The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Making It Plain: Biblical Bible Study

photoFrom Nehemiah 8, verses 2 and 8:

So Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the assembly, both women and men and all who could hear with understanding… they read from the scroll, from the Teaching of God, making it plain. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

[Watch sermon here]

This morning, on your Scholarship Sunday our topic is bible study in the bible. And if this bible study on bible study in the bible had a title, it would be Making It Plain. Let us pray: Open our eyes, so that we may behold wondrous things out of your word. Amen.

On this Scholarship Sunday, my goal is to make it plain. That is one of the heart scriptures of womanists. A womanist is a sister who has the good sense who know who she is in God, to know that God made her in God’s good image, who values the radiant blackness of her creation [click to tweet] and community and sees them at the center of God’s love. A womanist is a feminist – yes, she believes women and men are equally created in the image of God and equally called to serve. A womanist loves herself, loves her folk including the brothers, and has a special love for her sisters without reservation, desperately needed in these days the world continues to teach is that a womanist’s work is never done.

The extravagance of violence against women that has erupted far beyond its normal catastrophic levels this week and this month makes it plain that the work of womanizes, along with those who love and care for us, partner us, live with us and are raising the next generation of womanizes with or without us, is not done and will not be done until girls and women can walk down the street in safety, learn to read and write and raise themselves and their people out of poverty without being kidnapped, sold, raped into marriage and forcibly impregnated, wear anything they want and say no to sex without being beaten or raped and say yes to sex without being slut-shamed, [tweet this] raped later on or treated like they are anything but a child of God. A womanist’s work is never done.

And now that Mother Maya has gone to her rest we must not let her work go unfinished. There are too many little girls whose bodies are broken into by grown men [tweet quote], too many women selling their bodies to make ends meet – often not even their own ends but those of the men and women who profit off of them, too many beautiful black girls and women told that their blackness is not beautiful, too many caged birds who have lost their song for us to do anything but cherish every human child of God [tweet!] and raise our voices when anyone threatens any one. Mother Maya: Our feet cannot fit your shoes. But you did not call us to your work but to our own. Our feet fit our shoes. We walk with your memory guiding us as we too do the work.

Now I know that not all women are womanists or even feminists and, the women in scripture didn’t necessarily look at the world the way we do, so I’m not going to say they were womanists. I’m just going to suggest they had some womanist ways. And perhaps some of you do too. And brothers, while there is no small amount of academic debate on the topic of whether a brother can be a womanist or not, there is no doubt that our brother allies are partners on the journey, supported and supporting. We’re making it plain this morning.

That’s what our lesson is about, making it plain. The scripture says Ezra brought the Teaching of God, the scriptures before the assembly, both women and men. Now some of you will see the word “Law,” when you read this in your own bibles. But that’s not a complete translation because the word of God includes more than Law. The word torah comes from a root that means everything God rains down on the earth from revelation to rain. Torah includes story and song, judgment and law, prayer and praise and all for our edification, our study. So I follow the tradition of the rabbis and translate Torah as “Teaching.” Making it plain for those who think the Torah or even the First Testament is just about rules. I often say there is torah in the Torah but not all Torah is torah. But on the other hand the entire scripture is considered to be torah.

Now that we’ve sorted that out, let us return to the torah, the teaching, of Ezra. Ezra is set in the Iron Age and it was the expectation that women and men participate together fully in the study of the word in the Iron Age. (Somebody needs to tell the Hampton Ministers Conference that they ought to be at least as inclusive as our ancestors were at this moment in time the Iron Age.) That’s what I mean by they had womanist ways – sometimes – in ancient Israel. Other times their Iron Age ways were best left back in the Iron Age.

Our scripture lesson also says, women and men and all who could hear with understanding. Now let me tell you as a biblical scholar, the Israelites didn’t have much of a concept of childhood. Most of the verses you know about parents and children are actually speaking to adult children because households were multigenerational and there is no small amount of conflict when there are multiple sets of grown folks under the same roof. I think it’s a blessing that the bible understand that not everybody can live with mama and ‘em without some difficulty, sometimes. But in this case, when the word of God is being shared in the beloved community, children are welcome and intentionally included. Any child who was mature enough to attend to the scriptures was welcome. There was no age of maturity specified because children mature at different ages. Children are part of the household of God and God has a word for them. [tweet]

Think about this: if the grown women and grown men and growing-up and half-grown girls and boys were there, where do you think the babies, toddlers and young children who didn’t know what all was going on were? A womanist’s work is never done. It was the Iron Age and the work of nurturing baby Bellas fell primarily on mamas. The sisters were nursing and carrying babies, wrasslin’ and wrangling toddlers, all while studying the word. I have no doubt that at least some of the menfolk shared in parenting. They were all there together, everyone but the sick and shut in and incarcerated.

