Amy-Jill Levine & Douglas Knight: The Meaning of the Bible (An Excerpt)

An excerpt from The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us,by Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine. Published by HarperOne.

The Meaning of the Bible cover

The Bible is many things to many people-an ancient literary masterpiece, a cultural artifact, an authoritative scripture for Judaism and Christianity, even a weapon in the culture wars. A library of diverse literary forms including stories, songs, proverbs, laws, and prophecies, the Bible is an enigma to some readers and a delight and inspiration to others. It contains descriptions of horrific violence, strong emotions, and aesthetic beauty; it moves from sometimes incomprehensible legal prescriptions and peculiar customs to lofty poetry, dramatic narratives, and enduring moral and religious principles.

It's also the principal building block of much of Western culture. The Bible's language undergirds how we think and how we speak. It offers the menu of "forbidden fruit," "sour grapes," and "sweet honey in the rock" that many found in the "land of milk and honey." It adores the "apple of my eye," but nevertheless demands in cases of injury an "eye for an eye." "Tender mercies" vie with "spare the rod," although "thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." "To everything there is a season," which is a good thing since there's also a "fly in the ointment" and a "drop in the bucket," both of which can leave us at "wit's end" unless we can read the "handwriting on the wall." The Bible helps us understand John Steinbeck's East of Eden and William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, along with Bette Davis's great performances in Jezebel and The Little Foxes. Josef Haydn, Jean Sibelius, Aaron Copeland, and Duke Ellington all found ways of expressing what happened "in the beginning"; Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten gave new voice to Genesis 22, Abraham's "binding" of Isaac for sacrifice. 

The Bible has always been, and will remain, a source of political idealism and political debate. Consequently, familiarity with the text- including the ability to distinguish what the text says from what people through the centuries have claimed it says-is necessary for those who wish fully to understand the current rhetoric about "biblical values." Some want to post the Ten Commandments in schoolrooms and courthouses; others note, correctly, that the commandments are not identical in the two texts that present them and are even reckoned differently by Jews and Christians; to post only one version would necessarily sanction one particular religious tradition.

Some want the Bible to be required reading in public schools. Although biblical literacy is to be encouraged, such instruction presents problems. Do we tell our students that the world was created in six twenty-four-hour days and that the "sun stood still" (Josh. 10:13) so the Israelites could win a battle, or do we present the accounts as metaphor or myth? Do we state that the prophet Isaiah predicted a "virgin birth" in 7:14, when the Hebrew text says nothing about a virgin? Do we insist that the "suffering servant" of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is a prediction about Jesus of Nazareth, when elsewhere Isaiah explicitly identifies the servant as the people Israel (49:3)? Should the text be taught as great literature or as the divine Word? 

There is also a necessary distinction between asking what the text says and determining what the text means. The "meaning" of the Bible will be different for every reader who encounters the text; at times, the meaning changes for the same reader, for each time the text is studied new insights can arise. For some readers, the Bible is inerrant, perfect, and the source of all knowledge. For others, it is a repository of a people's culture or a brilliant collection of stories with varying degrees of historicity. For some, it is the source of hope and inspiration; for others, it is a text of colonialism, conquest, slavery, misogyny, and homophobia. What we bring to the text necessarily determines what the text says to us. In turn, the more knowledge we have of the Bible in its original setting and the greater facility we have with the critical approaches to the text, the better we will be able to assess those meanings. 

In this book, we attempt to take seriously the various ways the Bible can be and has been understood. We are interested in the theological questions the text raises. As faculty in a divinity school, part of our responsibility is to help those seeking to become priests, ministers, rabbis, and religious educators see how the text has been, can be, and perhaps should be interpreted within the communities of faith. Far too often the Bible, rather than being a rock on which one can stand, becomes a rock thrown to do damage to others. We have too much respect for the text, and for the communities that proclaim it to be sacred scripture, to ignore such concerns.

Those with a specific religious stake should find these pages enhancing their knowledge and appreciation of the text. 

