Reading and Life

From Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel (Jason Aronson/Rown & Littlefield, 1996), xiv:

No living culture can survive on the basis of history alone. History is essential because we need to know what our forebears thought. But after we discover what they thought, we need to decide what we think. And we need to determine what we think about some issues our forebears never thought about. WIth the passage of time, issues that at one time seemed very important recede in importance and other issues take their place. Such new issues cannot be ignored simply because they were not raised in the past. In the study of dead cultures (ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Rome, etc.) this problem does not arise. They belong to the historians because these cultures belong to the past and have nothing but a history. But it is different with a living culture such as Judaism which not only has a past but a present and a future. If such a culture ignores its present and future, and concentrates exclusively on the past, it declares itself dead. Once it does this, it will soon be dead. This must be avoided at all cost.

I want to expand Wyschogrod’s point here and apply it to specifically historical-critical approach to the Bible. The above paragraph brings to mind several things. Firstly, what is the result of finding the primary and only valid meaning of a text in the distant past, through whatever means? Does it not render all other readings “invalid” or “inaccurate”? Does this not also immediately render the text itself dead, and no longer to speak with a living voice to any community? Secondly, doesn’t such an approach itself also come to be deadened by this methodology? Finding no living voice in opposition to its theoretical constructions of meaning, it is unimpeded in its approach to the text, and finds only deadness reflected back upon it, because it will find nothing else. There is no living interaction. The results of the experiment are predetermined by the experiment. In this case, the approach, partaking as it does of a number of presuppositions, is limited in its conclusions. As it is, necessarily for the method, dismissive of the immanent and of all claims of living attachment to the texts, it has separated itself from all possible life to be found the text. It brings only death, seeking only death, for that it all that it can comprehend. Is it not dead itself? In its self-enforced separation from life, yes, it is. This is only one of the reasons that it will never be a valuable method for the use of a community of faith with a regard for the Bible as a living document.

From Jean-Jacques Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles (Writings from the Ancient World 19 [SBL, 2004]), 21:

The interest the Mesopotamians felt in their own past undeniably arose from a historical way of thinking. One is struck by the remarkable effort they devoted to the copying of official texts, to the study of royal correspondence from the past, and to the compilation of chronological lists and collections of omens. We can appreciate the attempts to explain the application of the principle of causation to human events. Some historians, indeed, were not satisfied with merely narrating the facts but tried to establish connections, looking for causes and consequences. Some saw in the fall of the empire of Akkade the consequence of a foreign intervention, the invasion of the Gutians or of the Umman-manda, two names that evoked rebellious mountain tribes or remote savage hordes, or of an indeterminate but always foreign adversary. Other commentators, on the contrary, sought a different explanation for the collapse of Akkade and believed that they had detected the beginning of its fall in palace revolutions and popular uprisings culminating in the outbreak of civil war, in which ever-bolder successors sought to make themselves heirs of the kings Narām-Sîn or Śar-kali-śarri.

However, we should not be misled by these premises. The Mesopotamians had no profession of historian as we understand it today, nor its methods of perspective. As they saw it, the problem was not critical assessment of sources, nor was the question, fundamentally, knowing how and in what causal sequences event considered unique had occurred. The primary task was to choose, according to a definite focus of interest, among the carefully collected data from the past, certain facts that, from that point of view, had acquired universal relevance and significance.

Even as it located the historical genre in the domain of literature, historical method consisted of separating the past from the present and making the past an object of study for the edification of that same present. The past having become a source of examples and precedents, history found a special purpose: it became an educational tool for elites and governments. Consequently, the lesson of history concealed a further one, of an ethical or political kind.

