It is a fixed collection of words that I can read and reread and talk about with other people.  In church, we can all follow along as the lector reads from Isaiah 6, or in class I can expect that when we all turn to Genesis 3 the students and I are all reading about Adam and Eve.

And yet, as a scholar, I am very aware at how recent the fixed nature of the Bible is.  It surprises many Christians to learn that the Bible as particular words bound between two covers is a relatively late phenomenon in religious history.  Most folks have a general sense that Old Testament books were originally written on scrolls and have been told that religious stories circulated orally before being written.  But few have encountered the concept that ancient Israel had no Bible and for much of its history no scripture.  Much of the material was written very late and what was available probably didn’t circulate widely.  Although Protestant Reformers interpreted Isaiah 40’s affirmation that “the word of the LORD remains forever” as referring to the Bible, that was not what the ancient author had in mind.

It shocks many of my students to learn that no original of any Old Testament (or New Testament) book survives.  That what we have instead are copies of copies of copies, no two of which are identical.  While the early buzz about the Dead Sea Scrolls was that these first-century manuscripts of the Bible are miraculously similar to the Hebrew text we have today, that judgment turned out only to be true for the large Isaiah scroll.  Later manuscripts found at Qumran, such as that of 1-2 Samuel, differ significantly from the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew tradition on which most English translations were based before 1950.

Many Bible dictionaries and internet sites claim that all this textual diversity and all the debates about which books belonged in the Hebrew Bible were settled in one fell swoop, that at the rabbinic council at Jamnia in 90 C.E. the Hebrew Bible was “fixed.”   But more recent research makes the picture fuzzier.  Jamnia didn’t function like the authoritative councils of Christianity, and for hundreds of years Jewish writings about the Bible continued to list books in different orders.  Some have even suggested that the Jewish Bible wasn’t truly “fixed” until the invention of the printing press, when book technology forced things to be settled.

What all this means to me is that when I read the Bible as a book I am not reading it just like ancient people did.  As much as I can try to understand their world and imagine how they might have heard these words, I have to remember that I read in my own cultural context.   Unlike ancient people, I read the Bible as book that I can stack on a shelf alongside my other books, a book that my tradition says is authoritative, a book that people debate on the editorial pages of my local newspaper.

That awareness keeps me humble about claiming to know how ancient people thought or felt.  Or at least I hope it does.  It also leads me to think about how the packaging of the Bible, metaphorically and practically, affects its interpretation.




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Holocaust Remembrance and Easter

April 21, 2009, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Hebrew Yom haShoah.   A time to remember the 6 million Jews who died in Nazi Germany, the day is a national memorial day in Israel and is observed around the world.

For Christians, the contrast between Yom haShoah and Easter (observed just a week and a half before) is stark.  The beauty of Easter–the lily, the butterfly, the chorus of alleluias-is assaulted with images of emaciated children, piles of bodies, and smoke rising from the crematoria.


auschwitz fence

But the Christian Easter needs Holocaust Remembrance Day.   It serves as a reminder that theology can kill as well as bring life. In the history of Jewish-Christian interaction, more pogroms and other anti-Jewish violence have taken place during Holy Week than during any other time of the year. Throughout history, the claim that Jews are Christkillers has fueled not only anti-Jewish sentiment but also anti-Jewish violence.  Elie Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest weaves a compelling story of how this happened in the past.  A quick look at neo-Nazi websites confirms that it does the same in our own time.

Problematically, Christian anti-Judaism finds its roots in the Bible itself.  In Matthew’s passion narrative (ch 27), the Jews are reported to have willingly accepted the guilt for Jesus’ death-for themselves and for their children. In Matthew, Pilate, the only one with the legal authority to sanction a crucifixion, tries but fails to talk any angry mob out of sending Jesus to his death.  The same Pilate that Luke describes as “mingling the blood of Galileans with sacrifices” and who other sources describe as brutally squashing any rebellion, is described by Matthew as so afraid of the crowd that he relinquishes his power and washes his hands of responsibility.

Some scholars attempt to take away the scandal of Matthew’s account by setting it in the context of 1st century Christian attempts to avoid the wrath of Rome. They see in Matthew the beginning of a trend toward shifting blame from the Romans to the Jews.  They remind us that the gospel writers had political as well as religious motives, and that biblical language about the Jews (as well as about everything else) reflects as much the concerns of later Christian communities as those of the time of Jesus.

But understanding Matthew historically doesn’t the power of its words away.  Rather, it calls interpreters to take responsibility for the implications of the texts they read.  For Christians, it calls for taking ownership of the power of our texts and for finding new energy and new energies for eradicating hate.   Good beginning reading includes Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide and Clark Williamson’s Has God Rejected His People?

One complication of attention to the Holocaust is that it has made it difficult for many Jews and Christians to question the policies of the state of Israel or to acknowledge the claims of Palestinians.  Marc Ellis’ Unholy Alliance traces this problem within Judaism, and Palestinian authors talk about the problem as well, such as Mitri Raheb.

In my judgement, combating anti-Judaism doesn’t demand uncritical support of the state of Israel or denying the claims of Palestinians.  Rather, the goal is to counteract hate wherever it is found.

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Listening to Stories, in the Past and in the Present

I’m a big fan of audiobooks.  I download titles from our county library to my .mp3 player and listen in the car.  Mostly, I listen to the works of Lee Smith, who sets moving stories in the American South, often tracing the contours of a family through numerous generations.

Listening to the tales aloud is a very different experience than reading the print versions. When I read, I often go too fast, pushing ahead to the gist of the material and unconsciously skipping a lot of it.  With an audiobook, I can’t control the pace of the story.  Unless I choose to fast-forward, I have to listen at the speed the narrator (director?) has chosen.  And I have to listen carefully, since I can’t flip back to re-read about characters. I hear more in the story than when I read silently, especially Smith’s gift at capturing the nuances of different classes and regions within southern culture.

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