But as faculty also in a college of arts and science, we are interested in the text's literary brilliance, moral profundity, and clues about ancient history. We attend not only to what the text has meant to religious communities, but also, in fact especially, to what it meant in its own historical and cultural context. It has been said that a text without a context becomes simply a pretext for idiosyncratic interpretation. At the very least, we do think that historical awareness coupled with attention to the meaning of the original language can help in sorting out the acceptability of interpretations.

Each reader will see something distinct in the text, just as religious communities have developed their own lenses for interpretation. The very names for the biblical text show this diversity and demonstrate as well how our vocabulary already betrays our religious influences. For the synagogue, the text is not called the "Jewish scriptures" (the title of the present book is intended to indicate the contents descriptively, without using technical terminology). Instead, it is called the Tanakh, an acronym. The T stands for Torah, a Hebrew term for the first five books of the Bible; N is for Nevi'im, the term for "prophets"; and the K stands for Ketuvim, or "writings" (the remaining books, such as Psalms, Proverbs, Esther, and Job). 

For the church, the familiar term is "Old Testament." The term "Christian Old Testament" is redundant; there is no "Jewish Old Testament" or "Muslim Old Testament." Again, however, the label "Christian Old Testament" in our title signals that this present book is looking at this collection of texts not only as an ancient anthology, but also as the sacred, authoritative writings of both church and synagogue. 

In the academy, the common term for this collection is "Hebrew Bible," a descriptive rather than confessional name. It generally designates only the books in the Tanakh and does not include all the Old Testament books in the Catholic and Orthodox communions-deuterocanonical Greek texts such as Judith, a fabulous account of a gorgeous widow who chops off the enemy's head, with his own sword no less (see the cover art), and Susanna, what may be the world's first detective story. Whatever term we choose to call this collection will necessarily promote a specific religious or humanistic view. And again, the meaning of the Bible will change for the reader depending on which collection of texts, or canon, is used and indeed on the translation employed.

Although the Bible has several overarching themes or, perhaps better, general questions, for example, about the relationship between divinity and humanity, the demands of justice, and what it means to live under covenant with God, the texts speak also to different times and places. The historical period described in this collection encompasses well over one thousand years, from the settlement of the land of Canaan, beginning around 1200 BCE, to the middle of the Hellenistic period, around 150 BCE. For the earlier materials from the primeval history (the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah) to the narratives of the ancestors from Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to Joseph, we have no clear external markers to confirm the biblical account. Nor have we corroborating historical evidence of the exodus from Egypt or the people's trek through the wilderness. Traceable origins of the biblical narrative begin with the Israelite settlement of the land of Canaan. From this point forward we can begin to correlate what the biblical text says with what can be determined from external sources, including archaeological evidence.

From 1200 on, the Israelites-variously known also as Hebrews, Judahites, Judeans, and Jews as well as Samaritans-inhabited the land. During the biblical period (ca. 1200-150 BCE), the people subsisted as best they could, coalesced in the form of a monarchic state, built cities, were successively conquered and occupied by four massive empires (Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic), articulated a set of religious and moral principles, developed a cultural memory, and survived despite frequent tragedies. Whether their survival, compared to the disappearance of neighboring nations such as the Hittites, Assyrians, Edomites, and Canaanites, is due to particular cultural practices such as circumcision and dietary restrictions, to an eventually centralized religious system, to luck or tenacity, to divine intervention, to a theological worldview that allowed for complaint as well as lament (the text turns the theological kvetch into an art form), to the biblical text itself, or to a combination of factors cannot be determined in any scientific manner. But survive they did. The Bible is the testament to their experiences, beliefs, and practices.

Today the Bible is available to all readers, a relatively recent phenomenon. The ancient Hebrew text-comprised only of consonants, no vowels, no punctuation-could only be read by those with special training. The general population of ancient Israel, like the majority of the world's population until relatively recently, was illiterate. People learned the biblical stories through teaching in the communities and eventually in both synagogues and churches; knowledge of rituals and codes of behavior was passed down from parent to child. Churches helped teach through religious art, while the synagogue, a relatively recent development in biblical history (David did not go to Hebrew school), promoted literacy.

