faith, history, literature, personal

The Middle

A year ago I began thinking about modern scholarship of the Bible, and how I had never seriously considered it. Up until then, whenever I cracked open the Good Book, I took everything at face value. I accepted whatever my evangelical Christian tradition held regarding the authorship or historicity of any given passage. Although I knew Christians who disagreed on specific theological issues (e.g. the role of free will, how to interpret the book of Revelation, what type of baptism should be used, the role of women, etc.) all of us agreed on certain bedrock assumptions including the authorship of the Torah or the factual nature of the historical books of the Old Testament. God inspired a small collection of men to write down these books, and they were without error.

Though I grew up reading the Bible as literally and factually true in all points, I began this blog detailing how I changed my mind about the issue of creation and evolution. I learned what modern science had to say about origins and I adjusted my view of Genesis.  Mostly that was a matter of reconciling science and faith, seeing them as compatible rather than opposed, though it also concerned the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (and other passages, too, but especially those ones). I first encountered scholars who explained that it was possible to interpret the days of Genesis as long periods of time. They allowed for an ancient universe, though they still rejected evolution, presumably because it meant that humans could not be sufficiently distinct from animals and thus couldn’t truly be in the image of God. Later I read Christians who accepted evolution and had synthesized views of science and the Bible.

Despite changing my views on Genesis and the creation account, I still never considered much of modern biblical scholarship.  All I had been exposed to were those who would defend against the attacks of modernism that had tried to debunk the traditional readings of scripture. So while at Bible college I had learned about the documentary hypothesis concerning the Torah—sometimes referred to as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis for its originators or other times referred to as JEDP for the sources that comprise the Torah (i.e. Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly)—I basically learned that it was an evil theory aimed at undermining belief in the Bible. We never spent time actually trying to learn why anyone would have come up with the theory in the first place.

So in a post I wrote more than a year ago, I explained that I wanted to be a modern day David Lurie, a character in a Chaim Potok novel who wrestles with modern scholarship on the Bible even as it shakes his faith. I began reading James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible to get a sense of what modern scholarship has to say about the Bible. It’s been eye-opening. I’m now more than halfway through the book, taking it real slow. It’s overwhelming at times to have the rug pulled out from under me. I have to sit on the floor for a while and think about it, then get back up, only to have it happen again with each new chapter I read. What follows are some of my thoughts so far, with some examples. I wrote portions of this post immediately after reading passages in Kugel so some of this records my real-time reactions to the book in an almost live-blog format.

Kugel’s book is very unsettling. Each new chapter spends some time looking at a passage first from the ancient interpreters’ viewpoint, and it feels mostly familiar. Much of my evangelical fundamentalist understanding is roughly the same on these points. I can at least see the connection from what they thought to the way I was taught. But then comes the modern scholarship on the passage. And it’s rationalist, and makes the passage come apart and mean something different than I ever thought.

To illustrate how Kugel organizes his chapters, let me give an extended example from the book on a passage that I had never really thought much about before. In Genesis 34 we get the story of Dinah, the lone daughter of Jacob amidst the 12 sons. This is the story known as “the rape of Dinah.” It comes after Jacob flees his uncle Laban with his wives, children, and livestock. Jacob wrestles with God and has his name changed to Israel. Then he meets up with his brother Esau who he had swindled out of blessing and birthright years earlier. Now Jacob and his household settle in the land of Canaan, outside the city of Shechem. A man from the city who also is named Shechem (same as the city) sees Dinah and rapes her. He falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Jacob and his sons aren’t too happy about this, but they agree to the marriage on one condition: Shechem, his father Hamor, and all the other men must get circumcised. They undergo the knife, and while they are recovering, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the convalescing men with swords. It’s all pretty gruesome.

Kugel presents the various lines of thinking by the ancient interpreters on this passage. First, what is the moral of the story? At first glance, it doesn’t appear to have one. But looking closer, they were able to point to the statement in verse 7: “such a thing must not be done.” In context, it might be the implied response the brothers had upon hearing about what happened to Dinah. On the other hand, this might be the voice of the narrator of the story, which would in fact be God who divinely inspired the writing of the text. But if the point of the story is the retaliation for Dinah’s lost honor, why give the story a whole chapter? The ancients were bothered by the apparent lie that the brothers tell when agreeing to the marriage. Simeon and Levi kill the Shechemites even though they abided by their side of the agreement.

