We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reality, Truth, & Scripture

Jacob Set Up a Pillar at Rachel's Grave (Gen. 35:20)
 Genesis 35:16-21 comes after the famous story of Jacob's dream of a ladder between heaven and earth and recounts the birth of Jacob's son, Benjamin, and the death of his wife Rachael.  The passage concludes in verse 21 with the statement that, "Israel [Jacob] journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder." (NRSV)   Of this verse and passage, Walter Brueggemann observes, "As though to stress the historical reality of this family, that it must face death and move on, the narrator ends with the brief report, 'Israel journeyed on...'" (Brueggemann, Genesis, 284).  As I understand it, Brueggemann himself is not claiming that there was a "historical Jacob" but that the narrator believed that to be the case and was highlighting that assumption with the words, "Israel journeyed on..."

The Wikipedia article on "Jacob" states, "Most biblical scholars and historians of ancient Israel today view the patriarchical narratives, including the life of Jacob, as late (6th and 5th centuries BCE) literary compositions that have ideological and theological purposes but are unreliable for historical reconstruction of the presettlement period of Israel’s past."

The average reader and some professional historians might conclude, thus, that the Genesis stories about Jacob (and more generally) are "not true" and have no historical value.  That is a wrong conclusion.  In a very important sense, whether or not there was a "historical Jacob," is neither here nor there.  The story is historically accurate and even factual—in the sense that it accurately reflects the real religious experience of ancient Israel and truly reflects the nature of the life of faith in a given historical period.  Now, that  period may not be the "presettlement period" before the Hebrews took possession of Palestine.  It may well be that it reflects the time of the Exile and post-exilic era, the time when scholars think these stories were stitched together into the Book of Genesis.  Nonetheless, the book of Genesis is a reliable document in the historical reconstruction of ancient Israel's life and faith.

Historians ask two kinds of factual questions.  First and more precisely, did the events recounted actually happen?  Second and more broadly, what does the account tell them about the past?  In this case, the historian has every reason to doubt whether the events recorded in Genesis actually too place.  Many of them seem improbable, and there is no corroborating evidence.  What the historian can safely assume, however, is that the form and content of the Book of Genesis story do reflect the real world of ancient Israel.  In this more general sense, Genesis is historical and a valuable historical document.

As scripture, then, we have confidence in the story of Jacob in at least two ways.  First, we know that it accurately reflects a moment in our faith tradition that remains important to us today because of its influence on the course of our history and because of what we can learn about our faith from it.  Second, scripture for us is inspired, that is the Spirit speaks through it to us.  For most Christians, it is important that the voice of the Spirit be grounded in historical reality.  Ours is an incarnational faith.  We know from the study of the past (history) that this portion of scripture is grounded in historical realities.  In faith, we trust in the spiritual fact that the Spirit thus speaks through these stories across the span of generations to us.