The Bible in Public Schools (Part I)

Another occasion has arisen for a departure from the primary purpose of my blogging about the Bible.  For the past few weeks there have been stories in the news about a new resource for teaching the Bible in public schools in the United States.  The new effort has received additional publicity because it is sponsored by Steve Green, the founder of the chain of craft stores called “Hobby Lobby,” who has been in the news a lot lately because of the ways his religious views influence the running of his business.  A small school district in Oklahoma has adopted Green’s new curriculum.  A high level of secrecy still surrounds Green’s curriculum, and I have not seen it yet, but have had a brief report from someone who has.  Because I am unable to evaluate the curriculum, it is best to develop some background on the issue by examining a similar case from several years ago.

In the 1990’s an organization was founded in North Carolina calling itself the National Council for Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.  They produced a curriculum that a number of public school districts began using in the early 2000’s.  Part of the strategy was not to produce a textbook for students, but a curricular guide for teachers, which they distributed in a very controlled manner for $150 per copy to the schools using it.  This strategy made widespread review of the curriculum very difficult.  The quasi-official sounding name was not their only act of deception.  They also grossly overstated to prospective users the number of schools already using the curriculum.  The NCBCPS website currently says 873 school districts and 2491 high schools use the curriculum, but they do not provide a list.  They also claimed that expert scholars produced the material, though they have refused to identify them.  The curriculum was poorly produced and promoted a view of the Bible typically found in very conservative Protestant churches.  It has run into several legal challenges which it has lost because the material is so blatantly sectarian.  A thorough report on the curriculum was produced by Dr. Mark Chancey, a religion professor at Southern Methodist University, and is available here:  http://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/TX_Bible_Report_UPDATE_DEC-06.pdf?docID=167

It is uncertain how widespread the current use of the NCBCPS curriculum is.  Along with the exaggerated claims on their website, they list a group of “bible scholars” as an Advisory Board.  The first two names on the list, Dr. Roy W. Blizzard and Dr. Ronald W. Moseley, are credited with writing “a number of books” and “thirteen books” respectively, but searches of WorldCat and Amazon yield no books on the Bible written by persons with these names.  I could go on, but it is obvious this group is not trustworthy and not qualified to do what they claim to do.

There are well-developed federal guidelines for teaching the Bible in public schools, and Steve Green claims his curriculum follows these.  A thorough review awaits public release of the material, but they have already followed the example of the NCBCPS in two ominous ways.  The curriculum has been kept secret even though a public school district has already approved its use, and Green has thus far refused to identify the “scholars” who produced it.

One important thing revealed by these cases is that many people do not realize how subjective their understanding of the Bible is and how widely it differs from the views of other groups that regard it as a sacred text.  Some people involved in these efforts may have honestly thought they were producing a purely objective curriculum that looks at the Bible from historical and literary perspectives, but the results of their work in the NCBCPS case was nowhere close to that standard.  Perhaps this new effort will be better.

City-building in the Bible

One of my current writing projects deals with the abundance of anti-city-building polemic in Genesis 1-11.  My work the past several months has convinced me of a few things.  First, all the anti-city-building attitude comes from the J source.  When the composer of Genesis 1-11 combined the sources he was not able to neutralize the polemic, but I cannot say for certain whether neutralizing it was one of the composer’s goals. Second, the other major source, P, is not anti-city, and it is difficult to imagine such sentiments in the kind of person who composed Genesis 1-11, after Judah had become urban and YHWH had become so identified with Jerusalem. Third, the major accomplishments of the composition process were putting distance between the Israelite ancestors and city-building and putting the focus on Babylon (Babel), rather than city-building in general.  Genesis 1-11 connects city-building to the families of Cain and Ham and shifts the emphasis to human pride and the resistance to “filling the earth.”  City-building motivated by a desire for fame (“Let us make a name for ourselves,” 11:4) receives a final judgment at Babel.

