Biblical Studies after Seminex
Ralph W. Klein
June 24, 1999
Itís hard to imagine what it was like back then. Perhaps a few quotations can help recapture the scene:
Jacob Preus asked the churchwide assembly: "What do you want--the historical critical method or the faith of your children?" On another occasion he branded us all as "Troublers of Israel," forgetting, apparently, that that sobriquet (nickname) was originally given to the faithful prophet Elijah by King Ahab, when Elijah criticized him for illegally appropriating Nabothís vineyard.
A second quotation from a layperson at a lay forum: "Could you have taken a picture of Adam and Eve?" The answer one wanted to give: I suppose so, but you couldnít get it developed anywhere.
Another plaintive voice: "Theyíre taking my Bible away."
I think it was Robert Bertram who pointed out to me that the person who was asking about photographing Adam and Eve was really asking, "Did Jesus rise from the dead?" That person was indicating that their faith was at stake. That insight and the noble effort to change the level of discourse were what made the Missouri Civil War worth fighting. In those days we felt the authority, freedom, and sufficiency of the gospel were at stake--for us and for a lot of dear layfolk.
I was asked originally to speak about the effects of Seminex on Biblical studies. That I said would be an extraordinarily short speech, but what I indicated that I would be willing to talk about is Biblical Studies after Seminex and on the effect of Seminex on my own biblical studies.
Before getting to those subjects I would like to remind you who were the exegetes in the last days of Concordia and at Seminex:: Fred Danker, Everett Kalin, Edgar Krentz, Robert Smith, Arlis Ehlen, Carl Graesser, Norman Habel, Casey Jones, Ralph Klein, and Alfred von Rohr Sauer. Carl and Von are now "of happy memory," and what happy and joyous memories those are. By the end of this calendar year Fred, Ev, Ed, Arlis, Norm, and Casey will have retired. Only Bob Smith and I will be teaching full time.
Historical Critical Method
The Historical Critical Method was at the center of the controversy in 1969-1974 although from another point of view "they" were really hung up on the notion of inerrancy and "we" were more concerned about the "nature" of biblical authority than about anything else. But we openly admitted that we practiced historical criticism and Ed Krentz even wrote a book about historical criticism that has now gone through nine printings. One of the great ironies in the years past Seminex is that historical criticism is now the object of fierce attack in large reaches of biblical studies. Some have criticized it for its fragmenting of texts, for its almost exclusive focus on the world behind the text--that is, historical critics were often more interested in what J or P had to say than on what the text of the Pentateuch said. Historical critics, it is said, often tried to divine the authorís intention when all we had available was the text she or he wrote. Some scholars would confine attention today to the world of the text; others are more concerned with the world in front of the text, that is, on the effects the text has had or on the marvelous interchange between reader and text. Historical critics today are charged with historicism, with imposing historical categories on texts, or with treating texts as specimens instead of reading them artistically as pieces of literature. The alleged objectivity of historical criticism has been exposed as hopelessly flawed. Consciously or unconsciously, I read the text as a white male, of the privileged class, as a Christian, and as a modern person.
Two things need to be added about these recent attacks on historical criticism.
1. They are by no means the same as the attacks by the right wing of Missouri. None of the critics of the historical critical method at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature advocates that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, Isaiah the author of all sixty-six chapters, or that all the miracles and sayings of Jesus are reliable reports from his earthly life, let alone that the Bible is absolutely true also in historical, geographical, scientific, and other matters. We may be moving past the Enlightenment, but there is no going behind it.
2. For all the attacks on historical criticism, some of them justified, it remains the dominant way of reading the Bible at the best graduate schools, at the vast majority of seminaries and universities, and even among its harshest critics. Many who describe themselves methodologically as feminists, African American, or attentive to the Scriptures final form are also feminist historical critics, African American historical critics, or have historical critical and canonical readers of the text. Those who practice sociological criticism have done much to illumine the culture of the people who wrote and first read the Bible, but in a real sense their sociological methods are merely additional tools of historical criticism. Those who practice narratological analysis, like my own colleague David Rhoads at Chicago, follow the two source hypothesis on the synoptic problem.
Having said all this, it still is highly ironic that the "bumper sticker" charge that was leveled against us--they practice historical criticism--is also seen as problematic by many "liberal" biblical scholars today.
