In July, I’m going to try something I have never tried before. I am going to try to begin a Bible study based on a scholarly examination of the Bible with fellow residents at Holladay Park Plaza, where we live. I have new sense of daring about it. Suddenly, it seems like a big deal
Just how precarious it is was brought into focus by my friend, Steve. We met on a Road Scholar tour of the Scottish Highlands and on a bus tour there are lots of in between times. In one of those, I was telling him about this forthcoming study. Steve has been a teacher for most of his life and he went right to a question I had never considered adequately, “What are you trying to do?” He asked another good one later, but let’s deal with them one at a time.
Here was my first answer.
“I am trying to make available to my students a richer and more satisfying reading of the Bible than they currently have available by focusing on the interpretive tools they will need to read the Bible in a new way.”
I have lived with that answer for a week now. It has led me to some uncharted territory, for which I am grateful, but I am not sure it says what I really want to say.
The first hurdle I ran into  was “make available.” Here in Scotland, they make haggis available at nearly every meal.  Americans, by and large, on finding out what haggis is, say “No, thanks.” That does not mean that the haggis was not made available.
Here are three scenarios. It might mean that the whole notion of eating sheep’s intestines for breakfast is not a natural thing for Americans. It is a concept that comes from so far away that the first barrier is just imagining the possibility. On the other hand, it might mean that they had haggis pushed on them as children—in the school cafeteria, let’s say—and have acquired an aversion to it that amounts almost to anger. And finally, it might mean that they are really committed to something else, say tomatoes and boiled red potatoes, to meet that particular part of the breakfast menu.
Those are three challenges to the expression, “make available.” Let’s say that I wanted to begin this Bible study with the story of Tamar.  Tamar is declared to have made the right decision in a difficult time. Her solution was to seduce her father-in-law so that her dead husband’s lineage could be preserved.  The declared goal of my approach is to offer the students a way to understand the story the way the storyteller understood it. In this case, it means that preserving her husband’s progeny is crucially important (also commanded by God) and “sexual fidelity” is not—or at least is less so in this circumstance. And I am making this point to people who have never heard of levirate marriage and who, on having it explained to them, find it bizarre. There may also be, in my group of students, people who have had traumatic experiences with the failure of marital fidelity and they will feel somehow complicit by treating it as a minor matter in Tamar’s case.
What does “make available” mean for these students? For some, it means that they will have to get really interested, quickly, in a social practice they have never heard of before on no better grounds than my promise that they will understand the story better if they do that. For the others, it means that they will have to deal intellectually with a topic that is viscerally powerful for them.
Both of those sound unlikely to me as I consider it from Steve’s standpoint, but I began with the notion that I am “making available” something that is really worth their while.
Steve’s second question was, “How will you know when you are done?”  There is a sense in which you are never “done” with a fundamental part of your life, and that is what Bible study has been for me once I got the rebellion out of my system. But in terms of the “goal” as I formulated it, I think there really is an answer. When these students, who, when they leave the room are colleagues and friends, understand what I am offering them and make a thoughtful choice about whether they prefer it to what they are currently using, I will be “done.”
There is no question that I have my own experience with biblical scholarship as a measuring stick. I don’t really know how that could be otherwise. Ever since I threw away the kind of Bible study I learned as a boy  I have had one experience after another of discovering new meanings with real delight. Whatever I decide to say to the class, the truth is that I would like for them to have the experience I have had. I know that is not realistic, but down in my gut, it is really what I desire. And I know that if I try to use it as a standard for “when are we done,” I will fail.
So I need something more reasonable. Let’s try Tamar once more. If there is a lesson is the story of Tamar, it is that you might have to exercise considerable ingenuity and dare the wrath of important people if you are really committed to doing the right thing. When I formulate it as an “outcome” of the study of Tamar it seems tinny to me. A little cheap. What I really want is for the students to marinate their minds in that world, the world where those options confronted Tamar. I want them to give their imaginations to it. To do that, they will have to understand a few things, some of them taught by the story, many more presupposed by the story. Of the things presupposed, some are persistent and intrusive.
Take the experience of Onan, the second brother, for instance. The only word I know from the story of Tamar that has become an English word, is “onanism,” which refers to masturbation. How on earth did that come to be a featured meaning in the story of Tamar? Well first, you have to take Onan’s action out of context. The story says that he “spilled his seed on the ground.”  How, of all the many ways Onan could have managed that, my early teachers decided on “masturbation,” is a puzzle, but the storyteller shows no interest at all in “how:” only in “why.” And the answer to “why” is that he wanted to defraud his brother of what he owed him.
Nothing in the story that matters to the storyteller has anything to do with masturbation. The idea that someone thought that should be ripped out of the story and presented as God’s Commandment would be abhorrent if it were not so silly.
For anyone who was taught what I was taught about “Onanism,” this return of the narrative to its rightful course can be a relief, it can be funny, it can be a downpayment on other, more important, things a scholarly approach to the Bible can offer. So what I will actually be looking for—my “when will we know when we are done question”—will almost certainly be related to those realizations and the feelings that go with them. Relief. Incredulity. Maybe anger for a little while. Hilarity.
Those are all good and they are all ways of tracking my success in offering the kind of course I want to offer. So…thanks, Steve.
 I’d like for you to think of that in the most literal way. You’ve all watched the 400 meter hurdles and you know that running into hurdles is not the way to victory as a rule.
 I have seen deep-fried haggis patties on a menu.
 Which is currently scheduled for week two.
 This requires a more thorough consideration of levirate marriage than I want to try here, but you can get the rudiments in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.
 He raised it as an appropriate “exit question” but the form of the question I am using is biographically significant to me so I changed the form a little.
 And had confirmed in college by some very bright conservative professors. I didn’t actually come to the crisis of rejecting it until I was nearly 30 years old.
 That’s the King James Version as I remember it. The New Jerusalem Bible has it as “let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife.”