Some interpreters said the real reason for the story was the problem of intermarriage. Indeed, that was a problem for Israel’s sons for generations, including the troubling account in the book of Ezra where the men are commanded to divorce foreign wives, which they do. So the brothers did not lie when they said that the marriage was a disgrace and should not take place, and their scheme to slaughter the Shechemites was justified. Some other interpreters thought perhaps the brothers were divided on the idea of Dinah’s marriage to Shechem. Perhaps ten of them thought intermarriage would be okay if they were circumcised, but Simeon and Levi disagreed. So there was no lie because the offer was sincere if not unanimous.

When modern scholars approach the stories of Genesis, they often are looking for an etiological message (a just-so story that explains how something became the way it is). But there doesn’t appear to be anything that the Dinah story explains. For one thing, Dinah completely disappears from the biblical record. The entire incident is only referred to once more (apparently) when Jacob is dying and he gathers his sons together to give them blessings. Simeon and Levi get left out of the blessings because of their violent actions against the Shechemites.

It’s all rather strange for a few reasons. Though Simeon and Levi apparently slaughter all of the Shechemite men in Genesis 34, Jacob himself seems to refer to having conquered Shechem “with my sword and with my bow” (Genesis 48:22). The city of Shechem appears again in the book of Joshua and is apparently re-populated, but there is no reference to what had happened before. Then in Judges 9 there is another reference to a guy named Shechem who lives in the city of Shechem whose father’s name is Hamor, just like in the story back in Genesis 34. Quite the coincidence.

Kugel points out that perhaps there is something that the Dinah story might explain. Perhaps it makes sense of the blessing that Simeon and Levi do not get from their father Jacob in Genesis 49. But a careful reader will note that the curse the brothers receive does not in fact have much connection to the story of the rape and the subsequent slaughter of an entire city. Some modern interpreters conjecture that the story happened at some other time (perhaps the time of the Judges) and has been inserted and retrofitted into the Genesis account to make sense of the fate of Simeon and Levi. So by this theory, Jacob never even had a daughter named Dinah. She was added to the text later with a story of her lost honor in order to make sense of the two brothers who were cursed.

This chapter on Dinah kind of blew my mind.  The more I thought about the passage, the less it made sense with a straight forward traditional reading.  I no longer know what to do with it.  I’m not sure I accept all of the theories of the modern scholars, but I can’t completely trust the ancient interpreters either at this point.  It’s a quandary.

Kugel points out many other compelling reasons to take modern scholarship seriously on matters of authorship and sources when it comes to interpreting Genesis. Many of the stories in the primeval era are etiological (again, an explanatory story for why things are the way they are), so the story of Cain and Abel might be an explanation about the Kenites, nomadic neighbors of Israel or the story of the Tower of Babel might be an explanation about the spread of language and the evils of Babylon’s religion and culture.

So if things aren’t what I thought, like Adam and Eve are not literal people but types, or that the Flood story comes from ancient Mesopotamian sources, what am I left with? A belief that God still exists and reveals himself to humanity. The Biblical accounts are human attempts to chronicle those revelations. But will even this understanding stand up to scrutiny?

The primeval literature (Genesis chapters 1-11) seems less vital, somehow, that it be historically true. It’s mythic and explanatory, an attempt to understand the world and how it got to be the way it is. When it comes to Abraham, it seems more important that he be a real person with a real relationship with God. Scholarship has seesawed on the question of Abraham’s actual existence. But it seems plausible that he was a real man. As I was about to read about the covenant and I was almost scared. After I finished and read how cutting up animals was common practice for covenants, I was relieved that the Abraham story makes sense. Phew. It could be true.

The next chapter was very thought-provoking. Kugel pointed out that there are two very different portrayals of God in the OT. At times he is anthropomorphic, appearing as an angel or man, and does not seem omnipresent or omniscient. The people he appears to seem to “be in a fog” until they realize (if they do) and then they fall prostrate. It happens to Joshua, Samson’s parents, and even to Abraham. It’s hard to mesh this view of God with the more traditional view of an incorporeal, omniscient, etc. being. But the passages that portray God this way seem to be real experiences with the divine. Was it a matter of perception for these people in the OT?

Reading this book makes me feel like I’ve jumped off a cliff and I don’t know where I’ll land. Will it be a 2 foot drop or a 2,000 foot freefall? Will I get battered and bruised on the way down? Will I even land anywhere? There’s no going back. I want to know the truth and face modern scholarship squarely in the face and take it seriously. I don’t want to rest on what I was always taught and accept it blindly. I want the faith I retain to be my own. But I’m worried what this will do to my faith.

