A Victory for Biblical Scholarship

When I think of “going out at the top of our game, I’m not thinking of Kevin Costner’s performance as Billy Chapel, the aging Detroit Tigers pitcher who pitches a perfect game on his last trip to the mound in For the Love of the Game. That’s good, but my friend Fran Page and I recently finished an eight month Bible study that ended with a session that felt pretty much like a “perfect game” to me and may have been a more significant victory. [1]

We began last September a course that laid out Genesis/Exodus in the Old Testament and Luke/Acts in the New Testament as the course of study. That’s a lot of opportunity to teach how to approach scripture with the goal of understanding it. We hit all the emphases everyone hits about knowing the context and the writer and the situation and so on. We invited our students to try to see the situation as the writer might have, to use the stories available as a way of responding to that situation.

tamar 1Here’s an example from Genesis 38, the story of Tamar, who is one of my favorite biblical characters. The story of Tamar and Judah, her father in law, is not the easiest story to grasp because it requires an understanding of levirate marriage. [2] Our students were perfectly ready to approve of God’s commands that we should not steal, lie, or kill. God’s commands that the younger brother should mate with the widow of an elder brother was not as easy to approve. It is, however, the basis of the story of Tamar and Judah.

Tamar’s husband Er dies, leaving Tamar childless, and the younger brothers do not do their duty as God commanded. [3] And Judah, their father, even sent Tamar back to live with her own family. He is obviously not going to intervene. So Tamar took things into her own hands, producing problem number two for our students. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and enticed Judah, the patriarch of the family, to impregnate her—the task he should have assigned his sons to do.

From the biblical standpoint, it all ends well. Tamar’s sons (twins) will carry on Er’s name and heritage as God commanded. Judah is publicly humiliated for his part in this charade and Tamar is completely vindicated. For the writer, this is a story of a heroic and proactive woman who takes God’s commandments much more seriously than the men of the family

That’s from the biblical standpoint. That is not where our students started. They were clearly repelled by the dutiful coupling of bother with sister-in-law (the levirate marriage commandment) and inclined to disapprove of Tamar’s seduction of Judah. The writer skips over those as incidental to fulfilling God’s commandment—which didn’t matter much to the students—or treating it as comic. Our goal as teachers was to get the students to begin where the writer began, to understand and appreciate his values as they are played out in the text, and to avoid modern sensibilities that would distort the story.

tamar 2Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate how difficult and unappetizing this is. We are asking them to grasp a truly foreign concept—levirate marriage—and understand it as part of God’s covenant with Israel. It is, in other words, binding. And having grasped this concept, to care about it; to see why it would have mattered so much to the writer. On the other hand, there is nothing at all foreign about a woman seducing someone else’s husband, as Tamar did—and her father in law, no less. But to stay with the writer and his values, you have to set aside your own condemnation of Tamar’s behavior and see her as going to great lengths to achieve the goal God had in mind. [4]

So Tamar was tough, but it was just practice. We wound up at 1 Timothy 2: 9—15, a notoriously anti-feminist text. [5] All the way through Genesis and Exodus, we worked with the stories, practicing seeing them from the author’s viewpoint, practicing seeing the story as response to a situation contemporary with the author. [6] We continued to work those same skills in Luke and Acts and the class continued to work with us, practicing these new and difficult skills together.

We reached 1 Timothy as an example of the split Luke describes in Acts between the kindtamar 6 of church organization that followed from the Hellenized Jews who first followed Jesus, rather than the kind of church organization that followed from the Hebrews who first followed Jesus. From the split that Luke describes, two entirely different approaches developed and if you are inclined to doubt that, I recommend that you read the book of James, then the book of Galatians.  I am reminded here that in our little church in Englewood, Ohio, we used to sing a hymn called “The Church in the Wildwood.”  Possibly this woman in on her way to that church.

But all the work the class put in meant that when they got to 1 Timothy, they were ready to ask the necessary (though difficult) questions: who is the author? what are his principal concerns? What was going on in this church (these churches) that evoked the language he uses? Into what cultural and historical setting shall we set these demands so that we can see clearly what outcome he hopes for? And then finally, after all that work is done, how shall we understand these texts as applicable to our situation today?

Here is the text I am talking about, using the New Jerusalem Bible translation. 1 Timothy 2: 9—15.  I am putting the “suitable clothes” illustration above and the “ought to be quiet” illustration below.

