Studying the Bible Critically Is a Window into Our Cultural Past and Present
When it was time for me to choose a path for a bachelor’s degree, I registered for biblical studies, which many considered to be a strange choice. I grew up 100% secular, had good grades, and did well on my Psychometric Exam (the equivalent in Israel of American SATs). People thus expected me to enter a more “prestigious” profession, maybe a doctor, or a software engineer, or perhaps a scientist. Even the receptionist at the university registration desk tried to stop me. I didn’t really have a “good” explanation, from their perspective, for why I wanted to enter biblical studies of all fields.
My motive was a subtle feeling of physical connection between the loci of biblical narratives and the places where I loved to hike. During high school and my military service, I served as a guide, taking various groups on educational hikes throughout Israel.
The idea that we can still feel and understand some aspects of the ancient Hebrew existence, whether the Hebrew languages, or the natural environment, held great appeal for me. I also loved immersing myself in an ancient dead culture, which I naively perceived to be detached from modern politics.
Naturally, I was mostly drawn to the geographical and historical background of the Bible in my undergraduate years. I still remember my enthusiasm over each ancient Near Eastern text that I learned. When I found a copy of James Pritchard's ANET (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament) in my grandmother’s library, I read it cover to cover. When Klein and Shifra's epic Hebrew translation of major Mesopotamian texts came out – I was first in line to get a copy.
Upon graduating, I was still leading hikes and Israel programs, and I needed to decide what was next. As I had no alternative path that interested me, I continued in an M.A. program in Comparative Religion. I took as many courses in anthropology as I could while studying cuneiform and German.
Soon enough I drifted away from mainstream Israeli biblical studies into using social scientific methods to understand the biblical text. This approach focuses on “social and cultural dimensions of the text and of its environmental context through the utilization of the perspectives, theory, models, and research of the social sciences.” My shift from the more historical-factual perspective of “what exactly does this text mean” to the more contextual “how does this text mean” had started. I wanted to understand how the text creates meaning within certain cultural norms and worldviews.
This time, when I finished my M.A., I knew what I wanted to do. I started my Ph.D. work, merging some ideas taken from anthropology of the body and the emotions, together with detailed semantic analysis of words, metaphors, and Hebrew associative patterns. I wanted to uncover cultural notions embedded in the Hebrew text. During these years I started to feel as if I was swimming through words and associative patterns, in a similar way to how I used to feel when I stepped on Mt. Carmel, or the desert of Ein Gedi.
Ph.D. in hand, it was time to leave my student life behind and move to the front stage. My first job as a lecturer was at the University of Sydney, and my experiences there gave me a whole new perspective on the field. I remember one class, where a Korean priest, puzzled by my explanations about ancient Israel told me: “but we are Israel!”
That was an eye-opening moment that taught me two things:
- Even I, a secular Israeli biblical scholar, carry some form of identification with the text, and forget what it means for people of other nations and faiths.
- I must be interested not only in what and how the Bible originally meant, but in how it means today.
Since that experience I was lucky to teach biblical studies Israel, as well as to join the American-based global program Semester at Sea for one semester. Teaching biblical studies academically around the world over the last dozen years or so, made me more curious and gradually, more aware of these issues.
Today, in my teaching and public scholarship, I find that while I still value and strongly promote the objective study of ancient Hebrew language and culture, the students’ initial interest in it usually comes from a subjective point of view.
Most of my students find it hard to believe that people who are different than them care about this book and respect it, including their secular professor, and even more so, people of other religions. A lot of them are affected emotionally by what we study; they have strong positive or negative emotions about stories we read, particularly when we read stories that are less familiar to them.
Studying the Bible forces all of us to ask questions about our identity, and the nature of our connection to the text. I used to be focused on the windows that biblical texts open for us into ancient cultures and minds. Nowadays, I am amazed by the extent to which these texts still shape our contemporary society, and see how studying the Bible critically helps us uncover some of our deepest issues of identity and politics.
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Dr. Yael Avrahami is a Senior Lecturer for Biblical Studies and Biblical Hebrew at Oranim: Academic College of Education. She holds a Ph.D. in Biblical studies from the University of Haifa and an M.A. in Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University. Yael is the author of The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Experience in the Hebrew Bible, for which she won the Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise. She is also a co-author of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: A Reader’s Edition. Her studies focus on Socio-cultural interpretation, Semantics, and Inner biblical interpretation. She is mostly interested in the windows that ancient texts open for us into ancient cultures and minds. She is also amazed by the extent to which reading ancient texts can improve our understanding of contemporary cultures and minds.
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