Interpreting the Bible: Your Place at the Table

I have this haunting dream-like memory: The time is early summer, 1973. I'm in a meeting in the office of my new boss, the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Tyler, Tex. In attendance are several of the church's lay leaders who've gathered in order to discuss several of the more pressing problems in the life of the congregation. While my presence is welcome, there is a definite undertone of "Why don't you just listen for now, get a feel for our life here before you jump in."

Right. I was 26, newly ordained, had just completed my Masters' Degree and this poster-boy for the naive hubris of youth had other ideas about the best use of his time and presence -- and wisdom. If you'd all just listen, I thought, I could give you the answers to all these problems. Or I think I just thought it. There've been times in the last decade or so of wondering if, maybe, I'd said it out loud, then suppressed the memory of the moment when I became an anecdote.

Joseph would have said it out loud. Those familiar with the Joseph narrative in Genesis may already have noticed in my story elements of the same arrogance and know-it-all grandiosity of youth. Like the enduring characters of all great literature, Joseph is archetypal, a character representative of something universal in human experience. You might even say that, in that moment, I was the young Joseph, just as so many young men and women, passing through the same phase of life, have likewise been Joseph.

Despite the lingering adolescence, I was on the move toward being a grown-up. Two years earlier, with only a year to go before graduation, ordination, and a life I wasn't sure I wanted, I'd asked for and was granted a year's internship at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. One of the most progressive parishes in the country, it was there that I was introduced to the method of biblical interpretation that I would use throughout my eight years in parish work, and that I employed in writing my book, Original Sinners: Why Genesis Still Matters, and that continues to be significant in my own development.

When my article "Adam and Eve and the Gender Divide" appeared in The Huffington Post on June 28, one reader's response was to ask, "Is there anything more pathetic than all the effort that goes into reinterpreting these ignorant myths?" Each posting drew similar fire. While it's tempting to return fire, age and religio-cultural atmospheres lend urgency, and it's more productive to look beneath the complaints, to the genuine, weary and fearful concern for a society in which so much of the national conversation is defined and controlled by ideologies that are weaponizing the Bible, fitting it to anti-democratic, pro-theocratic notions of what is, or ought to be, the will of any right-thinking deity.

But, what to do? For starters, accept the fact that, like it or not, the Bible is here to stay. It will remain at the center of our national conversations about who we are as a people and who we will become. Next, consider an invitation from the old rabbis to join in the process of biblical interpretation. The most enduring tradition in the 2,500 year history of biblical interpretation is that there is no one "correct" interpretation, but an infinite number. Moreover, the old rabbis said that it is the task of every generation to interpret the Bible in the light of its own circumstances, and the task of each individual to do the same. That is, not to know, but to go to the text with questions about being a human being in the world, the same questions that lie at the heart of all great literature.

Some interpretive methods assume belief. The method I use doesn't require the reader to believe anything other than her own experience of being human. But it does require re-framing, setting aside one's ideas about what the Bible is or isn't. To be sure, this is easier said than done, but if you read the stories simply as stories about people, sooner or later you may catch a reflection of your own story. Writing my book, my closest identification was with Jacob's penchant for playing the trickster and manipulating outcomes. Trying to understand the post-flood Noah's treatment of his son led from one thing to another until, to my surprise, I discovered that I'd worked out a knot of resentment almost 40 years old.

As with any serious method of interpretation, this one requires an educated interpreter. Start with a careful reading of Genesis in a modern translation. Because Genesis is really a patchwork of several sources, you'll need a guide through the maze. In addition to my book, I recommend the following scholarly, but accessible commentaries: Genesis, Translation and Commentary, by Robert Alter; Commentary on the Torah, by Richard Elliott Friedman; and The Torah, A Woman's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi. Also, Karen Armstrong's The Bible is an easy-to-read overview of how the Bible evolved over the centuries.

Finally, a bit of American irony: Given the Bible's influence on Western civilization, and given that the frontier-populist pieties derived from it continue to influence our public discourse and private lives, we can only conclude that the Bible belongs as much to the agnostic- or atheist-American as to the most ardent believer. So, whether you are religious or not, however you choose to participate in the conversation -- and you can't not participate -- your place at the table is a given.