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.