Kristin Swenson aims to show that Scripture’s strangeness is one of its greatest strengths, writes Jason Osborne
A talking snake convincing the first humans to eat some fruit; God wrestling with one of his earliest followers before touching his hip and putting it out of joint; angels appearing as wheels with eyes: these are but a few of the curious stories smattering the pages of the Old Testament.
Many people see these stories and limit their consideration of them to a superficial analysis – we know snakes can’t talk, we know God doesn’t wrestle with people, if he exists at all, and angels most certainly don’t look like anything other than toddlers with wings, if they exist at all.
However, Professor of Religious Studies and biblical scholar Kristin Swenson examines the Old Testament with anything but a passing glance. “Falling in love” with the ancient texts after being exposed to some of the “provocative” wordplay in Genesis, Ms Swenson realised quickly that there is far, far more to these tales than we often acknowledge.
“I had an opportunity to take some really rigorous religious studies classes in college, and there I learned about a provocative wordplay in Genesis that appealed to my enduring concerns about the environment and the human relationship to the non-human, natural world,” Ms Swenson tells The Irish Catholic.
“Namely, that in the Adam and Eve, Garden of Eden creation story, we read that God created adam, with a lowercase ‘a’, which can generally mean human being, out of adamah, which is often translated dust or ground. It’s earthy stuff. That wordplay, adam out of adamah, human out of humus, was so provocative for me,” she says.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, there is embedded in this story so much more than we get when we read an English translation’. I was studying biology, so I thought I would be doing a lot more with the sciences and then other things conspired as well to lead me into religious studies, but I did start really with this real concern about environmental issues and I thought, ‘If folks could see some of the things that the Bible has to say about topics of real concern for us today, maybe we would be a little gentler with each other and the world,’ so that was actually how I got started in the Hebrew Bible, biblical studies. Specifically Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.”
While that explains the origin of Ms Swenson’s love of Scripture, what compelled her to write a book about it? As the title of her new book, a most peculiar book: the inherent strangeness of the Bible, may suggest, Ms Swenson believes the Bible’s “strangenesses”, that we so often turn our nose up at today, are actually its greatest strength.
“I believe the Bible’s ‘strangenesses’ may be its greatest gift. We tend to approach the Bible as though it is a, kind of, authoritarian dictator of what we generally accept as good stuff. So, guides for living, inspiration, etc. And of course, it contains those kinds of things, but our approach to it tends to be a one way approach – that we read what we’re supposed to do and be, for instance.
“But the Bible within itself, argues with itself. Many folks have discovered the places where the Bible actively disagrees with itself. Then there are all of the other things that are both strange about the Bible for us as modern readers, and that are strange in it. There is just a lot of weird stuff in it. I wanted to give people the space to recognise that there’s a lot of weird stuff in the Bible and the Bible itself is a strange book to us. But also, that those ‘strangenesses’ invite us to be in conversation with it rather than it being that one-way dictatorship,” she says.
When these oddities are met and entertained rather than discarded as foolish superstition, Ms Swenson believes the Bible is engaging our “intellect and learning and our humanity”. She feels the only wrong way to engage with Scripture is superficially, with surface-level readings often leading us to “judge others” or “employ damaging actions because we somehow believe that’s what the Bible tells us to do”.
The example she gives of this is, what is in her opinion, the common misreading or misinterpretation of God’s commands regarding the created world in Genesis.
“Some folks read in Genesis one, God’s declaration of the creation of human beings as beings who would have dominion, as a licence to despoil the non-human, natural world when, if you read a bit better in context, and this I unpack in a different book called God of Earth: Discovering a radically ecological Christianity, I find that the Bible instead is urging us to again bring our best intellect to bear on our engagement with the world around us, with one another and our relationship to the Divine, whatever that looks like to people.
“So, rather than licence to despoil, that text I think is in its context actually expressing an urgency to us to take care of and be responsible for the health and wellbeing of the non-human, natural world,” she explains.
Another vital piece of information Ms Swenson feels has been lost in people’s dealings with Scripture today is the fact that, although it is God’s inspired Word, it was also related to us through human authors who were situated in “real, concrete historical and human circumstances, in particular times and places that are different than our own”. As a result, without some background context and understanding of the historical situation out of which the Scriptures emerged, it can be very difficult to understand fully what God is saying.
“That alone is a really important thing for us to remember,” she says.
“Because the Bible is so prevalent and because people use it today as an authoritative text, it’s easy to forget that. But when we do, then I think again we assume a posture of humility. Yes, it would be great if we knew exactly what all of the different cultural circumstances were out of which these texts come. So, for one thing, they evolved over a long period of time and so there isn’t just one historical or cultural context unfortunately for us to unpack, but whatever we can learn about that, and again this is bringing our intellect and our learning to bear, to learn as much as we can about the Bible…that learning about the Bible gives us tools for making sense, or maybe at least peace with, some of what’s really weird in it.”
