The Church’s Alarming Neglect of the Old Testament (Brent Strawn)
Is the church gradually abandoning the Old Testament?
Surveys of Americans from all walks of life and church backgrounds show that we have grown less and less literate in the Hebrew Scriptures. This causes a host of problems, such as mistaken preconceptions of the text or belief that the Hebrew Bible is outdated or unnecessary. Especially in a culture so far removed from the original world of the text, how can we learn to read the Bible empathetically and humbly?
In this episode, Dru Johnson interviews Dr. Brent Strawn, Professor of Old Testament and Law at Duke Divinity School. They discuss the church’s widespread neglect of the Hebrew Bible, and how to overcome the resulting problems. We should read the entire New Testament as situated within the conceptual world of the Old. They conclude with remarks about how the texts and art of other ancient Near Eastern cultures can help us understand Scripture.
- 0:00 The difficulties of reading the Hebrew Bible as modern people
- 3:54 Approaching texts with humility
- 7:17 Brent’s book The Old Testament is Dying
- 11:14 Boosting Bible literacy
- 17:18 Using the Hebrew Bible well
- 25:48 Avoiding “word pollution”
- 29:00 Reading the New Testament through the Old
- 34:33 Ancient Near Eastern views of the divine
- 39:57 Art and iconography as a window into the text
Brent’s book The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment
Show notes by Micah Long.
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Credits for the music TBM podcast: hebraicthought.org/credits.
Dru Johnson: What are some main perplexities, challenges, questions you get, or things that you have to explain when teaching about the conceptual world of the Old Testament authors?
Brent Strawn: Well, you know, the challenges are several, as I see them and as I’ve taught over the past few decades. There’s a lot of problems posed by just the fact that we live at such great remove—chronologically, culturally, etc.—from the biblical authors, Old Testament or new Testament. That’s a major problem that generates difficulties in, I think, sensitively, empathetically reading the Scripture and also in the way that it generates problems for us as readers with our own sort of modern proclivities, our own sort of things that trigger us, that concern us, that are quite different than it was in the ancient world.
Dru Johnson: So how do you help somebody who has a burning question that was stirred up by the biblical text, but you’re looking at the biblical text that you’re reading with that person saying, “Yeah, I don’t think they care about that. I don’t think they’re asking that question. Not that your question’s bad, but I don’t think they’re asking that question.”
Brent Strawn: Yeah, it’s very difficult, I think. And it’s harder every year I’ve been teaching. And that might be because just every year that goes by, it’s more water under the bridge, further from the turn of the era, further from the Iron Age and everything else. I think part of it has to do with trying to cultivate readers who, as I implied a moment ago, are empathetic readers first and foremost, before they’re evaluative.
Their evaluation may or may not be accurate if they don’t have any sort of empathy or emic understanding of the text at hand. Now, the chronological difference, cultural difference, etc. complicates empathy, and complicates the emic or inductive understandings of these things. But it seems to me, any interpretation of anything in any field—Bible or medicine or law or whatever—depends first and foremost on an accurate understanding of the thing that’s being interpreted, before you can evaluate or make a prognosis or make a determination about this or that.
But empathy is kind of a hard-won disposition that you don’t just automatically wake up with. I think some people have it more than others, and they probably have it more than others dispositionally or because of how they’re raised or whatever. But all people can work towards empathetic interpretive stances towards Scripture or any other object. And that to me seems sine qua non—you’ve got to have that before you evaluate.
So if a student leads hard and heavy with evaluation, I’m going to be like, I don’t know if you’ve been sufficiently empathetic. Your evaluation seems to me cynical, without being appropriately sensitive. Have you walked in the shoes of this text at all? Same thing if it’s all empathy and no evaluation, it’s just solipsistic, it’s simplistic.
Dru Johnson: That’s a nice rubric for thinking about the text—empathy and evaluation.
Brent Strawn: Well, I should say I got it from a church historian. One of my favorite teachers at Princeton Seminary, Paul Rorem, wrote a wonderful essay on empathy and evaluation in early church history and in pastoral practice. And since I read that essay, it’s sort of been with me and I’ve used it as a pedagogical rubric ever since.
