Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “biblical interpretation

The Forehead of a Whore


#MeToo. I am one of the many, many women who have been targeted, touched, sexually harassed or assaulted and lived to tell the tale. But all of us did not survive our attackers. We were exposed to that which we did not want to see or touch, forced to experience that to which we did not consent. We were at home in our beds, at school in the bathroom, in the doctor’s office under sedation, walking home, at a trusted friend’s apartment, in the arms of a lover, on our grandfather’s lap, at work and at church.

And when we mustered up the strength to tell, they asked: What were you wearing? What were you doing there/with him/that late? Didn’t you have sex with him or someone else earlier that day/week/year?

As a biblical scholar, what I hear them saying, those folks who ask why you didn’t tell then don’t believe you when you do, what I hear them saying is: You have the forehead of a whore.

Have you ever noticed that Israel and Judah become female when the prophets want to use sexualized rhetoric to shame and verbally batter them? On the one hand it’s: out of Egypt have I called my son (Hosea 11:1), and on the other: You have polluted the land with your whoring (here in Jeremiah 3). It is: I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob, (Mic 2:12), and: a spirit of whoredom has led my people astray, (Hos 4:12). There is: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? (Hos 11:18) And then there is: you have the forehead of a whore and you refuse to be ashamed.

When we talk about the rape culture that permeates every facet of our society—and we need to talk about it—we also need to talk about the rape culture that permeates the text we hold sacred and acknowledge that every sexist and misogynistic reading of scripture is not merely a matter of poor biblical interpretation. Sometimes the trouble is in the text itself. But I believe in a God, who though she can be found in, and is revealed by the text, is not limited to or by the text and its limitations. I believe in a God who transcends the text and is not revealed in literal or literary rape rhetoric.

I also believe Jeremiah’s preaching would benefit if he had a womanist conversation partner. A womanist is a black woman whose feminism is so rich, deep, thick, broad, and wide, it moves beyond the mere self-interest of paler feminisms to embrace the wellbeing of the whole community. Womanism is brash, bold, and brazen—like the forehead of a whore. Womanism is womanish and talks back—with a hand upon her hip. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to be so womanist, so womanish, that I’m going to talk back to Jeremiah this morning. And I just believe that the God who answered Rebekah’s prayer when she thought her pregnancy was going to kill her can bear the weight of critical reflection. It’s a mighty poor excuse for a god that cannot bear scrutiny.

So let us take a womanist walk through the text together. In our lesson today, Jeremiah is speaking out of his culture and identity. He is saying: In my day, men don’t take a woman back whom they have divorced, and even those who would, will not if she has moved on to someone else. But I am here to tell you this morning that God will take us back no matter where we have gone, what we have done, or what has been done to us.

Jeremiah is saying a woman who has moved on is polluted. But I am here to tell you what our ancestors passed down because womanist wisdom is motherwit and ancestral wisdom: the love of God reaches from the uttermost to the gutter-most. Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, to keep God’s from loving you.

In Jeremiah’s sermonic analogy, the woman like—some in his congregation and perhaps in this one—was put out. We know that because women in ancient Israel didn’t have the ability to divorce. They were divorced. And now that she has moved on and picked up the pieces of her life the best way she knows how, he wants to call her out of her name. You know black women don’t stand for that.

Abandoned black women have been making a way out of no way while being called out of our names for more than four hundred years on this continent. And even if some daughter of God chooses a strategy for survival that does not represent the best God has in store for her, she is still never separate from the love or faithfulness of God.

Jeremiah’s analogy doesn’t hold water with me because doesn’t break God’s promises, commitments or covenants. God has never divorced or abandoned God’s people. But God’s people have been hurt, on God’s watch. Israel and Judah fell. Their people were enslaved by one regime after another, defeated, deported, disbanded, diasporized. Their daughters subject to all the violence Jeremiah uses in his sermon. We too have been harmed. Our people were subject to the same depredations.

Jeremiah here is like a lot of folk who want to know what you did that made it possible for this catastrophe to happen to you. He sounds almost like a prosperity preacher. He asks with no pastoral presence whatsoever, where have you not been violated? Jeremiah is confusing sex and rape and blaming the cast off woman for what has happened to her in his own metaphor. For Jeremiah, like some folk in our time, being raped makes you a whore. In verse 2, the word shugalt’ is passive. (The root שגל means abducted and ravaged.) It means to have been violated. You didn’t do it; it was done to you. There is no preposition indicating participation, no “with,”  no consent. When Isaiah uses the same word the text says, “ravished,” (Isa 13:16); in Zechariah (14:2) it is “raped.” The reason some women and men can’t stand up and say #MeToo is some folk will blame them for their own rape thinking and saying: You have the forehead of a whore.

Bishop Yvette Flunder taught us that as preachers and theologians the prophets and epistle-writing apostles are our colleagues and we can respectfully disagree with them. I say to Jeremiah what I would say to any preacher, male or female, ancient or contemporary, you don’t have to sexualize, brutalize, or slut-shame women to call the people back to the God who loves them more parent or partner. Your prophetic vocabulary is too rich to be limited to that misanthropic trope. You can do better. You need to do better. God’s people deserve better. And God requires better of you. Stop being petty Jeremiah. Jealous ex doesn’t look good on God. God is bigger than that.

Some might say that’s just the way it was or everybody spoke like that back then. After all we’re talking about the Iron Age, not the most progressive of times. Well I’m here to tell you that the prophets Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Nathan, Gad, Iddo, Elijah, Elisha, Obadiah, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi never once fixed their lips to pass off their pornotropic fantasies as the word of God. Jesus never used that language, perhaps because that’s how some folk talked about his mama.

Not all prophets use the specter of rape as God’s punishment for sin. Not all prophets call God’s people whores. But Jeremiah did and he wasn’t alone; Isaiah and Ezekiel, Hosea and Nahum fall into what I call homiletical heresy. Out of one side of their mouths they proclaim Israel and Judah are God’s beloved daughters. On the other side of their mouths, or perhaps talking out of their necks, when Israel and Judah fall and fail as do all finite and frail human beings and institutions, they suddenly become these brazen whores who deserve to be beaten and raped because that’s what you do when you catch your woman cheating on you, in their world view which is not mine, nor is it God’s, in spite of what texts like these say. The very idea is rooted in the sanctification of physical and sexual domestic violence.

The Dean of womanist biblical interpretation, the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems taught us why the prophets use such language, (in Battered Love). They did the best they knew if not the best they could. They used what they saw in their world and in themselves, and recounted a God who looked more like an Iron Age warrior king bigger and badder than the one next door than a God whose grace and mercy are sufficient and unmerited. They used human relational paradigms to describe their relationship with God but humans and our institutions are fatally flawed. Humans can turn any relationship, system or institution designed for love and nurture, caring, companionship, and mutual support, liberation and justice, into violent abusive parodies of their intended purpose. All of the models Israel has given us are flawed because they are human as we are human.

