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Tony W. Cartledge | Blog

Entries in Society of Biblical Literature (8)


Hebrew in the air

These folks really like their coffee -- there's a Starbucks at the front of the line. Meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) always intimidate me a bit.

The crowds, for one thing. Members of SBL and the American Academy of Religion (AAR) brought more than 10,000 scholars to Baltimore's convention center and surrounding hotels. There must have been at least a thousand papers presented in so many work sessions that the program guide is the size of an inch-thick phone book.

A handy smartphone app was the cat's pajamas, though, allowing me to scroll through the sessions I wanted to attend and put them on a calendar, then click through the list of speakers and tap for a map to which building and room was hosting the session.

The result may have been a calendar listing four interesting sessions at the same time, but it was a start. With a Monday class looming, I had to leave before the meeting ends on Tuesday, but over the course of two days I heard at least 30 lectures, as my sore backside and overloaded brain can attest.

When these folks want to talk about something obscure aspect of the Old Testament or an archaeological find, they just throw the Hebrew text up on the screen and expect you to sight read it, even if it's a faded inscription written in proto-Canaanite script. I loved it.

Carol Meyers, one of my professors from Duke, delivered an intriguing presidential address arguing that the Old Testament world wasn't as patriarchal as is usually thought. A section on "Meals and Gender in the Old Testament World" was real food for thought, and another on the "Israelite Cult in Archaeology and Text" asked important questions about the emergence of Israel in Canaan.

I'd mention others, but only at the risk of boring anyone who's still reading by now. Perhaps the most challenging sessions I attended was the first one, a look at "Biblical Genocide in Biblical Scholarship," which examined what appear to be divine commands for the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites as they entered the land of promise (mainly, Joshua 6-11).

The invaders never succeeded in wiping out the land's inhabitants, of course, but records of the effort are troubling, given the universal condemnation of genocide these days. Are we to posit that it was acceptable in the ancient world in a way that's no longer kosher, or that bashing babies was an act of mercy because they had not reached the age of accountability and were thus granted access to heaven? Can we argue that God never really ordered the mass slaughter of entire populations, but that the ancient traditions justifying the conquest were developed to support Israel's nationalistic interests? My lot is with the latter.

There are no easy answers to hard questions such as these, but the best line I heard at the meeting came during that session. In noting that some people want to throw out the Old Testament with its God of violence and hold on to the New Testament with its portrayal of a more loving deity, Hector Avalos noted: "Well, you have to remember that the Old Testament God would hurt you, but it was only for this life ..."

That's something to think about.


The difference a day makes ...

On Monday I posted a few photos taken around sunrise at Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, but the morning was filled with a ghostly fog, leaving the deadfall stark, though no less beautiful, as if drawn in black and white.

Tuesday morning the skies were mostly clear and it was as if God had filled in the paint-by-numbers picture with glowing color.

What a difference a day can make.

A few days later, the Baptists Today staff retreat is history and I'm sitting in a hotel room in Baltimore, watching the sun crest the buildings outside my window. The Society of Biblical Literature meeting is here (along with the American Academy of Religion), and trying to decide which of four really intriguing sessions I want to go to most.

Will it be Assyriology and the Bible, where I can hear a paper on "The Intellecutal Content of Ludlul-bel-Nemeqi," or Prophetic Texts and Their Ancient Contexts, where "On the Location of Divinatory Dreams in Biblical and Ugaritic Narrative" sounds really interesting?

But wait, there's more! The section on Social Science and the Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures includes the delightful title "Penurious Penman or Scriveners of Scions? Reconsidering the Social Classes of Biblical Hebrew Writers in an Ancient Near Eastern Context."

That could light a fire. But I'm leaning toward a less pleasant, though important subject. A section on the Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible is discussing "Biblical 'Genocide' in Biblical Scholarship." The Hebrew Bible contains multiple stories that claim God ordered the Israelites to exterminate other peoples, and that's always been troubling to me. So, a paper like "Canaanite Genocide and Biblical Scholarship: The Danger of Justifying Wholesale Slaughter in the Old Testament" has a particular appeal.