One question the above conclusions raise is why a major source in Israelite tradition was so opposed to cities.  Given Israel’s experience with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon the anti-empire stance in Genesis makes sense, but what experiences might lie behind a more general opposition to city life?  It is also fair to ask what would have constituted a city in the minds of those responsible for the tradition.  Archaeological evidence provides a general picture of Canaan in the second millennium that might explain an anti-city attitude.  At the beginning of the second millennium the area was dominated politically and economically by walled cities.  Historians usually refer to “city-states” because they appear to have been independent from one another, each city having its own “king.”  By the end of the second millennium, the size and influence of these cities had declined significantly.  Joshua contains a reflection of the process, even listing thirty-one city-states in Joshua 12, but it condenses the collapse into a much shorter and more exciting story of an invading Israelite army.  Archaeological evidence demonstrates a long period of decreased rainfall in the second millennium, so settled life in cities, requiring intense agricultural production, would have been difficult to sustain in come cases.  Some of the  people who eventually made up Israel were those who had lived between the cities, perhaps oppressed by them, or refugees from the declining cities.  Eventually the Moses and exodus narrative became the dominant “national origin” story, but anti-city elements remained in their sacred texts, even if reshaped.

Ancient Israel’s great heroes all have an anti-city element to their stories.  Regardless of where they were born or died, Abraham, Jacob, the twelve sons of Jacob, Moses, and David all had a shepherd past.  Many biblical stories, from Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12) to Naomi and Boaz (Ruth 1), begin with people moving because of famine.  Even the story that moves the descendants of Israel to Egypt in Genesis 42-43 is a famine and departure narrative.  By the time the literature of ancient Israel was in the form we know today, in the Bible, urban life had become an unavoidable reality.  The anti-city pieces had been shaped to serve different purposes in a larger narrative, forming a national identity for Israel in relation to the nations around it.

Reflections on teaching “The Prophetic Literature,” Again

I am wrapping up my course called “The Prophetic Literature” at Belmont.  Along with my students I have been working through the draft of the book I wrote while on sabbatical last fall, A Chorus of Prophetic Voices:  An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature (forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press).  I am also about finished with the final revision process I have been doing as I taught my way through the book for the first time, so now is a good time for some reflection.

Books introducing the prophetic literature used to use a historical approach.  They started with the earliest “writing prophets” in the eighth century, such as Hosea, Amos, Isaiah,, and Micah, and work their way down to those from the Persian/Second Temple period, like Haggai and Zechariah.  Most work on the prophetic literature acknowledged that the large collections called Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve are composite literary documents developed over two or three centuries, and their primary goal was often to recover the authentic voice of the historical figures who began these traditions.  Sometimes the recovery was part of a larger effort of fitting the historical prophets into the development of ancient Israelite religion.  Working with the prophetic literature in this way was fraught with problems, but its great accomplishment was wresting the prophets away from a purely spiritualized way of reading that had dominated Christian interpretation.  It presented the prophets as flesh and blood characters preaching justice in a material world, whose words could address our material world.

A shift beginning in the last quarter of the twentieth century led to a new practice of introducing the prophetic literature focused on the final forms of the four large scrolls as unified literary works.  The two primary benefits of this approach were avoiding the tendencies toward fragmenting layer of smaller and smaller pieces and making the primary goal of interpretation the understanding of the literature itself.  I liked this way of reading the prophetic literature, and used it in my course for about a decade, but the movement of trauma studies into the study of the prophetic literature over the last decade revealed its shortcomings.  I became uneasy and began searching for a better way to introduce the prophets that gave full attention to the presence of the pre-trauma preaching of Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, and Micah in post-trauma books, whose writers spoke to a recovering community in the Persian period.

My new approach is unavoidable convoluted, because it requires combing the two ways I describe above, and asking some revised questions.  From the first entry into each of the four scrolls the shape and texture of the final forms must be a central concern.  At the same time the material that addresses each of the periods of crisis in Israel’s story (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian/Restoration) require reading in light of that particular era.  In addition, I am convinced that proclamation of each scroll addressing each period heard along with the others addressing that period, hence the use of the word “chorus” in my title.  Israelite prophecy in the Assyrian period is part duet, featuring the combined voices of Isaiah and the Book of the Twelve, but the latter consists of multiple voices from Amos, Hosea, and Micah.  In the Babylonian period, the powerful voices of Jeremiah and Ezekiel join the chorus, and the sound becomes more complex.  I started the project using the word “harmony,” but quickly realized the falsehood it implied.  The voices are not always harmonious, because they are negotiating life-and-death issues that require and deserve intense debate.

The challenge of putting all of this together in a classroom experience and a textbook aimed at undergraduate students is to provide just enough coherence that they do not feel completely lost on a sea of strange texts without forcing a false coherence onto these ancient texts that betrays their vision of the world.  I get to try again in two years.