We say God is the righteous judge of all flesh. But we know that justice is not blind. She sees skin color and bank balances and perverts justice accordingly. We know that judges are partial and though we may say that God is not, we like Israel expect God to judge in our favor whether we are right or wrong.

We say God is our parent, some say father; some say mother. Our ancestors said God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. But sadly we know mother and father are not always pillars of safety and security. They can be violent, abusive, and emotionally crippling. The scriptures portray God as loving father but also one who rages against his children. And like any other Iron Age male in the bible God is invested in controlling the sexual purity of women whose value is tied up in their virginity, ability to make babies, and the degree to which they were under male control. Interestingly, when the scriptures portray God as mother she is not as violent.

We have been taught to say God is king but kings in the ancient world were warlords who secured their thrones with the broken and battered bodies of their enemies, often killing their wives and children.

We have been taught to say God is lord and master but those are slaveholding terms. And slaves in the ancient world as in our own ancestry were used like beasts of burden, maimed, raped, sold, and killed with neither thought nor consequence. Even when lord becomes a title of nobility it still rests on the notion of some human beings lorded over others.

We have been taught to say God is husband but it is in the role of husband that the prophets who proclaim liberation also proclaim words of violence rooted in violence against women and call it the word of God.

You have the forehead of a whore…

Jeremiah heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of his culture. From our perch in this century we see and hear differently through our own vernacular. I know it seem like I’ve been rough on Jeremiah. But I’m not giving up on him anymore than I’m giving up on any other passage in the bible that fails to live up to or into God’s liberating love. I’m just going to follow the example of Jesus who said, you have seen it written, but I say unto you…

You have seen it written, “You have the forehead of a whore.” But I say unto you:

You have the forehead of the kind of woman some men, especially religious men like Jeremiah, will call a whore. You have the forehead of a woman who will make her own decisions about her body and sexuality. You have the forehead of a woman who will decide for herself whether or when to have children. You have the forehead of a woman who will not submit to male domination in or out of the sacred texts. You have the forehead of a woman who will resist theology and biblical interpretation that does not affirm who you are, who and how you love, or who God created you to be. You have the forehead of a woman whom men will call a whore to put you in your place. You have the forehead of a woman who is unbought and unbosssed. You have the forehead of a woman who has survived rape and sexual assault and domestic violence. You have the forehead of a woman who has been blamed for the violence others visited upon her person and you brazenly rejected it.

You are brazen in your womanishness. You brazenly talk back to the text and its God. You brazenly talk back to Jeremiah and say you can miss me with that whore talk. And you can tell him: But I’m with you on the God who calls backsliders (משבה) and backstabbers (בגודה) to faithfulness. I’m down with the God who says, I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful. And yes, you can have it both ways. You don’t have to subject yourself to Iron Age brutality or theology to turn to the God Jeremiah burdens with the biases of his culture.

At the end of our lesson God promises to give her people shepherds after her own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. In Jeremiah’s context, that meant restoring the monarchy, but those days are long gone. In our time shepherds are priests, preachers, and pastors, not presidents or potentates.

Through Jeremiah who has survived this womanist critique, God promises to send us shepherds who will feed us with knowledge and understanding. I know there are some shepherds out there preaching like it’s still the Iron Age, talking about women and our bodies like we’re everything but daughters of God. But when God sends the shepherd, her heart will be patterned after God’s heart and she will leave you with knowledge not shame, understanding, not name-calling.

Then we can create a world where all men teach other men and boys not to rape, where there are no women or men, girls or boys who are violated or violate another’s body or consent. Then we will stop equating rape with sex. Then we will stop punishing women for being raped or having sex. Then we will hear women and men who say #MeToo. Then we will be empowered to use the richness of our theological imaginations to name God in ways that don’t hurt or harm.

Jewish poet Ruth Brin, (A Woman’s Meditation), put it this way:
When men were children, they thought of God as a father; When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master; 
When men were subjects, they thought of God as a king. 
But I am a woman come not a slave, not a subject, not a child who longs for God as father or mother. I might imagine God as a teacher or friend, but those images, like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now. God is the force of motion and light in the universe; 
God is the strength of life on our planet; God is the power moving us to do good; God is the source of love springing up in us. 
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.

No one has the right to call you a whore to put you in the place they think you belong. But if they do, tell them: I have the forehead of a whore and I am not ashamed.

Jeremiah 3:1 Look here! If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?
Would not such a land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers; would you return to me, says the Holy One.
2 Lift your eyes upon the bare heights, and see! Where have you not been violated?
By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness.
3 So, rain showers have been withheld, and the late rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed.
4 Have you not just now called to me, “My Father, you are the companion of my youth!
5 Will God be angry forever, will God rage for eternity?”
This is how you have spoken, but you have done all the evil you could.
6 The Holy One said to me in the days of King Josiah, “Have you seen what backsliding Israel did, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and whored there? 7 I said, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return, and her backstabbing sister Judah saw it. 8 Surely I saw it; for because of all the adulteries backsliding Israel committed, I put her out and gave her a divorce decree; yet her backstabbing sister Judah did not fear, so she also went and whored. 9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and wood. 10 Yet for all this her backstabbing sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in deceit,” says the Holy One.
11   Then the Holy One said to me, “Backsliding Israel has shown herself less guilty than backstabbing Judah. 12 Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say:
Turn back, backsliding Israel, says the Holy One.
I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful, says the Holy One; I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the Holy One your God,
and there are paths to you for strangers scattered under every green tree, 
and my voice you all have not obeyed, says the Holy One.
14 Return, O backsliding children, says the Holy One,
for I am your master; I will take you all, 
one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you all to Zion.
15 And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.

 
Translation by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.+


When Scripture is Violent

 

Pixaby

I love the Hebrew Scriptures and their stories but I understand why some folk have a hard time with them, particularly as scripture. Many of these epic stories include epic episodes of violence, sometimes at the bequest of God, sometimes enacted by God. It is easy to treat these stories like novels, movies, or video games, something we enjoy then put down to return to real lives where we do not behave like those characters. Speaking for myself, I love action movies: crime capers, shoot ‘em ups, superheroes, intergalactic battles, the occasional vampire or werewolf rampaging…

There is a difference, I believe, between turning to a movie or book you know is fiction for entertainment and reading your scriptures for inspiration, guidance, to discern God’s voice, or for a pattern on which to model your life. We are in a time when we are reassessing our ancestral legacies as a nation and as Church, and grappling with the horrific violence that is often our unwelcome inheritance. We are having serious conversations—when we’re not shouting at each other—about what to do with the physical reminders of our painful past, not just statues, but also churches in which all of the images of the holy people of God are white people. In these conversations I understand my role as a biblical scholar and priest to be to help us think about the ways in which we, nation and Church, have used the stories of scripture to harm rather than heal.

