My second semester of graduate school plunged me into the Pentateuch. I'd read it, of course, numerous times. I had even recently read the five books in order aloud to my children. We worked through the chapters one at a time with a study guide, asking questions of the text as we read. Even though the source of the Bible study was a conservative homeschooling curriculum company, the questions we posed to the stories had the effect of provoking further questions which snowballed, as close readings combined with questions and children have a tendency to do. It had been much easier to read the Pentateuch infrequently and in bits, to think about the meanings of the stories, rather than facing the actual content directly.
Noah's ark - oh yes, lots of water, God punishes evil mankind, animals and Noah's family saved, olive branch equals peace, God redeems/saves humanity. But reading the text is different. Difficult to reconcile were the specific calculations - could there really be an ark built big enough to house all that food, all those animals? Really?
Worse, how many people were evil enough that they deserved death by drowning? Even babies? Children? Is this solution to the problem of evil moral? Just? Salvific? What does it say about God? About humans?
Having been so focused on the "rescue" operation directed toward Noah that always served to foreshadow the salvation story in Jesus, I had not allowed myself to contemplate the real deaths implied in the flood account. In fact, part of me didn't treat the story as factual history at all. I would assent to it as such in a Christian group, but in the rest of my life, I hadn't given it the same weight I gave, say, Hiroshima or even Pompeii (both catastrophic events that killed loads of regular people).
Taking the view that the Bible was literally, historically, scientifically true meant I had not questioned these texts, but had accepted them uncritically. They were part of the "salvation package" I had accepted right along with Christ when I converted. Yet even I knew not to talk about the Noah's ark story with my Dad, for instance. He's not a Christian. Somehow I knew that he wouldn't accept that story as factually true. I didn't attempt to persuade non-Christians that these events had really happened. I split history into two parts in my mind: biblical history that I shared with Christian friends, and "real" history that I thought about and studied in college or read in National Geographic.
So as I entered this Pentateuch class, I only knew two ways to think about the stories in the Pentateuch. They were either really true (scientifically, historically, prophetically and metaphorically) or they were not true. And for me, at that point in time, the first five books of the Bible had lost their historic credibility. I was especially unable to take Genesis as a word-accurate account of what really happened. Entering the Pentateuch class felt like entering a boxing ring, as a result. I expected to duke it out with the text (and maybe even the professor, depending on her take).
One thing I want to mention right here. Coming out of literalism is a bitch. When you finally put your finger on the text and suggest that these narratives can't be factually true, the next instant someone comes along to say "Well of course you don't need to take them literally. Whether or not Noah lived isn't the real point. The real point is that God is giving us the message of Christ thousands of years in advance and is foreshadowing the story of our salvation."
That kind of regrouping has always bothered me. Shifting the focus to the prophetic or metaphorical meaning exclusively avoids grappling with the challenges to the text, and more, to the method of biblical study and interpretation common in evangelical circles.
But even if I leave that aside, there's plenty in the metaphorical meanings to make the skin crawl anyway. What I really wanted was a good discussion about why it is disturbing to think about God drowning everyone on earth (factually or metaphorically). What difference did it make if it had happened or not, if the message taken from either reading was that God wanted a lot of people dead for being "irredeemably evil"?
And this is often as far as ex-fundamentalists and ex-evangelicals take it. Once the meaning is indicted along with the factual history, what use is there for a text like the flood account?
My Pentateuch professor helped me uncover new ways to read the Bible that changed how I thought about it. For instance, rather than choosing between a literal meaning and a metaphorical one (many people feel that these two ways of reading the text reflect conservatives versus liberals...), there was a third and fourth and fifth way.
Usually the first thing we did with the text in class was to analyze it as a text - to understand not only the words in it, but the authors behind it. How might it have been constructed? Who might have handled it? What kind of "paper" was it written on? What copies do we currently have? How old are those? What are the differences between the copies we have? Who determines the translation of difficult terms (those that are hard to read or smudged or unclear or not common enough to be well-known)? Who might the editors have been? How many times might the text have been transmitted, copied and transported? How many writers and editors contributed to each text? What other texts circulated at the same time as these narratives? How did these writings influence each other? How did the Genesis creation account, for instance, challenge the myths concurrent with it?
Further, were there any historically verified events in history that may have corresponded with the accounts in the text? What ways did this text relate to the needs and wishes of this people at this point in history? How did the narrative shine a light on the understanding of God at that point in time (that was limited by their time and place)?
Most of us don't take the time nor have the resources available to do this kind of study every time we open the Bible. It's why I wish more pastors would treat their congregations with respect and do this homework for them, teaching them about how to read the Bible and the importance of regarding the writings in it as fragmentary and fragile, historical and mythical. Bound in leather with my name embossed in gold across the cover makes the Bible I hold feel very different than it actually was and is, and consequently, we mistake the contents for transcription (of God's actual words and deeds) rather than narration (by human beings doing what humans do - writing stories to communicate their truths).
Another way to look at the texts is through the history of interpretations. How had the narratives' meanings changed over the thousands of years they had been in existence? How were Jewish interpretations different from Christian ones? How were modern interpretations different than the Middle Ages or ancient early church interpretations?
These two ways of engaging the text seemed obvious once we participated in them. Yet there were other methods still. And some of these proved to make Bible reading exciting and even beneficial again.
I will post some of these alternatives in the next installment.