Asked for an example of how cultural context and an awareness of the history the texts emerge from can shape our reading and understanding of Scripture, Ms Swenson elucidates a famous passage from the Old Testament which sees the prophet Ezekiel receiving a cryptic vision from God – wheels with eyes appearing during Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot, which some traditions have identified as being spiritual beings in and of themselves.
To the average modern reader, such an image seems like nothing more than a fantastical occurrence, one of those dense biblical passages that our eyes gloss over in favour of more easily interpreted passages. However, these passages contain troves of wisdom for those who delve a little deeper.
“In that story at the beginning, Ezekiel describes himself sitting by a river, the river Kebar, he names it, and he says ‘I saw this fantastical thing’, and then he narrates that. Ezekiel, we know, was a prophet in Judah, in Jerusalem in particular, the capital of Judah, the place where the Temple stood and the seat of national power. The Judeans, or Judahites…they believed that God, the God of this people, would be especially present to them, in God’s tremendous holiness, within the Temple in Jerusalem. And that someone from David’s line would be on the throne, that there would be a king from David’s line as king of the nation indefinitely, forever and ever.”
However, as the Scriptures details, in 597 BC, the Babylonians – “the powerhouse of the ancient near-east at that time,” as Ms Swenson puts it – came in and rolled over Judah.
“In that moment, they took the best of the best, the most well-educated, the finest artisans, they took them from Judah and brought them back to Babylon. This was their practice in war. When they defeated a country, they took the best and brightest, the cream of the crop and brought them back to Babylon and employed them not as base slaves but employed them in the areas in which they had expertise. And so, they continued to build this incredibly rich Babylonian culture.”
Returning to Ezekiel after necessary context, Ms Swenson reminds that Ezekiel was a priest in Jerusalem who had been taken into exile in 597 BC. Ten years later, in 587 BC, the Babylonians destroyed Judah, razing the Temple in Jerusalem to the ground. Naturally, this came not only as a physical blow to the people of God, but as a theological blow, too. Had their God been cast down by the Babylonians?
“This was a huge theological crisis for the people, for the reasons I noted before: these assumptions about the holiness of God being present in the Temple for one, and the other being the continuity of David’s line. That threw people into such a tremendous crisis of theology and cultural identity that it had to be addressed. We know that a lot of people in that moment, sort of, gave up on their nation and gave up on this religious ideology – they became Babylonian.
“They simply just assimilated into Babylon because they’d been taken there as captives, if you will. And they were there for decades and so people were born and raised in Babylon and it wasn’t necessarily all really super-horrible,” she says.
“It gets that reputation because of how we read its description in the Bible. Ezekiel had been taken as this religious leader to Babylon and then he faced the questions these people had: Was God destroyed? Was the Babylonian god more powerful than Yahweh? Was our God destroyed by the Babylonian god? Did our God lie to us, that someone from David’s line would always be on the throne in Jerusalem? And was God’s holiness completely compromised by these foreigners, their taking over the Temple and destroying things, and taking away the Ark of the Covenant, which was the Holy of Holies, the place to which God had entrusted God’s instructions for the people?
“Ezekiel had to tell the people that God had not been destroyed. That God’s holiness was intact. And that God could be present to them in this foreign country. So, you have this vision that Ezekiel narrates. He says, ‘I was by the river Kabar,’ which is in Babylon. And he says, ‘And I saw this chariot, this heavenly chariot and it has eyes’. It’s mobile, so God can move, God can even be present to people in the land of their enemies. God can see them there. God can witness their experience.”
The passage from Ezekiel is “a great example” how context “illuminates” our understanding of it, Ms Swenson says, continuing “Ezekiel had an uphill battle to help the people to retain their faith after they had had this tremendous crisis of theology”.
Despite the benefit that comes from much learning of Scripture and its history, Ms Swenson is keen not to put anyone off, either – God’s text is accessible to everyone and anyone.
“Cultural context helps us to understand a lot, and sometimes to make sense of the ‘strangenesses’, but that’s not to say that the Bible can’t make sense to us without knowing absolutely every bit of background, though I do urge folks to learn as much background information as they possibly can,” she says.
“That’s a lifetime of learning, though – I am barely touching it, and I was lucky to get a PhD in the area. So, this is a lifetime of learning. Yes, I think that, again, one of the gifts of the Bible’s ‘strangenesses’, or the fact that the Bible is so strange, is that I think it allows again for us to bring our experiences, our ideas, our thoughts into conversation with what we’re reading there. In that, almost paradoxically, we are able to make it a little bit more relevant for ourselves.”
Ultimately, her hopes for the new book are that it “honours” people’s reading of the Bible, and she hopes it encourages them to engage with it more deeply.
“To recognise that it is authoritative for a lot of people, that it of course has this long history of import. And that within it, it argues with itself, and so it dignifies our questions. Maybe that,” she says.
“It dignifies those questions and it demands that we bring our whole selves to our reading of it. Not necessarily to find answers for things, but to discover things for ourselves.”