This passage is making it plain that all of us women and men and all who can hear with understanding are called to the study of the word, to wade in the waters of the word. It’s not just for pastors and seminarians and biblical scholars. All of us are called to the study of the word, not just in private, but together, in community. And the little ones ought to be about underfoot so that they can grow up and into the word as a regular and familiar part of life.

But Ezra’s bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to in the congregation where the pastor or designated teacher teaches or preaches, or everybody reads a verse and says what it means to them. This bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to in the classroom where masters and doctoral students study the word in its original words: Hebrew words, Aramaic words, Greek words, a couple of Persian words, Egyptian words. This bible study doesn’t look like the bible studies I’m used to where you find only a fraction of the saints in study you see on Sunday morning in bible study on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night – though I don’t imagine anybody at St. Paul’s knows what I’m talking about.

In addition to involving nearly everybody and their mama, this bible study differs from the bible studies I see most often in that it was a long service. I mean a long service; it lasted from first light until midday. That’s about six hours. (I don’t plan to be before you that long, but I might be here a minute.) They read the bible in Hebrew. I like that. But the people didn’t understand Hebrew anymore. So the clergy, the Levites, who did understand Hebrew came down off the bema, the pulpit, went out among the people and translated the scriptures into Aramaic, the language people spoke and understood. But translating the scriptures into the people’s language wasn’t enough, so interpreted it, they gave the sense, in other words, they made it plain. The clergy went down, among the people and talked to them, one on one or in small groups. They waded in the waters of the word together.

You see, the teaching team was prepared; they were trained in the word in its original words and able to translate it into the people’s languages: Foreign languages, common language, slang language, street language, hip-hop language, play language, country language, city language, old school language, children’s language, ethical language, philosophical language, black church language, sadiddy language, grandmother’s language. Hebrew literate and Hebrew illiterate, clergy and lay, we are all called to be biblical scholars and wade in the waters of the word. [tweet!]

I’d love it if you all studied Hebrew – or even Greek. But that’s not necessarily what the text is teaching us. I don’t know how Ezra’s clergy staff was educated, but I do know they were able to translate and interpret the scriptures, making it plain because they were trained to do so and their community supported their training. On this Scholarship Sunday someone here has a call to prepare to make it plain and wade in the waters of the word at a different depth. Someone here has a call to support a seminarian or a doctoral student or a seminary or institution of higher education. Virtually all of the universities in the West were built by church folk. Black church folk built some of the finest colleges and universities, seminaries, medical and law schools in the world. [tweet!] And some of us were blessed to be their beneficiaries.

The last point about this Bible study that I want us to take note of today is that this bible study was not in the sanctuary or even a private home, it was in the street. It was worship without walls. I love a beautiful sanctuary. I love church architecture. I love a gorgeous cathedral brushing the outskirts of heaven with its spires. But I don’t need walls to worship. Sometimes we get so attached to the walls we lose sight of the work. The story of Israel is a reminder that the walls will not always be there. Walls can fall, walls can crumble, walls can be broken down. Enemy forces can break through walls and saboteurs can undermine and weaken walls, leaving them vulnerable to attack. And some folk worship their walls.

Let me tell you the story of the walls of Jerusalem. From the Stone Age, more than 1000 years before Abraham, more than 3500 years before Jesus, more than five thousand, five hundred and fourteen years before you and me here today, the City of Peace, Ir Shalom, Yerushalayim, has been encircled by walls from before from the time Hebrew was written in picture form like hieroglyphics. And from those days until the present day the walls of Jerusalem have been built and torn down, rebuilt and broken through, rebuilt and bombed, rebuilt and remain a center of conflict. [tweet this]

When David and his troops captured Jerusalem and built new walls, the city was more than 2500 years old. I’m sure it seemed like those walls would always be there. The walls of Jerusalem grew with the city as it grew across the ages: 12 acres when David got there, 15 by the time he died, Solomon built to 32 acres and God moved into its walls. God dwelled within the walls of Jerusalem. Surely those walls wound never fall. The psalmist was sure they were invincible: Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. The united monarchy crumbled in the hands of Solomon’s son but the walls held. Who could ever imagine the walls of Zion, Jerusalem, falling or failing?

In Hezekiah’s time as the city and its walls expanded to 125 acres, that theory was put to the test. The Assyrians were boiling across the land to crush Egypt and Israel and Judah were in their path. They swarmed Israel and the twelve tribes were no more. All that was left was Judah and a little piece of Benjamin with some Simeonites in their midst. They sent Hezekiah a letter telling him what they would do once they broke through the walls of Jerusalem and his folk begged them to stop speaking in a language the people could understand to avoid a full fledged panic because they knew that all of Israel to the north had been shipped off and put to work share cropping for the Assyrians. (The languages were reversed then, the people understood Hebrew but not Aramaic. In Ezra’s time they understood Aramaic but not Hebrew. Preachers, teachers and scholars are you keeping up with what the people are speaking? One day your expensive seminary education will be out of date and what are you going to do then? [tweet!] Scholarship Sunday is for you too. Never stop learning, never stop studying.)

