In Genesis 27, Jacob is egged on by his mother, Rebecca, to steal Esau’s blessing. He lies to his father, Isaac. Jacob is a liar, a trickster, and a thief.But punctuate this passage differently, and you will have three verses, not two, and Jacob will tell Isaac exactly who he is. He’ll respectfully acknowledge Esau’s status as first born too. It’s just a matter of punctuation. Really. For three weeks, folks at All Saints Episcopal Church of Concord and I looked at biblical texts, parsing the way scripture frequently refuses to offer us clear, uniform messages. Our sources were written in biblical Hebrew. Some of the passages date several thousands of years back. They use words whose origin and meaning is uncertain today. All our sources were written without vowels. None included punctuation. When does a sentence begin and end? That can be a matter of interpretation. What happens when the word before you can mean two different things? What happens when you have three or four possible translations? What’s the point of trying to know the “true meaning” when so much choice has to factor into our interpretations? I belong to a tradition that has been wrestling with the conundrums of biblical literature for almost 3,000 years. Jews look at their texts and ask: What could this mean? What must I understand? The folks at All Saints Episcopal belong to a tradition that has been asking what scriptures mean for some 2,000 years. They look at their texts and ask: What could this mean? What must I understand? We are all frequently confused by texts that seem threatening, that seem to condemn rather than invite. How is this possible when we believe in a compassionate, loving God? Our task is simple even when the texts are not: We are meant to look for the best possible interpretation, for the most humane and enlightened directives. We were, scripture tells us, created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. I asked my Christian friends to look at really difficult texts with me. We studied passages apparently proclaiming that a rebellious son should be stoned and an idolatrous city burned. We learned that a close reading of the Hebrew leads to the conclusion that neither stoning a rebellious son nor burning an idolatrous city could – or should – actually occur. We looked at verses that many religious leaders claim condemn homosexuality – you’ll find them in Leviticus, chapters 18, verse 22 and chapter 20, verse 13. By parsing the Hebrew, we learned that neither verse does any such thing. Despite the translations we are presented with, these texts are more likely attempting to proscribe acts of sexual violence and sexual transgression: Incest and rape are the topics of these verses, not homosexuality. After I’d made my case, using the actual Hebrew rather than the translations so common to either of our traditions, I saw people looking at me with tears in their eyes. Someone in that room knew a man who loved a man. Someone knew a woman who loved a woman. Or there were people in that room who were themselves either gay or lesbian. They knew that biblical texts had been used to humiliate and debase real human beings, to deny them the right to sanctify their love, to raise children, to live in peace and freedom. We need to read and reread with humility and care so that scripture can be a medium of love, not of humiliation or disdain. We need to read for the best possible interpretation and be willing to work to find it. All Saints Episcopal Church is doing just that. May we profit from such an example.
Friday, Feb. 21, 2014
When Bible study become ‘medium of love’
Barbara Thiede is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Barbara? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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