Published in one of the top 3 Dutch Theological Books of 2011!

As part of the (Ducth) Night of Theology, the book De Bijbel theologisch was shortlisted as one of the best theological books of 2011. The book included my theological understanding of Ezekiel (available on academia.edu, albeit in Dutch), so I feel honoured and flattered that something I was part of has received such high recognition. Furthermore, I’m thankful to have been given the chance to bring my own background and diversity to the book.

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Reading Jonah Well

A few years ago, I’d asked students of mine to look through Children’s Bibles and/or storybooks to see how the Biblical story was presented. It quickly became apparent that the story wasn’t presented well – and the second part of the assignment was asking them how the story Bibles could do it better.

One of the most notorious examples of a story that was bound to be written poorly was that of Jonah. The fish/whale seems to take over the story completely, and the rest of the big of Jonah is given a few lines at the end of the book, if it’s even mentioned at all. (n.b. I have actually seen story books that end the story of Jonah with the whale spitting him out – so much for chapters 3 and 4!).

The exercise was somewhat useful in raising awareness about what kind of poor theology and lack of respect for the biblical text we pass on in children’s books. More so, it stirred up in me an even stronger desire to pay closer attention to the details in the biblical text. The book of Jonah is a great place to begin.  Jonah is a story most people hear way too often growing up in the church, and we have a tendency not actually to look at what’s in the text. After all, we already know the story, right?

Wrong.

Certainly I’d noticed things about Jonah previously when looking at it more closely – but even after spending an entire class translating the Hebrew text into English, there are still things I’d never seen and never thought about. Doing research on what areas were controversial in the book of Jonah actually helped me see more – I’d had no idea there was so much written about the animals in the book of Jonah and this despite the fact that ever since translating the book, the final verse has been one of my favourites:  “Should I not have compassion on these people who do not know their right from their left – and all the animals (cattle), too?”

A few weeks ago I pulled out the book of Jonah as the source of study for a small group evening. The following are some of the things we saw:
– despite the idea that most of us have that the Ninevites fasted for three days, there’s no actual number of days given in the text.
– if you know whether a prophet is sent from God because his words come true (cf Deut 18), what does that say for Jonah’s words of destruction (in 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed) that clearly didn’t come?
– the shade tree that God raises actually comes above a hut that Jonah built – so it’s almost redundant (and would it have made that much difference if the plant/tree was or wasn’t there?)
– the animals also have to fast in Nineveh – no food and no water. And they are also dressed in sackcloth. Can you imagine how much noise and “crying out” there would have been from the animals?!?

Exegesis and Bible Software

I’ve been attending a conference entitled “Biblical Scholarship and Humanities Computing” at the Lorentz Center this week. One of the questions raised was how the presence of Bible software tools (and databases) affect what happens in this classroom.

Everyone acknowledged that students were using Bible software; yet, this was not generally seen positively. Software was either inadequate (also because of its high-cost) or students relied on it too heavily to read the text (even panicking when asked to look at a text without being able to use the software). A few did mention how it could be used positively in class (e.g., students could be asked to do searches/queries), but that was more of a minority voice.

The question I continue to have is whether we’re actually addressing the fact that software changes how students do exegesis, and thus classroom techniques will have to change. If a student is asked to translate a text without software, it will take him/her longer to do it, and a higher compentence in the original languages is required. However, by translating the text without the software, he/she will most likely dig deeper into the text and more naturally ask questions about it. Unfortunately, five years after the classes, he/she will most likely no longer be using the text because keeping up that kind of language knowledge takes a lot of time and energy (which few pastors or non-biblical scholars have). So how then do you help students to learn how to ask good questions about the text? And that is the question that I still have. Even if software can be designed to do that better, the user still needs to evaluate which questions are better – such as, are word studies the best way to get into the text? looking at the verbal forms? doing a syntactical analysis? participant analysis?

Are believers better exegetes than non-believers?

Charles on his blog BibleX has a fascinating quote, which suggests that the believer might be a better exegete than a non-believer:

“There are differences of opinion among scholars about whether being aloof and detached is a better way to read ancient texts without bias, or whether being profoundly interested and passionate about getting at the truth about a text better propels one toward the goal of understanding the Bible. In my view, as long as you can take into account your own predilections, the latter orientation is more likely to produce an accurate result, not least because the person actually cares about the outcome and is willing to go the extra mile to get to the bottom of things…”   Ben Witherington III, Is There a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Biblical Scholar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 128.