So, shoutout to Paul Rorem.
Dru Johnson: I mean, even in the field of counseling, I’ve recently been reading a book, and they talk about people—I think they might’ve been talking about me—who, when they listened to somebody else, they immediately jumped to evaluation. And this book is trying to get you to slow down and be empathetic first.
So this seems like a general skill in life to be a good friend, spouse, child, etc.
Brent Strawn: I think so. Related is something I picked up from an essay by Simone Weil. School studies of any sort—Latin math, theology, whatever—these can cultivate in us good habits towards the love of God if they’re pursued that way. And the two things that she says can eventuate from school studies rightly understood are humility and attention.
Humility is, you know, if you get a bad grade, you might’ve actually deserved it. You might actually think about what I did wrong and what I could do better, but the majority of the essay is devoted to attention—being able to attend to something other than ourselves. I think that’s actually a seriously dying artform in our class.
Dru Johnson: Certainly. And especially that “if you get a bad grade, you deserve it” mentality.
Brent Strawn: That died a long time.
Dru Johnson: That is very much so a dying art.
For the problem of empathetic reading, the analogy I’ve been using in my class is, I’m going to turn up the volume on the biblical authors’ voice louder than tradition and louder than theology, although that’s not entirely possible because we’re always bringing tradition and theology with us. And I found that many students, this actually puts them off when they want to know, like, is God omniscient or not in this text? And I’m like, I don’t think that that’s what the biblical authors want you to be thinking about at this point.
Brent Strawn: Yeah. I like that. Brueggemann has a little essay where he’s talking about his teaching practice and says at one point, a kind of exegetical model that he would teach in his classes, he really encouraged students to ask themselves, what does this text say about God, the world, whatever, if it were the only text we had? Don’t think about the other texts. That’s a later move. For this particular exercise, this particular instrument, what does this text say? And to me, that’s, again, a kind of rigorous attention, hopefully empathetic, towards that one kind of singular witness.
And thinking about the other witnesses, that’s important. Like you said, we can’t help, but do it. There’s all kinds of stuff rattling around in our brain, but it’s a real exercise and discipline to sit with the one text and wonder about it and ask ourselves if we’re giving it sufficient attention.
Dru Johnson: Yeah, I’ve been reading Leon Kass’s new book on Exodus and he emphasizes this. It is kind of an artificial way to read: I’m going to read Exodus 1 like I don’t know about Exodus 5 and I don’t know about Exodus 14 and 15. I’ve called that a disciplined reading. It’s a practice that I don’t think most Christians have ever learned. From my experience, it’s not something that you learn in the various styles of reading Bible in churches or in preaching. But that said, you wrote a famous book in my world, or to me it’s famous.
Brent Strawn: Thank you. Thank you so much. You and my mom.
Dru Johnson: Yeah, I might be your biggest fan on this book. It’s called The Old Testament Is Dying, which is a great title as well.
Can you give us a thumbnail sketch: What do you mean by that? Is this kind of like, “God is dead”? Do you actually mean the Old Testament is dying, or what are you talking about? Why is it important?
Brent Strawn: I’m glad you like the title because the press tried to talk me out of it, and I really thought it worked. I’m glad they let me have my title. We should say that the subtitle is “a diagnosis and recommended treatment.” The subtitle’s important because it’s not like I’m wanting it to die. Of course I don’t, and I’m trying to do what I can to prevent its death.
The book outlines what I had felt implicitly for quite some time and then slowly dawned on me over the course of years teaching at theological seminaries and teaching in churches: that the Old Testament in, in my judgment, so many pockets of North American Christianity, but also beyond, in light of some of the data that I assess, is really in a beleaguered state. In the book, I compare the phenomenon to the lifecycle of human language. So languages can be birthed, they can be learned, they can be spoken fluently and well and passed on, or they can not be learned and not be spoken fluently and die out rather quickly.
And it dawned on me one day as I was making my commute—at that time I taught in Atlanta, so there was a lot of time on the commute, listening to a class. It was probably on a CD at that time, but streaming some class on human linguistics by John McWhorter, my favorite linguist.