Is it possible for me to lose faith? Is there a point at which I could learn something that would make me give up on the Bible? I don’t know. I don’t think I would have been able to say that when I was younger. I was confident, even if I didn’t know everything. I had unshakeable faith. Now all I know is that I have more questions and doubts than ever. But that’s not to say that I’ve given up.

It’s quite a rollercoaster to think through all of these interpretations. While I feel most familiar with the ancient interpreters, even their suppositions are often about problems I never saw in the text. It reminds me of the Talmudic scholars in a Potok novel as they tease out a passage and look at it from all angles. But then the modern scholars come at it and it seems like they’re trying to debunk everything. Take God out of it. Make it entirely a human document. And I don’t know what to do with that. It’s so foreign to me to look at the Bible that way.

A few months into my reading of Kugel I started reading Robert Alter’s Ancient Israel, a translation of Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, with extensive commentary, especially on translation. I wanted to read this book after seeing the smaller version that focused solely on the life of David. Alter’s translations have been praised for their poetic plainness and fidelity to the original Hebrew. I read the first chapter of Joshua, which isn’t a book that holds a lot of interest for me. When I was younger the stories of the taking of the promised land seemed heroic and adventurous, but now they seem a bit more horrific.

What struck me was the literary composition of the first chapter. It’s basically four speeches with a few words in between as connective tissue. First God speaks to Joshua, then Joshua speaks to the overseers, then to the trans-Jordan tribes, and lastly those tribes reply to him. In their reply, they say the exact same phrase (“Be strong and stalwart”) to Joshua that God says to him twice earlier in the chapter. What are the odds? It seems clearly to be a literary element to repeat the same exhortation to the new leader, showing that he is in fact the new leader now that Moses is dead.

A little later, after the famous siege and capture of Jericho and the subsequent treaty with the scared Gibeonites, the king of Jerusalem organizes 5 other kings against those Gibeonites in chapter 10. Joshua and the Israelite army come to the rescue, as per the treaty agreement. They defeat the armies, kill the kings, and then proceed to take city after city. Curiously, they do not take Jerusalem, despite having killed its king and taken every other city of the instigators. Jerusalem, of course, was not conquered until the time of David two centuries later. Why is Jerusalem left out? Is it possible that the entire account is not exactly factual?

Based on his introduction and the notes, Alter is definitely in the modern scholars camp. I like reading his translation because it uses new rhythms and vocabulary to get me out of any ruts I get into when I read a familiar translation. Sometimes my eyes glaze over as I’m reading the NIV or ESV. I feel like I’m ten years old and back in Sunday School. Alter helps get me out of that and see it anew. But with the fresh eyes is a fresh perspective that pulls bricks out of my biblical foundation.

So a few days ago I started another book (someday I’ll finish one of these books) called Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns that gives me some hope that I won’t have to fall off a cliff, or at least not so far down. Maybe some of my biblical foundation can be salvaged. He takes modern scholarship seriously while still taking the Bible seriously. His model for the Bible is incarnational, so just as Jesus is fully God and fully human, the Bible also is fully divine and fully human. Many of my previous assumptions about the Bible made me overlook its human dimension, overriding it in fact. The Bible had to be without any error straight from God or else it was a book like any other. But the evidence doesn’t support such a view. Instead, Enns argues that God speaks to humanity where they are, in their own language and culture, and even in multiple voices that don’t always agree.

So I’ve got more to chew on and consider. For now I’m stuck in the middle.

literature, personal

The Beginning

As I intimated at the end of my 10 Books post, I do have some thoughts to share about Chaim Potok’s novel In the Beginning.  It started off slower than his other novels, but I ended up loving it just as much as I have the others.  Perhaps one of the reasons it took me longer to get into the book is that I find I read books in smaller and smaller chunks at a time.  I rarely have the luxury to sit down and become fully absorbed in a book and read 100 pages at a time as I did in earlier days.  Now I have to prioritize more which books I even pick up.  I find that I set down a book much quicker than I used to.  I used to try to finish nearly everything I started.  These days, not so much.

In the Beginning is the story of David Lurie, a boy born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  David is a bookish and sickly little boy.  He has problems with a local bully who hates him because he is Jewish.  Because of its historical setting—it starts in the late 1920s before the stock market crash—I knew some of what to expect.  It was a Depression-era story, followed by World War II.  I knew about some of the American anti-Semitism of the time because of Philip Roth’s alternate history novel The Plot Against America.  But I still cried when the narrator and his family find out the full extent of the Nazi atrocities against Jews.