I also know that not all of the harm resulting from our interaction with the scriptures is just a matter of poor interpretation or even my personal nemesis, bad translation. Sometimes the stories themselves are the problem, and sometimes a well-worn and beloved story suddenly starts to look and sound different—like when you first started to understand how violent and downright gruesome some fairytales and nursery rhymes really are.

Sometimes the violence in scripture is illustrative and reflective, it tells some hard truths about who human beings have been and continue to be. Sometimes the violence in scripture encourages us to choose sides, good guys/bad guys, and we may find ourselves cheering for what happens to them, because they deserve it for what they did to us.

Exodus 14 tells the saga of the Red Sea crossing, one of the great stories in our heritage. Our lesson begins in verse 19 where the Israelites are safely ensconced in the wings of divine protection on their perilous journey. There is an angel in font of them and God herself, the divine hijabi, veiled in the pillar of cloud and fire behind them, protecting them from the army that wants to drag them back in chains to slavery. It is no small irony that the founders of this nation, who identified themselves with Israel and as God’s chosen, felt no compunction about enslaving others even as they celebrated Israel’s own deliverance from slavery. But then again, to tell the truth—especially in church—neither did Israel. They went on to be a slaveholding nation as well.

But at this point in the story assigned to us today, Israel is walking into their liberation, guided and guarded by God. Then God enables Moses to open the sea. We can imagine the spectacle much more easily than our ancestors because we have movies with special effects like CGI. Some of the disaster movies are better than the many versions of the Ten Commandments and other bible epics at portraying waters that reach up and out as far as the eye can see.

Understandably, the Egyptians flee. But that isn’t good enough. In the text God tells Moses to put the waters back in place which will drown the Egyptian soldiers. The text doesn’t care about the Egyptian soldiers as people, who have lives, families and loved ones, whose lives have value. In the text and in their world the Egyptian soldiers were simply an extension of the Pharaoh and they become casualties in his losing contest with God, one that he could not back down from even when he wanted to because God hardened his heart and made him stay in a losing fight. These are difficult portrayals of God mixed in with the shepherding sheltering images that are much more inviting and trustworthy.

This is not the one-dimensional God of our childhood’s faith. This is a complex and complicated character who is often inscrutable. The scriptures teach we are made in the image of God while offering a God who sometimes seems to be made in the image of humanity, showcasing all the worst parts. I ask my students if these portrayals tell us more about who God is or more about who ancient folk were and how they understood God. Sometimes I find it’s one, sometimes the other, sometimes a bit of both.

Can we, as thoughtful readers still treasure this story of divine deliverance without celebrating the deaths of men whose families would ache for their loss as much as you would for your brother, father, husband, or son? I believe we can because what makes these texts scripture, the living word of a living God, is their ability to transcend their context and its limitations even when it is reflected in their content. Indeed the psalm models that for us. Psalm 114 remembers the exodus by celebrating God’s power over the elements. It doesn’t glorify or gloat over the loss of life—though other psalmists will. Savoring the richness of scripture means savoring its complexity the way we savor bitter and sweet mingled on our tongues.

I find the gospels are increasingly bittersweet. There we encounter in Jesus an image of God that is radical and revolutionary, and rooted in the culture and context into which Jesus was born. Jesus models and teaches a beloved community and sovereign realm that is and will be nothing like the petty vicious kingdoms of this world yet does so using the same language that describes them, the language of kings and slaves, both of which are inherently violent concepts. And when Jesus teaches us how to live and love in this world that is being transformed by his redemption of it and us, his language and teaching examples often include the irredeemable practice of slavery without critique.

This too is violent. There is real danger in normalizing or even minimizing the brutality that underlies slaveholding in the ancient world, in the scriptures, in our own past, and at the present moment when black lives are taken without consequence. Yet, I am convinced that neither the casual violence of slavery as an inescapable element of the biblical world nor the romanticizing of God as a king in a world when kings were little more than warlords, nor even the graphic violence in some of scripture’s great stories are grounds for leaving it behind. Rather they call us to listen, read, and hear deeply, what the Spirit is saying to her people.

In Matthew 18 Jesus tells a story to answer Peter’s question how often he has to forgive his sister or bother, meaning another Christian. Rather than focus on this text as a how-to-resolve-conflict-in-the-Church resource, which is a fine reading, I want to point out that Peter is talking about a world in which there is still an us and a them. He feels no moral responsibility to anyone outside their circle. He doesn’t consider that he has an ethical obligation to them the same as he does to those who are part of his community. Forgiveness is what God demands; it is justice in this text. And Peter like too many folk in our justice system and wider society have different ideas about justice when it comes to us and them.

In response to Peter’s question Jesus tells the story of a king and his slaves, their debt, and its consequences presenting an opportunity for us to examine the way we read scripture then to read more deeply. For example, we hear Jesus tell a story about a king and may get ahead of ourselves and say, “I know how this works. God is king. Done. Got it. Next.” But is the king in this parable God? I sure hope not. Just because Jesus is telling the story and using this character to teach us doesn’t make the king God or even a good example to follow.

Look at this guy. The king’s first impulse when his slave fails is to sell him, his wife, and their children. That is the opposite of the God who saves, delivers, redeems, and liberates though we hear this kind of theology all the time, in and out of the bible. I don’t believe in a God who sells people into slavery to punish them. Then, when the king hears that the first slave failed to show the mercy he was shown, the king had him tortured. That is not my God. But there are many who believe in a God who punishes with tornado and hurricane and every bad thing that befalls a person or community. You can hear them on TV blaming the storms or earthquakes or devastating diseases on other people and their supposed or imagined sins. The king in this parable makes an insufficient, inadequate and, unworthy God. We can look to him no more for justice than we can look to a society that has not exorcised the demon of white supremacy for justice.

The gospel in the text is not that God is a king who can do whatever he wants to a person so you’d better watch out, that is a deeply impoverished theology. Rather, the gospel in the text is that even a person of immense privilege whose wealth results from the exploitation of other human beings is made in the image of God and has the capacity to do the right thing which the king demonstrates in forgiving his slave. Yes, the gospel is that we ought to forgive one another, especially in the church but a deep reading reveals so much more. The gospel is also that the king relinquishes his claim on some of the benefits conferred on him by the privilege he held in an unjust society. And the gospel is that however much privilege you have in society when you’re not at the top, you still have the agency and holy responsibility to act justly, particularly to those who are vulnerable.

This gospel also tells us what we already know, that people who are ground down by oppression oppress others in turn. That helps me understand the passage in Exodus. Israel who had been enslaved and oppressed, defeated, conquered, occupied, deported and occupied again and again by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians and later the Persians, Greeks and Romans, tells its sacred stories in such a way that they could envision a god who would not forgive what they could not.