Among the plethora of issues that have occupied biblical scholars the last twenty-five years, I would like to single out three for special comment: 1) the problem of history; 2) the return to the final form of the text; and 3) the social location of the biblical author and the biblical interpreter.
Historical reconstructions of the Bible have become more difficult and more controversial in the last quarter century. I suppose the Jesus Seminar has gotten the most publicity about this. Its printing of the words of Jesus in multiple colors, ranging from those words in bright red which were actually spoken by Jesus to those in black which surely were not has been viewed as a significant accomplishment by some and as scholarly arrogance by others. Those who participated in that seminar or who write lives of Jesus have put a serious question mark behind the apocalyptic Jesus that Albert Schweitzer bequeathed to us. Some, like Dominic Crossan, have gained headlines by proposing that the body of Jesus was probably consumed by dogs. I would think that those who believe that the gospel gives the Scriptures their authority would be less threatened by these historical studies than would some others because we know that the power of the gospel is self-authenticating and that faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Historians canít undercut the power of that gospel. I would think we would also be embarrassed by those who have trumpeted their findings in ways almost designed to offend the weak. There are those in both Old and New Testament studies who seem determined to be as offensive as possible. At the same time, I think we of Seminex might well be helped by some of these studies to take more seriously the life and witness of the historical Jesus as an addition to or as a supplement to the Christ of faith. In fact, these studies might help us take the incarnation more seriously. Jesus really was a Jew in Galilee, whose life would have been opaque to many observers and not just to somewhat dim-witted disciples. He shared in some ways human limitations. What we proclaim about him become clear through his death and through his glorious resurrection and through what has been revealed about the Christ subsequently through inspired tradition. That contribution from tradition includes such doctrines as the Trinity, the theories of the atonement, feminist, African-American, and third world christologies.
Old Testament historians have been less media savvy about their historical controversies, but they have been no less intense. When I was in graduate studies in the early 60s, the field was dominated by the long shadow of William Foxwell Albright. His lifelong battle against Julius Wellhausen and on behalf of archaeology was summed up and popularized in the stirring History of Israel published by John Bright in 1959. The abiding achievement of Bright is that he was able to make the Yahwist, Amos, or Isaiah alive in their original historical context and that he was also an energetic spokesperson for the faith of Israel. While conceding that it was impossible to write a history of Abraham and Sarah, Bright put their trek to Palestine within a great Amorite migration and argued that many details about their daily lives could only have come from the period when they supposedly lived. He admitted that nowhere near 600,000 male Israelite soldiers or a grand total of 2 million people participated in the Exodus, but he argued that the original documents had talked about 600 batallions of soldiers instead of 600,000. If each batallion had 10 men, it was probably 6,000 who came from Egypt. He stated that the covenant was in fact given on Mt. Sinai because its form was like that of the Hittite treaties from the Late Bronze Age. He argued for the historicity of the conquest by matching the biblical account in Joshua with the destruction levels found by archeologists, even if Jericho and Ai, where archeology contradicted the biblical record, were a huge problem. Brightís reconstruction of Israelís history is all gone now. In 1974, the year of Seminex, Thomas Thompson demolished the hypothesis of an Amorite migration and showed that the alleged parallels to patriarchal customs in the Nuzi tablets were no parallels at all. Already in 1969 Lothar Perlitt, with whom I studied in 1977-1978, had effectively destroyed the thesis about the covenant and the Hittite treaties. In 1965 George Mendenhall tried to substitute a peasantsí revolt for the conquest hypothesis and for a time it ruled the day with significant contributions to liberation theology, to Mendenhallís own great displeasure. But Mendenhallís thesis about a peasantsí revolt has not held up well and the emergence of Israel is seen today as largely a peaceful affair with no significant addition of people from outside Canaan. My paper at the 1982 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature put to rest the idea of reading the word "thousand" as batallion. We need to realize that many of the numbers in the Pentateuch and the Books of Chronicles are exaggerations. While Bright needs drastic rewriting, there have been extremists in debunking the historical account of the Old Testament as well. Thomas Thompson, Neils Peter Lemche, and Robert Carroll come to mind. They are often called "minimalists" since they propose that we can say nothing about the history of Judah before the 8th century when Judean kings are first mentioned in Assyrian inscriptions. Hence there was no David, no Solomon, no kings of the 9th century, or at least those who called themselves king were completely insignificant and their histories basically unknowable. The minimalists had the bad fortune to make some of these claims in the same year when an inscription was found at Dan referring to the house of David in the 9th century, and another 9th century inscription mentions King Joash. The minimalists have recently published a book calling into question the idea of there ever being an exile. Some have claimed that there was no Jerusalem of note in the 10th century or before, though last fall Marilyn and I saw the excavation of mammoth city towers in Jerusalem that are 800 years older than the time of David.