The good news is, that's just the morning session. In the afternoon, I'll have even more mind-prickling sessions to choose from.

Isn't this the way you'd love to spend your Saturday?


Worship by proxy

The annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature is a delightful opportunity for biblical scholars to get together and talk to each other in a language only they understand, for the most part -- and sometimes not.

Sumerian votive worshipers, c. 2500-2700 BCEDuring last weekend's meeting in Chicago, I heard lots of things I didn't fully comprehend, but that's one of the main reasons for going: to be stretched and exposed to new thoughts, some of which might even be useful. I heard a Jungian analysis of Jacob's struggle with God at the Jabbok, for example ("Take me to the River: the Transcendent Function in Genesis 32"). I don't know much about Jung's understanding of transcendence, but I still learned something.

I heard John Dominic Crossan do an illustrated lecture on Medieval "anastasis" iconography featuring Christ emerging from the underworld after his resurrection with Adam and Eve in tow (usually accompanied by David and Solomon, John the Baptist, and a few others). I also heard papers with names like: "That divinely inspired text walks like a duck: theological exegesis and biblical origin," "You will dip me in filth” (Job 9:31): Job’s subversion of the priestly purity system," "The kindness of irony: a psychological look at irony in 2 Samuel 11," and even "Adam as the Alpha Male: Christian Domestic Discipline and the erotics of wife spanking."

You were tuning me out until the last one, right? But it was a serious topic of discussion.

You will note that, apparently, one key to a successful paper is to have a colon in the title.

I confess, however, that the highlight of the weekend for me came early Sunday afternoon when I skipped one of the sessions and caught a cab over to the University of Chicago, which is host to the Oriental Institute Museum, which has an amazing collection of antiquities from Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia, among other places.

Female worshipers at left from the Nintu temple at Khafajah; male worshipers at right from the Square temple of Abu at Tell AsmarThat's where I found these delightful worshipers, and wondered how many pastors would like to have a congregation that looks like these ancient images.

In Mesopotamian temples -- whether Sumerian, Babylonian, or Assyrian -- the sanctuary was not designed as a place for any sort of congregation to gather for exhortation. Rather, in some respects like the Holy of Holies in Israel's temple, it was designed as a habitation for one of the gods, represented by an elaborate image beautifully clothed. Each day, often twice a day, priests would bring in a table and lay out an elaborately prepared meal and sumptuous drinks fit for a king. Hidden by a linen curtain, the god was believed to "eat" the meal by some mystical absorption process. When the god was finished, the same meal was then carried to the king, who would consume it in a more normal way.

Copper alloy worshipers from Khafajah, 2900-2700 BCE. Note that one was cleaned after excavation.Priests were the only people allowed in the sanctuary, but those who truly worshiped the god, or who wanted to be remembered with favor by the divinity, could access the sanctuary through commissioning an artisan to fashion a votive statue of himself or herself. The priests (probably in return for a suitable donation) could then carry the statue into the sanctuary and place it on a low bench that often surrounded the rectangular room.

Thus ensconced, one's image could stand in perpetual adoration of the god, while the living worshiper could hope that the daily reminder of his or her presence would lead to divine blessings.

So, if you really like playing golf or sleeping in or shopping on Sunday mornings, perhaps you could get someone to manufacture a nice statue of yourself in a properly prayerful pose, and have it placed in your favorite pew. Then God would honor your desire to offer worship, and richly bless you. Right?

Maybe not.

There are ways in which we can support our church without being there. We can put a pledge card on file and send our offerings; we can offer prayers and email the pastor or staff with words of encouragement -- but we can't worship by proxy. We have to be there.

Preachers sometimes accuse their congregations of being unusually "dead" on a particularly lackluster Sunday, but at least they're there, living and breathing and making the effort to put themselves in position to worship God and hear a word of encouragement and hope.

That has to be worth something.


A novel idea: teach students

David J. A. Clines, a native of Australia who lives and works in England, is the first president of the Society of Biblical Literature from outside of North America. His presidential address to the annual meeting, held this year in New Orleans, was something of a surprise.

