Address of Beth Tanner
The Posture of Old Testament Studies
A Presentation for the Event of the Installation of Beth LaNeel Tanner as the Rev. Dr. Norman and Mrs. Mary Kansfield Chair of Old Testament Studies
It comes as quite a shock for me to be here. The day is quite an honor yet as a Calvinist, I am always uncomfortable with titles. I may not be sure of what to do with such a significant title but I do know I am proud of the relationships this day represents. Long-standing relationships with the generous donors, Clifford and Barbara Feakes, and with the persons with which I share this chair, Norman and Mary Kansfield. In addition, we often speak of the seminary as if it is only a physical place especially during this construction phase, but indeed this seminary is a matrix of relationships with our Board members, administration, faculty, students and alumni, and a very hard working staff. Indeed, all of our titles- the lofty ones that come with a chair or the simple ones such as “friend”- are themselves, only a reflection of the significant relationships in our lives, and for this title and all the relationships it represents, I am eternally grateful.
In 1948 at his NBTS Inaugural lecture, Old Testament scholar Hugh MacLean sought to answer the question “What is the Relevance of the Old Testament” for today’s Christians? It is a question that rings as true now as it did in 1948. Much has happened in the sixty-five years since he addressed the seminary. If he and his fellow faculty members were here, there is very little they would recognize. The physical space, the Board and faculty and the students, all look different. I do not believe I am overstating the case to say that there have been more changes in New Brunswick Seminary in the past 65 years, than in all of the years preceded them. Yet there are elements of MacLean’s address that still apply. MacLean expressed his vocation in this way, “[The] main task of the teacher and expounder of the Old Testament [is] to make the Old Testament live so that men and women today can see themselves portrayed in its pages.” I will attempt in the next few minutes to live up to his description of our shared vocation by offering a snapshot of some of the important perspectives on our shared vocation in this time and place.
In his 1961 inaugural address, Virgil Rogers reminded us that reading the Bible is hard work. He writes, “When the faithful reader turns to the Old Testament, he [or she] finds himself faced with numerous questions regarding the text, authorship, date and purpose of individual books of both the Old and New Testaments. The authors were not generally concerned with these points since they would normally be understood by readers if their day, but with the lapse of time there was a need to render a clearer picture of the conditions and circumstances wherein a particular book was composed.”
Rogers’s observation both confirms the difficult task of reading the Bible and demonstrates the changes in biblical studies since 1961. His questions about the text-authorship, date, and authorial purpose-by his own admissions, are not the questions of the ancient audience. They are the questions of a post-enlightenment, western world. These questions, that so occupied the academy in the mid-20th century, have proved both helpful and constricting in study of the biblical text.
It is hard to describe this first change in biblical scholarship for it was more of a change in perspective than in method. It is reflected in the dichotomy of Roger’s remarks between what is important to us and what was important to our ancestors. I tried all week to put it into words and the best way I can define it is to describe how it dawned on me as graduate student.
As grad students, we were an eager lot, reading all we could, learning to imitate the methods we studied to become proper biblical scholars. One day in a seminar on royal theology, I and my colleague Brent Strawn, who now teaches at Emory, were arguing over Psalm 19. Psalm 19 has vexed modern scholars. Hans Kraus explains, “It has been recognized for a long time already that Psalm 19 is composed of two different psalms. Section A deals with the hymnic praise of YHWH in nature. Section B with the glory of the Torah. The differences between the two parts of the psalm are so conspicuous that for the present, no explanation is necessary.” The study of psalm 19 often focused on the why and how these two psalms had been joined. Brent and I had taken two different positions on this issue and we were in the process of presenting our cases. Both of us were arguing there was clearly a problem with Psalm 19 and we were working to solve it when Jim Roberts, the professor leading the seminar, stopped us. His words to us that day would change the way I saw my work as a psalms scholar. He said, and I am paraphrasing here, “The ancient people were not stupid or unsophisticated. They knew the texts were sometimes unclear, sometimes difficult to understand, sometimes troublesome. If you have a problem with a text, the first thing you need to realize is the problem is yours-not theirs. Your job is not to fix what you perceive is broken, but to go further and work on understanding what the text as it is trying to tell you as it is.” I was using modern tools to fix what I been taught was broken in Psalm 19. I was applying modern standards and logic to ancient poetry. To be a better scholar, I needed to realize just that and stop fixing what was not right about the text and learn to live with it just as it is.
This change in the way we approach the text developed into methodologys such as canonical and literary criticism. I and others had to learn to have a different perspective-one of willingness to live into the Bible’s lessons instead of adjusting them to fit our world and our rules of reading. This stance will not lead to more certainty, indeed it often makes things messier, but instead of the Bible serving our ways of knowing, it will question us and the ways we live our lives. It is a more difficult way of interpretation for it takes time and an ability to try and understand the thought world of this ancient people. But as William Placher told us, “Immersion in the biblical world and its language leads to much richer interpretation than either quoting proof texts or picking and choosing passages we like. When we really know the Bible, we realize its complexities, its diversities, its ambiguities.”