Just as important as all those changes and challenges in the details of the history of biblical Israel has been the paradigm shift in the goals of history and archeology. In Brightís heyday the focus was on the big man theory of history, of kings and wars, of palaces and city walls to the exclusion of women and children, daily life, the economy, technology, diet, and the have-nots in the society. Carol Meyers has effectively told the story of women in pre monarchical Israel and a recent history of Israelite religion by Rainer Albertz identified the role of popular, unofficial religion in the Old Testament. Two recent LSTC doctoral dissertations have made major advances in understanding the important roles of those who were not leaders. Just as our understanding of the big events has become more problematical, we know more than ever before of how people lived their daily lives and, therefore, why the biblical message would have been important to them.
The Return to the Final Form of the Text
Historical criticism sought to find where our texts came from and to explore the world behind the text. This led to fragmentation of the text, to privileging the sources on which the text was based and on distinguishing the original text from subsequent glosses. Today one reads commentaries in which no glosses are identified. Terry Fretheimís recent fine book on the Pentateuch makes almost no mention of the documentary hypothesis and people as diverse as Marvin Sweeney and John Watts read the book of Isaiah as a unity.
The impetus for these wholistic readings has come from secular philosophy and advances in the study of world literature including the so-called new criticism. Literary criticism in Old Testament studies had come to mean source criticism (cf. Norman Habelís book with that title in 1971). Just as one does not truly understand a rose by pulling off its petals, dissecting its pistil and stamen and pinning the results on a bulletin board, but by admiring a rose alone or with its eleven partners as a thing of beauty and texture that needs to be smelled and felt as well as seen, so one does not understand literature by divining the authorís intention, noting her historical antecedents, and by putting a novel or a poem under a microscope or parsing all its verbs. Rather, one reads a text, interacts with it, shapes it and is shaped by it. is helpful, of course, to note its rhetorical strategies, why a story is interesting or a poem is beautiful. Tut as one reads one can enter the world of a text and appreciate it.
A few examples. In his 1985 commentary on Job Norman Habel argues for the integrity of the speech of Elihu even though it is considered secondary and lacking originality in standard Old Testament introductions. Habel states that here as elsewhere the author introduces an apparent resolution of the conflict by appeals to traditional values like suffering is educational only to exposure the poverty of this solution by subsequent events in the book. The Elihu speech thus is a deliberate foil and anti-climax, which retards the plot and heightens the surprise appearance of Yahweh as a celestial participant.
When I began my serious work on Chronicles in 1978, it was almost universally believed that the first nine chapters of the book, which are all genealogies, were late additions to the manuscript by a redactor who was a pedant and who spoiled a mildly good story by adding all sorts of obscure "begats" that he had invented or found stored in some archive. Today those genealogies are held to be part of the original book. That book of Chronicles was written to and for a fourth central Israel, which was learning to live as a colonized power within the Persian Empire. Its size was about the same geographically as the city limits of Chicago; its population not much more than 50,000, The Chronicler urged these people to "rally round the temple" (Roddy Braun in CTM) and argued strenuously that the cultic worship of his time was authoritative because it went back to David and the United Monarchy. As the Chronicler addressed this weak, defensive, tiny community, he began his account by providing a nine chapter genealogy for all Israel. All the tribes are mentioned in detail, with particular attention to the Judahites, the Benjaminites, and the Levites, the primary remnants of the tribal system in post-exilic times. But for the Chronicler the Persian province called Yehud was all Israel, Israel entire, the complete people of God. What better way to make that point than by listing an exhaustive genealogy of the whole people called Israel.