Yet God is present in that troubling text, in the waters and on the dry land, with the drowning Egyptians and with the liberated Israelites. God is present in all of creation and with all of her children. She reminds us we are not limited by our history and need not be hindered by our heritage. More importantly, God is not limited by or to our limitations, imagination or theology. The God who loves invites us into relationship with her and each other and in that space there is no enemy, friend, sister, brother, king or slave, only Love, the Beloved, and those who love. Amen.

 


Scripture Begets Scripture

 

Image: The Samaritan Torah

Today’s lessons offer the perfect paradox for interpreters of scripture, Deut 4:2 You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… The Samaritan Jews take this torah literally—do not add anything to the canon. So their bible, the Samaritan Pentateuch ends with Deuteronomy. There are no Prophets; there are no Writings. This is only one of the issues at stake when Jesus talked to the Samarian woman at the well in Sunday’s gospel. There are also significant differences between the two Torahs which she likely knew. When she said we worship on this mountain, meaning Mt. Gerizim, she was referring to the site of the Samaritan temple. And the temple was on that site because Deut 27:4 identifies Gerizim as the place where the Israelites built their first alter upon entering Canaan. That’s what it says in the Samaritan Pentateuch. In the Judean Torah that we share, it says Mt. Ebal. And history and scholarship have born out that the minority tradition, the Samaritan tradition, is right.

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… The paradox inherent in this text is revealed in the continuing development, canonization and interpretation of the scriptures by other communities of its adherents: the Prophets, the Hebrew Writings, the Greek Writings, and then Christians got our hands on it.

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it… Each addition seems to have had its own prohibition on revision. It is the final word.

The Judean Jews added Proverbs (30:6): Do not add to God’s words, or else God will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar. Then the Hellenistic Jews based in Africa added Sirach (42:21): God has set in order the splendors of God’s wisdom…Nothing can be added or taken away. Next, the Christians added Matthew (5:18): until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

The Babylonian Talmud (B. Meg. 14a) explains that Israel had 180 prophets who neither took anything away from the Torah nor added anything to it but for the reading of the Megillah, the book of Esther, on Purim. At some point that gemara was revised to “forty-eight male and seven female prophets.”

This wonderful tweet popped up just in time for this sermon: Him (@skrongmeat_): 2000 years n god still ain’t dropped the Bible 2 yet. Her (Yasmin Yonis): Aslaama Alakum. It’s the Quran shawty.

We could go further and cite the scriptures of the Baha’i. Truly there is no end to scripturalizing. So what have we learned? Scripture is flexible and expansive, and that scares folk who try to fix its boundaries at the place of their comfort. And so it would appear that each generation cries out, “This far and no further! Don’t change anything else, but keep the changes we made.”

Speaking of changing the text, the lectionary has cut out that nasty bit in Deuteronomy about Baal Peor that became the pretext for genocide and mass abductions, rapes and forced pregnancies.

The lectionary wants us to read these texts a-contextually. But I am a biblical scholar and this is a divinity school. We know that a text without a context is a pretext. So let’s do better in our reading, teaching and preaching. Let’s not skip over the ugly stuff, because there’s plenty of ugly stuff in our world that can no longer be ignored in the two-thirds world and ghettos and barrios of the imperializing world. The complex contexts of the Israelite scriptures might just be the hermeneutical key we need to proclaim a relevant and living word in or complicated context.

Deuteronomy is addressed to Israel, Israel-in-the-wilderness Israel. Who are we when we read this text? Are we Israel? We have a theological claim to being in the family, but should we just read from the perspective of Israel without reflection? (As we do, far too often.) By we here, I mean Christians. The answer may vary depending on what type of Christian we are. For example, in Deut 4:1 this Israel “will occupy the land.” How do you read that if your people are living under occupation or are a dispersed person? Are you Israel then? How do we as American Christians read this text? We are, all of us on occupied land. Some of us played no part in the theft of that land and were stolen ourselves. Some distance themselves from the actions of their ancestors, other identify fully with the tortured legacy of ours. Are we Israel? Should we be reading from their perspective?

I would like to suggest that the key to understanding this passage is the word “live,” as in “so that you may live,” and then “occupy” and “land” as in “so that you may live and occupy the land.”

The text is presented as a recipe, formula or perhaps incantation for how to succeed in the promised land. And it is, but it is a retrospective, composed after the monarchy had failed and lost the land that nine of those tribes had occupied to the Assyrians, edited into final form after Babylon had seized the rest. It is a tragic retrospective: If only we had…

There is classical Deuteronomistic theology underlying this text. Israel lost their land because they were disobedient. It was their fault for failing to obey God sufficiently, not because Assyria and Babylon and Persia were bigger or stronger, not because what empires do is gobble up smaller nations as Israel had done when they got the chance.

So who are we in that formulation? Do we as Americans, as Christians identify with Israel in this text, no matter our theology of adoption? What is our “land” in this paradigm? How is this text available to us giving its originating context and content are long past?

Christian exegesis has tended to focus on the import on teaching God’s commandments called for by the passage without necessarily addressing the “why” and “wherefore” of the text.

This is the context of “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Holy One our God is whenever we call on God?”

We have a claim on this God as our God just as we have a claim on this text as our scripture. How do we read this passage in its context and our own with all that we are as American Christians?

If we are to read ourselves as Israel then perhaps we are the Israel that composed, edited and canonized these texts: a failed would-be empire rewriting its history. This text is also also a message from the past to a people returning to their homeland with their complicated history of prayer and promise, conquest and colonization, immigration and infiltration, deliverance and deportation, rescue and return. If their descendants will truly follow these commands, just maybe they will re-create the society their ancestors dreamed of and articulated in the cultural and religious idiom of this text.

And we, with our empire tottering and no place for us to return, what shall we do? We have inherited these commandments with all of their baggage and ours. We must wrestle with them for they are enduring.

Jesus, himself a bar mitzvah, a son of these commandments promised:

Matt 5:17-18 Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

As we wrestle with these texts to live into their vision of a just and ethical community articulated in Iron Age idiom, we may just find that the God they disclose is indeed: a god so near as the Holy One our God is whenever we call to her. Amen.


Interpreting the Bible in a Non-Biblical World

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Elections are unbiblical. That’s all right because not everything biblical is godly. Too often I hear the adjective “biblical” used uncritically as a synonym for good, right, and the will of God. The desire to affirm what is biblical comes from a good place, love of the text and love of the One who inspired it, desire to walk with God and please God. But you don’t have to go very far into the text to discover that what is biblical includes the very worst of humanity interspersed with occasional good faith attempts at faithfulness, and sometimes some pretty horrible theology.