And it dawned on me that what McWhorter was talking about in terms of the lifecycle of human languages applied to my discipline of Old Testament studies in my classroom. As I was trying to teach students, I suddenly realized I’m trying to teach them a language. And no wonder some of them are struggling, because learning a language is hard, especially if you’re past puberty, and some of them are further along than others.
This makes sense too, right? Because some language learners know more than others. But it’s a second language acquisition. It’s difficult and explains why some people aren’t good at it, and then it’s too late for them. So suddenly I had this “aha” moment, and I started digging into the linguistic side further to see what I could derive from that that might be helpful in analyzing the decline of the Old Testament in so many Christian circles and perhaps reversing it.
But in brief, the prognosis is something quite simple. I say in the book, in many pockets of North American Christianity, at least, the Old Testament has ceased to function in healthy ways in people’s lives as authoritative, canonical scripture. And that decline I think can be measured, and I try to do that in the book a good bit. And then you can try to assess its ramifications, the negative ramifications of this decline and also talk about some possible ways that it might be resisted.
Dru Johnson: Yeah, I think it was important to me because it touched so much of what I see. You have more graduate students. I’m more on the front end. They’re coming in as undergraduates, and they’re interested in what Scripture has to say about things, but I realized as I would talk through them, you know, they’d ask about issues of sexuality or economics, or how do we treat the poor, and as you begin walking through the vocabulary of Scripture on these topics, that many of them just didn’t know any of these stories, or they didn’t know how these terms worked, or they didn’t realize that even the poor, that term needs to be translated into what that would look like in modern America, because there’s no identical version of biblical poverty in America.
And at some point I realized everybody can hold in their head three or four things they’ve never heard of before, they nod along, but once you hit that fifth, sixth, seventh thing they’ve never heard of before, or they’ve never thought of that way, they just go, okay, I can’t do this or this isn’t the Christianity I signed up for.
What are some of the ways you’ve heard of that are somewhat successful in redeveloping this linguistic skill of understanding Scripture?
Brent Strawn: I’m still fishing around for what I think is the best practice. I have some sense of the best practices, but I can’t say that I’ve always seen them in the flesh with my own eyes in action. I think there’s pockets of excellence, of course, and sometimes people resist the book or resist my points in the book by pointing out that, here’s a pocket of excellence. But exceptions prove the rule all the time. [laughs]
Of course I’m not worried about pockets of excellence. I’m worried about the vast seas of mediocrity. And so I do think there’s pockets of excellence. There’s people that buck the trend individually and corporately as well. I think, though, some people who resist the argument are mostly guilty of cases of wishful thinking or a kind of simple fideism: “Well, the Scripture would never die,” you know? But if you read the book, I think it’s got enough in there that shows that it can, and parts of it have for Protestants, like the Apocrypha in the Reformation period. And there’s some empirical data, not just anecdotal or argumentative data, that I think demonstrates the decline.
That being said, to your question proper, I think the ultimate prognosis in the book is really simple as well. The diagnosis is somewhat simple, the fix is somewhat simple, that what has to happen for the Old Testament to survive in Christian circles is regular and extensive use of the Old Testament at and in formative moments of Christian faith and practice: more Old Testament in Christian worship, more Old Testament in Christian hymnody, songs, including contemporary Christian music, more Old Testament in sermons, and maybe even Old Testament–only songs, sermons, lectionary.
In some ways what you have to have, and this is just straight from language class 101, you have to have a community of speakers who are trying to speak the language and then are communicating it to the next generation, which don’t have to be their own biological kids, though that would help. It could be anybody new to the language community, but what you need is input and output. You’ve got to have a teacher teaching you French and you have to go to the French language lab and practice, and ideally the best thing is language immersion.
A pocket of excellence that sometimes people raise with me, and I’ve seen it, is things like the Disciple Bible Study curriculum that was really a big in some Methodists churches, among others, about 10 years ago, 15 years ago. It was really a rather intense small group experience that was like 32 weeks or or maybe more, reading several hours a week of Bible. They’re committing to several hours a week of Bible reading and then getting together to talk for a couple of hours once a week.