Or consider the conflict between the creation stories in Genesis 1 (P) and Genesis 2-3 (J). In 1981 Robert Alter is his The Art of Biblical Narrative protested against the dissection of the text by the source critics. Alter conceded that Genesis 1 was P and Genesis 2-3 J, but their combination was attributed to the hands of an author, not a redactor. The Genesis author chose to combine these two versions of creation precisely because he understood that his subject was essentially contradictory, essentially resistant to consistent linear formulation. Why does the Bible have Eve created after Adam and inferior to him in Genesis 2 when we are told in Genesis 1 that the man and woman were created at the same time and the same manner. Alter thought this made perfect sense as an account of the contradictory facts of womanís role in the post edenic scheme of things. On the one hand, the writer is a member of a patriarchal society in which women have more limited legal privileges and institutional functions than do men, but the writer also had a fund of personal observation to draw on which could lead him to conclude that woman, contrary to institutional definitions, could be a daunting adversary or a worthy partner, quite manís equal in a moral or psychological perspective. Alter has been widely criticized by feminist critics as insensitive to issues of women--rightly so in my judgment. But Alterís point here is that to read these two accounts separately as sources is to misunderstand them and to read the biblical world much too simply.
And how is one to read the book of Isaiah? The data which led to the identification of three Isaiahs is as persuasive as ever, and, if anything, the book of first Isaiah has become ever more fragmented as scholars have puzzled over the background of the oracles against the foreign nations, the apocalypse in 24-27, the second Isaiah-like passages in chapters 34-35, the materials identical to 2 Kings in Isaiah 36-39. But how are we to read the book? Zion is vindicated in 40-66, but so it is also in chapter 2, where it becomes the highest mountain in the world and all nations flow into it. Or what are we to make of the fact that Hezekiah is visited by ambassadors to Babylon in chapter 39 and of Isaiahís prediction Isaiah in this narrative that Hezekiahís descendants will be taken captive to Babylon 200 years later, thus readying the reader for the message of chapters 40-55. Or what are we to make of the parallel between Ahaz, lacking faith, in chapter 7 and Hezekiah who clearly lives by faith in 36-39. The stories of Ahaz and Hezekiah come from separate sources (Isaiah and the Deuteronomistic History) but they are clearly to be read over against one another. There are numerous proposals on how to read Isaiah as a whole today. None of them thinks Isaiah of the 8th century wrote the whole thing. In fact, Marvin Sweeney would argue that nothing earlier than the 5th century is available to us in the book of Isaiah. A wholistic reading is clearly a lively alternative today.
When I studied the Psalter with Arlis Ehlen at Concordia in 1960 as a B.D. student, I am quite sure that we paid no attention to the way in which the Psalms were arranged in the Old Testament. Psalm 23 could just as well been Psalm 123 and Psalm 22 could have been Psalm 2. In the last 15 years the arrangement of the Psalter has become a hot topic. It is surely not without significance that Psalm 22 is followed by Psalm 23. The first Psalm raises questions of radical doubt--My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The 23rd Psalm is the perfect example of quiet trust: The Lord is my shepherd I will never be in want. The arrangement of the Psalter suggests that these two Psalms are to be read dialectically, neither one is totally true by itself. Psalm 22 comes close to inappropriate frankness with God; Psalm 23 comes close to being a stained glass picture of the believerís life. Only when the two are read together, when radical doubt meets radical faith, are we really at the moment of truth.
While much of this emphasis on the final form of the texts comes from literary critical theory, Brevard Childs has been raising the same kinds of concerns from a theological perspective since at least 1979. His is a self-acknowledged Calvinist perspective and it occasionally rings strange in Lutheran circles where, following brother Martin himself, we have tended to downplay the canon, not even including a list of the canonical books in the Book of Concord and feeling quite free to raise questions about Esther, James, and other strawlike parts of the Scriptures. These Lutheran perspectives and the location of the authority of Scripture in the gospel rather than in the canon proved crucial to our stance in 1974. But our ELCA constitution does refer to the canonical books of the Old and New Testament as the Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and live.
Childs in any case has called renewed attention not to which books made it into the canon, but to the canonical shape of the books themselves, how they were edited by the community into a form that was found acceptable. With some books this has been more fruitful than others and critics have pressed Childs to define the relationship between his own historical critical reading of the text and his canonical reading of the text. But nowhere has the Childsí proposal been more successful than with the book of Amos.