We must learn to have a relationship with the text-a long and sometimes difficult relationship. But this long relationship will serve us well in the end. By a relationship with the text, I mean a way of reading where the people in the text are not objects to be judged, but become places for us to stand. Instead of seeing the sin of those we call “Adam and Eve” what does it mean if we stand in their place? If we stop blaming them, we might learn what it means to be them. Narrative texts set the stage for us to step in and feel what it is like to be in a particular situation. How long would we last in the garden? How many times would our own fear overcome our belief in God in the wilderness? Would we wait for God or toss our earrings in the pile and make a new god? The narratives of the Bible are not there for us to feel superior to “those” people but to realize again and again we are exactly those people. It is only through an engaged relationship with the text that we will learn what it is trying to teach us.
This relationship with the text will also take us to unknown and sometimes frightening places. The narratives of the Bible have glorious highs and humiliating lows. Some texts are confrontational, some humorous, and some are so gut-retching painful that we want to flip through its pages and seek safer texts. However to understand the God we serve, we must embrace all of the texts. Those that are comfortable and those that are not. After years of work in all of the Old Testament texts, I still am left to wonder at a God who sends Hagar back into slavery with Sarah. Sixty-five years ago, MacLean was troubled by another violent text, he writes, “Wholesale and ruthless extermination of peoples is attributed by the writers to God’s express commend. Our minds and our consciences today revolt at the wanton destruction attributed, for example, to Joshua in his conquest of the Promised Land.” He was writing in 1948 where the horrors of World War Two were still very real. Today I have the same struggle with the so-called conquest narratives. Yet these stories too are in the sacred canon and I am reminded by them that I do not get to make God an idol of my own choosing by selectively editing of the Bible. These texts reflect my own world where women are often seen as less than men, where war is a national pass time and we used terms such as “manifest destiny” to cover the stories of American slaughter.
These stories remind me that God chose long ago to be involved in the world of humans and that we humans are a sinful warring lot. These stories tell me that God loves the faithful David and the sinful murderer David. God loves Abraham enough to stay his foolish hand and Sarah enough to give her a child, even as she rejects the child she forced Hagar to create. It teaches us that God’s love is not a straight line from sin to salvation, of good guys and bad guys, but instead God’s love is a twisted path of sorrow and grace through the lives of people who are just as flawed as we are.
The Old Testament tells us that God is not found in the whirlwind or the storm but in the midst of the stories– both ancient and contemporary. The Bible will shock us, trouble us, upset us and name us for whom we are. To understand its stories, we must not seek to fix them, or sanitize them, or explain them away. The only way to understand the Bible is to pull up a chair and stay for a while.
The second major change is the diversity of our conversation partners. When MacLean and Rodgers worked, the field was almost exclusively male and white. This is not to say these men were not faithful to their tasks, they were. Nor is it to say that the insights the provided were not useful, they were. What we have learned about racism and sexism is that power and privilege does not belong to one man or even a group of men, it is a cultural phenomenon. It was an unwritten rule that stated these educated men were able to speak a word for all persons everywhere and voices outside that circle were unneeded and unwanted.
Indeed, each group banging on the door of the church seeking a place inside has been seen not as friend and neighbor but is first dismissed as insignificant and then, as their demands for a seat grow louder, they are then seen as a dangerous threat to the whole of Christendom. Women, persons of color, LGBT’s, immigrants have all had to fight for a place-or should I say still have to fight for a place in the church and the academy.
Another story will explain what those of us who are seen as marginal must do to navigate the academy. I remember when I was offered my first article for A Feminist Companion to the Bible in graduate school. I went to my mentor Katherine Sakenfeld to ask if I should accept it. Not because it was not very exciting and an honor, but because we knew the delicate path a young female scholar must navigate. It was important to earn your “real” academic credentials and that involved staying away from what some think of as boutique interpretations such as feminist, womanist, black, and queer studies. Would this article place me in the she-can-only write feminist articles category? Should I wait and make sure my first article will be seen as scholarly enough to set me squarely in the academy? We knew we had to choose carefully in an academy where we were still not considered as full partners. My experience is but a small example of the decisions many new scholars must consider to be treated as worthy of being seen as conversation partners. For some of us, a degree from a Ph.D. granting institution is not enough to prove we deserve to be considered “real” scholars.
This event today demonstrates that the world has changed a bit. The academy and the church are now seeking conversation partners from around the corner and around the world. Conversation partners have and will continue to enriched the journey, but as with the first point above, our conversation partners will alter how we see the text, if we allow them. Standard interpretations have been challenged by women and persons of color and our LBGT brothers and sisters. This is especially true for readings of the Bible that were used to support the oppression of these groups in the first place.