That kind of a language immersion did expose people extensively to a lot of the Old Testament for the first time in their lives. And these are oftentimes really well-meaning Christians who’ve been around the church their whole life, who never really cracked the thing open. And I thought this was great, but what happened in my own local church frequently was that these Disciple Study groups would call me, like, “We have an emergency on our hands. We finally read the Old Testament, and we hate it.”
Language immersion, that that’s a cool idea, but I think it ultimately comes down to regular Christian practice. That can be done in some kind of corporate settings—worship, education, etc.—but it also has to be done at an individual level. It’s a lifetime project, especially if the language is difficult. So no worries if we’re not fully fluent yet. I don’t know of anybody, maybe, who really is. But part of the life of faith, it seems to me, is to try to get there, and I think in my experience, most people don’t try.
Dru Johnson: I would second that. At best, you get a Bible-in-a-year reading program that people commit to as hard as they can, until they can’t anymore, usually around Leviticus.
Brent Strawn: And that’s really it. That means well, but that’s not a pocket of excellence. When I was a kid, I started those, and by the time I got to February 1st, I was three months behind. It was just, “I’m going to catch up this weekend. I’m going to read all of Leviticus.”
Dru Johnson: I think there are some dispersed pockets of excellence. I was talking to a colleague of mine who knows the African-American church scene very well because he’s been a part of it for decades. And we were talking about something along the lines of what you suggested here, that you’re preaching and teaching from the Old Testament. Or even when you’re teaching from the New Testament, you’re also teaching from the Old Testament in strategic ways.
He pointed out to me a church, which I will not mention by name, but it’s a very famous church in New York City. They were talking about repentance. They’re dealing with some race issues and trying to help the church think through issues of race and reconciliation. And apparently somebody asks in a post-church followup, “Are there any good examples of repentance, like communal repentance, not individual, but communal repentance in the Bible?” And the pastors begin going through the New Testament and saying no, we don’t really have examples that tell you how to repent or give some model demonstration of repentance.
And he’s telling me about this, and I’m standing there slack-jawed going, (A), what? They started in the New Testament? And (B), I can think of a few texts in the Hebrew Bible, like Nehemiah, and I just looked at him and I said, in the black church would they have not had anything to say? And he said, no, they would have all known these texts in Nehemiah.
And here’s what he said that I thought was really profound. He said, look, in this type of church, they’re going to give a sermon on the New Testament, and all the illustrations in that sermon are going to be derived from pop culture, Academy award–winning movies, New York Times Bestseller books, poet they’ve read recently. He said, you go in the black church, they’ll preach the same passage from the New Testament, and all the illustrations are going to be from the Old Testament. And so there’s that kind of weird sense of sufficiency in the black church.
I’m sure there are depression-era circuits of churches in America of various ethnicities that held onto the Old Testament a little bit more tightly. I think in the Pentecostal tradition, the Old Testament plays a much more significant role in their thinking. So when we say the Old Testament is dying, I wonder if we’re really just talking about specific segments of the church.
Brent Strawn: I want to believe that too. It’s been said about my book in published reviews some things like this. And again, I agree there’s pockets of excellence. Unfortunately the most empirical test that I run in the book is based on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey that was conducted in 2010. And it shows actually no pockets of excellence across denominational or ethnic lines. The high-scoring groups, the demographics are atheists, agnostics, and Jews, which outscore every other demographic. [laughs] That test, which is not perfect, but that’s our only empirical test, actually shows that there’s not really any pockets of excellence within the Christian communion.
I do think that what you’re pointing out is right, that there are certain groups within the Christian communion that traditionally have a greater appreciation built in for the Old Testament material and also practices to hold the testaments together.
People think they know the New Testament, but they really don’t. One way to help the Old Testament live is to continue to tie into the New Testament, to what people think they know. And then you can say, ah, look, you think you know this, you probably didn’t, but it’s also found in the Old Testament, and link those together. I hit on this early on in my teaching, when I’d bemoan the state of the Old Testament in class, and students would say to me, “You should come to my church. My pastor preaches out of the Old Testament all the time.” And I thought, well, maybe you’re right. Maybe I should go to your church.
