Putting It All Together: New Historicism and Teaching the Hebrew Bible in a Church-Related College
At Luther College, where we are members of the religion faculty, one of the general education requirements is an introductory Bible course. To fulfill the requirement, students may choose between an Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the entire Christian Bible. In this paper, we will present a design for the Hebrew Bible course that we feel is particularly appropriate for a college of the church because of the opportunities for ethical reflection that it provides.
One of the many challenges of teaching this all-college requirement is the wide variety of levels of exposure to biblical texts in every class. Most of the students have been raised in the church and have some exposure to the Hebrew Bible. This tends to be somewhat fragmentary; students know certain texts from Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua (particularly the fall of the city of Jericho), selected stories about David and Solomon, the stories of Ruth and Jonah, and various prophetic texts from the Sunday lectionary. Ironically, we observed that students think that they "know the Bible" as a cohesive "story" or "book about God," even with this fragmentary knowledge.
In our early years at Luther, we each used a course design that followed canonical order in a book-by-book fashion, using one of the introductory textbooks that took the same approach. We noticed that this exacerbated the situation described above. Applying critical methods to the Hebrew Bible book by book had the effect of shattering the students' idea that the Bible is a cohesive narrative about God; for some, this felt like a shattering of their faith. Students encountered the Hebrew Bible as a series of individualized lessons on separate books with different authors, historical contexts, and theological viewpoints. Following canonical order made the problem worse because we would jump backwards and forwards on the historical timeline when placing texts within their historical contexts. We also observed that the course design did not provide a framework for the students to "put the pieces back together." In order to address these issues, we worked together to redesign our courses with a framework that provides a cohesive and coherent flow throughout the semester, thereby reducing the "shattering" effect. This also provides opportunities for moral reflection on both ancient and contemporary issues, thereby helping students raised in the church to incorporate what they have learned in the course within their faith perspective; in other words, to "put it all together" again.
To support our revised learning goals, we adopted a New Historicist approach to the teaching of the Hebrew Bible. To this end, we view the Hebrew Bible as a generally coherent project of late monarchic Judah and the Persian period Jewish community sent to Jerusalem to administer Yehud for the Persian imperial authorities. While we do not deny the existence of earlier historical references in the literature, particularly in the Deuteronomistic History, we contend that these earlier historical figures and events have been embedded in a new narrative, one that supports the interests of the late monarchic/Persian period communities. Not only that, the Hebrew Bible also participates in shaping the history that it seeks to reflect. Or in more precise New Historicist terms, we try to emphasize that texts are not just passive reflections of historical contexts; texts and the discourses they promote are active shapers of history. In short: texts have power.
For example, in working through the Deuteronomistic History, many students take the text at face value and assume that the natural state of Israelite religion during the period of the monarchy was monotheism. Those who worshipped Baal and Asherah are seen as apostates from the true religion. But a careful reading of the text, along with an examination of the archaeological evidence, allows students to see that syncretism was the natural state of Israelite religion during this period. The text reflects the wishes of a particular group to transform Israel's religion into one based on worship of Yahweh alone at the Temple in Jerusalem. As such, this is a power move designed to construct religion in order to support certain political and economic programs, which will have obvious ethical consequences for certain members of that society. What effect would Josiah's reform program have on poor farmers living many miles away from Jerusalem? Are their interests represented by the interests of the powerful? By engaging such ethical questions, students can see the connection between power issues related to constructions of religion in the biblical text and issues of power inherent in contemporary constructions of religion.
This ethical reflection is a key element of the overall course design. The framework of the course is an overview of the history of Israel and Judah; we take as our starting point for the semester the question, "Who were the Israelites?" and present the Merneptah Stele, the earliest mention of Israel outside of the Bible. Then we look at narratives from Joshua and Judges as well as archaeological evidence from the Iron I central highlands. Confronted with all three types of evidence, students see that a complete annihilation of the "Canaanites" as described in Joshua very likely did not occur. At this point the students themselves start to ask the questions, "Who wrote this text and why?" as well as recognize the ethical implications of the narrative.
We continue the historical overview through the monarchic period with this same method of examining ancient Near Eastern texts and archaeological evidence alongside the biblical narratives that describe this period. Students are forced to grapple with discrepancies between the Davidic ideology present in the Deuteronomistic History and the lack of evidence in extra-biblical sources for a United Monarchy as described in the Hebrew Bible. Through the examination of the regnal formulae in the books of Kings, students discover for themselves the bias of the historian toward the Davidic monarchy and the worship of YHWH in Jerusalem. At certain points in the overview, some prophetic texts are examined to expose students to other voices from the monarchic period, for example, Amos' concern with social justice (as opposed to the Davidic monarchy or correct worship in Jerusalem).
Once we reach the destruction of Jerusalem and exile in our overview, the course follows a slightly different pattern. Following an "historical overview" lecture, we examine texts that emerged during that particular period and discuss the theological and ideological assertions made through these texts. Here we are especially able to emphasize the diversity of voices present in the Hebrew Bible. For responses to the exile, we read Lamentations, Psalm 137, Habakkuk, and the latter chapters of Ezekiel. In the context of the Persian period we read the Pentateuch, following the biblical assertion that Ezra brought the Torah to Jerusalem, Ezra/Nehemiah, Jonah, Ruth, and Job. After an overview of the Hellenistic period we read Daniel, with an introduction to apocalyptic literature, and Judith, to illustrate the variety of responses to Antiochus IV's policies.