The readings of Genesis are forever changed by women scholars who have lifted our matriarchs out of their supporting role and into the limelight. Yet the lifting female biblical characters is a double-edged sword for we now must deal with Sarah as both the one whose linage was central to the child of promise and the one who forced Hagar into surrogacy. Womanists show us that we must not gloss over Hagar’s treatment by our beloved Abraham and Sarah, but read the story as it is written and struggle with what it says about our ancestors. Likewise, our LBGT brothers and sisters unmasked prejudiced readings of the Sodom and Gomorrah text and when the text is read without that lens, it becomes a horrific story of men willing to sacrifice the women entrusted to their care to save their own skin. New conversation partners have provided new and deeper understanding of the text. Their voices allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us in new ways. Yet often the response of the academy and the church is not one of welcome, but one of fear and protection of old paradigms. I hope that we can learn not to fear what is different, open ourselves to a new word and as with the biblical text, pull up a chair and plan to stay a while as we learn new ways of being in God’s kingdom.
These two insights-facing the biblical text as it is and the perspectives brought by other voices– has made a difference in how I now see psalms scholarship. Traditional Psalms scholarship itself had a steep learning curve. Form criticism is a way of reading psalms that is different than the way the church prays and sings the psalms. While a whole explanation of form criticism is not possible or desirable, one of the differences centered on the constant presence of “a psalmist.” Every commentary speaks of “the psalmist.” I and a host of others adopted the term in our own work as without critically reflecting upon it.
During our work on the NICOT commentary and in an effort to be inclusive, Rolf Jacobson, Nancy Walford and I decided to alternate the gender of that “psalmist.” It was at that moment that I realized I was agreeing to change the gender of this psalmist, even though no one was sure exactly who or what that psalmist was. Older commentaries were concerned with the person of this psalmist. Mowinckel argued he was an ancient temple singer who wrote these prayer songs for use in the cult. Gunkel and Gerstenberger suggest he is a representative Israelite who may or may not be from the temple circles? Later commentators, including me, had developed a more functional approach. This psalmist is the one who crafted the words of a psalm. Yet, he or she was the one who speaks or prays these words and also the one living the experiences and emotions the psalm emotes.
To be a bit more concrete, let me offer an example of how scholars have traditionally used the psalmist. If we use the same perspective as is often used in commentaries for a familiar prayer song, the commentary on “Amazing Grace” would go something like this:
In the first stanza, the psalmist is describing his own sinful nature. The psalm’s language is non-specific so we do not know exactly what the psalmist did to feel like he is a wretch. This allows for a wide variety of interpretations. The point of the stanza however is not the psalmist’s sin, but the grace of God that is “sweet,” that has “found” the psalmist in his sinful state and has restored him. The psalmist expresses his experience of grace via the metaphors of “lost to found” and “blindness to sight.”
This is certainly one possible perspective, but not one I think of when singing this song in my own congregation. As the pronouns of the song instruct, I place myself as reader and hearer of this poetry in the place of the “I” and “me” in the song.
So why do psalms scholars continue to write of these prayer songs from this disengaged third-party perspective? Is this way of dealing with the psalms just a bad inherited habit? At the very least, the psalmist then would be a remnant of our old “cultic” Sitz im Leben habits. He belongs to the world of the J writer and the P writer and the Q source. He is pre-canonical criticism. He is, even by Mowinckel’s own understanding, a precursor to the Book of Psalms as Holy Scripture.
More reflection caused me to wonder, is this created psalmist the scholar’s protection? Does it preserve our cultural understandings of emotion management and diminish self-disclosure? It is certainly more comfortable to speak of how a psalmist feels and what emotions are generated when the words scream, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:1)” But that is certainly not the way the psalms are written. By adding the psalmist, we have in essence changed the genre of the psalms from emotive poetry to third person narration. We have once again manipulated the biblical text so that it can live more comfortably in our world. From this external perspective, I can watch the haunting words of the psalms in the same way I watch a murder on television, as a disinterested third party. I can manage the cries of sorrow and its over the top exclamations of joy without becoming emotional involved the poetry.
Yet the actual psalms with the prevalent “I” and “we” language wants no such relationship with us. These ancient texts cry out and shout for us to embed ourselves in their words and images. We are supposed to feel the metaphors, “As a deer pants for a stream, so my soul pants for you, O God (Ps 42:1).” In my work as a psalms scholar, I am working to unleash the psalms from our third party descriptive way of discussing them. Just as with the other points, such a way of being with and reflecting on the psalms is certainly less tidy. Facing the psalms means facing ourselves, without the protection of the psalmist or the ever present David. It means facing them as they were written and dealing with the emotions they express. This type of engagement is not, cannot be done “decently and in order.” But it is, I think, in one scholar’s opinion the only genuine way to engage these powerful texts.
Rogers is correct, Bible study is hard. It requires time and patience. It requires conversation partners who do not share our communities and who will teach us to see the Bible through a new lens. It requires reading the text the way it is and realizing our desire to fix it is not a problem with the text but with our own ways of reading and feeling. It requires meeting a genre on its own terms and not transforming it to something more comfortable. But mostly, it means pulling up a chair and settling in for the long haul that it takes to “realize [the Bible’s] complexities, its diversities, its ambiguities.” So please, have a seat and let the conversation continue……