But the question is not just if the Old Testament is present; it’s how it’s present, how is the text taken up in this particular community? I like the idea of holding these texts together, but it has to be done in an appreciative way. If the Old Testament is only used as a foil for the New Testament texts, a negative example, it doesn’t save the Old Testament. It contributes to its decline.
I think if you really engage this linguistic analogy, what it suggests is that the language of faith and the language of Scripture as a subset thereof is a second language, which means our mother tongue is something else, and that really complicates the acquisition of faith language, but it also complicates, how are we going to be bilingual? Are we going to code-switch between these languages? And are we picking up the biblical languages, the language of faith, correctly, or is it being interfered with constantly by our first language. That really complicates the whole shebang.
But without that language of faith, you can’t resist what needs to be resisted, and you can’t recognize what needs to be respected—a God at work in the world. And you also can’t redescribe what needs to be redescribed, seen in a different lens. So language is a kind of grammar for us the way which we see, negotiate, perceive reality. Without that Christian grammar, without that scriptural grammar, we’re at a fantastic loss to resist the world where it needs to be resisted or recognize in the world what needs to be recognized and redescribe in the world what needs to be redescribed.
Dru Johnson: I have a list of Christianese words that are banned from student papers. The New Testament authors didn’t really have religious language. They had to grab ideas, metaphors, and language from their culture to describe what they thought was true.
We had Mike Bird on the podcast a while back, and he had a little challenge that he poses to his students who are in seminary, which I thought was brilliant. He said, “Look, the apostles went and preached the Gospel from the Scriptures. Their Scriptures were the Hebrew Bible. I want you all to go through the Hebrew Bible and start preaching the Gospel.”
Constructing the Gospel from the Hebrew Bible was an actual task the church had to take up. And they felt that it was sufficient for the task.
Brent Strawn: That’s right. In fact, I was talking to a group of lay people a couple of weeks ago, and someone posed the question: “If we focus inordinately on the Old Testament, will we somehow be not Christian or less Christian?”
And I said, well, in the early church, what they did when they were trying to figure out Jesus is go back to the Old Testament. So what they demonstrate is that you actually become more of a Christian by studying all those texts very closely, not less.
So yeah, I agree completely. I was wondering if, on your list of Christianese, if we should ban the word “love” for quite some time. [laughs]
Dru Johnson: Until you’ve read John Levinson’s book on love.
Brent Strawn: Ah, yes, I love that book.
Dru Johnson: Yeah. I have “faith,” “glory,” “holy,” but then students will also tip me off to other types of “prayer language.” I’m pretty convinced that nobody ever uses the word “midst” unless they’re praying.
Brent Strawn: The “midst,” yes. Or “amongst.”
Dru Johnson: They think I’m being mean by banning these words. And I say, well, you don’t need the word. Just say what you mean. Like I just want you to actually know what you’re talking about, not repeat cliché.
Brent Strawn: I agree. There’s a great quote from Walker Percy that talks about word pollution, about words like “love.” The word’s been polluted, it doesn’t mean what people think it means. And, of course, it becomes super injected with meaning, and it’s never defined, so it becomes an empty cipher. I wouldn’t mind going to church for several weeks in a row and not hearing about love, and instead hearing some sort of concrete verbiage that would actually communicate what needs to be communicated.
Dru Johnson: Yeah, which if you just read the legal corpus of the Hebrew Bible, you’re going to see concrete love.
Brent Strawn: Yeah.
Dru Johnson: Or the other phrase, I think Matt Lynch told me this one, but he said somebody had said to him once, “If you want to know what Jesus is thinking, read the Hebrew Bible, because that’s what Jesus is always thinking about.” I was like, that’s a good way to think about it.
Brent Strawn: Yeah. I’ve telling my classes lately that they shouldn’t read Christ as being the object of the reading—finding Jesus everywhere—but rather thinking about Christ as the reading subject. There are all kinds of fascinating texts that showcase Jesus as a very interesting reader.