Fitting Saul and David Together (Part II)

Before the eruption created by the Noah movie, I had been writing about how a convergence of methods can assist our study of the complex David traditions in the books called 1 and 2 Samuel.  In my previous post I highlighted the incoherent elements of 1 Samuel 16-17, when Saul and David seem to encounter one another for the first time on multiple occasions, and David’s status shifts back and forth from well-known, seasoned warrior to unknown young boy.  I portrayed this as the kind of problem that requires insights from many kinds of methods if we hope to resolve it.

In a recent e-book called King David and His Reign Revisited, which is fascinating both in its content and design, Jacob L. Wright argued that the traditions of Saul and David arose independently.  He identified groups of texts in 1 and 2 Samuel and reassembled them into earlier strands called the History of David’s Reign/Rise (HDR) and the History of Saul’s Reign/Rise (HSR).  Through the careful use of source-criticism, Wright separated the texts about each character that do not involve the other.  Using insights from other approaches, both literary and historical, Wright then considered how and why later writers wove these two sources together and added new material to create what eventually became the book of Samuel.  In some cases the new material is relatively easy to observe.  The account of David choosing not to kill Saul in the cave in 1 Samuel 24:1-22 is an insertion into the section that is primarily about David’s life as a warlord or bandit.  Related stories in 18:10-16 and 26:1-25 about Saul and David make these insertions look somewhat formulaic.  The editors who inserted these stories present a David who had every reason and justification to kill Saul but did not.

The insertions that bring Saul and David together in I Samuel 18-31 bring me back to the problem of their encounters in 1 Samuel 16-17. It is much more difficult to imagine that the final writer/editor of Samuel produced 16:14-23, 17:38-40, and 17:55-58, because they create so much dissonance among themselves and in the surrounding text.  The best explanation for this is that others had already been creating traditions that brought David and Saul together and the writer of Samuel inherited some of these, and some did not easily fit into the narrative as it had already developed.  If this is true, then the effort to connect David and Saul was going on for some time, and involved multiple developers of tradition.  The last of these was the composer of Samuel, but earlier ones could have developed either written or oral tradition, or both.  Other less likely scenarios are possible.  Perhaps one or more of the difficult texts involved just David or Solomon with some other figure who was replaced.  The best candidate for this possibility is the entire Goliath narrative in 1 Sam 17.  2 Sam 21:19 reports that Elhanan killed Goliath.  What if the entire Goliath story in 1 Sam 17 was about Elhanan killing Goliath and David’s name was inserted in place of Elhanan’s?

Why would there have been a sustained effort of significant scope to connect these two figures.  It may not be possible to answer this question in reference to every layer of development.  Wright argues that the HDR and HSR were combined into a single work of literature between 722 and 586, and its purpose was to rally Northern Israelites, defeated and dispersed by the Assyrian army, around Judah and the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.  This proposal carefully balances the results of literary and historical approaches to the text and solves numerous difficulties.

Additional Comments on Noah, the Movie – My Disappointments

My previous posts should make it obvious that I like Aronofsky’s Noah.  I may write one more about things I like but want to go ahead and say something about what I do not like.

The first is a possibility that Aronofsky created and then did not deliver.  The cast list names Noah’s wife Naameh, and this was an intriguing choice.  Assuming the name was intended to match the Naamah in Genesis 4:22, that means Noah married a descendant of Cain.  More significantly she was the sister of Tubal-Cain, which would enrich the plot tremendously, since Tubal-Cain is a major figure and Noah’s primary adversary in the movie.  For some reason, though, the movie entirely ignores her name and her biblical identity.  I do not remember her name even being spoken in the movie.  The marriage of two people from rival clans would have created an excellent backstory and making the two primary adversaries brothers-in-law could have heightened the tension between them.  It is difficult to figure out why the movie would pass up those possibilities.