The bible is, well, complicated. Literal readings of the scriptures can justify slavery, rape, genocide, and other atrocities. It is not a misreading to say the text considers the wealth of the patriarchs, measured in part in enslaved human beings as chattel as the gift and blessing of God. It is not a misinterpretation to say Israelite soldiers were granted permission to take women captive after the defeat of their people and rape them into to bearing children for them. The command to exterminate peoples, cities and towns, killing all within, including babies at the breast, is the literal reading of the text in many cases, those horrific verses placed on the lips of God and carried out by heroes of the faith. Again I say, everything biblical is not godly, no more than everything legal is ethical. Slavery, segregation and discrimination against people of color and women, even if they had white privilege, was legal. Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans folk is still legal. Legal doesn’t mean ethical or moral and biblical doesn’t mean godly.
The bible’s many difficult texts can make it hard for folk to engage it deeply. Living with complexity and tension is uncomfortable. And there is a certain comfort in just focusing on the love and promises of God. For these and other reasons many churches turn to a lectionary that constructs an alternate, somewhat sanitized, version of the bible. As a result the breadth and depth of the biblical text is largely unplumbed.
When hard texts do pop up in the lectionary, sometimes excuses are made for the text or God—that’s just the way it was back then, or silence is kept, and truths remained untold. A preacher might mention Sarah and Abraham’s shared father but few tell the truth their relationship was incestuous. Some may talk about the use of slaves as surrogates to bear children for their masters but few will call it rape. There is a reluctance to confront, name and, own the ugliness of our scriptures because of what that might mean about our God. What are we to do when we encounter a god in the text who is not the God of our faith? Is the god of the text the god of your faith? Always and forever, in every text? Are you sure you know what is in your bible? Or is there a God beyond the text who transcends the text even when the text bears a faithful resemblance to her?
The Iron Age may have spawned the great stories of our faith but some of us are not so sure we want to replicate that world and its values in our world. Just how much of that Iron Age theology is still valid for us? A God who handcrafts creation? I want to hold on to that, but not try to make it a how-to text or a lab report. A God who saves and delivers? Yes. A God who takes 400 hundred years to deliver? Not my preference, I’d like justice and liberation now but I’m too old to believe in fairy tales and I know sometimes it takes that long, just ask my people.
What about the Israelites’ Iron Age ethics and constructions of gender and sexuality? What do we do with those? Do we pretend not to know or remain willfully ignorant that the Israelite people needed people capable of producing children to produce as many as possible to meet their food production, labor and military needs in the face high infant, child and maternal mortality, and wave after wave of defeat and conquest, and those needs have direct bearing on the texts that regulate sexuality? We must take seriously our own context and how different it is from theirs. But it can be hard to figure out just how we’re supposed to use the bible in our contemporary lives when deeper engagement with the sacred text reveals how great is the gulf between the world of the scriptures and our own. Yet how we relate to the bible has direct implications for how we relate to God.
Our lessons offer us two different perspectives on scripture: Job reflects on the power of the written word. Job thinks that if he just writes, actually engraves his words, they will last forever:
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
In the world that produced the scriptures, the written word was powerful. Most people were not literate and those who were may not have been able to do more than recognize enough words to engage in trade and read and write their names with few exceptions. Writing was the province of the elite; monarchs and religious officials used writing to awe their people. There is power in the written word. That power endures today.
The written word serves a similar purpose within the scriptures. God calls upon Moses repeatedly to write what he hears that he might not only teach it to the Israelites in song but they would also pass it down through the generations. And God uses the written word to form the backbone of the community she crafts from slaves and refugees, the Ten Commandments and the Torah.
The questioner in the gospel (Luke 20:27-38) presents a different aspect of scripture, that it needs to be interpreted. The questioner knows what the Torah teaches and wants to know how to interpret and apply it. The questioner knows that world is not limited to the words on the page, even when the words, the page and the One who inspired them are holy. The questioner knows the real world is more complex than our sacred texts. It is not always so simple a thing to directly apply the scriptures to our lives even when it seems like they would be directly applicable.
To read is to interpret. And to read in another language is to lose something unrecoverable. The scriptures in English are not entirely the same as they are in Hebrew and Greek. They are good enough, but that might not always be good enough. When we read in English we are reading a text that has already been interpreted to and for us to some unknown degree. Then we read and interpret through who we are, what we have experienced, and what we know. What we don’t know also shapes our interpretation, closing off possibilities we don’t know we don’t know exist. It has always been this way, but previous generations of scholars, translators and interpreters presumed the cultural baggage they brought to the text was normative and God-ordained unlike the values of those they pushed to the margins. Who we are matters when we read.
We are, I suggest, in that uncomfortable space between the word and its interpretation, and we can’t diminish the space between them by wishing it away. The church has struggled in that place from the beginning, wrestling with the spoken and written word as did God’s people before us, and we bear the addition burden of being a largely Gentile church staking a claim on Jewish scripture. Our relationship with the scriptures is complicated.
Which brings me back to my original observation. Elections are unbiblical. Should we even be voting?—Not we black folk, we paid for our right to vote in blood, with lynchings, burnings, rapes and castrations. Not we womenfolk, that ship has sailed, though the ship with the black women on it was held back by white suffragettes. Should we be voting? Because there’s nothing about elections in the bible.
If you think Samuel was outraged when the people said we want another king because everyone else has one—you do know that Saul wasn’t the first king in Israel and Avimelek (Abimelech) ruled for three years in the book of Judges?—If you think Samuel was fit to be tied when presented with a monarchal mutiny, how do think he would have responded when the people came and said, “We want to vote. We want leaders we can get rid of every two or four years if they don’t do what we want.” That’s not biblical. But the proof is all around us that we know we are not constrained by the constraints of scripture: we don’t observe the Sabbath, Sunday is not the Sabbath, we don’t stone. We deposed an anointed king and set up a government that would not be beholden to any religion, not even biblical religion. We know that we are not limited to what is biblical even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.
We are standing at a precipitous intersection in the life of our country and we’ve got a treasured resource of sacred texts passed down through the generations for millennia, through which our ancestors and we ourselves have heard and encountered God. What do we do with it between now and Tuesday? Do we open it to a random page or swipe on our iPads and see what word our fingers land on try to figure out if that word has more to do with one person than another on our ballots? Or do we honestly acknowledge we bring more than biblical values with us into the voting booth?
We are like the questioner in the gospel. We’ve heard the sacred story and tried to make sense of it in our world and we are still left with questions. And the responses we get, should we be so fortunate to have a direct, clear word from God in our wrestling, provoke more questions than answers. Every time we think we’ve got a handle on what it means to interpret the text faithfully in our context, we realize it’s not as simple as it seems.
Let me offer a couple of interpretive principles from my Episcopal context: Taking the scriptures seriously does not mean taking them literally in every case. But every time we add one more passage to the list of texts we’re not taking literally, some of us feel a twinge of guilt because we’ve been conditioned—but only in the past fifty years or so—to take the texts, all of them, literally as if they have no nuance, rhetoric, or genre.
We may know in our guts that there are some things in the text that are just not binding on us or authoritative for us but we don’t always know how to say that. We Episcopalians also say: The word of God is in the bible but everything in the bible isn’t the word of God. We take seriously that the scriptures are human and divine just as Jesus is human and divine. The scriptures cannot be more divine than Jesus. Any claim that elevates them above him is idolatrous. There’s a special name for this kind of idolatry, bibliolatry.
So much of our public discourse about the bible is slogans and electioneering: The Bible Is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. The bible is our owner’s and operator’s manual. That’s nice. But what do we do with it? How does that help us know how to read, understand, interpret and apply it? If we have the words, there can be no misunderstanding, right? The text says what it means and means what it says, right? One thing I’ve learned about reading scripture is that interpretive rules that make good t-shirt logos are poor exegetical guides.
That is why the questioner in the gospel says I have the words, I’ve read them but I don’t how to apply them. If we are to meet a living God in a living text we must be prepared to be stretched in our growth, and sometimes that hurts. When we wrestle with God and the text and God in the text, God wrestles with us, not intentionally oppositionally but occasionally we get dislocated when we text-wrestle and God-grapple. It hurts sometimes to relinquish a cherished belief or determine a doctrinal or biblical claim doesn’t have a solid foundation. It can be a bruising process, but it leaves us blessed.
In our wrestling with the text and its god we have no better examples than Job and the questioner in our gospel lesson. Job proclaims the power of the written word its enduring testimony. Job teaches us that we can argue with God, shout into the whirlwind, with our grief, anger, and our questions even when that defies the theological norms of the larger community. Job teaches us that God is with us in our shouting and questioning, and after the storm passes by, God is still with us.
And our questioner in the Gospel teaches us to bring our questions to Jesus. He may tell us we’ve got the whole thing wrong and there are dimensions to the greater story beyond our texts and our comprehension, but he will hear our questions. And he will guide us to the path that leads to life no death can extinguish.
Elections may not be biblical but questioning God and the text is. Bring your questions and be prepared to wrestle and wrangle your own answers in the company and embrace of God. Then on Tuesday as on every other day, our choices are not limited to or by the limitations of the biblical text. Amen.