In Luke 4, they hand him the scroll of Isaiah, but he finds the place in the scroll where it says this; it’s not necessarily on the docket for the day. He knows where to go. Or in Luke 16 with the rich man and Lazarus: “They have Moses and the prophets, let them believe them. If they don’t believe that they won’t believe even if someone is raised from the dead.”
So they find Jesus as a sensitive reader of the entirety of Scripture. And they show Jesus as kind of a transformational reader, an existential reader.
Dru Johnson: Right. And I think even something even like that: “Man, for an Old Testament scholar, you really know your New Testament!” [laughs]
Brent Strawn: I read it once in high school—the hero makes a great comeback. [laughs]
Dru Johnson: Even thinking of how the New Testament authors, especially of the synoptic gospels, how they’re using Scripture without citing it. Luke also basically announces that John the Baptist is the Elijah by gathering up the language of Malachi, who says, “The one who comes in the spirit and the power of Elijah,” and the root language, all the oven-burning language, he’s grabbing all this conceptuality and language, and he’s just burying it right there in the promise of the angel to Zechariah, assuming that you’re picking up what he’s laying down. He thinks you’re saturated enough in the prophets, in the Torah, to pick up that it’s John the Baptist who is the one to come.
Brent Strawn: Yeah. My former colleague, Luke Johnson, talked about this in terms of the Old Testament is a symbolic world within which all the New Testament authors lived. So of course that’s what they did, and if you’re not attuned to that world, you miss all of it, all those illusions and everything else you’re talking about.
Dru Johnson: The one way I’ve found to illustrate this to my students, that like it snaps in for them, is I play these mashup songs on YouTube, like 10 different top-40 songs and they blend them together. I’m like, that’s what I hear when I read Scripture. I hear all these allusions and hooks from various places.
Brent Strawn: A great example. That’s a great point. I used to think when I started teaching that I could just hunker down and do my Old Testament thing and that my New Testament colleagues would come along after me and help the students see the connections. It slowly dawned on me that they aren’t doing that either, and it’s not necessarily because they don’t want to, but they have their other things to cover. And I’ve realized that if thinking integratively about the testaments is going to happen, it’s going to happen in my class. I can’t let someone else come along and do it because it’s not being done.
So I do talk about the New Testament, the person of Christ, Trinitarian doctrine, and things like this far more than I used to when I first came out of grad school. Because I realized if it’s not happening from the get-go with the Old Testament class, it’s just not gonna happen.
I’m hoping to still give the Old Testament it’s due but also realizing that within the discourse of Christian theology, we have to work hard on integrating and uniting these things, which are just fraying and have been frayed for millennia.
Dru Johnson: I had the exact same experience. The first few years. I wouldn’t even mention the name “Jesus” in my class. And when students would say, “Jesus,” I’d say, “Who is this ‘Jesus’ you’re talking about?” [laughs] And now I did the exact same thing. I spend a lot of time making the connections for them. Like, when you get to your New Testament class, you’ll remember this.
Brent Strawn: I feel kind of sad when I encounter students who’ve graduated and you can tell where they went or who they studied with or whatever, not necessarily by name, but they’re just doing these contorted things to avoid calling it the Old Testament or avoid speaking of Jesus, as if these things are unconscionable sins. Which they aren’t as Christians, but that doesn’t mean that they’re done cavalierly. There’s really crappy Christological reading and there’s really amazingly good Christological reading.
Dru Johnson: Before we let you go, I wonder if we could get you to talk a little bit about another area of expertise for you. This is just a side hustle for you, this whole Old-Testament-is-dying thing. What you’re expert in is the visual and conceptual world of the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible.
If you had the ear of the entire global church for an hour, and you could say, look, here’s just some things you need to get your head around that will help you, what are some conceptual hurdles that, if you could get them back into the minds of the biblical authors, the biblical world, where would you take them first and foremost?
Brent Strawn: Oh, wow. That’s a fascinating question: if I were going to address the global church for an hour?
Dru Johnson: Yeah, I shouldn’t say global. How about the American church? That was unfair to say global church.
