One of the things that impress those of us who work on Bible and archaeology is that so many people are still so interested in it all. It seems to me that the remarkable success of BAR and the Biblical Archaeology Society is proof of this. We could analyze the reasons for this forever, but the bottom line is that these things that happened thousands of years ago—and this book that was written thousands of years ago—are still relevant to people. That’s not a big insight. After 35 years in this field, I’ve become ever more concerned with that relevance. After spending decades writing about the Bible’s literary qualities, about who wrote it, and about the world that produced it, I turned in my recent work to something different: how people use the Bible on the issues of our day. It’s not that I think that what my colleagues and I have been doing is not relevant. Just the opposite. What I want to do now is connect the dots between what we do in archaeological and textual scholarship, on one hand, and how we use those tools to deal with the Bible on modern issues.
I think that it is all about method. For these 35 years I’ve been telling my students that the most important thing they need to learn is method. Our field was mighty sloppy for its first couple of centuries. Archaeologists scraped away the dirt from potsherds in order to see what inscriptions were written on them. And in that process they scraped away who-knows-how-many of the inscriptions themselves before they realized that it was a lot better to dip the sherds in water. Once they started dipping instead of scraping, they suddenly discovered that they were finding more inscriptions at their sites! Bible scholars meanwhile dated texts based on ideas in them: If a text expressed guilt, they concluded that it had to have been written during the Babylonian exile. (Did they really think that people could only feel guilt when they were in exile? Did Freud live and die for nothing?!) They made judgments about style without being trained in literary analysis, and judgments about history without being trained in historiography. The Bible was old, but the field was young, and we were plunging in haphazardly, without a sense of how to pursue the work properly. I’m told that one could say this of other fields as well, which I suppose is a small comfort, but my subject for now is my own field: Bible.
In Bible as in archaeology we’ve been refining the tools of our trade. Especially in the present generation, many of my colleagues are more conscious of the importance of method, which is to say: getting it right. (Unfortunately, for a great many of our colleagues, the entrance to this new level of the field is like Platform 9¾ in the Harry Potter books: They don’t even know that it exists.) Today the new method means employing everything from literary and anthropological training to architecture and radiocarbon dating.
We had to learn how to do all of these things—the “then”—before we could apply them to Bible issues that are critical in our times—the “now.” The degree of misunderstanding, mistranslation, misquotation and misapplication of the Bible on controversial topics out there is distressing. But we can’t just shake our heads at it or mock or deprecate it. We need to set the best possible example of how to arrive at answers. We can’t just say to laypersons, “Well, you don’t know Hebrew or Greek.” We have to show how comprehending the text in the original language makes such a difference. We can’t just say that we’ve checked the Dead Sea Scrolls. We need to let people know how the greatest archaeological discovery of the last century—which was made by a goat, after all—needs to figure in any accurate reading of the text. We can’t just learn Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic and a dash of Moabite in order to impress people with our CVs. We need to show how all that we’ve learned from the tens of thousands of texts from the ancient Near East show us new things about the Bible and its world that we didn’t understand before.
People often say that the field of Bible studies is in disarray, with no consensus on major points. That’s true to some extent. But the disarray owes to the many scholars who have not come to terms with the present state of method. They don’t use the tools well or consistently, they don’t read each other, and they don’t teach method to their students. I would rather judge our field by the standard: What is the best that we can produce?
My colleague Shawna Dolansky and I aimed for that standard in our book The Bible Now, addressing how the Bible can inform five of today’s “hot” issues: homosexuality, abortion, women’s status, capital punishment and the earth. For the first four chapters, the plan was not to take sides but rather to provide information, make it available to everyone on both sides of the issues. For example, on homosexuality, we let people know that the Sodom text 066 (Genesis 19) doesn’t contribute to a case against homosexuality, and the David and Jonathan case (“your love was more awesome to me than love of women” [2 Samuel 1:26]) doesn’t contribute to a case for it. On women’s status, we made known that the most significant woman in the Hebrew Bible, Deborah (Judges 4–5), is never given her due by either feminist or male chauvinist writers. On capital punishment, we showed why it is used for so many (27) crimes in the Bible without trying to argue for or against the death penalty on that basis. And on abortion, we showed why we must treat the single clear, explicit reference to it in the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah 20) with great caution, whether one is making a case either for or against abortion. On all of these matters, we based our explanations on the same standard of textual work that I had used in all of my earlier work: fine points of grammar, significant parallel cases in other ancient Near Eastern law codes, new anthropological appreciation of those cultures and relevant archaeological revelations.
But when it came to the earth, we did take a stand on a particular side. In the creation account God tells humans, “fill the earth and subdue it and dominate the fish of the sea and the birds of the skies and every animal that creeps on 067 the earth” (Genesis 1:28). People have claimed that this constituted a blank check to humans: The earth is ours to rule, to use and abuse as we see fit. But we had to say that these views are utterly contrary to the evidence. It is frankly incredible that anyone could take the Biblical text about human dominion to mean a license to do whatever we want with the earth—as if a divine commandment doesn’t mean to use dominion well, to use it for good. Imagine the boss who leaves an employee in charge. The employee bullies everyone else and runs things irresponsibly and wastefully. He or she tells everyone, “The boss left me in charge, and I can do whatever I want.” Would we admire this person’s wisdom? And just wait until the boss gets back. Will he or she say, “Great job. That’s just what I wanted you to do”?
That’s not just an opinion. It comes out of a lengthy treatment of the Bible’s prose, poetry and law that precedes it. And—I trust—it follows the standard of method that I learned from my great teachers decades ago.
So, then, maybe my treatment now of the Bible in this book is not so different from my past books after all. Maybe I’ve been on a trajectory that has been heading in this direction all along.
One of the things that impress those of us who work on Bible and archaeology is that so many people are still so interested in it all. It seems to me that the remarkable success of BAR and the Biblical Archaeology Society is proof of this. We could analyze the reasons for this forever, but the bottom line is that these things that happened thousands of years ago—and this book that was written thousands of years ago—are still relevant to people. That’s not a big insight. After 35 years in this field, I’ve become ever more concerned with that […]