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The Meaning of the Bible

November 13, 2011

The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us by Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine was published Nov. 8, 2011.

In this lively and fresh introduction to the scriptures of ancient Israel (what Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh), two preeminent biblical scholars, Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, combine their passion and expertise to examine not just what the Bible says but what it means. Through their eyes we see anew the Bible’s literary brilliance, moral profundity, historical settings, and implications for our faiths and our future.

Passed down for generations, compiled between 500 and 100 BCE, and finalized around the time of Jesus, the various accounts in the Hebrew Bible took shape under a variety of cultures. Drawing on their extensive biblical scholarship, Knight and Levine explore this diverse history and equip us with the critical tools necessary to understand what the ancient texts originally meant. With long experience in teaching candidates for the ministry as well as undergraduate and graduate students, they also explore the possible meanings the texts hold today for churches, synagogues, and anyone interested in the Bible’s legacy.

Knight and Levine begin with the broader biblical story—its historical context, literary artistry, and geographical setting. They then turn to the major biblical themes with which modern readers continue to wrestle: law and justice, human evil and God’s response, belief and practice, chaos and creation, war and peace, gender and sexuality, politics and economics, practical wisdom and apocalyptic vision. For each topic, they provide both general overviews and specific analyses of select biblical passages, explaining how and why their approaches reveal new insights and offering various strategies for informed interpretation.

Throughout, Knight and Levine inspire us to ask new questions and develop a deeper understanding of one of the greatest collections of literature known to humankind—as illuminating today as it was two thousand years ago.

As a followup to this publication, Knight and Levine blogged at the Huffington Post earlier today,

The culture wars over family values have yet to reach détente and will not until the messiah comes (or returns, depending on the reader’s affiliation). Battles continue over women’s equality vs. a wife’s graceful submission, no-fault divorce vs. attempts to strengthen marital bonds, the ordaining of gays and lesbians and the legalization of “gay marriage” vs. exhortations to “love the sinner but hate the sin,” birth control and abortion, private sexual expression vs. public interest….

People who read the Bible often find themselves on the opposite sides of many of these issues. This does not mean that they are necessarily reading their texts incorrectly. Indeed, before we even ask, “What does the Bible say?” we need to ask, “Whose Bible?” Canons – and so, cannons – differ among various Christian churches as well as between Jews and Christians, as do translations. Moreover, the Bible is open to multiple interpretations: we need to determine what is metaphor and what is to be taken literally, what is case specific and what is timeless, what is a matter of personal choice and what should be legislated.

How then do we read in a manner that is grounded and thoughtful rather than uninformed or soporific? Here are five general guidelines.

On sodomy, they write,

For example, the first interpreter of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophet Ezekiel, condemns Sodom not for homosexuality but for “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease” and for failing to “aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Nor does the story suggest that homosexuality is the problem. The Hebrew of Genesis 19 tells us that all the people of Sodom sought to “know” the two visitors: the people would have included the women, and they, like the men, died in the conflagration that destroyed their city. The problem is sexual violence, not homosexuality; attempted rape, not love.

I think it is important to keep in mind exactly what influences are being brought to bear on the evangelical community on this issue. Robert George, Princeton professor of Jurisprudence, will be participating in the ETS conference this week, presenting on the topic Ethics in an Age of Relativism. He has written intensively on the subject of human sexuality in What Sex Can Be: Self-Alienation, Illusion, or One-Flesh Unity by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George. On sodomy, George and Lee write,

By “sodomy” here is meant (1) anal or oral intercourse between persons of the same sex, or (2) anal or oral intercourse between persons of opposite sexes (even     if married), if it is intended to bring about complete sexual satisfaction apart from penile-vaginal intercourse. If a couple use their sexual organs for the sake of experiencing pleasure or even for the sake of an experience of unity, but do not become one organism, then their act does not actually effect unity. If Susan, for example, masturbates John to orgasm or applies oral stimulation to him to bring him to orgasm, no real unity has been effected. That is, although bodily parts are conjoined, and so there is juxtaposition and contact, the participants do not unite biologically; they do not become the subject of a single act, and so do not literally become “one flesh”.  They may be doing this in order simply to obtain or share pleasure. In that case the act is really an instance of mutual masturbation, and is as self-alienating as any other instance of masturbation. However, they might intend their act as in some way an expression of their love for each other. They might argue that this act is no different from the penile-vaginal intercourse they performed two nights before, except that this one involves a merely technical or physical variation–a rearrangement of “plumbing”.

However, in sodomitical acts, whether between persons of the same sex or opposite sexes, between unmarried or married persons, the participants do not unite biologically.  Moreover, an experience of pleasure, just as such, is not shared.  Although each person may experience pleasure, they experience pleasure each as an individual not as a unit.  For a truly common good, there must be more than experience; the experiences must be subordinated to a truly common act that is genuinely fulfilling (and as such provides a more than merely instrumental reason for action).  If, on the contrary, the activities are subordinated to the pleasurable experiences, if the physical stimulation administered to one another is merely a means to attain what are (and can only be) individual, private experiences, then unity is not achieved.

Christians need to join with Knight and Levine in stating that the Bible does not support such views on sexuality.

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