But availability of the text, whether handwritten or printed, is not quite the same thing as accessibility. All texts need interpretation. Today we have footnotes and glosses, study guides and discussion groups. In the academy, we have various critical tools that aid us in determining when texts were written, what they might have meant to their original audience, and how their meanings have changed over time. In this volume, we show how these tools function and so equip readers to apply them, artfully and carefully, to a variety of texts. 

Some one thousand printed pages in length, depending on the version, the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh/Old Testament can seem formidable to many readers. Some find even the beginning to be a stumbling block. If read as history, the opening chapters conflict with what science tells us. The Bible mentions the birds and the wild creatures, but not the pterodactyl or tyrannosaurus; nor would they easily fit in the ark. Adam and Eve are gardeners, not hunter-gatherers. There was no universal flood; humanity never had a single language; people did not live to be as old as Methuselah (who checked out at 969). And so some readers will shelve the text as a work of fantasy at best, more likely of foolishness, and irrelevant to modern concerns. But the text offers neither foolishness nor fantasy, and it remains relevant today, for it helps us raise the right questions. To find the meaning, or a meaning, of the text requires the critical tools necessary to open and appreciate what it might (still) be saying.

If Genesis and the beginning of Exodus are read as "stories" rather than as "history," they are generally accessible. Readers assimilate the lyrical account of creation, in which everything "was good." They are intrigued with the record of the first humans in the Garden of Eden and the difficulties they face with a tempting snake and an even more tempting tree of knowledge. The accounts of Noah and his ark, the Tower of Babel, the ancestors, the slavery of the people in Egypt, and their exodus-all these make general narrative sense. Then, however, come the law codes, the detailed instructions on how to build the wilderness sanctuary, the commandments for temple sacrifice, and the descriptions of ritual purity. Now well-intentioned readers become confused or, worse, bored, or, worst, disgusted by what can appear to be a retributive system that makes today's religious extremists look enlightened. For such readers, again, critical tools are necessary. How to read the Bible is just as important as knowing what the text says. Here again, biblical scholarship can provide numerous keys. 

Given that the Bible is an anthology, different readers will find different books more appealing. And given that biblical studies is itself a multifaceted discipline-it draws from literature and sociology, legal theory and archaeology, ethics and psychology, and anything else that might give insight into the text-different studies will emphasize different approaches. 

The same holds for us as authors. Unlike the Bible, which was formed with the input of multiple authors over several centuries who produced a text that usually conceals their identities, this book has only two authors who willingly claim their authorship. One of us is more intrigued by law codes, prophetic discourse, and political developments; the other by literary artistry, gender roles, and diaspora existence. One specializes in the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Southwest Asian context from the Middle Bronze Age through the Persian period, and the other is an expert in the Persian, Greco-Roman, and early Jewish contexts of these materials. One of us comes from a Christian background; the other is a member of an Orthodox synagogue. In some cases, we disagree on what a text meant in its original context or what possible meanings it might hold today. In this volume, we combine our interests and our expertise to show our readers the various ways that the texts have been and can be understood, and readers can then apply the same reading strategies to unlock the meanings of other texts.

The book is a result of a conversation between two scholars with different strengths. Both of us realize we are each shaped by our respective histories and points of view, but we also trust we are sufficiently transparent about our aims and interests. Together we complement and, we hope, correct each other as needed. We have spent our professional lives engaged with ancient history, and we hope you will be as captivated by the Bible as are we.  

It is from our experience in teaching this material that we chose the format for this book. Most general treatments of this biblical material take one of three approaches. The most popular is the chronological, in which the discussions follow history from the earliest to the latest periods. This approach commends itself because the Bible carries a chronological thrust: creation, period of the ancestors, Egyptian slavery and exodus, journey to Canaan, possession of the land, history of the monarchy, exile to Babylon, and return. 

However, the composition of these stories does not match the chronology. Accounts set in the early period may have a late date of composition. For example, the opening chapter of Genesis, which begins, "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . . ," was not written "in the beginning" of Israel's history, but likely during or after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century bce. The story of Adam and Eve, which picks up in Genesis 2:4b, may be an earlier account, perhaps based on an older tradition reaching back several centuries. Therefore, any chronological attempt is doomed to the vagaries of historical reconstruction and speculation.

