We all know the story, Galileo Galilei had the audacity–church leaders at the time regarded it as hubris–to say that the earth rotated around the sun and not vice versa as many assumed. It’s hard to wrap our minds around this today since we live in a world that sent telescopes into orbit and peers into the human body with magnets, but many in Galileo’s day thought that the Bible contradicted a heliocentric view of the world and they deemed Galileo a heretic for saying otherwise.

Galileo's middle finger as it rests, presumably in an upright salute to the Catholic church, in the Museo Galileo in Florence.

Galileo’s middle finger as it rests, presumably in an upright salute to the Catholic church, in the Museo Galileo in Florence.


Verses like 1 Chronicles 16:30b seem to represent a fixed earth, “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Yet, Galileo observed that the Bible often means “things which are quite different from what its bare words signify.” He went on to elaborate:

Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might fall into error…Thus it would be necessary to assign to God feet, hands, and eyes, as well as corporeal and human affections, such as anger, repentance, hatred, and sometimes even the forgetting of things past and ignorance of those to come. These propositions uttered by the Holy Ghost were set down in that manner by the sacred scribes in order to accommodate them to the capacities of the common people, who are rude and unlearned (From Galileo’s “Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany” translated by Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo [New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1957], 173-216).

Regardless of whether we agree with Galileo here (I for one do think that biblical authors believed that God got angry, repented, etc., but I digress), what’s important to notice is that Galileo was a sensitive interpreter of Scripture. He tried to listen to the text and go deeper than the surface. He tried to understand the particular genre of a passage before he presumed to know what it meant. That is, he tried to understand the macro-syntax of passage to see if it might affect meaning on the level of the sentence.

Galileo wasn’t the first to under go duress at the hands less scrupulous students of Scripture because of his nuanced reading strategy and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. But Galileo’s observation that words sometimes mean the opposite of what they say is foundational to a mature reading strategy.

If you’re interested in this topic, particularly as it applies to the interpretation of Genesis 1-11, you’ll be happy to hear that I’m editing a book on the implications of genre for the interpretation of the Primeval History. We’re still in the process of writing it, but it should be out sometime next year.

But the fact that it can be read apart from these larger contexts is no argument that it ought to be or that interpreting it only according to its ancient authors’ intentions yields the best reading. Indeed, the very question of authorial intention is enormously complicated when the text has many authors, has been repeatedly redacted, and now forms an integral part of a completed set of books to which many more authors and redactors have contributed. Considering Genesis in isolation inevitably impedes our understanding of the importance of the scriptural canon by which it comes to us.

Ronald Hendel leaves the impression that nowadays the book of Genesis can be handled credibly only by artists, activists, and antiquarians. A fuller study would have to take account of its role in modern Jewish and Christian religious thought, where those who have pondered themes central to Genesis—creation, election, promise and the baffling workings of providence, for example—have made rich and productive use of the book. It would also have to take account of the fact that throughout the world, Genesis is read and expounded in synagogues and churches by and to educated, scientifically literate people. On the question of how we are to understand that important reality, The Book of Genesis: A Biography, illuminating on so many other things, needed to say more.

Jon Levenson

I have short piece up on the School of Christian Thought’s blog. Here’s the first paragraph to whet you appetite, click here for the whole thing.

The first time I heard the song must have been as I was weaving in and out of traffic. I was too impatient to wait for the DJ to name to title so with one eye on the road and the other on my phone I shazam’ed it. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by The Pixies. By far my favorite song from them. Their music is a mix of discordant sound, screaming, and catchy loops; normally not my cup of tea. But anytime someone mixes environmentalism, a great hook, and esoteric Hebrew numerology they’ve won my heart…wait, hold up–do monkeys really go to heaven?

I’m trying to rethink the ways in which I teach Old Testament introduction and I came up with an assignment that I hope will interest the students:

The Story of Genesis Through the Sistine Chapel

Using the Vatican’s interactive guide and virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, follow the “Central Stories” which depict Michelangelo’s interpretation of Genesis 1-9. Read Genesis 1-9 for yourself and in a two page, double spaced, essay compare and contrast Michelangelo’s interpretation of Genesis 1-9 with your own reading. Students might find it helpful to consult the class textbook for this assignment as well.

Interactive Guide: http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/CSN/CSN_Volta_StCentr.html

Virtual Tour: http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html

I aso made a short video that provides a little introduction to the assignment. Sure it’s cheesy and my dog snores in the background but who says education has be so stuffy? As always, let me know what you think.

Jon Levenson, Albert List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, has a new book out in which he questions the concept of “Abrahamic Religions,” in other words, that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are united in the common ancestor of Abraham. In Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Levenson demonstrates that each of these religions view Abraham in different ways and have different traditions associated with him. I thought I would post several resources that relate to the publication of this significant book:

First, Jewish Ideas Daily published an interview with Levenson concerning Inheriting Abraham.

Second, reviews of Inheriting Abraham include Walter Brueggemann‘s in The Christian Century, Peter Monaghan‘s in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Martin Jaffee‘s in The Jewish Review of Books.