Clines, a prolific author and publisher who spent his entire career in the Bible studies department of the University of Sheffield, entitled his address "Learning, Teaching, and Researching Biblical Studies, Today and Tomorrow."

One might have expected a stuffy sort of speech regarding the need for greater academic rigor. Instead, Clines devoted 45 minutes to a promotion of student centered learning, an intuitive, constructivist method that tries to move beyond the idea of a professor imparting knowledge to one in which the teacher helps students learn and construct knowledge for themselves. Citing Plutarch, from On Learning, he said "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled."

For many years, Clines said, he relied on dog-eared and constantly updated lecture notes designed to impart the latest developments in biblical knowledge. But there came a day when "I realized that I needed to stop teaching biblical studies and start teaching students."

Clines said professors should resolve not to teach students anything they can forget, focusing on imparting skills rather than knowledge. This, he added, requires sensitivity to different learning styles.

I could belabor more of Clines' 20 (count 'em, 20) points of emphasis (his lecture was not an example of student centered learning), but I'll add just one more.

Professors should teach their students to think like a critical scholar he said, meaning that they should be able to approach a subject from the standpoint of critical distance, be respectful of rationality while remaining open to the subjective, be scrupulous about evidenced-based argumentation, and be committed to fairness and courtesy.

This was not the first time I've heard someone appeal to the need for more student centered learning, but it was the first time I've heard it in such a setting, with a thousand or more biblical scholars listening in.

Teaching students, rather than subjects. Now there's a thought worth considerably more thinking.


Too much to choose from

Attending the Society of Biblical Literature's (SBL) annual meeting reminds me of a big Thanksgiving dinner involving lots of people, all of whom bring a tasty dish. With food in such appetizing variety and quantity, one hardly knows where to start.

Everyone brings something to the meeting -- areas of expertise, findings from recent research, intriguing ideas for exploration -- and many of them present papers in sessions planned on particular topics. The problem is, there are hundreds of sessions to choose from.

On Saturday morning, after going through my program, I found no less than six sessions I wanted to attend, all running at the same time. The Assyriology and the Bible section was offering a roundtable discussion on the Kuttamuwa Stele (an eighth century B.C. Neo-Hittite funerary stele from Zincirli), the Book of the Twelve Prophets section included a speaker whose book I'm currently reviewing, and the Cognitive Linguistics in Biblical Interpretation section sounded really interesting. I also wanted to attend sessions on "Egytpology and Ancient Israel" and "Warfare in Ancient Israel."

I ended up attending a session called "Iconography and the Hebrew Bible," mainly because the lead lecture was to be "1 Samuel 31 and the Battle of Til-Tuba/Ulai River: Shared Narrative Topoi." The "Battle of Til-Tuba/Ulai River" refers to an Assyrian wall relief portraying Ashurnasirpal's victory over the Elamites in 653 B.C. It's part of the British Museum collection, but I saw it last year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it was on tour while the British Museum renovates. It's a fascinating piece of art, replete with evidence of what warfare in the ancient Near East was like, and I wanted to hear how the presenter compared it to the Battle of Gilboa, where Saul died (in both accounts, the defeated king and his son are beheaded and put on display).

Alas, because I arrived and took a front row seat early, I missed the notice that was later posted at the entrance: the Til-Tuba presenter couldn't make it. The lead paper then became "The Ekphrastic Image in Song 5:9-16." That was still interesting, because I learned a new word (I don't run across "ekphrastic" very often). The presenter was arguing that the description of the male lover in Song of Solomon 5:9-16 sounds very much like someone describing a decorated statue. The pictures and the presentation were interesting, but the premise seemed rather obvious to me, so I took it as no great revelation.

The afternoon held two more fun-information-filled sessions, while the evening featured the president's address (more on those later).

The meeting and its embarrassment of academic riches goes on through Tuesday. Unfortunately, I'll be leaving early on Monday to get back for my Old Testament "Prophets and Poets" class. No doubt, they'll be waiting anxiously to hear all about ekphrasis and other obscurities I've picked up at the annual meeting.

Then again, maybe not.

[The image is a section from the Battle of Til-Tuba/Ulai River, in which the Elamite king is being relieved of his head.]