Some texts resist dating at all. Was the book of Ruth written during the period of the judges, which is when the story is set? Or was it written while David was attempting to solidify his kingship, in order to explain how this Israelite ruler happened to have a Moabite great-grandmother? Or was it written comparatively late, during the time following the Babylonian exile, when some factions of the community, represented by Ezra and Nehemiah, encouraged the divorcing of foreign wives and others wanted to show that foreign wives were not only appropriate, but also divinely sanctioned? 

We attempt to date the materials when internal and external markers warrant it, and we draw on archaeological and sociohistorical information to fill out the picture of the text's development and meaning. But the upshot is that very often the specific date, cultural influences, and original form of a particular text cannot be known. 

Another approach is a literary one, in which one begins with the book of Genesis and moves step by step through the entire literature. Yet again, problems ensue, since the step-by-step trek through the Old Testament goes in different directions than the same trek through the Tanakh, given that the books appear in a different order in each collection. The Tanakh ends both the Torah and the canon itself with an image of the people Israel outside the land of Israel. Deuteronomy concludes with Moses on Mt. Nebo, overlooking the "promised land"; 2 Chronicles ends with the edict of King Cyrus of Persia, which encourages the Jews in exile in Babylon to return home to Israel. The focus on the land is palpable. But the Old Testament ends with the prediction of Malachi concerning the return of the prophet Elijah and the time of the messianic age. The journey for the Christian canon thus ends with a look toward what would be known as the New Testament.

The book-by-book approach also creates repetition, since, for example, the books of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings are replayed in the books of 1-2 Chronicles (with, notably, most of the problematic, or juicy contents, such as David and Bathsheba's adultery, omitted; the Bible provides early examples of what today we call spin control). It also eludes the discussion of the sources that were brought together to create the various narratives.

A third approach is theological, in which studies attempt to explain the relationship between humanity and divinity as well as the divine nature itself. No one has satisfactorily for all or even most readers found the Bible's theological core, although themes such as "covenant" and "salvation" and "God's holiness" remain popular. In some cases, the theology is complicated, because the deity does not directly appear (the book of Esther here provides the best test case). Given the diversity of texts within the corpus, finding a theological core might be comparable to finding a singular meaning in all of Shakespeare's plays, or in human history, or even in a single life. Moreover, the deity of this text, the one who appears in the middle of the Midianite wilderness by means of a burning bush that is not consumed and self-identifies as "I will be what I will be" to a Hebrew shepherd on the lam for murdering an Egyptian, is too free to be boxed into a systematic theology. And human nature is also too free, too imaginative, and sometimes too cruel to become predictable.

None of these approaches is wrong; each has distinctive and valuable insights. But we've found, in teaching the material through the chronological/historical approach, the literary/canonical approach, and even the theological approach, more problems than benefits. Specifically, we could not both highlight the issues that we, and our students, found to be of greatest concern and provide a comparative basis for how the Bible addresses these issues. 

Therefore, in this book we take a thematic approach to the Bible. We pursue general topics that appear throughout a variety of texts, and we interpret them in light of other similar occurrences of the same subject. A benefit to this approach, we have found, is that texts that otherwise would mainly be interpreted in light of their own contexts can be brought together, and so dimensions that may not be evident without this comparative examination can be explored. Further, the thematic approach allows us to consider matters of historical context, literary artistry, and theological understanding and to show how the Bible displays these matters in all their glorious diversity.

We begin with the broader biblical story: historical context, literary art, geographical setting. We then turn to the major themes: law and justice, the divine, religious practice, chaos and creation, the search for the meaning of history and the complementary yearning for a homeland, the self-definition of the community, gender and sexuality, politics and economics, diaspora existence, wisdom and cultural critique. For each chapter, we provide both general overviews and specific analyses of select passages. For each, we explain how the approaches we use work, and we offer various strategies for interpretation. The thematic approach allows us to return to certain texts by asking of them different questions-and in the answers we see the diversity of biblical voices, the meanings the text has held and now holds, and the possibilities for the way this ancient collection can still continue to puzzle, to challenge, to inspire.

Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Douglas A. Knight

Douglas A. Knight is Drucilla Moore Buffington Professor of Hebrew Bible and professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University.