As a Reformed Christian, I believe that both non-believers and believers are capable of reading and exegeting the text well. God has, after all, given all people the ability to think and make logical conclusions based on the information that is available. Furthermore, presuppositions are a challenge and potential hinderance for everyone who approaches the text, and they become more problematic the more one denies their existence and the more extreme one’s position is, whether it be fundamentalist or emphatically anti-Christian.

Nonetheless, there is something profound about realizing that it is Christians who have the most invested in the text. As such, we should be the ones working the hardest to read it well – as a means of honouring the One who orchestrated the text. As a means of challenging our presuppositions so that we can read it well, we ought to be listening well to non-Christians who question the standard Christian rhetoric. At the same time, we should also question scholarship that adamantly tries to deny or minimize the Christian traditions in reading a text, as this denial indicates a rejection of the importance of the text and its own internal claim for meaning within the Christian tradition.

The Dangers of studying Ezekiel

Somewhat recently Douglas Mangham placed on his blog the following quote from the Talmud about studying Ezekiel:

“The rabbis taught: It happened once that a certain child, who was reading in his teacher’s house in the Book of Ezekiel, was pondering over ‘Hashmal, and there came out fire from ‘Hashmal and burnt him, and they sought in consequence to conceal the Book of Ezekiel. (b. Hagigah 13a)”

Mangham goes on further to say: “The rabbis prohibited anyone under age 30 from studying Ezekiel because of this incident. One needed to be sufficiently mature in the study of Torah before they would expound the secrets of Ezekiel 1, especially the divine chariot. So if your Bible reading plan takes you through Ezekiel, be careful and you may want to implement the buddy system. Never read alone. Just in case.”

Seeing as I spend much of my time studying the book of Ezekiel, I had to smile at the warning. At the same time…

A group of pastors in the area also recently preached on Ezekiel. I heard that some of the older and more experienced pastors pulled out of the preaching series. They did not feel that they could take on the book of Ezekiel.

It makes me wonder sometimes who I am to say something about Ezekiel- or even if I’ll like what I discover in the book. It is a dangerous book – it presents a God who is complicated and doesn’t relate to His people in ways that we expect. In that way, it challenges our assumptions, but I don’t see that so much as dangerous – instead it seems healthy. What good is a biblical understanding that is never challenged and never grows? And what do you really have on a God who is simple to understand?

Presenting on Ezekiel 10 at the SBL International Meeting in London

I have been approved to present a paper on Ezekiel 10 at the upcoming Society of Biblical Literature Meeting (July 2011) in London during the Ezekiel section.

The following is the summary for my presentation:
The Vision in Ezekiel 10: Chaos in the Message

The vision in Ezekiel 10 presents a chaotic picture of cherubim, wings and wheels with the glory of the LORD and the person of Ezekiel found in the middle of the chaos. The chaos is illustrated further in the syntax of the passage in the Masoretic text. This is shown in verses 9-13 and verses 15-19. In verses 9-13 it is frequently not clear when the third masculine plural pronoun relates to the wheels and when to the cherubim. In verses 15-19 the identical verbal form of (way)ya’amod is used in verses 18-19. In verse 18, the subject appears to be the same as that of the previous verb: ‘the glory of the LORD’. Verses 19-20 are an expanded version of verse 15, with ‘the cherubim’ being the clear subject. The question then is what the repeat of (way)ya’amod, with no identified subject, is doing at the end of verse 19. These examples raise questions about coherence, redaction and rhetoric in the text: questions which have not been systematically addressed by the literature. My argument is that by seeing the mainline in this text as being made up of not just one mainline but of multiple mainlines, one can see a rhetorical pattern in the text that also takes the syntax into account. Furthermore, this complexity in syntax, instead of hindering the reader, can actually reinforce the message of the text, which presents a confusing and complex vision.

Ezekiel 23 – Thoughts on its explicitness

I was recently pointed to David Ker’s blog entry on Ezekiel 23 – a passage I find fascinating on account of its rather shocking nature. In my analysis of Ezekiel, chapter 23 being a long chapter, it cost me at least a week’s work, and with its explicitness, it wasn’t pleasant work. That the word of God would use such a jarring language for his people is something that has stuck with me. It gives me pause as to what depths God’s people had sunk to so that this was a way to reach them – and it gives me pause to what God’s people are up to now that makes us so often ignore this passage and the messiness in it.

