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


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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2012 and the Noah Narrative

In a recent  New York Times review of the new movie 2012, Manohla Dargis twice links the destruction-of-the-world movie with the Bible.

She describes the unlikely pairing off of survivors  as the “Noah’s ark theory of onscreen hookups (two of every kind),” and her final tag claims that  the movie depicts “Old Testament style destruction served with a smile.”

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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.



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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Thinking through Biblical Violence

In the spring 2010 semester at LTS, I’ll be teaching a new course:  Violence and the Bible.

I first envisioned the course 5 years ago, as an extension of a course I already teach (Prophets of Divine Wrath:  Nahum, Obadiah, and Malachi), work I’d done in my Nahum volume, and workshops I’d given in churches.

Now it’s time to give the course shape and select readings.  So, I turn to readers with questions:


  • Which violent biblical stories most deserve attention?
  • What readings have been helpful to you as you consider biblical violence?
  • What approaches to biblical violence do you find most helpful?
  • What does this course just have to talk about?
  • What concrete examples can you offer of the “spillover” of biblical violence into the world?
  • What other questions should I be asking?
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Trying to Understand a Ripped Jesus

I’ve never thought of Jesus as meek and mild, but I also never imagined Jesus the way I saw him depicted on a billboard in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a few years ago.



Ever since I saw this billboard, I’ve been curious about its origin, whether it’s unique or part of a genre, etc.

But I’ve never taken up the task of researching it.  So instead I’m asking folks around the world.  Have you ever seen billboards or other public depictions of Jesus like this? Know anything about its origin?  Those of you who’ve been to Myrtle Beach lately, is it still there?  Do you know who paid for its display?

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100 million Missing Women

The August 23, 2009, issue of The New York Times Magazine was devoted to how women are faring around the world—their political status, economic standing, and health.

The statistics are sobering.  Across the globe, women are not getting the same health care and access to food as men.  They are less likely to be vaccinated and are selectively aborted. They are more likely than men to be sold into slavery and killed by beating.

Experts estimate that there are 100 million missing women: 100 million fewer women in the world than birthrates would project. That’s more women dead than all the men killed on battlefields in the 20th century, more than all persons killed in the genocides of the 20th c.

Contrary to popular assumption, “developed” societies don’t necessarily treat women any better than developing nations. The education level and economic success of a society do not guarantee high status for women.  According to an article by Tina Rosenberg, the sole determinant for  women’s low social status is patriarchy.  No matter how wealthy or educated a society is, if men are privileged women will suffer.

The issue offers some good news.  There is something that helps:  microlending to women.  Women who are loaned small amounts of money (sometimes the equivalent of $20) not only dramatically improve their own lives but also those of their families and their communities.  From a sheer economic standpoint, lending to women is more effective than lending to men:  women feed and educate their children and employ others. Several profiles of women put flesh on those statistics, telling moving stories of how women who are financially empowered are able to radically change their health and the power dynamics within their families. (Want to offer a microloan to a woman?  Go to kiva.org.)

As I read this issue, I was struck by several things.  One is how familiar the statistics sound tto those who know about the status of women in the periods described in the Bible.  As I described in my earlier post Eat Like an Israelite?,  Israelite women received less nutrition than men: skeletal remains from ancient Israel indicate that the average height of an ancient woman was 152 cm (close to 5 ft), while the height of an ancient man was 171 cm (5 ft 7 in).  Reading about high rates of maternal death and early pregnancies in Africa and Asia reminded me of reading Carol Meyers’ description of early Israel in Discovering Eve.

But, mainly, I was struck by how these articles were able to document in detail the detrimental effects of patriarchy—not just the psychological but also the physical, economic, and social. Too often in current political and religious debates, the role of women is treated as a matter of taste, a lifestyle choice.  This issue underscores the old maxim that the personal is the political.  Patriarchy starves people.  Aborts people.  Batters and rapes people.  And 100 million human beings are missing because of it.

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Theology: The Public Option

Tonight, I’m the guest speaker at the Theology with a Twist meeting at the Kutztown (PA) Tavern.  This program, like ones called Theology on Tap, offers a public option for those interested in theological conversation.  While it is supported by churches, its founders recognize that people inside church buildings aren’t the only ones who care about life after death, what the Bible has to say about marriage, the ethics of immigration reform, and a myriad other concerns.

My topic tonight is violence and the Bible.  Here’s the blurb:

A Good Book or Not?  Violence and the Bible

For a book that’s supposed to be good, the Bible certainly includes a lot of violence–threatening, smiting, conquering, and raping.  What’s a Christian, or any responsible reader, to do with these biblical accounts?  Should we just pretend they aren’t there? Explain them away somehow?  Assume that they really are OK because, after all, they are in the Bible?

Julia M. O’Brien, Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, will invite the Theology with a Twist crowd to talk about the violence in the Old and New Testaments. She’ll then share her own current thinking about these texts, as well as her dissatisfaction with the way most Christians respond to them.

If you’re in the area, we’d love to have you join us.  The conversation starts at 7 pm.

If you’re not and are interested, check back with the blog later.  I’ll post my talking points.


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