Jacob in the Bible and Abraham in the Qur’an

A question that might occur to the reader of the Hebrew Bible is why exactly Jacob, who becomes the namesake of the nation of Israel and father of the twelve tribes, is portrayed in such a negative light — scheming, manipulative, always striving for advantage. My dear friend Bruce Rosenstock, who sadly passed away recently, once gave what must be the right answer: somebody has to want it. Every other character in Genesis simply hears and obeys, but Jacob alone actively seeks out the blessing. The fact that he does so in morally questionable ways only reinforces the point.

Teaching my class on the Qur’an, I was recently thinking related thoughts about the figure of Abraham. This is not to say that the Qur’an portrays Abraham as morally ambiguous — that would be completely contrary to the theological goals of its appropriation of the biblical heritage. Instead, Abraham seems to be portrayed as a kind of meeting place between reason and revelation. He doesn’t fight and scheme to get God’s blessing, but he does “independently” want it, because he reasons his way to it before God explicitly reveals himself.

Continue reading “Jacob in the Bible and Abraham in the Qur’an”

Thoughts on the Parable of Leaven

Here is some theological exegesis I am thinking through, resulting from a subconscious insight. Lately I have been reading some books concerning the Jewish roots of Christianity, and other material on the role of (biblical) Israel in Christian theology, and these ideas have been pervading my thoughts, directing what I look for in how I see things: reading theology, writing, and—apparently—other subconscious activities, such as watching my wife bake zucchini bread. I was watching her, and as yeast got mentioned in our conversation, it dawned upon me: the parable of the leaven in the synoptic Gospels has something to say about Israel within it.

Another parable he spoke to them: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it was all leavened.’ (Matt. 13:33) Continue reading “Thoughts on the Parable of Leaven”

The challenges of teaching Genesis

This term, I started off my course (Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology) with the entirety of the book of Genesis. While it seems like an obvious choice in so many respects, it’s also an odd fit. First, there are many ways in which it only really makes sense if you already know at least the vague outlines of Exodus and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Torah — but that’s the kind of common cultural knowledge that I have found (much to my surprise and disappointment) I can never presuppose, even in the kind of well-read student that Shimer attracts.

Without knowing about the rest of the Torah, Genesis seems weirdly incomplete and perhaps even misleading. Continue reading “The challenges of teaching Genesis”


When teaching at Kalamazoo College, I sometimes had to fight an uphill battle with secular liberal students who basically took fundamentalists at their word that they were following the Bible “literally” and who felt that such “literalism” was somehow the most authentic form of religion.

Throughout my time there, I would emphasize the fact that a literal reading of the whole of Scripture that sticks to the “plain sense” and comes out with a single meaning is impossible. First, there are clear surface-level contradictions, and as soon as you start coming up with ways to explain that away, you’re not being literal anymore. Similarly with the strategy of prioritizing certain books or passages over others (the “canon within the canon” approach) — while such an approach is basically unavoidable, it is also not “literal” because the Bible doesn’t come with its own meta-text telling you which parts to emphasize.

Some students were probably convinced, but I think it’s a weak argument because it concedes the terms of debate to the fundamentalists. Continue reading “Literally”

The Deuteronomistic View of History (Part 1)

[Note: I just finished my PhD coursework three weeks ago, and after a very rigorous semester in which my blogging sank to an all-time low I am trying to get back into it. One of my problems is that any topic I have decent knowledge of and is interesting enough that others would care to read about, I save for seminar and conference papers, and attempts at publishing—though I rarely get around to polishing papers enough to send off to journals. So, in an attempt to write more I will be doing a series or two in the area of biblical studies (with a lens for theological interpretation and theology), which is not my “area.” I also hope to do some amateur posts on philosopher’s like Henri Bergson, whom I have been reading lately—again, something interesting to me, but slightly out of my “specialization” (though that may be changing…). I also have to say that the prolific and quality writing of my friends on AUFS as of late, as well as all of the good discussions going on these days on blogs has not exactly motivated me to publish my own posts!]

In 1943 German scholar Martin Noth published a seminal thesis in biblical studies: the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings originally constituted a single work, edited by a single redactor, and have a unified style, content, and vocabulary. The theology of Deuteronomy (themes of one God [Deut. 4:35], one people [Deut 7:1-11], and one centralized location for worship [Deut 12:1-13]) colors the interpretation of Israel’s history from the Exodus until the exile into Babylon.[1] Continue reading “The Deuteronomistic View of History (Part 1)”

A church I’d like to attend

In Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, Serene Jones talks about her church’s free-form Christmas pageant, where all the members of the church play out the roles pretty much improvisationally. One year, there was a seven-year-old girl playing Herod. When the pastor was about to close, she interrupted and said she had something to say: “I am King Herod, and I have been watching you. I am going to kill all your babies. I hate you.”

The Scriptures are ever-new

I have used Genesis 3 in class a couple times this year, and one particular aspect of the story of the Fall has stood out to me in a new way:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

I believe that this introduces a nuance to the story that is often overlooked and perhaps explains why Adam was so easily persuaded to eat the fruit. After all, he had just watched his wife have a conversation with a snake — surely he was feeling disoriented.