The historical prophet Amos has been a favorite of all of us who are interested in social justice. No one before or perhaps even since has so vividly described the way the rich exploit and oppress the poor; no one has been more resistant to the pressures to conform to the political status quo. But there are problems with the historical Amos. He tends to put all Israel in the same basket. Were there not good guys and bad guys in ancient Israel, some who oppressed the poor and some who did not? What use is Amos to the have nots since they too are headed straight for exile? Amos tars everyone with the same brush and has a message that paralyzes the reader into inactivity. If the end is really coming on my people Israel, why change? In fact, Amos never really does call for repentance.
Hereís where the canonical shape of the book of Amos comes in. The last five verses of the book talk about God restoring the booth of David that has fallen and promise that lavish harvests are coming when the farmers wonít get one crop out of the fields before they have to put the next one in. Is this lavender and lace after the blood and iron of the rest of the book? Is this an orthodox ending irrelevant to the prophetís own message? Childs argues that this addition is the commmunityís way of coming to terms with Amos. Wild prophets like Amos are not very helpful. They have six month careers and turn everyone off. But the canonical shape of Amos suggests that you have to love the people you criticize. You have to be open to the fact that God will restore them and celebrate them as sons and daughters. You have to be open to that and to hope for that. And if you can do that--the shapers of the canon say--then please feel free to be an Amos, but only then.
These and other wholistic readings of the text, this focus on the world of the text, has often relativized the historical problems of the text and transcended the concerns of the inerrantists. If texts speak for themselves, without our determining their date of composition, their historical accuracy, or which sources they presuppose, perhaps we are provided a common ground for renewed communication. What has been helpful about Childs as he has made his canonical proposal is that he has published extensively in historical critical readings of the text. Some of his followers seem to be avoiding the threat of the Bibleís historical uncertainty. But I think we should not neglect the opportunity presented by these wholistic readings for reopening conversations across theological and ideological barriers.
Perhaps nothing has changed so radically in the last twenty-five years of biblical studies as the focus on the social location of the biblical interpreter and of the biblical authors themselves. Historical criticism held out the promise of unbiased readings of the text, unbiased by church dogma, by previous readings of the text, or by the personal idiosyncrasies if the interpreter. I had been convinced by Krister Stendahl that in describing what the text meant oneís person or oneís faith commitment--or lack of it--would not make any significant difference. It was all part of the modern disposition that reason would finally settle everything. Good exegesis should lead to consensus, at least on what the text meant.
I was first awakened from this naivete by my participation in Jewish Christian dialogues. I found our Jewish colleagues to be fair and open people, at least as smart as we were, trained in the same philological reading of the texts. Perhaps when we read identical texts the differences were not all that great. The trouble is they consistently wanted to cite different texts than I did. Theirs stemmed more often than not from the legal portions of the Pentateuch. My came from those advocating salvation history. Hence the stance of the interpreter did make a difference.
In the first years of Seminex women were relatively rare in the student body, as they were in seminaries of the ALC and LCA until the early 80s. Now at most of our seminaries, including LSTC, women students are slightly in the majority. At first their presence merely cut down on the rough edges of an all male community. We added women and stirred. But once they reached a critical mass, it was clear that they read the text differently, as women and as feminists.
Hosea 11 has always been one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. For the first dozen years of my teaching, I noted that God had lavished a fatherís love on Israel--took them from Egypt, taught them to walk, picked them up to his cheeks, bent down to them, fed them, only to discover that Israel had become a rebellious teenager. I think it was Ruth Hanusa who pointed out to me one day in class that the parental characteristics I had identified in this passage are, at least in our society, more characteristic of women than of men. Was God portrayed in this chapter as a woman?
It was in 1973 that Phyllis Trible published her "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation" that anticipated in many ways her 1978 God and The Rhetoric of Sexuality and established her as an accessible voice to womenís ways of knowing and reading. Throughout her career she has attempted to recover a voice within the text that sounds an alternative to its dominant patriarchal character and she has skillfully used rhetorical criticism in ways that prevented people from saying, "This is just ideology." I suspect that her caution has sometimes exasperated her younger sisters, but it gave feminism a good hearing within the academy and the church. Tribleís later (1984) Texts of Terror itself shows a heightened feeling of betrayal at the Bibleís patriarchal character. I am pleased that Phyllis lectured at Seminex in 1974 when we took advantage of the Society of Biblical Literatureís annual meeting in St. Louis to invite a stellar group of exegetes to come a day early and lecture at Seminex. Tribleís "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation" played an enormous role in my awakening as a feminist-sensitive scholar. I remember conducting a forum on it at Bethel, and I distinctly remember Ernestine Tiejten as part of the group.