The walls in Israel north of Judah hadn’t protected them. Hezekiah also knew that the Assyrians were vicious. They would skin folk alive, cut them in pieces and put bodies and parts on poles around the cities they ran to keep folk in line. Hezekiah took that Assyrian letter and spread it out before God inside the walls of Jerusalem and the walls held. Not only did they hold, but the Assyrians turned around without slinging so much as a stone and never came back. It was a miracle. Historians and scholars to this day cannot explain why the Assyrians broke off and never returned. Hezekiah and his people were sure. God’s house was within those walls. God was within those walls. And God held the walls of Jerusalem in safety.

But let me make it plain for your this morning. Ezra and his people were worshipping outside the walls because no wall on earth will stand forever. Some time after Hezekiah went to his grave, Nebuchadnezzar came. And the walls held again. The Babylonians were picking up where the Assyrians left off. They were going to rule the world. They were going to go to and through Egypt and Judah was a speed bump on their way. But then the walls began to fall. The king of Judah held onto his throne and what was left of his walls by bowing down to Nebuchadnezzar. Then Nebuchadnezzar got distracted and Judah asked Egypt to help save its walls. Some folk are so invested in the walls that they will do anything to preserve them, no matter what it costs. Somebody in Judah was willing to go back to the land of slavery if it would help them hang onto those walls a little while longer.

Sometimes people change. Sometimes they really do. But Egypt hadn’t become Israel’s deliverer. I don’t know if they set them up, but I do know that they didn’t come through with the back up. Egypt stayed within their walls, Judah rebelled against Babylon and got caught up with no back up and Nebuchadnezzar came back to the walls of Jerusalem. And the walls held again. But this was no divine deliverance. There was no need for Nebuchadnezzar to break down the walls of Jerusalem, this time. The king opened the gates and surrendered. He didn’t just surrender himself. He surrendered er’body, including mama ‘n ‘em: he surrendered his army, he surrendered his officers, he surrendered his servants, he surrendered his palace officials and he surrendered his mother, the Queen Mother. By the way, marrying a king didn’t make you a queen in the Judean system but giving birth to one did. (That’s another bible study.)

We’re talking about the story of the walls of Jerusalem. We’re talking about the people gathered to hear and study the word of God in the book of Ezra outside of the temple complex where they would regularly have had services. We are talking about what the bible teaches us about bible study: That you have to go deep in the text, that you have to go through more than one text to understand what is happening in the text you are studying. We are making it plain this morning.

In Ezra the community was in an open square on the east side of the city by the Water Gate. If you’re going to do good bible study you have to know geography. [tweet!] They were south of the temple and its layers of walls and gates. They were out in the open with no defensive walls, no sanctuary walls. They understood that they could no longer rely on the walls of Jerusalem to protect them because of what happened when Nebuchadnezzar came back the second time.

Their walls fell. The city walls fell. The palace walls fell. The temple walls fell. They were defenseless. They were defeated. They were decimated. They were deported. They were for all intents and purposes enslaved again. They couldn’t go home or anywhere else. They could be forced to serve as soldiers or farmers, have their children taken, their religion forbidden. Exile doesn’t do it justice.

The walls didn’t just fall, they were demolished. Psalm 74 describes the Babylonians destroying the temple:

Psalm 74:4 Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it to the ground…

The walls of Jerusalem were demolished. The folk certainly didn’t have any walls in captivity. But they had the word. They had the spoken word. When the Babylonians said that their god, Marduk was king and tore down Jerusalem’s walls, the Israelites said and wrote, In the beginning God… Then they had the written word. The Israelites had begun writing down the stories their ancestors and prophets told them about God before the devastation, but in exile they kicked it into high gear. The truth is, it’s easier to find ourselves in the word when the world is against us. [tweet that]

The exiled Israelites waded in the waters of the word here in their worship outside the walls. They read the word and heard the word, taught the word and interpreted the word. This community of reconstituted exiles didn’t just wade in the waters of the word, they waded into the deep waters of the word and stayed there awhile. At one level, this is a text about bible study. At other levels it’s about so such more. As Ezra and the clergy staff helped the people get past superficial understandings of the scriptures, they offer us a model for our own scripture study. My charge to you as you go forward in your biblical scholarship, whatever form it takes is to make it plain, remembering a womanist’s work is never done, worship beyond the walls and wade in the waters of the word. Amen.

 

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  1. Pingback: Jesus Wasn’t A Slut-Shamer or How Conservative Theology Harms Black Women | The Crunk Feminist Collective

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