Saturday, 19 November 2011

Through Immigrant's Eyes? Reading the Bible from Various Perspectives

Institute of Biblical Research is a premier biblical studies fellowship guided by evangelical principles. IBR sponsors morning devotions at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, and an annual lecture.

This year's annual lecture was entitled "Reading the Bible through Other Lenses: New Perspectives and Challenging Vistas," and given by Denver Seminary professor M. Daniel Carroll. The premise was that we can discover valid new interpretations of the Bible if we look through the eyes of the diaspora community. By diaspora community, Prof. Carroll refers to those who migrate to other countries, such as Latinos crossing the border into the U.S. It was very stimulating, but ultimately I have some serious disagreements.

In recent decades, we've been challenged to look at the Bible from various perspectives. How would our interpretation of various passages change if we read the text from the perspective of a woman, of an African, or of a slave? No doubt our own experiences often prevent us from hearing the word of God from these other perspectives.

Prof. Carroll gave some examples. He suggested that Abraham's lie about his wife being his sister might be understood differently if we looked at it from the eyes of an "undocumented worker" (no doubt he meant to say "illegal immigrant”). Accordingly, Abraham was an immigrant who was responsible for feeding his clan, and so desperate to do so during the famine that he was willing to risk Sara. Such risks, Prof. Carroll said, must be taken during desperate times, as reflected in the plight of many immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.

Prof. Carroll also pointed out to Joseph, Prince of Egypt, who adopted Egyptian customs, but still named his children with "Hebrew" names, retained his native language, and insisted on being buried in his home country. Prof. Carroll then asked if this might have implications for the requirement of learning English in the U.S.

A third example (although there were several more) was Ruth. He suggested that we might be able to understand the book of Ruth if we read it from the viewpoint of an immigrant.

Now for my disagreements.

Let me first pass on an urgency of Gordon Fee's, that we must do exegesis in the context of the Church. By exegesis, I refer to the process of interpretation whereby we ascertain the interpretation that the author meant to convey. Prof. Fee was saying that he, as a Pentecostal, desperately needs to hear what Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists and Anglicans, etc. have to say about the text. As a Baptist, I spot things in the Bible that a Presbyterian might overlook. Since I'm not a Pentecostal, I might overlook a valid concern in the biblical text that a Pentecostal might see. So, Dr. Fee is right to say that we need each other to help hear the biblical text.

All this is true of the other perspectives as well. In a sermon series through 1 Timothy, I remember giving a short shrift treatment to the text of 1 Tim 5 dealing with widows. And then on the following Monday when re-thinking the Sunday service, I realized that a good portion of the church consisted of widows—I missed an important text simply because I made no attempt to understand it through someone else’s experience. Consequently, when we look at the biblical text, we should attempt to read it from multiple perspectives.

But ultimately, since exegesis is all about determining the author's original intention, the one set of glasses that is all important is that of the author. For the Pauline letters, we must put on the glasses of a first century Hellenistic Jew. For Micah, we must put on the glasses of an 8th century Israelite.

I think it is improbable that the book of Ruth was written from the viewpoint of an immigrant. Historically, reading Ruth with the eyes of an immigrant might help us understand how Ruth felt, but this does not help us understand how the author wanted us to understand the book. I suspect that the author’s perspective was that of a Hebrew living in Israel looking at the immigrant, which is quite different from the converse situation.

Likewise, the story of Abraham and his lie was not written to be read from the eyes of an immigrant. Consequently, it is all-together irrelevant for the interpretation of the story what the motive for Abraham’s lie was. The reality, according to the biblical author’s perspective, was that Abraham risked the Covenant Promise by giving the mother of his future progeny to the Egyptian king, and so failed in his faith. Reading the text from an immigrant’s perspective might make one more sympathetic with Abraham, but this was extraneous to the author’s intention.

If I may be capricious—for the sake of looking on the other side of the equation…, one of Dr. Carroll’s examples lends itself to be read from the perspective of an American capitalist. Joseph the immigrant came into Egypt, learned the Egyptian language, and adopted Egyptian customs, and achieved the highest possible success as an Egyptian. As the leader of his country, his first obligation was to protect his own citizenry. This is why he sold wheat to non-citizens for a profit, and did not indiscriminately allow foreigners to deplete Egypt’s resources.

Ultimately, Kenneth E. Bailey's works on understanding the Bible through Middle Eastern eyes is so much more valuable for interpreting the Bible.