This design has helped us to achieve our goals well. We have found that reading biblical texts within an historical overview provides the desired coherence for the entire course. For example, students grapple with historiographic issues while examining the Deuteronomistic History; they read the prophetic texts in the midst of the historical overview, especially in relation to Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian occupations; and they encounter key themes expressed in different ways through a variety of voices within the contexts of the exile, Persian period, and Hellenistic period. Each class period flows naturally into the next. Our second goal was to provide opportunities for ethical reflection; these happen when students encounter the dynamics of power as well as the diverse voices within the biblical texts, which then allows students to reflect on contemporary ethical questions.
To illustrate our points above, we would like to present the way we approach the book of Ruth in the course. We read Ruth within the same "unit" as Ezra/Nehemiah, the Pentateuch, Jonah, and Job, and draw on the following texts:
Deut 23:3 states that "No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord." This banning of Ammonites and Moabites is not surprising when we consider that the narrative in Gen 19:30-38 makes the claim that both Ammonites and Moabites were the products of the incestuous relationship of Lot with his daughters. Since the prohibition of Deut 23:3 is repeated almost verbatim in Neh 13:1, it would seem that an anti-Moabite policy was part of the legal tradition brought to Jerusalem by Ezra. We should also note that in his memoirs Nehemiah says that when he saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab, "I contended with them and cursed them and beat them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, 'You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons'" (Neh 13:25). Finally, we must assume that the Pentateuch read by Ezra before the assembly of the people contained the story in Num 25:1-4 where the men of Israel are seduced by the women of Moab at Shittim and are thereby led into the worship of pagan gods. The book of Ruth appears to have been written to subvert the expectations set up by this story as well as the other anti-Moabite Pentateuchal traditions. Here it is important to emphasize Ruth's seduction of Boaz. The Numbers tradition warns against the seduction of Israelite men by Moabite women, yet in the book of Ruth none of the negative consequences of this arise. Boaz is seduced by Ruth, but rather than being led into apostasy, it is Ruth who becomes a worshipper of Yahweh. Boaz even remains mindful of his Torah obligations on the issue of Levirite marriage. Of course, the seduction leads to the creation of the Davidic line, and Ruth is hailed by the community as being like Rachel and Leah and better than seven sons! In the religio-political context represented in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (with support from the Pentateuch), the story of Ruth is a powerfully subversive work that seeks to counter what appears to be a dominant ethnocentric discourse at work in the Persian period community.
Still using Ruth as an example, the diagram below illustrates the general course design and the way in which it helps students "put it all together"; that is, reincorporate a more informed understanding of the Hebrew Bible within their lives of faith (note that this happens in a variety of ways during the semester; Ruth is just one example). Throughout the course we examine two strands in tension with each other: the dominant discourse as presented in the "historical" books and the Pentateuch versus what we are calling the "reality on the ground" derived from archaeological evidence and from reading the "dominant discourse" against the grain.
The left side of the diagram shows the first lecture of the course as described earlier in the paper; the Joshua narrative is in opposition to much of the archaeological evidence from Iron Age I. The course framework leads naturally to the monarchic period; in this example, the Deuteronomistic historian's perspective regarding worship in Israel and Judah is in opposition to evidence suggesting that Asherah and other deities were regularly worshipped. In the Persian period, the descriptions of policy changes in Ezra/Nehemiah, when read against the grain, indicate the reality that these "foreign" women were part of the community. Throughout the entire semester, students have been grappling with the ethical dimensions of these opposing strands; when they converge in the book of Ruth, students are able to focus this ethical reflection on a particular issue —that is, the identification of individuals or groups as "other" so as to establish or protect a particular position as dominant —and to recognize Ruth as a subversive voice on this issue. This is the entry point for reflection on contemporary situations of exclusion and marginalization through a rhetorical identification of "the other"; and now, students have the diverse voices of the Hebrew Bible, dominant AND subversive, as a powerful tool by which to grapple with these issues.
Two years ago, when we were first implementing our course, we attended the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting in Toronto and heard the SBL Presidential Address of John Collins entitled, "The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence." Collins stated, "There is much in the Bible that is not 'worthy' of the God of the philosophers. There is also much that is not worthy of humanity. Certainly much that is not worthy to serve as a model for imitation. This material should not be disregarded, for it is at least as revelatory as the more edifying parts of the biblical witness. The power of the Bible is largely that it gives an unvarnished picture of human nature and of the dynamics of history, and also of religion and the things that people do in its name." Collins goes on to talk about the connection between certainty and violence and concludes with, "Perhaps the most constructive thing a biblical critic can do toward lessening the contribution of the Bible to violence in the world, is to show that that certitude is an illusion." Along with Collins, we believe that in the midst of a violent world it is imperative that we engage students in a study of the Bible that highlights questions of ethics, power, and violence. What could be more appropriate for a college of the church?
Kristin Swanson, firstname.lastname@example.org, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.
Robert Shedinger,email@example.com, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.
Citation: Robert Shedinger , Kristin Swanson, " Putting It All Together: New Historicism and Teaching the Hebrew Bible in a Church-Related College," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=367