Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “biblical interpretation

Interpreting the Bible in a Non-Biblical World

i-voted-sticker

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


IMG_6738

(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)

AD1

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.