Similarly, women are to wear suitable clothes and to be dressed quietly and modestly, without braided hair or gold and jewellery or expensive clothes;10 their adornment is to do the good works that are proper for women who claim to be religious. 11 During instruction, a woman should be quiet and respectful. 12 I give no permission for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. A woman ought to be quiet, 13 because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards, 14 and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin. 15 Nevertheless, she will be saved by child—bearing, provided she lives a sensible life and is constant in faith and love and holiness.

The fact that our class did not simply refuse to study such a passage is a triumph itself, but they did much better than that. They began by understanding that the author of this letter faced a difficulty in the life of this young church that concerned him. It was the health of the congregation that was upmost is his mind, just as the continuation of the deceased brother’s inheritance was upmost in the mind of the teller of the Tamar story. It’s hard to be against the continued health of the congregation. On the other hand, it is hard to start there, when the subtext of our era is “You go, girl.”

tamar 4If you start with how it must feel to have someone tell you that you should not dress the way you want and have your hair the way you want, much less that you should defer to the authority of “a man” just because he is a man—you arrive at a completely modern and understandable and unscholarly anger. But you can choose not to start there. (You probably cannot choose to ignore your feelings altogether, particularly when you begin to apply it to our own times.) But you can choose not to start there. You can choose to start with the situation the writer faced.

And, to conclude this already too long story, they did that. They put their modern feelings aside for the purpose of working together to understand this awful passage in its context. And to all appearances, they felt good about themselves for being able to do that. And when they got to the “what does this mean for us today?” question—a crucially important question despite the need to hold it off until last—they simply dismissed it as applicable today in those same terms.

But even so, I will give them this. They dismissed it as advice that was not needed in our church and that would not even be applicable in our church. They didn’t dismiss it because it was offensive—which, obviously, it is—but because the situation being addressed there and then was substantially different than our situation here and now. [7]

We had carefully set the stage for that kind of deliberation with the notion that some scripture passages are like good, nourishing everyone; others are more like medicine, helpful to some, but possibly harmful to others. And harmful to everyone when the doses are too high. We worked that distinction through Genesis, Exodus, Luke, and Acts. And when we really needed it in 1 Timothy, it was there are ready to use.

This is medicine, they said, and possibly just the thing for that church at that time. It is not food for us. But there is food for us in 1 Timothy and we will not be distracted by the medicine from nourishing ourselves with the food.

I don’t remember ever being prouder of a class of beginning Bible scholars. They were wonderful. They did the hard work without complaining and they will take with them tools they can use for the rest of their lives.

[1] Full credit to Fran and to her husband, Gordon Lindbloom, who helped us plan the course. Still, I am going to be talking about how this felt to me, so I am going to shift over to first person pronouns when I am talking about how it felt.
[2] There is nothing romantic about levirate marriage, which requires the males in the family to mate with the wife of a deceased brother. The offspring of that coupling will be reckoned as the children of the deceased brother, so that his name will not disappear and his property not be dispersed. “Producing an heir” is the name of the game and “his children,” the ones you created by mating with your brother’s wife, will be competitors with your children within the clan. It is not “romantic” in the slightest, but it is commanded by God (Deuteronomy 25: 4—10)
[3] A very similar situation is treated as an aspect of friendship between women in The Big Chill, in which a woman loans her husband to a good friend to impregnate her. It is treated more tragically in The Postman.
[4] We may have lost a student over this story. She knew what was right and wrong and this story was praising bad behavior.
[5] New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who wrote the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary on 1 Timothy, calls it a “text of terror” and that is certainly the way our class (12 of the 15 students were women) would have treated it at the beginning of the class.
[6] And that isn’t easy either. The gospels read like biographies, as if the evangelists were recording events as they happened. To see the evangelists as choosing one story or another or one emphasis or another because of the situation their addressees faced requires an orientation in thinking. It isn’t easy, but scholarly study requires that you understand what the event meant to the writer before—not instead of—you understand what it means to you in modern times.
[7] There was even the beginnings of a consideration of “inappropriate dress” in our church as a concept that was worth addressing. Some version, in other words, of what the author saw as a crucial problem, is worth considering today even when it is only a minor annoyance. We ran out of time, I regret to say. I would have love to see where those deliberations would have gone.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to A Victory for Biblical Scholarship

  1. marymtf says:

    I think, and I could be wrong, that women back then would have been supported by their fathers and then their husbands. So if the husband died, the wives and children would be be on their own.

    • hessd says:

      I think you are right about that and I think that is why the care of these families by the churches described in 1 and 2 Timothy was such a touchy subject. The need was great and some women were abusing the system. Now, just what constitutes “abuse” would vary from one era to another, but the author of these letters seems to have a clear notion about it.

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