Biblical Biases


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(This is an attempt to recreate the sermon I preached today, 12 June 2016, commemorating the homophobic terrorist attack that killed 50 and wounded 53 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando FL.)

As we pray for living and the dead let us also offer a word of consolation to God whose heart is broken as she grieves her children killing her children.

Luke 7:36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

In the Name of God who loves us all.

You know what kind of woman she is. The kind of woman folk call a sinner. In and out of the bible that often means she’s doing something with her body of which somebody else disapproves. She’s free, but some will say she’s loose. Or she’a a victim of their fantasies about what women who look like her or are shaped like her really want or do. Or she’s a victim of someone else’s lust and rage and blamed for surviving. Or she is a race or ethnicity that has been constructed as perpetually promiscuous. She might be a sex-worker. She might be an accomplished lover with stories to tell. But what she is known as is a sinner.

But the bible tells me “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” She was a sinner. And so was the man who called her a sinner. And Jesus invited both of them to the table, the same table where we who call names and are called out of our names are welcome.

The woman who anointed Jesus might have been called a Jezebel in another time. African American women have a long history of being called Jezebels. It goes back to the abuse of African women who were held as slaves and then blamed for their own abuse, called lascivious and insatiable. Some ads for slaves in newspapers actually called African women being sold “lusty.” The characterization of black women as jezebels didn’t end with slavery. For a long time after black women could not get justice for sexual assaults; officers wouldn’t take reports. Prosecutors wouldn’t press rape charges but black women were prosecuted for assault if they fought their attackers, some were even put to death. So while for some women and girls, being called a jezebel means you’re fast and loose, for black women being called a jezebel could lead to devastating consequences. Calling someone a jezebel is about controlling them, their body and self-expression.

What does any of that have to do with our First Lesson? (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15) The bible is fairly biased against Jezebel from the beginning because she was a foreign woman who married into Israel’s royal family. Jezebel wasn’t promiscuous or seductive. She didn’t bat her lashes or wiggle her hips at Naboth. Jezebel used the power she had available to her, including her husband’s authority and seized a man’s property, an Iron Age case of imminent domain. Jezebel was a queen and she did what queens do. More importantly, she was a woman whom men could not control.

Reading scripture faithfully means reading it honestly. There is ethnic bias in the bible. There is gender bias in the bible. There is bias against same-gender loving people, particularly men in the bible. That particular bias stems from an Israelite cultural bias, in part of the horror of rape of men in war – not matched by equal concern for the rape of women. The bible reflects the biases of those who wrote it, yet the light of God shines and speaks through it.

The bible also proclaims that God created us all from the same source we are all her children, she is the rock who gave birth to us and one day all nations will stream to the mountain of God. The bible has biases and we have to figure out how we are going to deal with those biases. When the church has taken the biases of the bible uncritically, we’ve been culpable in murder. The church is responsible for poor biblical exegesis. We can choose whether we will perpetuate the narrow biases of the Iron Age or whether we will elevate those texts that transcend ancient hatreds and those of our own day.

The church has blood on its hands. We have been too quick to take on the biases of the bible and too slow to reject them. Look at our shameful history with slavery, colonialism, patriarchy. The church is quick to demonize. You can see it in the gospels where Miriam of Magdala is accused of having seven demons. Often in the New Testament demons are invoked when folk don’t know what else to say: Can’t speak? You have a demon. Can’t hear? You have a demon. Have epilepsy? You have a demon. Have schizophrenia or another mental illness? You have a demon. Just plain evil? You have a demon.

Whatever it was that afflicted the women at the beginning of Luke 8 previously, they were now free, free to follow Jesus and provide for him. And even though some of them have husbands, they seem free of them too because none of them were bankrolling Jesus. Jesus received those women as disciples as he received the woman who anointed him because he did not accept the cultural bias his scriptures had against women.

And Jesus said not one word in support of the Hebrew Bible bias against same gender-loving men. Instead he says to those who embrace him “Your faith has saved you.” Jesus speaks life and if we are his church, his word must be our word. We have a word of light and a word of love to offer this crucified and crucifying world. We must speak those words because too many know only the hateful and hurtful words the church has spoken.

 


Resurrected: The Bible Continues

A.D. The Bible Continues

Premiering on Easter Sunday, AD the Bible Continues needs must go through the cross and the empty tomb (again). The Resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is borne witness to in the theological discourses of the earliest Christian writing, the Epistles, followed by narrative accounts in the four Gospels that were eventually canonized along with more gospels and other writings that were composed and circulated without official sanction. The accounts differ in the details – the number and sequence of human and angelic witnesses and, presence, prominence or exclusion of women. Like all interpreters the producers must choose an account or create a sequence by harmonizing the texts.

