Are Biblical Hermeneutics the New Tower of Babel?

An assessment of contemporary Christian reading patterns of the Hebrew Bible can be roughly divided into two primary schools of thoughts; the first school of thought (hereafter called the literalists) read the Bible as the divine word of God that requires lack of questioning, respect for the divine authority of God, and belief that the way the Hebrew Bible is presented presents the literal history of the Israelite people. The other school of thought (hereafter called the allegorists) view the Hebrew Bible through the lens of interpretation first and foremost; one's reading and understanding of the Hebrew Bible is shaped through life experience, one's status in society, an understanding of secular history, and willingness to allow for human error to have made the Hebrew Bible the way it is today. If we follow the aforementioned paradigms, it appears that humans have constructed our own new Tower of Babel. While the author believes that it is possible to find merit in both the allegorist and literalist views of reading the Hebrew Bible, one of the best (albeit limited) ways of approaching the interpretation and reading of the Hebrew Bible is through various hermeneutical fields; in what follows, I will use the work of Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan and Robert Allen Warrior to understand and critique hermeneutical approaches to reading the Hebrew Bible and how the embracing of post-modernist thought has made it all the more difficult more individuals to truly "read" the Hebrew Bible without coloring it with interpretative lenses.

In "Let My People Go! Threads of Exodus in African-American Narratives," Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan examines the historical significance of the role of the Exodus narrative in the history of black and womanist hermeneutics. While the commonly understood role of the Exodus is that African-Americans and other people of color are being led out of the bondage of slavery and oppression levied by the United States, Kirk-Duggan also points out that there are limits to how the metaphor of the Exodus can and should be used; for example, Kirk-Duggan argues that a singular focus on becoming God's chosen people can "cheerfully disregard matters of manifest destiny, demonization based upon the Egyptians' race, and the vast complexities of how class and race plays out within the book of Exodus" (129-130); Kirk-Duggan also warns against reading the Exodus as a complete dismissal of the role of slavery, especially when taken in context of the work of Paul and others in the rest of the Bible that justify slavery and show that the institution was a common occurrence in the ANE. There are also issues present with the idea of God's liberation as violent and just: Kirk-Duggan argues that "[t]o extol liberation is one thing, but to embody that liberation in the guise of a patriarchal, warfare-focused God is problematic" (130). Simply put, while the Exodus narrative can be read as beneficial for a community, a more nuanced and complete reading reveals that the Exodus was beneficial for persons chosen by their racial and religious ideals and was formed by violence conducted against others because of their opposition to God's "chosen" people.

The problematics of a violence-driven God and religious manifest destiny are continued in Robert Allen Warrior's "A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians." Warrior writes from a Native American hermeneutical approach and has issues with how the Israelite conquest of the land is read through the lens of Western imperialism and the doctrine of manifest destiny, especially in the United States. Warrior succinctly summarizes the book of Exodus and coming conquest of the land of Canaan by arguing: "Yahweh the deliverer becomes Yahweh the conqueror" (401). The aforementioned argument is further embodied when one realizes that the Canaanites "have status only as the people that Yahweh removes from the land in order to bring the chosen people in" (403). When reading the story of the Exodus through the lenses of conquered persons, whether they are the Canaanites or Native Americans, it becomes obvious that a reductionist approach of the theology and narrative themes present in the Bible do a disservice to the nuances and complexities of historical beginnings; in addition to problematizing the Israelite-centric reading of the taking of the land, Warrior's reading gives us the ability to view the manifest destiny of settlers from Europe as the Americanized version of claiming status as God's new chosen people and Native Americans (and persons of color) as the new Canaanites.

Reading the Bible honestly and mindfully requires careful reflection and the recognition of one's own biases when engaging with the text. For example, as one who identifies as white, cisgender, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and has many other privileges, I can and will encounter stories and lessons from the Bible in a different way than my womanist, white female, homosexual, lesbian, and transsexual peers will. Despite our differences in regards to class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual preferences, the idea of hermeneutical approaches to engagement with the Bible gives us a level playing field in some respect; rather than simply claiming that there is only one "correct" and "right" way to read the text, hermeneutical approaches allow us to approach the text with the recognition that our own lives and experiences have shaped our interactions with the text and how we might understand the characters, relationships, and narratives when applying them to our own circumstances.

While there are strengths to hermeneutical approaches when reading the Bible, there are also some weaknesses as well. For example, when discussing the work of Kirk-Duggan and Warrior that focuses on the Exodus, it becomes apparent that hermeneutical approaches to the Bible can blind us to the perspectives and words of others. While it can be helpful to read the Exodus as an event of liberation, it becomes problematic to claim that the Exodus is only a liberation text. The Exodus narrative represents the favoring of one group of another based on pre-determined conditions that cannot be easily met (or even at all); further, the presentation of the non-preferred group is often defined in terms that are hostile and deliberatively crafted in order to present the chosen group as deserving what they take from a different group; for example, most stories of the Canaanites from the Hebrew Bible (excluding Rahab and a few select others) portray the group as "not to be trusted, nor are they allowed to enter into social relationships with the people of Israel. They are wicked, and their religion is to be avoided at all costs" (Warrior 2003, 403). One needs only to ask our Native American, black, Hispanic, and other marginalized groups how it feels to be the Canaanites of the American imperialist conquests.

There is plenty to gain from reading the Bible and other religious texts through the various lenses of hermeneutical approaches; they grant individuals the power to reclaim and substantially change narratives in texts in order to help guide and craft meanings for people regardless of their social location, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and other circumstances. However, reading something in a purely hermeneutical lens can remove the independent historical framework of the history of the time period(s) during which a text was crafted, as well as blinding us to the legitimacy of others' stories; ignoring other hermeneutical views also seeks to further the status quo of allowing one group to marginalize and oppress others due to the influx of power and political prestige that so often permeates and shapes institutionalized religion. While one can read biblical hermeneutics as a "new" Tower of Babel, it is important to note that the Tower of Babel was a temporary setback for humans to come together and work together to achieve our great successes. God is still speaking through all persons and a focus on hermeneutical approaches to biblical interpretation requires us to recognize the legitimacy and worth of our brothers and sisters in the eyes of God.

Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, "Let My People Go! Threads of Exodus in African American Narratives" in Yet With a Steady Beat: Contemporary U.S. Afrocentric Biblical Interpretation, ed. Randall C. Bailey (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 123-143.

Robert Allen Warrior, "A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians" in Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader, ed. Susanne Scholz (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003), 400-405.