And, here is a lecture that Levenson gave at the University of California Santa Barbara in which he addresses this topic. Professor Levenson was kind enough to send me an electronic version of the handout that he used for this address which will make it much easier to follow along with the texts that he cites. Dr. Levenson pointed out that his views are now more refined and nuanced since this lecture (which was given in 2006) but it is still a very good summary of his take on this topic. Enjoy.

Handout: Levenson–Conversion of Abraham Handout

Books & Culture asked me to review David Penchansky’s Understanding Wisdom Literature. In the review I discuss some meta issues such as: how one can form meaning from multi-authored texts, history of Christian interpretation, and the very nature of the task of theology. Let me know what you think.

I’d like to thank John Hobbins for reading a draft of this essay and giving me some very helpful feedback.

I have noticed that often times students who begin learning one of the biblical languages think that at the end of a few years of studying vocabulary, grammar, and syntax that they will then know how to read and translate the Bible. However, learning vocabulary, grammar, and syntax is not enough if one wants to truly understand a language–one has to also be a student of the cultures, both general and local, in which these languages were used.

I remember asking the late Michael P. O’Connor what aspect of biblical Hebrew pedagogy he thought was most in need of improvement. Without hesitation he said that the biggest weakness that he saw in the students entering a PhD program (and he was referring to students that already had at least 2 years of biblical Hebrew upon their application to the program) is that they had virtually no understanding of ancient culture–they had merely studied language, biblical content, and theology and because of this really didn’t know the language at all (and I would add that if you don’t know the language you really don’t know biblical content or theology on a deep level, but I digress).

But how could this be? Why would O’Connor make such statements? For instance, aren’t the meanings of words readily accessible in the myriad of lexicons on the shelves of any good library? Yes and no. Take Lipinski’s discussion regarding the meaning of the words we commonly translate as “slave” and “slave-girl”:

The West Semitic noun ‘abd-, e.g., can designate a slave, a servant, a king’s minister, a god’s worshipper, because its conceptual content is not a social rank, but a relation created by a dependent activity. As a result, when one is translating the Bible, e.g., into some European language, the problems of equivalence can be acute. It is easier to translate the noun in question by ‘servant’ and to have recourse to the polysemy of the English word, but ‘abd– really does not mean ‘servant’ and the corresponding polysemy does not exist in Semitic. Neither ‘dependent’ would fit the case because ‘abd– is etymologically related to the verb ‘bd which suggests some form of performed activity. Besides, diachronic aspects should not be forgotten. E.g. if the Hebrew word shipha is often translated by ‘slave-girl’,–probably under influence of Arabic sifah, ‘concubinage by capture’, ‘cohabitation by force’,–one cannot forget that mishpaha was a clan or a larger family in biblical times, and that shph means ‘posterity’ in Ugaritic and ‘family’ in Punic. One can assume therefore that shipha was originally a house-born girl who was not a legal daughter of the paterfamilias, probably because she was born from a kind of sifah. Now, these social implications are missing in a translation like ‘slave-girl’. These examples show that languages are basically a part of culture, and that words cannot be understood correctly apart from the local cultural phenomena for which they are symbols.1

All this to say, I’m looking forward to teaching a course on ancient Near Eastern culture in the Fall.

  1. Edward Lipinski, Semitic Languages Outline of a Comparative Grammar (OLA 80; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 557. [back]

The National Library of Sweden website has a digital copy of the exquisite Gigas Bible, or Devil’s Bible, that you can freely browse. The Gigas Bible is the oldest known European biblical manuscript and, interestingly, has under its binding in the following order: the Old Testament, Josephus’s Antiquities and The Jewish War, Isidore’s Encyclopedia, a collection of medical works, the New Testament, and, finally, a history of Bohemia (quite a deuterocanonical corpus!). Furthermore, it is an illuminated manuscript which contains many beautiful drawings the most famous of which is of the devil. Enjoy.

Instead of trying to classify, we may fare better if we consider how the genre or genres used by an author create potentials for meaning and influence how we read a text…Instead of asking ‘What genre is this text?’–a question that locks us into one genre or another–we should ask ‘How does genre shape this text?’–a question that allows for multiple influences.

–Angela Roskop, The Wilderness Itineraries (Eisenbrauns, 2011), 28.

I’m re-reading Angie’s treatment of genre for the third time. Good books are like that; you keep coming back to them and each reading is more profitable than the last. If you are interested in genre, reading, and/or biblical studies then you need this book in your library.

Here is a prepublication version of my article in the current issue of the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, “An Indecent Proposal: The Theological Core of the Book of Ruth.” I am no longer teaching at SBTS so this was changed in the printed version. Thanks go to Athalya Brenner who was kind enough to read a draft and had some really great reflections that I was not able to integrate into the article due to the publication schedule, however, I will post her thoughts here on the blog soon.

In the article I try to unpack the theological implications of the threshing floor encounter and argue that that is the central event of the book and, therefore, theological reflections should center upon it instead of trying to mute its sexual overtones (which are admittedly, and likely purposefully, ambiguous). If you read it let me know what you think.