The passion story was presented largely from the Gospel of John, including some direct quotes. There was also some Matthew thrown in and a bit of shared material form Matthew and Luke. It’s clear that the Gospels were not understood as separate literary traditions with their own way of telling their different accounts of the larger shared story. They were treated as a collection of interchangeable parts to be assembled piecemeal.

I am as interested in the visual text with which the sacred story – my faith story – is told. The Israel of Jesus was as is the modern state of Israel, at the juncture of West Asia and North-East Africa. Jesus like his fellow Jews, Judeans, were Afro-Asiatics, the scholarly classification give the region and its languages stretching across North Africa into the Arabian peninsula. Europeans were not unknown; they were not interchangeable with Palestinian Jews. The subjugation of Greece and Rome led to an influx of Europeans but not to the transformation of Afro-Asiatic Semites into white (or white-skinned) Gentiles is suggested by the casting choices. A.D. The Bible Continues Christian Testament scholar Mitzi Smith describes the diversity of the first century Roman Empire this way: The Roman Empire of the first century CE was vast and diverse extending into the deserts of the continent of Africa. [And m]ost Roman soldiers came from outside Rome including from Africa and… were Roman citizens.

This series has already provided some small improvement on the diversity of main characters and extras that reflects some of the diversity of the ancient world. They have a long way to go. The series has work to do in telling the stories of the women at the heart of the Gospel. There were some very powerful scenes with Mary the Mother of God, but the many women who followed Jesus seemed to be compressed into one Mary. Their absence from the crucifixion scene was particularly notable.  

A.D. The Bible Continues

I would like to highlight two visual choices that I applaud in the series: The recreation of the Jerusalem temple is stunning and seems to correspond well to the authoritative sources. Only a bit was shown last night. I have looked at some of the publicity images. And, I love the militant depiction of the divine messengers or angels as well as their diversity. (They were present in the last series as well.) I even enjoyed the completely unbiblical meteor-landing the angel made.

There was some good conversation on Twitter. Here are a few of my favorites:


AD the Bible (Redux)

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After the epic whitewash that was the History Channel’s The Bible Series Produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, I had no intention of watching their latest installation, AD the Bible Continues, focusing on the book of Acts (of the Apostles). In the publicity build-up to the premier, the producers emphasized the casting of a number of actors of color, including some of African descent in significant roles this time. Downey and Burnett acknowledged the criticism of their past work and sought to remedy it. (At the time, this blog was the only scholarly one that engaged every episode. I did attempt to engage the producers repeatedly on Twitter but heard nothing from them. I was pleasantly surprised to hear of their change in casting – and would like to think my unacknowledged critique played some role in that.) The change is welcome however their basic paradigm appears unchanged: They seem have created another predominantly white world in lieu of Afro-Asiatic context from which the scriptures emerged and added a few people of color. The portrayal of Jews particularly of Jesus and his mother as white-skinned is historically inaccurate and, symptomatic of and perpetuation of the white supremacy that pollutes the Church. (Juan Pablo de Pace plays Jesus and Greta Scacchi plays his mother.)

A.D. The Bible Continues

As a scholar and a priest I am interested in how the stories of my faith, church and scriptures are told. I am concerned about the ways in which the biblical text and Christian story have been used to buttress systems of domination from sexism, racism and heteropatriarchy to white supremacy and slavocracy. The previous series failed miserably on gender balance – the androcentric scriptures are more inclusive than their portrayal and it failed in fidelity to the biblical text.

Keeping to their previous practice, this series has been heavily marketed to Christian communities with a specific push to the Black community. Last time around T.D. Jakes and Jamal Bryant headlined those efforts. This time Vashti McKenzie and Joshua DuBois are promoting it. The series is also partnering with  Urban Ministries Inc. That kind of marketing makes me wary. Never-the-less I have decided to watch and engage the series (again), in part because of the casting choices. I will do so in conversation with UrbanFaith.com using their hashtag #ADBibleTalk. My participation in this conversation is by no means an endorsement of the program or UMI, Urban Faith or any of their programming or commentary. Join me as I live-tweet the program and look for blog posts after.


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.

 


Noah in Genesis, Enoch & White Imagination

Using sources in Genesis, the books of Enoch – which are scriptural in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – and his own interpretive imagination, Darren Aronofsky has given the world a new vision of the Noah story. His vision is eclipsed by its blinding whiteness, (see my take on his white savior saving a world full of white people and repopulating it in his image here, and picture of Eve’s hand above). Some will care that the movie deviates from the biblical narrative:

  • Noah is not 600 and his sons are not 100. Noah is 500 when he fathers his sons (all at the same time? in the same year? Perhaps with different women) in Gen 5:32; Gen 7:6 says that Noah was 600 years old when the flood began.
  • The sons of God or godlings, semi-divine God-like beings who come down from heaven to mate with human women in Gen 6:1-4 as the last straw before God floods the world do not do so in the movie. Their Enochic counterparts, the Watchers fall from heaven to earth, become encased in soil and rock and become walking, talking piles of rock with glowing, explosive inner cores.
  • The Watchers supply the bulk of the manual labor to build the ark.
  • Noah’s sons are not all adult, married men when they enter the ark (Gen 7:7). The lack of wives for the boy on the cusp of manhood and the much younger boy-child are plot devices.
  • When Noah gets drunk and is discovered and covered by his sons he does not curse his grandson Canaan – he doesn’t exist in the movie.) I went to see the movie in part to see how he would handle this portion because this text known as the curse of Ham, Canaan’s father, is deeply implicated in the American slave trade.)

What he adds to the story is truly fascinating. I discuss that in the company of other scholars on floodofnoah.com.


Women of the Word: Women Prophets

2014 Susan Draper White Lectures at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN. The talk is based on my book Daughters of Miriam and previews the approach in my forthcoming book Womanist Midrash.

 


On Biblical Literalism

I was invited to participate in a forum on Creationism in the NY Times. You can find the whole conversation here. (Note that a subscription is required after 10 free articles a month.

Here is my contribution:

Biblical literalism usually emerges from a faithful impulse, deeply meaningful faith in God, Jesus and scripture in Christian tradition. (Corollaries exist in Judaism and Islam, but I will confine myself to Christianity.) That faith is frequently buttressed by experiences with God and the Scriptures that shape and reinforce their meaning. Denial of any of those elements is for many rejection of the God of the Scriptures.