The following is a brief excerpt from David Ker’s thoughts on Ezekiel 23:

“…When I was a little boy in Sunday School this was one of our favorite chapters. My buddies and I, we gravitated to this chapter, verse 20 in particular, and snickered. How did we even find the verse? Maybe like dirty jokes, naughty bits of the Bible are passed down from older boys to the younger.

The language of Ezekiel 23 is wildly inappropriate for a sacred text. Would Ezekiel 23 pass Paul’s “whatsoever things” test in Philippians 4:8?

The context of this chapter is a long and detailed denunciation of Israel and Judah for their idolatry imported from Egypt and their political alliances with neighboring countries. Note well that this isn’t a story told by Ezekiel, this is him verbatim reporting “the word of the Lord.” So God is talking here and he uses some really shocking sexual vocabulary. Breasts are squeezed. Men’s genitals and their functions are described in vivid imagery….”

Publishing to what end…

In a desire to publish more in different places and different ways, I’ve semi-committed to helping out with Logos project of an online Bible dictionary.

To read more about the project Chris Brady does a great job of raising questions of whether the project is a good one – and whether the compensation is reasonable.

I’m using the project as a means to get me more used to writing lots again and to have an incentive to do some research on a number of topics that are related to my own research; publishing in English and making connections with Bible software folk are also positive things.

I’ll let you know how it goes. I do have to say that I’m a bit disappointed with my contact in the project thus far – the amount of interest extended regarding my knowledge and interests makes me question whether it is actually valued – or if it is only my willingness to commit to cheap labour that is valued?

Religion and Tourism

I had a conversation this evening over religion and tourism, in response to a recently seen book on this topic. When I first put the two words together, I couldn’t help but think of how the hotels in Bethelehem are full at this time of year. If you’re going to travel, why not celebrate Christmas by making a pilgrimage to the place where it was all supposed to begin?

My own experience with and contemplation on the concept of religion and tourism actually relates mostly to the area of short-term missions. Having spent some time working with different mission organizations and having done some training for missions, I was frequently enough confronted with the question of how useful short-term missions actually are. The term ‘religious tourism’ was sometimes used in disdain to describe short-term missions – the only ones who seem to get any significant benefit from the mission trip are those who have gone on the trip: they’ve made good memories, felt good about themselves, and been exposed to a different world. The effectiveness of the help given, the value of the money spent (often significant amounts for the transportation of the volunteers), and whether the volunteers actually learned anything significant from the experience – these things are all questionable. Nonetheless, short-term mission experiences can be positive – and the ‘tourism’ involved is not necessarily negative. Being confronted with other cultures, other ways of doing religion, asking questions about the value, purpose, and/or effectiveness of the trip are all positive things.

But short-term missions, even as it raises questions about religion and tourism, is merely a small subset when it comes to religious tourism. According to wikipedia, “Religious tourism, also commonly referred to as faith tourism, is a form of tourism, whereby people of faith travel individually or in groups for pilgrimage, missionary, or leisure (fellowship) purposes.” When doing a quick search online via google, a report on students studying in Israel and a link to a monastery are among the top ten results. The question of how tourists, religious or not, relate to religious sites is also high among the results posted.

On the one hand, it is for me a fascinating topic to think further about. But, on the other hand, I wonder exactly where the discussion would go – and whether it would lead to any specific results or just general ponderings. After all, I’m a religious person – when I am a tourist, I don’t stop being less a Christian – and that affects all of what I do and how I look at things. Furthermore, a significant population of the world is religious to some degree and those who travel to their land/area are confronted, at least somewhat, with the religion that is there. Lastly, significant numbers of the sites of interest to tourists are connected to religions. A side point here is a question on what role religion plays when some of Europe’s churches have become more museums and cultural artificacts than religious buildings.

In any case, the discussion will continue around the dining table here.

Getting published

After working towards my Ph.D. for a number of years, I’m finally getting around to being published in my field. It feels like a confirmation – not just of the work I’ve been doing in the past few years, but also of my abilities and of my desire to join in conversation with others.

There is one ironical thing about the publishing, though. The publication is in dutch. I’m a native english speaker – and I’ve known/spoken dutch for only four years, mostly informally (as the academic stuff has been primarily English). So publishing in Dutch doesn’t seem like the most obvious way to begin, but I’m discovering that sometimes the conversation partners you’re given aren’t the most obvious ones. Perhaps it is also because it is not the obvious conversation partners that I have something extra/special to contribute.