John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead. What you learn from the history of exegesis that you can’t learn from exegesis alone. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007. i-xi pp., 227 pps. Indices, bibliography and excurses: 229-334 pps.
The goal of this book is for interpreters of the Bible to consider not only their object of interpretation but its history. The author contends that a study of the history of biblical interpretation will enlighten contemporary exegesis in a number of ways and guard it from going down false hermeneutical trails. Thompson believes that the call by some in communities of faith to get back to the Bible may be one such false trail. Often this call can lead to nothing more than a reflection of our contemporary concerns. A study of the history of exegesis can remind us that biblical interpretation was not always about therapy and consumer comfort. Such an exercise can deliver interpreters from the tyranny of the present. But secondly the author claims that this exercise can function “to stock the shelves” with the rich resources of the past so that ancient interpreters can “guide and challenge the present.” Contemporary interpreters can consequently be delivered from the tyranny of the self, which often knows more about the last six minutes than the last six centuries. There is no question that Thompson the historian is on solid ground here. C.S. Lewis once remarked that “a man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” If for nothing else than this type of immunization , we need more books like Thompson’s.
Thompson provides a clear roadmap for his book. He deals with themes that are—ironically—rather contemporary, themes that occur on the margins of the biblical story: a) texts of violence and abuse b) texts of domestic relations (divorce) c) texts dealing with women in leadership. The book’s nine chapters each consist of three sections: a summary which suggests why the texts are problematic today; a second section which shows how pre-critical commentators dealt with the texts (early church fathers, medieval, reformation); a third heuristic part which draws hermeneutical lessons from study. The nine chapters are drawn to a conclusion with Thompson making a final case for the importance of studying the history of exegesis.
The texts that are chosen may level the charge that Thompson has a postmodernist feminist agenda in his writing. At the same time such “hard texts” have their benefits—they are extremely relevant since they deal with issues of violence, power and gender relationships. Moreover, dealing with these issues can help interpreters avoid the pitfalls of simplistic answers, which can perpetuate biases and prejudices. Biblical interpretation is thus much more than a matter of adhering to the slogan: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” For example, Thompson gives an example of a pastor who encouraged a wife to submit to her husband even if it went against her own conscience. The biblical story of Sarah lying about her relationship with Abraham supplied the pastor with ample precedent.
Some of the texts that are considered are as follows: the stories about Hagar and Jepthah’s daughter, the imprecations in the Psalter, the various foibles of the patriarchs, the use of the whore imagery in the prophecy of Hosea, Paul’s injunctions about women in the Corinthians and Timothy, and finally stories about sexual violence (Dinah, Bathsheba, Tamar).
Probably one of the surprises for most readers of this book will be how sensitive pre-modern interpreters were to these texts. Commentators who from a modern point of view would be considered as sexist and chauvinistic were not that way in their response to the characters in these stories. For example, Luther wonders why Saul’s vow regarding Jonathan could be broken and why Jepthah’s could not. Similarly in response to the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham, he says, “If someone wanted to rant against Abraham at this point, he could make him a murderer of his son and wife…Who would believe this if Moses had not recorded it” (25). Augustine was happy to allegorize Psalm 137, interpreting the call to murder Babylonian babies as a call to kill evil desires which plague the soul. At the same time it is clear that certain biases are not completely overcome ( e.g. John Calvin’s statement that God is more glorified in the birth of a boy than a girl).
One of the strengths of this book is that it forces the interpreter to think about the question of bias—including her own. But at the same time it shows that interpretation is not a matter of solipsism, the text supplying the words and the reader the meaning. People growing up in vastly different ages and culture have similar—dare I say in this postmodern age–universal concerns. Questions of justice and equality, fairness and morality do not emerge with the enlightenment but are matters which transcend time and place.
At the same time there are some lingering questions that the book raises. First, sometimes one is left with the impression that the authors of scripture should be held responsible for the unintended effects of their statements. Thus the side effect of Gomer’s portrayal as a harlot may be verbal violence toward women. Whatever the truth of this assertion and it is suspect—authors cannot ultimately be held responsible for unintended effects, otherwise the greatest offender would be God, in whose name countless atrocities have been committed. Secondly, one wonders if some of the problems that western people have with some of the texts, especially the imprecatory psalms, have to do with their cultural situation. Miroslav Volf believes that “it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of a thesis that human non-violence results in the refusal of God to judge. In a sun-scorched land soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die with other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” Finally, although the author notes many embarrassing silences in the Bible, silence does not mean condonement. That is why a book like the Bible, whose margins are noted well in Thompson’s book, needs to be read from the biblical Centre (cf. Ex. 34:5-6). Perhaps here is an important role for biblical theology which has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Biblical theology is about trying to find the big picture, of what the Bible is really all about, about what God is up to. It is this center which finally gives meaning and coherence to all the little stories that are often neglected. For example, it is in the death of the Crucified One that the evil directed against Hagar, Jepthah’s daughter and the Levitical concubine finally is brought to the centre of the biblical story and there seen in all its horror as it has its way on God’s son. And it is the resurrection that births a hope which births a new vision of everything; this new centre grows until it completely fills all the margins.
G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Reading the Bible with the Dead is such a plea for a more inclusive democracy for biblical interpreters. This fascinating study is filled with numerous surprises along the way. It is clear that giving the dead a vote is a significant hermeneutical move to help those who merely happen to be walking about. Such a study should be required reading in courses on the interpretation of scripture.