Fueled by the philosophies of the Enlightenment, modernist approaches to biblical interpretation have optimistically presupposed an objective, scientific detachment as both possible and desirable when interpreting the biblical narrative. However, beginning with the development of postmodern thought in the second half of the twentieth century, scholars have begun to question whether it is possible to achieve such a goal (Newsom 502). As a conscious understanding of our own cognitive framework and its role in our perception of reality has emerged, scholars have begun to understand two things. First, the authors of the biblical texts shaped their stories according to a set of assumptions about the nature of reality. Second, readers filter the biblical narrative through a subjective lens that is shaped by their own assumptions about reality.
Based on this understanding of multiple subjectivities, some biblical scholars have begun to deliberately take on the viewpoint of a contemporary group of people based on a variety of factors that include class, ethnicity, gender and sometimes sexual orientation and then use this consciously created framework as the norm against which the biblical narrative is evaluated. Examples of this technique include feminist theology, liberation theology, post-colonial theology and the so-called "queering" of the Bible. These ideological readings are sometimes grouped together under the term "cultural hermeneutics" (Newsom 502).
During our classroom discussions we have employed texts by Carol Delaney and Renita Weems in an attempt to illustrate the principles involved in ideological readings. Each author begins from a certain set of assumptions in interpreting the Genesis narrative of Abraham, using a feminist criticism that consciously notices ways in which women have been made incidental, marginal or even invisible within the texts (McKnight 2271). However, each author takes her own unique point of view and examines different aspects of the narrative.
Delaney’s reading largely focuses on the ways in which women and children are exploited in a male-dominated system. Rather than simply accepting the biblical narrative on its own terms, Delaney focuses on the near sacrifice of Isaac asks questions of the text that challenge the author’s assumptions about the role of women in society, the procreative process and fatherly authority over children. For example, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah, the patriarch sets off without question to obediently fulfill God’s order. Delaney questions the text’s assumptions that Abraham has the right to take Isaac and do with him whatever he pleases: Where is Sarah in this story? As Isaac’s mother was she consulted before Abraham set off to sacrifice their son? By what authority does Abraham assume the right to take Isaac’s life and offer it to God? (22)
Using these questions as a starting point, Delaney turns to the ancient understanding of human reproduction as a monogenetic act in which a man plants a seed in a woman that she then brings to fruition in the form of a child. In this model of procreation, men are endowed with the same power to bring forth life that is possessed by their decidedly masculine Creator God, while women are relegated to the role of the earth (dirt) in which a seed grows. From giving life to being the sole decision maker in the taking of life becomes a small step.
Though our modern understanding of human reproduction asserts that a male and a female each contribute half of the genetic material that makes up their offspring, our folk understanding is still shaped by earlier assumptions about the origin of life. Relating this back to the biblical narrative, Delaney asserts that while theologians have written extensively about what Abraham must have been thinking and feeling as he carried out God’s orders, relatively little thought has been given to the Sarah’s or Isaac’s viewpoints (23). If we follow the assumptions of the biblical author without question, then there is simply no room for protest from Isaac, a grown man at this point, or Sarah, who contributed half of Isaac’s DNA, carried him in her womb for nine months and then presumably cared for him during his young life.
By questioning the narrator’s assumptions about the nature of life, family authority and gender relations, Delaney is able to point out how our own understandings continue to be influenced by passive acceptance of the author’s perceptions of reality. The fact that we still refer to semen as "seed" (and that they share the same root meaning) and use phrases such as "a gleam in your father’s eye" to talk about a preincarnate child indicates just how deeply our collective consciousness has been imprinted with the understanding of procreation as a strictly male enterprise.
According to Delaney’s reading, the story of Abraham not only diminishes the role of women in our society, but also that of children. The silent Isaac, presumably aware that something was amiss as his father bound him, laid him on the altar and approached him with a knife, is the perfect model of obedience before his creator. From the author’s perspective, Abraham granted Isaac life and, thus, it was perfectly within Abraham’s right to snuff out that life. Reflecting on the absolute obedience expected of a son, I am reminded of a scene in Bill Cosby: Himself in which the comedian recounts a childhood memory:
"My father established our relationship when I was seven years old. He looked at me and said, ‘You know, I brought you in this world, and I can take you out. And it don’t make no difference to me, I’ll make another one look just like you'" (Memorable).
Delaney further posits that our society bestows the authority assumed in the biblical narrative by Abraham on our modern government structures which call for and expect the unflinching sacrifice of our children in times of war (248).
A different point of view is presented in Weems’ reading of the conflict between Sarai and Hagar over producing a male heir for Abra(ha)m. While Delaney’s ideological reading tends to focus on the injustice all women suffer at the mercy of a patriarchal system, Weems points out that oppression does not stop there. Reading from a perspective that includes not only gender, but also socioeconomic class and ethnicity as factors, she shows how women of privilege oppress women of lower status. Here a new question is raised: Why is Hagar not consulted before she is offered up to be used by Abra(ha)m to give birth to an heir? (Weems, paragraph 12)
Weems introduces black/white race relations in the United States as a lens through which to view the conflicts between Sarai and Hagar. She incorporates the memory of black women slaves who were raped by their white masters and the beatings these women sometimes received from the masters’ jealous wives in shaping her framework for viewing the story. Add to this the role of African American women since the Civil War as domestic servants in white households and the interplay between Sarai and Hagar takes on new meaning. Weems suggests that both women are at the mercy of a socioeconomic system that leaves Abra(ha)m with all of the wealth and authority. However, rather than comforting one another or standing together in solidarity, the women turn on each other as they both vie for a more secure position within the patriarchal system.
As we can see from these interpretations, ideological readings diverge radically from the modernist approaches that preceded them. While making use of the insights provided by archaeology, ethnography and linguistics, their conscious incorporation of modern social, political and economic realities as conversational partners dispels any illusion of objective truth. However, it is my contention that both schools of thought bring their own merits to biblical studies.
While the modernist approaches may help us to see details of the physical realities of those who lived in biblical times or to understand how the Bible was transmitted to us in its current form, they do not answer questions that deal with the mindset of the biblical authors or the world that they described. By reading "against the grain" of the story and asking questions of the text that the author was not consciously considering (Newsom 504), ideological interpretations help us to discern ways in which the biblical authors differed from modern readers in their perceptions of reality. This approach provides us with two benefits: we are able to more consciously approximate the lens through which the authors saw their world, but also to begin to discern our own cognitive framework and become more consciously aware of how it affects both our perceptions of reality and the work we are studying.
Delaney, Carol. Abraham On Trial. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
McKnight, Edgar V. "Varieties of Readings and Interpretations of the Biblical Text." The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Ed. Walter J. Harrelson. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003. 2268-2273.
"Memorable Quotes from Bill Cosby: Himself (1983)." November 5, 2006 <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083652/quotes>
Newsom, Carol A. "Contemporary Methods in Biblical Study." The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 3rd ed. Ed. Michael D. Coogan. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 2001. 497-505.
Weems, Renita J. Just A Sister Away. West Bloomfield: Walk Worthy Press, 2005. Oct. 24, 2006 <http://www.twbookmark.com/books/83/0446578940/chapter_excerpt21946.html>