Like the other Potok novels I’ve read, it’s a book about fathers and sons, and the inevitability of conflict.  They’re all told from the perspective of the sons.  In this novel, the conflict stems from expectations, as it often will.  Before coming to America, David’s mother had been married briefly before to his father’s brother.  They had no children before he was killed in a pogrom—an organized anti-Jewish riot, often a massacre.  His father then stepped in and married his brother’s widow according to the ancient tradition of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25: 5-10), though he could have easily gotten out of it.  He is a man of honor and his word.

David looks up to his father, but he doesn’t understand him.  He thinks about his dead uncle whom he is named after, and how he wouldn’t exist if his uncle hadn’t been killed.  He considers the contingency of his being.  Out of death comes life.  I’ve considered my own contingency lately.  Like many kids, when I was little I had a security blanket.  Mine was handmade by my Grandma.  It was red, white, and blue with the number 76 on it for America’s bicentennial.  The thing is, I was born in 1977.  The blanket had been intended for someone else—someone whose existence would’ve precluded my own.  But that baby didn’t survive a full nine months gestation, and so I had a chance at life.  It’s terrible to think my parents had to suffer such grief for me to enter the world.

When David considers his contingency on the death of his uncle David, he still “wants to be [his] own David” (311).  And I need to be my own person, too.  I’m still figuring it out.  In my own family, I’m a bit of an outlier.  I still have the faith that I was taught as a child, but it’s changed.  I no longer attend an evangelical church, instead finding solace in Episcopal services.  On political issues I’m often on the opposite side of the spectrum.  And while both my wife and I came from homes where our moms stayed home, now I’m the one home with the kids.  It’s traditional, except not in the expected way.  Fortunately, none of these differences has lead to any breaks with my family.  We still love each other very much.

As he grows older, David asks the hard questions about Judaism.  He becomes interested in source criticism.  He wishes to defend Torah from attack, but first he must learn what the goyim say.  He starts by reading books given to him by an old neighbor.  He finds books that are critical of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis.  Basically, this hypothesis posits that there are various sources that have been edited together to make up the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible traditionally ascribed to Moses.  Reading these books, even though they defend Torah, is frowned upon by his family and community.  They are dangerous to contemplate and read.  His father will not allow him to read books written by Germans while he is in the same room, even though they are written by important Orthodox rabbis.  No one in the community wants to consider what modern scholarship might say if it could destroy Torah.

I relate to David’s predicament.  When I was in Bible college I had a confrontation with a Bible professor about the inherent worth of studying secular literature.  At the time, I was an English major, and all I wanted to do was figure out how a Christian should relate to and read literature.  In my own way, I wanted to be a David and defend Christianity and the Bible from the evils of deconstructionism and other literary critical theories.  But my professor saw the reading of secular literature as a sullying influence, one that could easily lead one into sin.  Reading salacious stories could inflame lust in the mind, which was just as bad as committing sin with the body.

David’s curiosity for books and knowledge is insatiable.  One of my favorite moments in the book is when David finishes reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  He’s at a cabin on a lake with his family for an August holiday.  He spends a moment reflecting on how great the book is and how his understanding has changed because of it.  Then he goes back into the cabin to find another book to read.  I’m not nearly as prodigious in my reading or intellect as David, but I still relate to his curiosity.  I want to learn about so many things.  This blog is the testament to my curiosity, the place where I lay out what I am learning and starting to think.

In the end is his beginning.  David pursues his studies of the Bible as literature to the tremendous disappointment of his parents.  I’m about to embark on my own intellectual journey on a smaller scale.  Though practically having majored in Bible while at Bible college, I’ve never seriously grappled with any modern scholarship.  I’d like to know what scholars have to say about where the Bible came from and who the original audience for it was.  It’s important to my faith that I seek the truth about the book that is the vehicle for my knowledge of God.  I’m planning on reading through James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, in which he attempts to thread the needle between ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars.  In his designation, the ancient interpreters are the basis for today’s traditional understandings of the Bible, while modern biblical scholars arose about 150 years ago and are those who read the Bible “‘scientifically’ and without presuppositions” (xiii).  I assume he means the presupposition of belief in its literal truth and divine origin, which in itself would be a presupposition.  I’ll have to read more to find out exactly what he means (chapter One is helpfully titled “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship”).  I say that he is threading the needle because he claims traditional faith, even as he wrestles with scholarship that “contradict[s] the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity” (xvi).  Kugel, by his own account, is a modern David Lurie.  I’d like to find out what he has learned in his journey.  I’ll report back on my own journey.