No Effortless Person: Community, Conflict, and the Emergence of Self in the Hebrew Bible

by

Joseph A. Favazza
Rhodes College

I am appreciative of the opportunity to share a few reflections with you today. Like every good academic, let me begin with a disclaimer. While my academic discipline is Religious Studies, my area of specialization is not biblical studies and certainly not the Hebrew Bible! Like many of you, I am here because I teach in a core text program that uses the Bible as a core text; so let me plunge forward as a generalist and hope that my Hebrew bible colleagues will grant me indulgence .

I want to focus on three areas that both narrow in focus and become more interesting from first to last: 1) the core curriculum program at Rhodes; 2) the use of the Bible as core text within this program; and 3) the use of the books of Ruth and Ezra in the Hebrew Bible as examples of how biblical text can be taught to "build the whole person," the theme of our conference.

Inspired by a series of lectures by Dr. Theodore Green (then of Princeton) who stressed something called "cooperative learning" (what we now call interdisciplinary) to teach something called "The Great Centuries" (what we now call the Western tradition), and by the crisis of meaning occasioned by the Second World War, Southwestern College at Memphis (what we now call Rhodes) launched a course in 1945 called Man in the Light of History and Religion (what we now call Search in the Light of Western History and Religion). It was a twelve hour course, taught for six hours a week during both semesters of the freshman year (what we now call the first year). Its purpose was twofold: 1) to expose students to a study of human self-understanding as expressed through source texts selected from the Western tradition, beginning with the Hebrew bible and concluding with texts from 20th century authors; and 2) to expose students to the great texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in part driven by Rhodes' long historical affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, USA, an affiliation that continues to the present day. While the structure of the course has been extensively modified over the years - for example, it is now a four semester course taken over two years, with students in their second year having the option of choosing a particular disciplinary focus, either History, Literature, Philosophy, Political Science, or Religion, the "Search" course (as it is called on campus) continues to lay great emphasis on exposure to primary texts of the Western tradition.

Our second focus is on the use of the Bible as core text. One might imagine that the reasons for choosing the Bible as part of the core text curriculum in 1945 and the reasons for keeping it as part of that curriculum in 1996 has changed dramatically. Quite frankly, the answer to that question is both no and yes in the case of Rhodes. On the one hand, using the bible in its core text curriculum does two things for the institution: 1) it qualifies it to receive major funding from a large endowment that stipulates students take twelve hours in Bible or bible-related courses; and 2) it provides concrete curricular evidence of institutional religious affiliation. So while I would like to be able to tell you that the Bible is part of our core curriculum for deep and inspired reasons, it is much more mundane than that. Perhaps some of you can relate!

On the other hand, the early 1980's saw Rhodes move from having a Bible and Religion Department to a Department of Religious Studies. As you may realize, this constitutes more than simply a name change: it represents a fundamental methodological shift in the academic study of religion and religious texts. Crosscultural and phenomenological perspectives are emphasized rather than purely theological ones. So while the Bible remains a core text, our approach to it has changed radically. Rather than a starting point that assumes the Bible as a unique and sacred source of authority for religious faith that has been divinely inspired, biblical texts are approached as textual artifacts that provide insight into the worldview of ancient cultures. Just as the other ancient literature we read, such as the Iliad , or Livy's History , or Essene manuscripts discovered at Qumran, the Bible is a library of literature that opens up ancient worlds to us. As westerners we would be impoverished not to explore these foundational texts of our cultural heritage and continue to mine their insights.

In order for this perspective to be successful, students are asked to "make the familiar unfamiliar." What they learned in Sunday school or in parochial or private schools will not be sufficient for Search, and in fact might place their success at risk. To assist them in what for many is a difficult paradigm shift, we attempt to provide a literary context from which to approach biblical texts. For example, before we read the creation stories in Genesis, we read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the 'enuma elish, and selections from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. With this context, we can only hope that discussion focuses more on the influences on, and differences between, these texts and not on whether or not Adam and Eve existed in history or even what value this text has for religion today. Again, the point here is to explore and appreciate the ancient worldviews these texts, including the biblical texts, open up for us and to question what cultural and personal insights might be gleaned from how these ancient cultures constructed their identity.

Now that you know something about Search and our use of the bible as a core text, the remainer of my time I will spend discussing a particular text. When we did a major revision of the course two years ago (as we do every three years), we adopted three core themes to guide our revision, and especially the selection of new text material: 1) What does it mean to be a human person? (What role do family, friends, and community play? How is the "good life" defined?) 2) How do human beings interpret foundational experiences of transition and loss? 3) How do human beings understand the divine and what is the proper relationship between divinity and humanity? While these themes are made explicit at different points throughout the course, they tend more to be implicit touchstones for staff and students in their guided discussions of, and written reflections on, the textual material.