Trible used rhetorical criticism to show that Eveís creation in the second position in Genesis 2 does not connote secondary rank. A wedding band, she noted, has neither beginning nor end, top nor bottom. So also ring composition does not privilege the first or the last position in a narrative. Both are of equal value. Man was created first, woman last. Together they comprise what we mean by humanity. Secondly, she used word study, that only standby in biblical studies to show that the word "help" used of Eve in Genesis also does not mean playing a subservient role. More often than not when help is used in the Bible God is the subject of the verb. Hence when Eve is a helper for Adam this might just as well be considered a superior as an inferior role.
Trible will have to stand for many in feminist readings of the Bible. Some have been more confrontative in their reading. Some in their disappointment with the Bibleís patriarchy have found the Bibleís message almost incredible. What they all have in common is that reading the Bible as a woman makes a huge difference. We men can profit from that perspective and even try to duplicate it in our own reading even if we cannot duplicate womenís experience or speak for women.
The result of all this has been the pressure for inclusive language, first for humans and then for God. It has also lead to a clear consensus that the Bible was a patriarchal book. I suppose we all knew this deep down inside all along, but we never did much with it. Now it is not only an issue but a problem. A series of monographs and dissertations have greatly expanded our knowledge of women in the Bible even if much of the data we would like to know was not preserved by the patriarchal figures by whom and for whom the Bible was written.
Let me cite two examples of the difficulty this research poses for women and men alike. The first is the law on rape in Deuteronomy. If the alleged rape happened in the city, the woman is considered a willing accomplice since she could have cried out if she really wanted to avoid adulterous sex. Her country cousin, however, is believed when she cries rape since no one would have heard her when she called. The law is touching in its naivete. A woman could be attacked in the next room and if the rapist was strong enough or if he was well-armed, the fact that he was only ten feet away in a neighboring home would indicate nothing about the womanís credibility. What is clear is the human character of this law or, even worse, that it was formulated by a man from a manís viewpoint. That this law is then put into Godís mouth makes God an accomplice in this travesty.
Even worse are the passages in the prophets where God punishes Israel as if it were an unfaithful woman. In Hos 2:10 we read: I will uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers...I will lay waste her vines and the wild animals shall devour them. Even worse is Ezekiel 16: "I will judge you as women who commit adultery...are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy...They shall bring up a mob against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords." The problems with these passages are numerous. First, they cast women into the role of the disobedient. Even worse they have Yahweh exercise violent acts of judgment against these women, suggesting that such violence against women might be permitted by offended husbands. Given the high rate of violence against women in our society, it is easy to see the extremely problematic character of these passages. This is not the place to resolve these dilemmas though I would be happy to suggest some possible means of approach. I cite them here only to call attention to the role played by the social location of the interpreter and in this case of the author himself.
Social location of authors can also be of positive use in some cases. Some years ago Paul Hanson suggested that the passages known as Third Isaiah were composed by people who stayed in the land during the Babylonian exile and who were protesting the way they were disenfranchised after the return of the exiled group, who upon their return took over control of the temple and of the whole province of Yehud. Hanson suggested that these people were in such desperate situation that they could no longer imagine how community organizing or social action could have any effect. Only a God who would directly intervene on their behalf could effect a change. He called this the dawn of apocalyptic. This reading of the social setting of Third Isaiah might also bring hope to people caught within the social systems of today who, humanly speaking, see no hope for change. But what are we to do about the portions of the Bible that are written by the very oppressive people against whom the authors of Third Isaiah are protesting?
I remember a sermon by David Beckmann, the head of Bread for the World, that he delivered at Concordia almost thirty years ago. His text as I recall was Isa 14:25 where God announces judgment against the Assyrian. Most of us as we read the Bible tend to identify with the viewpoint of the author, in this case Isaiah and his Israelite perspective. The reader is cheered initially that the oppressive Assyrian will be destroyed. David reminded us in the only sermon I have ever heard on this text and surely the best sermon I have heard on this text that for most people in the world the United States is Assyria. That is, what is the interpretive issue if the interpreter is a member of the oppressing class that the prophet is criticizing. When we read the Magnificat we cheer the God who puts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly. What if that is not good news for the interpreter? What if we are the mighty?
