Thinking Out Loud

October 19, 2015

The Bible as Literature

I remember cringing the first time I saw the course offered at my ‘secular’ university: The Bible as Literature. This was a book which had changed my life and which was so highly treasured among the people of my faith tribe, that to reduce it to simply ‘literature’ seemed disgraceful. Part of this was the context; after all, what could this godless college possibly have to offer that would affirm the tenets of my Evangelical upbringing?

In some ways, today I still see the Bible as so much more and yet I am also now a strong advocate for the one story type of approach to sacred scripture, impressing on any and all who will listen the idea of a single overarching story. I’m also increasingly convinced that the ways and purposes of God have been revealed through narrative. This is, after all, the way our children learn the first principles of our faith system, through Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Daniel, Jonah, Jesus, Peter and Paul.

Texts of TerrorLast week a long-time acquaintance loaned me a copy of a 1984 book she had just purchased: Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative by Phyllis Trible (Fortress Press). The four stories are truly among the most horrific the Old Testament has to offer: Hagar, Tamar, Jephthah’s daughter, and the unnamed mistress in what is probably the worst of them all, the story commencing in Judges 19.

Why are these stories even in the Bible? It’s a fair question, and it doesn’t diminish my respect if you feel like asking it.

I couldn’t help but thinking these four stories would make a great Halloween month preaching series, sorta like a friend of ours did a few years back. (We referred to him in this 2010 blog post.)

I was also a little nervous about the idea of this being a particularly “feminist” reading of the text, but it didn’t really play out that way. True, it’s centered on female characters and would fit well into a Women’s Studies core curriculum, but I think the commentary was fair and balanced, and certainly delved into a lot more detail on these particular stories than you might find in a broader commentary title on Genesis, 2 Samuel or Judges.

But the reading the Bible through the lens of literary criticism is both fascinating and disturbing at the same time. The reference to “chiasmus” (I know these as chiasms) which are stories containing a built-in symmetry (often following the form, A, B, C, D, C’, B’, A’ or something similar*) was interesting but I don’t know that every story has to have this feature. I can see how it makes for great literature but again, I think you’re forcing the literary agenda on texts that, as beautiful as they are, weren’t written to win a prize for non-fiction.

To that end, the author had a penchant for invoking Messianic phrases from Isaiah. Some of them were obvious I suppose, you could see them coming, but I’m not sure how this advances understanding of these texts. I just didn’t see the typology; placing these women as types of Christ, though there were some similarities in the storyline. The payoff on some of those comparisons really was found in the word-study application to similar uses of the same Hebrew word in passages with which we are familiar.

I did love the contrast between the text in Judges, “Every man did what was right in his own eyes” to the author’s commentary that while that may have been the case when “there was no King in Israel,” when there was a king, “Royalty did the right in its own yes.” Good observation. There was another section — one the person who loaned me the book didn’t underline — I meant to come back to, but now I can’t find it. 

Texts of Terror is a 1984 print-on-demand paperback ($20 US, 128 pages) with a forward by Walter Brueggemann, that is part of the Overtures to Biblical Theology series.

We ran this picture just a few days ago — it’s from a different source — but it’s appropriate to repeat here:

Exodus as a reversal of Genesis


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