What often goes unexamined are the assumptions that underlie biblical literalism about the intent and genre of the text: Specifically, biblical literalism requires reading all of the bible as having the intent to relay a series of historical (and theological) facts. This ignores what we know about language, that there are many kinds (genres) of speech and writing (rhetoric) which we use in infinite combinations without thought to make our points: irony, exaggeration, puns, sarcasm, riddles, proverbs, quotes in and out of context, etc. Insisting on biblical literalism flattens out the richness of the text and of its multiple contributors. In addition, there are many texts and books now bound as “the Bible,” yet no single Bible: there are differing number of books in different sequence in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Bibles. For example, the King James Bible that has become standard in Evangelical and much of Protestant Christianity has had a number of books removed from its original Anglican formulation, with most of its adherents non-the-wiser, though Anglicans and Episcopalians still use them.

Literal readings of non-literal texts can also lead to fraudulent readings of the text, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.

I teach a 3-point interpretive paradigm shifting from “is the bible true” to “how is it true.” Determine: 1) what the text says; this requires knowledge of original languages since all translations are unreliable at points, 2) as much as possible what the text may have meant in its originating contexts; i.e. euphemistic expressions and evolving language, 3) and, what the texts says in our contexts, what values and themes transcend time and which do not. Determining the genre, rhetoric and interpretive possibilities of a text is hard work and many prefer simplistic formulae. But even literal readers accept that the earth does not have four corners though that was the literal meaning when the texts were composed and transmitted.


Rewriting the Bible, Me & the History Channel

I am a womanist, feminist, post-colonial, transgressive, progressive biblical scholar. I am liberal about the love of God and conservative about translation issues (like lexical fidelity). And I have been accused of rewriting the bible on more than one occasion, see Rewriting the Bible: the Gospel According to Liberals where I’m in good company. That is something that I and the History Channel have in common. HC offers a disclaimer before each episode of its miniseries: This program is an adaptation of bible stories. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book. I applaud the History Channel for their honesty here, in spite of the name of the project, “The Bible,” what they offered was an interpretation, one clearly marked by the social location – race, religion, culture and gender politics of its producers. (See the archives of this blog for many examples.) Their interpretation included a fair bit of rewriting the bible for their own purposes.

The charge is a common one regularly leveled at progressive or liberal Christians, really anyone who isn’t claiming a literal interpretation of an inerrant scripture. And that’s what makes History Channel’s Bible mini-series so interesting to me, given that it is marketed so heavily to evangelical and conservative Christians, many of whom subscribe to literalist and inerrantist readings of scripture. The series engages in rewriting the bible on an epic scale, so much so that they’re offering a novel as a follow up for all the bits they couldn’t quite work in. Mind you that’s a novel – the ultimate rewrite – rather than an extended DVD of, say, clips from actual biblical accounts that they couldn’t broadcast because of time limits.

If rewriting the bible is so awful, so progressive, so lefty, so liberal, why is a project with such good evangelical and conservative Christian street cred doing so, loudly, publicly and getting paid? (That novel, the series itself and the other Bible Series merchandise is not free.)

Because of what all seminary professors, biblical scholars, seminary trained clergy and religious leaders and careful critical readers of scripture know: we all interpret everything we read or see, including (and not just) sacred texts. Yet there is a misperception that texts – especially religious texts – are independent of interpretation, that their meaning is whatever the literal text says, with no nuance or room for interpretation. And Those who get to say that the text means what it literally says to them, are those with power, frequently white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, frequently clergy (with or without seminary education depending on the tradition).

And while all readings and viewers are interpretive and affected by the identity of the readers and viewers, that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make historically appropriate productions of biblical or other stories. And I confess that’s what I expected from the History Channel, a retelling of the biblical narrative as it is preserved supplemented by the historical record. What I saw was a particular religious and cultural retelling that rewrote the portions of the bible that did not fit the larger vision. The final episode of the mini-series contained some truly spectacular rewrites:

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial make it clear that Jesus was shuffled off from Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate. The number of legally questionable proceedings and sheer exhaustion of the nighttime travels build the tension in the scriptural accounts. The mini-series cut out Herod’s hearing and the travel between locations.

Jesus’ female followers were seemingly compressed into a single “Mary” based on her appearance at the tomb, I’m guessing Magdalene. I give the History Channel credit for including her among the disciples from the very beginning, but by making a lone woman a disciple apart from the company of other women they present an unnecessarily scandalous (from a First Century Jewish cultural perspective) of this one woman running around with a group of men. They cut out Joanna, Salome, the other Mary (as the bible calls her), leaving Mary and Martha behind after the resurrection of Lazarus. (In that episode the departed from the Gospel which says that Jesus called Lazarus to come out of the tomb – from outside – by having Jesus go in and kiss him on the head.)

Jesus’s march to Calvary includes a scene with a woman wiping the face of Jesus. Many Catholic, Anglican and other Christians will recognize this as the story of St. Veronica from the Stations of the Cross. It is beloved, but not in the bible.

Easter morning did not find Mary Magdalene going to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus for a more permanent burial. (They seem to be using John’s gospel which eliminates all but one of the women from all of the other gospels.) She went with nothing for no discernible purpose.

And, on the day of Pentecost in the scripture, the disciples who were there numbered 120 made up of the surviving first 11 (after Judas’ suicide), Jesus’ mother (absent), siblings (I don’t think we ever saw his sisters in the whole series nor all 4 of his brothers), 2 candidates to replace Judas and the rest were “certain women,” meaning that with the exception of the 17 men the other 103 disciples present on the day of Pentecost were women. But there were only a handful shown, with the obligatory, token, individual woman. In the scripture the sight of so many, particularly women, speaking in other languages led to charges that they were drunk – entirely missing from the episode. In the scripture that charge leads Peter to preach a sermon from Joel explaining that God calls women and men to ministry. A powerful moment and a missed opportunity.

These fundamental rewrites of some of the most cherished accounts in the scriptures occur in spite of their consultation with New Testament scholars like Duke University’s Mark Goodacre. As a biblical scholar who studies and engages in midrash, Jewish biblical interpretation that can include rewriting the text I welcome the HIstory Channel, the series producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett and their viewers to the work of biblical interpretation. I would however like to offer a couple of suggestions from my own teaching to those who are new to the practice from a critical scholarly perspective which differs from many religious practices of reading and rewriting the bible.

  1. Determine what the text actually says, as much as possible, resort to the original languages and all of the relevant manuscripts, especially when they conflict and when there are multiple versions of a story; this will multiply your source texts.
  2. Determine what the text meant in its original context in light of the religious and cultural norms of the time.
  3. Interpret the text for and from your context and be honest about your interpretive lens.

That the History Channel got so many folk watching, talking and thinking about the bible can be a good thing if those conversations include understandings of how and why the TV show is different from the bible that folk know – and there are many bibles with differing contents – and, how all of our understandings differ from those of the folk who produced and preserved those texts never imagining a largely Gentile church on the other side of a globe they didn’t know wasn’t flat.