With this in mind, we introduced a new session into the Hebrew scripture unit that focused on the books of Ruth and Ezra. Ezra is a post-exilic text that preserves the reform efforts led by Ezra the priest upon Israel's return from Babylonian exile. At the heart of this reform is a call for ethnic cleansing: since the exile is interpreted by Ezra as punishment for disobedience to the Mosaic Law, a radical adherence to the Law must be recovered. This demanded that all male "people of the land" (Israelites who had remained in Judah during the exile) who had married foreign wives were to divorce them and send them and their children back to their country of origin. (Ezra 10:10-11)

Without going into the gory details of text criticism, most Hebrew Bible scholars concur that Ruth is also a post-exilic text that is set in the premonarchical period. Ruth is a Moabite woman, recently widowed from her Israelite husband who dramatically decides to follow her mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel. (Ruth 1:16-18) There, Ruth cares for Naomi, earns the respect and admiration of the local population, and attracts the romantic attention of the upright Boaz who eventually takes Ruth as his wife. The story concludes (4:13-17) with the birth of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David.

By using these two post-exilic texts together, students see that biblical texts do not present some monolithic expression of cultural identity. Differences, very serious differences, are expressed. In this case, Ruth stands as a "literature of protest" against the ethnic exclusivity of Ezra by linking a foreign woman from Israel's traditional enemy, Moab, to the greatest of all Israelite kings, David. Ruth's message is multiple: righteousness is not the exclusive property of one group of people; God rewards righteousness rather than race; and Ezra's policy of ethnocentricism is sheer folly.

The relationship of Ruth to Ezra demonstrates how biblical texts can be extremely effective in unpacking for students the construction of identity. Ruth, as a voice of protest, functions as the outsider, as the "other," who challenges the culturally accepted definition of what it means to be a human person. What is
considered normative for identity by the dominant voice of the culture is suddenly brought into question by a character who does not meet the requirements for identity. This voice of protest usually is someone perceived to have no cultural power (e.g., a foreigner, a woman, a poor person, an exile) who suddenly forces those with power to reexamine and renegotiate the norms for identity. The Hebrew scriptures are full of such voices of the 'other:' Jonah, Dame Folly (in the Book of Wisdom), Tamar, Rahab the prostitute, Joseph as Egyptian, even the Hebrews themselves when they stand outside the land of Canaan. They are deconstructors: by their voice, the accepted definition of what it means to be human in a particular culture is deconstructed in the face of an alternative insight into the meaning and value of personhood, of divinity, and of the proper relationship between the two.

If one is inclined to take the text further with students and raise issues of "hermeneutical suspicion," the issue of gender lends itself to this very well. Students are asked to consider Ruth as a story told for and about women. Ruth stands out as a woman who, while living within the confines of patriarchally constructed society, defines herself autonomously rather than allowing the society to define her heteronomously. Ruth, as the "other" or outsider, personifies the insights of contemporary feminist authors such as DeBeauvoir, Daly, and Fiorenza who see women as living critiques of established norms of their social group. Their social position as "outsider" gives them a unique perspective to critique underlying patriarchal assumptions about meaning and identity.

The second issue that Ruth uncovers is the question of power. Students usually conceive power as a thing to be possessed as part of one's identity. It comes with those possessions that our society has agreed makes one powerful: wealth, fame, office, etc. However, Ruth presents an opportunity to explore the issue of power more intensely: is it a "thing" itself or is it simply woven into the basic fabric of social relations within a given society? The latter answer can be appreciated when one considers Ruth, seemingly without power, who exercises profound power on her new community. In subverting the established norms of identity, she personifies insights raised by the contemporary philosopher Michael Foucault who sees power as negotiated relationship. The emergence of the self is always the result of this mutual struggle.

The use of biblical core texts such as Ruth provide rich opportunities to examine the emergence of personhood amidst community and conflict. Again, the purpose of using these texts is twofold: to discover insight into the self-definition of a culture through its textual artifacts; and to explore the meaning of these insights in light of our own necessary attempts to construct identity. While wrought with the fear of superimposing critical theories or reading one's own hermeneutical bias into the texts, I believe it is worth the risk. Left aside, our lives and the lives of our students would be more unreflected...and more effortless.