Hence the last twenty-five years have seen the rise of new interpretive ethnic voices--African-American and Hispanic particularly come to mind. Our Hispanic colleagues have seen in the Bible Godís preferential option on behalf of the poor. Renita Weemsí womanist reading of the Hagar story comes out much differently than Phyllis Tribleís though both are critical of Sarah and Abraham. Weems attends much more intently to the violence perpetuated by women of power against women of a lower class.
Still as we pay attention to social location of interpreters and listen to their myriad voices, there is an irony to all this in comparison to historical criticism. Birger Pearson recently warned against those who use hermeneutical jugglery or ideological agendas in order to make the Scriptures be properly heard. He quoted Helmut Koester, who said, "Those who fear that the historical-critical method threatens their control over the religious orientation and theological judgment of their constituencies are absolutely correct."
Hence we are caught in a dilemma, with no easy solution. Our training in historical criticism compels us to disallow any theologically or ideologically biased reading of the text. Our post-modern location gives privilege of position precisely to such readings. I don't see us resolving that dilemma in the near future, but at least we ought to recognize it is a dilemma.
I have a dream that some day before I die I will be invited to give a guest lecture at Concordia Seminary. The speech will have three parts: ecclesiology, the gospel, and Old Testament exegesis. In the first part I will talk about what it means to bear one anotherís burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. I will tell them about John Tietjen and how he as president absorbed the blows that were meant for us on the faculty and who made clear that the only way to "get" the faculty passed through him. I will talk about the forty-five colleagues who walked with us off Concordiaís campus. While we all were more or less guilty in the eyes of the conservatives, it was the exegetes who really ticked them off. Yet I never doubted that the colleagues in history, theology, missions, and the various arts of ministry were solidly behind us and knew that their own freedom and integrity were also at stake. On the day we stopped teaching, the Board of Control offered Art Vincent a job in an effort to break us up. Art turned them down in a flash. I learned anew what friendship meant. I would talk about students who called a moratorium while we were still thinking great thoughts, how four hundred of them said that the gospel was more important than careers, and how they barnstormed their country in Outreach to make their point. I will tell them of ELIM and its stirring assemblies, of living room dialogues and monthly contributions by Godís little people that supported us for thirteen years. I will tell them of a letter I got at the height of the fray from O. P. Kretzmann, which began, Iíve been a member of the church malignant for a long time! I will tell them of an unmarked anonymous letter I received in the week after the walkout that had a $100 cash in it. I will tell them about the church.
My second point will be about the substance of the controversy and why we acted as we did and why we had to act in that way. It will have almost nothing to say about the personalities of those dim days of yesteryear, but it will state as winsomely as possible how the gospel gives the Scriptures their authority and how that makes all the difference in the world. Since that is more or less what I have been talking about for the last hour, there is no need to repeat the details of that thesis here.
And then I will ask them to open to Hosea 11. I suppose I will note in passing that Hos 11:1 (Out of Egypt I have called my son) is not in its original context a rectilinear prophecy of the return of the Holy Family from the flight into Egypt. But by that time my speech will be almost over and Iíll be leery of pushing a nervous audience over the edge. I will try to explore as dramatically as possible the conflict our divine parent feels over our rebellions and how God is moved to the verge of judgment by the laws of retribution and the implications of divine justice. But then God asks, How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? For I am God and not a human. God is not hung up on the rules of earthly retribution, let alone, its Chicago paraphrase: "Donít get mad; get even." Because God is God, refuses to pull the trigger. The New Testament trumped that of course. For the one who made a distinction between being God and being human chose to take on our flesh and blood and to endure death on a cross so that we did not have to be given up or handed over. The one who said in Hosea, I am the holy one, the separate one, who paradoxically is also in your midst, is the same one who walked our walk and took our place and was tempted in every way as we are. That self-contradictory God is the one who frees and unites us. And just before the thunderous applause breaks out in the chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus, I will ask in the words of Rodney King, who was brutally beaten by the Los Angeles police, "Why canít we all get along?"