Brent Strawn: I do have these different sides of my academic soul and theological soul that I try not to bifurcate, but there’s definitely pieces that emphasize or lean different ways, though I think in some ways they’re united. I think my interest in the theological claim of the biblical texts is in some sense related to those sorts of conceptual things: Who is this God, and what is the non-God world? And what’s the relationship between the God and the non-God world?
Dru Johnson: Can I stop you right there? Everybody was just like, what is he talking about? The God and the non-God world? So what do you mean by that?
Brent Strawn: I mean the God in God’s own self, that would be the God world, the divine realm. And then the non-God world would be everything that’s not God—predominantly, as we think about it, the natural world, the human denizens of the planet and this sort of thing: creatures, animals, plants, etc.
And then, what’s the complex relationship between this divine entity and everything that is not the divine entity? I think that those three centers are what theology is about. It’s not just discourse about God. It’s also discourse about the non-God world. The non-theological is actually profoundly theological in the ancient world.
In some places there is no division; everything is religious all the way down and it’s not really appropriate to speak of religion and non-religion—in some ways, it’s all religion and this complex relationship between the two. In recent years, that’s made me want to think more and more sensitively and empathetically about ancient Near Eastern religions.
It’s been common in our discipline, especially in certain stages in the discipline, vis-a-vis ancient Near Eastern sources, to be very denigrating of them, to look down on them: these are primitive religions, this is pagan religion, or whatever. Of course other scholars would come along and say, it turns out that this thing that looks so pagan, well, the Israelites probably did it too. Or this thing that looks all unique in ancient Israelite religion, well, if you know anything about the ancient world, it turns out it’s not unique.
So you’ve got to think hard about commonality as well as uniqueness in Israelite religion, and also in Moabite religion and Egyptian religion. Every religion in its aggregate form is unique, but it bears all kinds of commonalities with its ancient Near Eastern congeners. And I think that people really did worship gods like Ba’al or Re or Marduk in sincerity and truth. And I think that there’s something that needs to be acknowledged and sympathetically and empathetically understood to try to capture something of the ancient mindset towards the divine realm.
That’s one thing I think I would say. What this has helped me think about is how even the most, in modern terms, disturbing aspects of God’s personality and Scripture are really just nothing more or less than proof of God’s god-ness, God’s raw divinity. The more frightening, the more powerful, the more overwhelming God was, the more outlandish—this is just proof of the god’s god-ness, and that would be a major difference from a modern reader to an ancient reader. We come across something that God does in the Bible that makes us squirm a little bit, and we think, oh, hold on, I’m sort of offended. I feel slightly uncomfortable.
Whereas I think in the ancient world, it’d be like, that’s what gods do—now we’re talking. [laughs] Now I know that I’m dealing with a god rather than just somebody else. That doesn’t fix some of the reasonable concerns we would have, but it is trying to inhabit, as it were, a kind of ancient Near Eastern mindset or thought view, Hebraic thought.
I think the other two things I would mention briefly is my interest in art, iconography, ancient Near Eastern visual remains. I think that’s a remarkable entry point into the way people thought and the way people made meaning. More people could read a picture in the ancient world than could read a text, and so the visual remains are very important. And somehow that interest in art as opposed to text, it’s never fully opposed to text, but my interest in art in some ways is related in a weird way to my great interest in poetry, which is really high text form, but at the same time, heavily imagistic. My interest poetry on the one hand and art on the other hand really are deeply connected at the level of the image, of figurative language.
And I think a poetic mindset, one that’s really attuned to the visual, the artistic, the image, that’s going to go a whole lot further in understanding the Bible than the ways we tend to think now, which are heavily data-driven, logic-driven, social media-driven, and linearly driven. I just don’t think that’s primarily the best way to think about the Bible and its ancient world.
Dru Johnson: Well, Dr. Brent Strawn, thank you very much for your wisdom.
Brent Strawn: Well, thanks for having me. I don’t know if it’s wisdom, but it’s great to be with you Dru and learn from your wisdom. Thanks for having me on.
Dru Johnson: Aw, shucks.