My second disappointment is the treatment of a text in the Bible, one far more fascinating than the flood itself.  Genesis 9:18-27 reports a bizarre and cryptic incident centered around one of Noah’s sons, Ham.  A surface reading of the text reports that Noah got drunk after the flood and was lying naked in his tent and Ham saw him.  Ham told his brothers, Shem and Japheth, who covered Noah.  When Noah sobered up he found out what had happened and he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, and blessed Shem and Japheth.  The curse includes a declaration that Canaan’s descendants will be slaves to the descendants of Shem and Japheth forever.  But that surface reading makes no sense.  Why did Noah curse Canaan instead of Ham, and why did Noah pronounce such a severe curse based on an event that seems minor and largely his own fault?  Two other biblical texts provide clues for understanding what happened in the tent.  First, Leviticus 18:6-7 uses the same phrase “the nakedness of your father” to refer to the sexuality of the father’s wife in a legal text forbidding incestuous relationships.  Second, a text about Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19:30-38 tells a story of another post-disaster biblical family in which the daughters get their father drunk so that they can become pregnant by him, because they believe there are no other men left on earth.  The result is two sons who bear the names Moab and Ammon, ancestors of later enemies of the Israelites, like Canaan.  These texts help provide the explanation that solves all the problems of the drunken Noah story.  Noah’s wife was present too and Ham impregnated her, producing the incestuous child Canaan, who then bore the curse.

The movie shows Noah drunk and lying naked on the ground, Ham seeing him, and the brothers covering him, but the scene has no real meaning.  There is no explanation of any wrongdoing or any curse.  Soon after the event Ham leaves the family.  The movie seemed to be setting up a better presentation of the scene.  Ham would have had a strong motivation to do this, because they did not take a wife for him on the ark, and he had no legitimate way to produce an heir.  Why Aronofsky chose to punt on this scene is puzzling.  It would have been better to leave it out altogether than to present it like he did.

There is one more reason the story of Noah’s drunkenness is important.  Much of Aaronofsky’s Noah is concerned with the reception history of the flood story, the various ways that later readers understood, adapted, and added to it.  Genesis 9:18-27 has a huge and horrifying reception history.  It is the text used most often to justify the enslavement of African’s (descendants of Ham) by Europeans (descendants of Japheth).  The movie had a chance to take the scene seriously and reveal to its viewers the part of the text’s reception history that has fueled racism and slavery, but chose not to do it.

I suspect some film on the cutting room floor addresses my two complaints here better than the final version did, but I may never know.

Additional Responses to Aronofsky’s “Noah” (Part I)

At the end of my first reaction to Noah, the movie, I indicated my intent to write two more, the first of which would focus attention on elements of the movie that expanded biblical traditions in ways that I liked (this may require two posts).    It is important at the beginning to emphasize an important point at the beginning that has been at the core of much of the controversy about the movie.  The story in the book of Genesis participates in a large body of tradition about the flood, some of it much older than the Genesis account.  This includes some of the more well known accounts like the story of Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis Epic.  It also includes later developments that are part of the reception of the Noah story in Jewish texts outside of the Bible like I Enoch, Jubilees, and Genesis Rabba.  Some of the extra material in the movie comes from this large tradition, and some comes from following the trends within it of expanding stories in order to ask different kinds of questions.  A great discussion of this material and issues surrounding it are on the new website:  http://www.floodofnoah.com/

Genesis 4:22 presents a character named Tubal-Cain, who is the great-great-great-great grandson of Cain.  Genesis describes him as the first metal-worker, so he represents both Cain’s city-building way of life and a technological approach to the world.  In Genesis both Tubal-Cain and Noah are sons of men named Lamech, though the final form of Genesis implies that these are two different men.  In the movie, Tubal-Cain is a major figure and he and Noah are the two archetypal humans.  Tubal-Cain is a powerful king of an urban civilization that hunts and eats animals, while Noah is a wandering gatherer, who eats only plants.  So, in the Bible and the movie, the Noah-type person is saved from the flood that is meant to destroy the way of life exemplified by Tubal-Cain.  What makes the Tubal-Cain character more interesting in the movie though is that he explains his way of life as a fulfillment of Genesis 1:26-28.  He understands himself as created in the image of God and meant to “have dominion” over creation.  The Noah character in the movie emphasizes his descent from Adam and Eve, embodying the expression in Genesis 2:15 that the purpose of humans is “to till and keep” the earth.

The Noah movie sets these two understandings of the purpose of humanity against each other.  Both Tubal-Cain and Noah live somewhat corrupted versions of these views.  Tubal-Cain and his people eat animals, a practice that ignores the rest of God’s instructions to humans in Genesis 1:29.  Noah may be keeping or taking care of the earth in some sense, but he is not working or tilling the ground, which God sent the humans from the garden to do in Genesis 3:23.

