Wrestling the Word: The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Believer
By Carolyn Sharp
4 Stars (out of 5)
Like Engaging the Word (recently reviewed) Wrestling the Word seeks to introduce to the Christian believer a few of the many difficulties and debates swirling around Old Testament studies.
The idea of “wrestling” having been borrowed from the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angle of the Lord, it is a fitting metaphor for this book.
In it Carolyn Sharp focuses mostly on diverse approaches and ways to “read” the scriptures among scholarship when it comes to the Old Testament. There are “responsible” ways to read the scriptures which suggests that there are also “irresponsible” ways to read the text. Of course Sharp would encourage us to become “responsible readers”. What makes for a responsible reader?
An important part of being responsible readers is to become aware of and acknowledge the priorities and norms that shape the interpretative decisions we make. This is a chief insight of what are sometimes called “situated” readings of Scripture: readings proposed by interpreters who are alert to (at least some of) their biases and convictions and who choose, as a matter of ethics and good hermeneutics, to identify those biases and convictions as a part of the interpretive process… to acknowledge what is motivating our readings serves the interests of transparency. – p.112 (italics mine)
The direction Sharp takes is significantly different from other books of a similar sort. I’m thinking here of Peter’s Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation“. Sharp also takes an “incarnational” approach to the scriptures by asserting the relevance of the human authors. But what she does not talk about is worth noting. She does not dabble (much) in Ancient Near Eastern beliefs, cultures and literature in relation to Israel’s developing theology and writings.This is significant because if you have read Enns’ book, you’ll want Sharps’ as a compliment.
Instead she begins her discussion here with what has been term the “Document Theory” of the Pentateuch. The basic theory is summarized by the acronym JEPD which stands for Yahweh, Elohim, Priest and Deuteronimist. By this theory it is believed that the “Books of Moses” were written over time and come from the four different traditions just mentioned. The author herself does not accept the Document Theory wholesale, but she does acknowledge it and explain why such a theory – if true – is not threatening to a high view of scripture.
In fact, the second chapter follows naturally from the Document Theory by challenging us to learn to honor the “many voices” which in the texts all share one truth. This is the part of the book where she introduces and explains what “Source Criticism” is: essentially it is a “method” which scholars uses to determine what the “sources” are which the various Old Testament books had come from. She explores “Source Criticism’s” work in regards to the “Document Theory” in order to present the strengths and weaknesses of the various hypothetical sources of JEPD.
At this point Sharp is intimately aware that presenting the idea that the Pentateuch was the compiled work of various sources may be threatening to some, she writes:
This in no way compromises the theological authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps the worst it an do is to throw a monkey wrench into a reader’s uncritical acceptance of the teaching of her denomination. – p.59
From here we are encouraged by Sharp to embrace the fruitful tensions which are apparent in the Old Testament (if you have any doubt about tension in the Old Testament just read a few of my through the bible in 90 Days posts). For this she reaches to Walter Breuggemann who, according to Sharp,
Honors tensions and moments of friction that he discerns in the biblical text, rather than working to resolve in an artificial synthesis. -p.64
And in a similar vein Sharp writes,
To blur all of these testimonies together into a flat, monolithic single speech would be costly indeed. – p.63
It becomes apparent that to ignore the diverse testimony of the Old Testament, the unsettling portrayal of God and the “fruitful tension” throughout the text would be counter productive to the Christian faith. It flattens out the text and systematizes God. We Christians – from what I gathered from Sharp – need to learn to live in a bit of tension and mystery. And we should not be afraid that doing so will somehow undermine God:
The Holy is not definable, nor can it be commodified by any one complex of metaphors, one set of apodictic commands, or one kind of storytelling. The more often we are reminded of this, the better! – p.62
She moves on from here to discuss historical questions about the “Exodus” event and the “Conquest”, did they actually happen? Again the answer to that question is far more complex then it first seems and people usually take two extreme positions, the “minimalist” (no they are emphatically not historical realities, period.) and the “maximalist” (of course they happened, period.). Sharp would encourage us to accept the complexities of historical re-tellings and of historical reality and the consequences of accepting either a “minimalist” or a “maximalist” position. But for her own part, she writes:
If real people were not liberated from actual slavery, then at least some of us – me included – will not be so interested in the alternative: a claim that God is only “metaphorically” the One who led Israel out of Egypt. [p.91] I hope that the preceding discussion will have convinced you that “the exodus didn’t happen” is not a satisfactory statement. The biblical narratives are far more complex than they are often given credit for, and the archaeological evidence, too, needs to be respected in all of its own complexity. – p.97
Now brace yourself because if you are like me you’ll need to prepare for this. In her chapter called Inside and Outside Sharp introduces us to various “alternative” interpretative readings of the Old Testament by feminists, queers, African’s and post-colonialists. Why are such “alternative” readings necessary? Sharp puts it bluntly:
Here’s the bad news, and there is no way to sugarcoat it: the Hebrew Scriptures contain rhetoric’s and stories that harm, distort, and silence. – p.115
She takes time from here to explore the various interpretative approaches by these sub-groups and how they wrestle with the Old Testament. She introduces the reader to “Liberation Theology” which is simply “a practice of reading Scripture and doing theology from a starting place of advocacy for the poor and the oppressed” [p.113]. Queers have been suppressed, so lets begin our theology by the starting place of advocacy for queers (or feminists or whoever). This chapter certainly took me out of my comfort zone.
Overall I enjoyed Sharp’s book more then I thought I might. Contrary to Clark-Soles, Sharp is passionately interested in upholding and maintaining and even encouraging the readers faith. She writes with a great deal of sensitivity and is keenly aware how Old Testament studies may undermine someones faith. She encourages the reader to share her governing convictions:
- Memory is powerful.
- Creativity and bias are intrinsic to cultural production.
- God is real.
Along the way she offers many fruitful advice. Take these as examples:
- Honoring authorial intention as witness is an ethical imperative. p.5
- Does this approach to reading the Bible sound too scholarly or technical? It really isn’t. p.25
- The more Scripture you know well, the more… p.25
- Does this mean that “any interpretation goes”? Not to me… I consider myself to be a faithful Christian reader because I read in conversation with the whole canon of Scripture. p.33
- The ultimate purpose of my study is to help me to understand God better and praise God more fully. p.33
- Exploring different approaches to reading Scripture can only illumine the path of faithfulness, if we engage those approaches with integrity and openness to the action of the Holy Spirit. p.43
- In all this, wrestle with your theological traditions as well as the Scriptures, and trust that your lifelong learning process is superintended by the Holy Spirit. p.89
- If we are grafted into Israel, then we too are redeemed for obedience. p.100
It is mostly because of Sharp’s high view of Scripture, sensitivity towards the faith of her readers, and her uncompromising conviction that “God is real” with her reliance upon the “Holy Spirit” that this book stands out uniquely among others of its kind.