Elsewhere, Glassner describes a specifically religious component of all this literature as well, particularly the tie between earthly actions and those in the divine realm, in whichever direction of influence. The above quotation, coming at the end of a general description of the kinds of writings included in the book, describes Mesopotamian writing from the Old Babylonian period onward. That is, the “historical way of thinking” is something present long, long before Herodotus. And his statement that “the lesson of history concealed a further one, of an ethical or political kind” brings to mind an old definition of history from my junior college days: “History is the humanistic, interpretive study of past human society, the purpose of which is to gain insight into the present with the fervent hope of perhaps influencing a more favorable future” (Donald Gawronski, History: Meaning and Method, Third edition [Scott, Foresman and Company, 1967], p. 8). Glassner, Gawronski, the Mesopotamian scribes, Mr. Dewes (my history instructor back then) and I all agree upon the humanistic aspect of history. It is not just a bare account of what happened, but an account that is invested with meaning, particularly meaning for others to learn from. In such an understanding of history, there is no question of petty squabbling over objectivity’s impossibility, for such is irrelevant. It is necessary rather to illumine events in a multi-subjective light, bringing to the fore the aspects that would have been important in the past, are important in the present, and that can lead to a better future. And this is common to the historical writings in the Bible. They are couched in such a way as to be of value from multiple subjective viewpoints. [As I will cover in more detail in the future, the viewpoint that is most strongly represented and which indicates a majority authorship position for the Old Testament is that of the Prophets. The “Primary History”, “Hexateuch”, “Octateuch”, “Deuteronomistic History”—call it what you will—was clearly written by Prophets, as only their concerns, those of the only true and steadfast worshippers of God, are consistently presented, and only they are presented in a positive light. All the great characters are presented as Prophets, the priests are generally presented poorly (even Aaron was an idolatrous syncretist!), and the evaluation of the kings was of course varied, which one would not expect from a royalist scribe. The characteristics of the Deuteronomist are those of a Prophet: concern for the fulfillment of prophecy, the centrality of the cult, blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, etc. But this is all for another time.] In addition, there are the living viewpoints found amongst those of the contnuously living traditions that have found value in the writings of the Bible. Following the Gawronski definition above, it is precisely within these living traditions, those who find life in the texts (in contrast to those who seek and find only death), that we find the Bible “influencing a more favorable future.” The precisely realized ideal of a modern historian is unnecessary for writings arising “from a historical way of thinking” to have this effect. What is necessary is the human factor, thus the “humanistic” in Gawronski’s definition, which one learns in reading the rest of the book is intended to connote precisely a focus on personal edification and improvement. By not denying the living value of the text to either the ancient or modern reader, and all in between, we recognize as valuable multiple subjectivities, multiple viewpoints or snapshots of reactions to the texts. This is necessarily a part of being within a living tradition finding value in a particular set of texts. And we can see in these extended histories of interactions with texts various similarities. The Mesopotamian scribes selected various subsets of various corpora to be transmitted as exemplary or valuable, for example, the letters from the Sumerian royal archives dealing with Amorites. Similarly, we find such selectivity in practice in the formation of the Biblical canon, with the loss of the Book of Yashar, the Book of the Wars of the Lord, and the many accounts mentioned in Luke 1.1, among others. Works which were transmitted were obviously considered of particular value. And within this very act of transmission is a hope for extending the effectiveness and value of the texts into the future, in addition to assuring the derivation of benefit in the present. The text becomes an object of value not just intrinsically for the amount of work put into its copying, but for the effect it is intended to have. This “influencing a more favorable future” can thus itself be understood on several levels, for it is not only the ethical and political realms that Glassner mentions that benefit from history’s lesson, but the spiritual as well, in those traditions which value such. Thus a reading of the Bible for many is not simply a guide to solely ethical norms or to political solutions, but is a book charged with a spiritual power, one which effects the readers. The lessons of the past become alive in such a reading, even more vividly so when the reader places himself within the text, as is often the case in such spiritual reading. For example, in such a reading, the Psalmist becomes the reader, and vice versa, with the Psalmist’s words expressing the fears, joys, and exaltation of the reader. Again, the benefit is there only in finding living value in the text, in being open to the possibility for it to have an effect on life here and now and in the future, in not requiring it to be locked into the past as a dead vessel of dry leaves.


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