Taking this a step further, however, consider this: Adam doesn’t mention the fact that Eve was persuaded by the serpent, even though he was standing there watching the scene unfold. Indeed, since he was standing right there, he could just as easily have claimed to have been hoodwinked by the serpent’s deceptions as well. Instead he only blames Eve. What are we to conclude from this? Perhaps only Eve could hear the serpent. Perhaps, Garfield-style, Eve was talking out loud and reading the serpent’s thought bubbles.

If that is the case, then we may be able to read Adam’s seemingly whiny response, emphasizing that God gave him the woman, differently — “You’re the one who gave me this mentally ill woman for my only friend, and now you’re mad I ate a piece of fruit? I was just trying to shut her up!”

Women in the Bible: A document

For my course on Feminist Theologies, the first reading is a selection of representative passages from the Bible, with a bias toward the New Testament since I am focusing on Christian feminists. I have posted the document on Scribd and invite any interested parties to make use of it, and also to point out to me significant passages that I’ve missed — but please have in mind a passage I can delete to offset it, as I think I’m pushing the boundaries of how much I want to assign for this.

“The Word of God Was Messing With Us”

One surprise I have found in reading Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-253 AD) is that he believes that there are intentional mistakes, impossibilities, and strange things inserted into the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in order to conceal deeper meanings from the multitudes, and invite investigation from the wise. Origen’s allegorical interpretation of sacred scripture is well-known, but probably less-known is his contention that the divine inspiration of scripture was intentionally tricky. Consider the following quotations: Continue reading ““The Word of God Was Messing With Us””

System and Tradition

In Jacob Neusner’s The Talmud: A Close Encounter, he contrasts the solutions of normative Judaism and orthodox Christianity to the question of what to do with the tradition. On the one hand, he argues, the authorship of the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli), created what amounts to a well-constructed system, built on principles drawn from both Scripture and Mishnah but following its own autonomous questions and mode of organization, but presented it as nothing more than “tradition” in the sense of what happened to be handed down to them. That is, they were incredibly creative but legitimated their effort by appeal to the past.

The Christian solution was the opposite:

What they did was to join together the received writings [both the Hebrew Scriptures and what would become the New Testament] as autonomous books but to impute to the whole the standing of a single, coherent and cogent statement, a harmonious Christian truth. This they did in the work of making the biblical canon. Joining diverse traditions into one, single, uniform, and therefore (putatively) harmonious Bible: God’s word. And, once more, that explains my view that the Christian solution to the problem of making a statement but also situating that system in relationship to received tradition is to be characterized as imputing system to discrete traditions through a declared canon. Thus… the comparison of the solutions that would prevail, respectively, in Judaism’s Bavli and in Christianity’s Bible, is characterized as a system to which the standing of tradition is imputed [Bavli], as against traditions, to which the form of a single system is, through the canonization of scriptures as the Bible, imputed. (148-149)

This is a really elegant way of putting it, which I never would’ve thought of without the comparison to Judaism. (Of course, Neusner’s perspective on Judaism isn’t the only game in town — there are plenty of people who view the Talmud as an accretion of received tradition, and I haven’t yet studied the Talmud at first hand and likely never will study it to the degree necessary to feel confident taking a side in this debate.) This sheer assertion that the diverse traditions brought together into “the Bible” had major consequences:

The final solution of the canon sidestepped the problem of bringing these logics together within a single statement. If diverse logics work, each for its own authoritative writing, then I do not have to effect coherence among diverse logics at all, and the canon, the conception of the Bible, would impose from without a cogency of discourse difficult to discern in the interior of the canonical writings. That decision would then dictate the future of the Christian intellectual enterprise: to explore the underbrush of the received writing and to straighten out the tangled roots. No wonder, then, that in philosopy, culminating in the return to Athens, the Christian mind would recover that glory of logical and systematic order denied to it in the dictated canon, the Bible. (154-55)

This contrast in the mode in which they achieved their respective self-identities in relationship to a certain revealed text may explain a key difference between Judaism and Christianity. While normative Judaism appears to be, if not strictly “progressive,” at least “accumulative” in the sense that one does not normally go “back behind” the work of a generation that has been accepted as authoritative (i.e., doing commentary on Scripture independently of the Mishnah once the Mishnah was written, reading the Mishnah afresh once the Babylonian Talmud was redacted, etc.), the history of Christian thought is continually haunted by the threat of a “reboot.” This took place most disruptively in the Reformation, but the potential is always there and has arguably been actualized more often than the traditional narrative might have it — precisely because the supposedly “definitive statement” represented by the Bible is internally incoherent (indeed, frankly a total mess).

Christianity failed at the outset to provide a coherent authoritative statement and therefore has been caught in the endless dialectic between ecclesiastical authorities and the incoherent scriptural account that serves as a final court of appeal. Calvin at least seemed to have recognized this problem to the extent that he undertook to distill Scripture into an authoritative systematic statement — but the very Reformation principles he espoused kept the Institutes from becoming the equivalent to the Talmud. The horse, in short, is out of the barn: it’s too late for Christianity to have a Talmud. That might be good in certain ways, but we should recognize that it is in many obvious respects a serious, serious disadvantage.