Methusaleh, Noah’s grandfather, has little significance in Genesis, except that he lives longer than any other character.  Genesis 5:27, reports his age at the time of his death as 969 years.  Because Methuselah in 187 when Lamech is born and Lamech is 182 when Noah is born and the flood comes in the 600th year of Noah’s life (182+187+600= 969) Genesis has Methuselah die in the year of the flood, though it does not say explicitly that he died in the flood.  The movie develops Methuselah into a wise and powerful character, resembling Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore.  Members of Noah’s family seek his help and advice, and his healing powers allow Noah’s adopted daughter, Ila, to perpetuate the human race.  The movie makes explicit that at which the Bible only hints, though, and Methuselah drowns in the flood along with the descendants of Cain.  In the wider biblical tradition, Methuselah’s father, Enoch is a central figure, and in I Enoch 83, Enoch tells Methuselah about the flood and other mysteries, so the idea that Methuselah had secret knowledge is not created by the movie.  The movie has expanded and interpreted ancient traditions surrounding the Genesis flood story.

First Reaction to Noah, the Movie

Caution:  My discussion below will some of the plot developments.

The first thing to say about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that it is a captivating movie.  When I first heard a Noah movie was coming several months ago I was surprised and did not think anyone could make a movie about Noah that would interest me.  The biblical story has little drama, but movie is surprisingly suspenseful. Two types of elements in the film make suspense possible.

First, Aronofsky adds elements to the story, often filling in gaps of the biblical story and expanding upon ideas at which the biblical text only hints.  The biblical story contains no other characters besides Noah and seven members of his family and the other family members never do anything.  The four female characters do not even have names.  Noah himself is a flat character in the Bible.  Before and during the flood Genesis tells us nothing other than God chose him and he followed God’s directions.  The movie develops the characters extensively, especially Noah, so that we know his thoughts, fears, an motivations.  Genesis 6:11 tells us that “the earth was filled with violence,” but does not portray that world.  The movie shows its audience that world in considerable detail and depicts the kind of people Noah and his family have to be to survive in it.

The second, and most controversial, kind of adaptation Aronofsky has made is to change elements of the story, so that they are different from the Genesis account.  The best defense for changing the story is the recognition that ancient Israel had at least two different flood stories, now woven together in Genesis 6-8 (anyone who has not read those three chapters straight through should try it now in order to recognize their incoherence),  and other ancient cultures around Israel had different versions of the story.  There is no single “correct” version, each raising different issues and ask ing different questions.  In the movie, only one of Noah’s sons, Shem, has a wife on the ark, and the whole family thinks she is incapable of having children.  Noah thus becomes convinced that God’s intention in the flood really is to destroy all of humanity, and that his only purpose is to insure the survival of the animals.

The changes in the story allow the movie to ask two questions that the biblical story does not, and the movie is helpful to me because they are exactly the kinds of question I want to explore.

1) How does the purpose of God combine with our own attempts to understand the world and figure out how to work in it?  Russell Crowe’s character struggles to understand and to do what he thinks God wants.  Sometimes he gets it right and sometimes he misunderstands.  Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he fails, but he is never just the simple divine mechanism of Genesis 6-8.

2) What would be the impact on a person of doing something like God commanded Noah to do, and what would be the impact on his family?  Powerful and influential people in our world often identify divine causes, and those causes shape their lives and the lives of many others.  Who gets to decide the divine purpose and who suffers or benefits from those decisions?

My intent is to write two more posts on the movie in the coming days, one on the imaginative developments that I liked and one on those that I did not like.

Likes:  The use of the “Watcher” characters, only mentioned briefly in the Bible in Genesis 6:1-2, the development of Methuselah (Noah’s grandfather who the Bible indicates, tantalizingly, died in the flood – do the arithmetic), the appearance of Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Noah in Genesis 4:22, who represents a different way of understanding God in the movie.

Dislikes: The cast-list indicated that Noah’s wife is Naameh, which would make her the sister of Tubal-Cain, but the movie never uses her name and never hints at the brother-sister relationship.  The one biblical scene that hints at Noah’s struggle and torment is his drunkenness after the flood that results in conflict with his son, Ham, but the movie handles this scene in an awkward and confusing way that dodges its difficulties.