The Exegetical Thesis as (Digital) Storytelling

The “exegesis project” is a The Big Project for masters students in a biblical studies course. Usually, it’s a paper, of course. This term, I hope to encourage students in my “Book of Daniel” to consider doing the project in the form of “Digital Storytelling.” I realize that this calls for a two-part explanation:

  1. What makes exegesis “storytelling”?
  2. What makes exegesis “digital”?

I am going to take these one at a time. Today, we will stick with the first. In beginning to learn exegesis, one of the big hurdles for students is that they are asked to bracket their spiritual autobiography long enough to attend to the biblical text’s own historical context. That being so, what can I mean when I ask them to accomplish their exegesis as “storytelling”? I’ll break it down:

What makes it “exegetical”?

  • The body of the work asks questions about the meaning of the biblical text for its author, and for the community to whom the author appears to have written, in that author’s own social and historical context.
  • The work’s arguments rely on publicly available evidence and explicit lines of reasoning. They do not depend upon private revelation, confessional dogma, implicit lines of reasoning, or logical fallacies.

What makes it “a thesis”?

  • The work is organized around the defense of a single claim, or thesis. A thesis is NOT, then, an opinion, a narrative, an “exploration,” or a review. A thesis should be defensible, relevant, and manageable. By “defensible,” I mean that it is a proposition that can be established by publicly-available evidence (not private revelation or confessional dogma) and an explicit line of reasoning. By “relevant,” I mean that the thesis forces your reader to re-evaluate the biblical text; the thesis “makes a difference” to how the biblical text is read. By “manageable,” I mean that the thesis can be argued comprehensively within the constraints of the assignment; it is not too big an idea for the word count, and also not so small that the paper falls significantly short or has to be “padded up.”

What makes it “storytelling”?

  • Even when presenting data (as in a lecture, or a thesis paper), there is a “narrative” of sorts: you lead the reader from a starting place, through a terrain known only to you, to a destination. A good presenter “knows her narrative”: you could take away her slides or her paper, and she can still guide you through the “narrative” of her subject matter or thesis (Ask a student about a recently-completed paper; if they can do this, it’s probably a good paper.)
  • We commonly ask our students to “book-end” their thesis with an introduction and a theological/hermeneutical conclusion. The project should begin with a statement of the student’s interest in the biblical passage. It should end with her own assessment of the passage’s theological claims as determined by exegesis. (Are those claims moral? coherent with other biblical passages? intelligible to today’s reading communities?). This conclusion should also include claims about how the text might, or might not, lend itself to preaching and teaching in particular, well-defined communities of hearers. This is to say, the thesis project is a “round trip,” beginning and ending with the student’s own pressing theological and hermeneutical concerns.

So…What makes it “digital,” if it is?

Stay tuned. In a follow-up post, I will look at the phenomenon of “Digital Storytelling” in the digital humanities, and how it might serve as a platform for “exegesis as storytelling.” In the meantime, what do you think of this way of putting things? Does “storytelling” offer a useful lens, or muddy the waters?

[The Exegetical Thesis as (Digital) Storytelling was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2012/01/30. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Ask a Biblical Scholar Anything

This is an idea about which I could not be more enthused (hat tip to Pharyngula).[1] Ten biologists collaborate together to answer any questions that a layperson might pose them. The front page provides some relevant caveats; for example, if the question is quite basic, they might gently point a reader to the standard textbooks, rather than be roped into doing someone’s homework for them.

I especially like that the site builds a searchable growing repository of questions already answered. This should be a helpful resource, not only for inquirers, but for the team members to consult when dealing with new questions.

The idea of a similar, “Ask a Biblical Scholar Anything,” site has seized my imagination. In my experience, answering questions about the Bible and biblical studies for genuinely curious laypeople is a delight. Part of that delight comes from my sense that only a few people have a resource in their lives to field such questions; when I make new acquaintances, they often have a short list of questions about the Bible that they’ve waited to unload, or that they’ve bounced off of others without receiving satisfying responses.

Some desiderata that come to mind are:

  • As with AaBA, there would need to be a fairly large team: at least eight, I think. The good news is, I suspect recruiting new team members wouldn’t be all that hard, such that the team could grow (or shrink) according to traffic. The idea is that nobody should have to spend more time on it than they want to, with a very low minimum expected commitment.
  • Team members should have terminal degrees in biblical studies, or else be candidates in a terminal degree program.
  • The team members would have to have a shared understanding that “biblical studies” is a non-confessional literary and historical enterprise, relying for its claims on the shared public evidence of the biblical texts and such extra-biblical evidence as variant manuscripts, ancient Near Eastern texts, material remains, and so on (rather than on private revelation and confessional dogma). Theologically, it’s about the theology in the texts rather than one’s theology of the Bible. This understanding would need to be communicated on the front page of the site.
  • There would have to be a standard rubric for recognizing and dealing with poor-faith inquiries coming out of the culture wars. This would, at the same time, have to allow for good-faith inquiries coming from those whose frame of reference has been distorted by the culture wars. (In English: What about spamming inquiries from folks like Answers in Genesis? What about well-meaning inquiries from folks whose minds have already been addled by AiG?)

I’m not in any hurry on this—believe me!—and it is the very beginning of the school year, with all its busy-ness. Still, if anyone who meets the second criterion above would be interested, let me know, and we can begin to look into it. If enough scholars were interested that the work load were low, it could be a real service.

BACK TO POST By the way, P.Z. has been having a hell of a time. He won’t be grateful for your prayers, but if you’re in a position to give to Red Cross, donate blood, or otherwise render service to heart patients, he’d be pleased.

[Ask a Biblical Scholar Anything was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/08/26. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Students, You’re on Notice!

Yesterday afternoon, my son had a play date with a Taekwon-Do classmate who also happens to be the child of one of our Masters students. The student, my wife, and I chatted aimlessly while the kids played on a water slide in the back yard. Among the topics that came and went were:

  • The first of the Amarna Letters (EA 1), with comments on the epistolary genre of the letters (specifically, how a flattering salutation and an exhaustive list of well wishes and assurances of well-being precede a body mostly involving bitter squabbling);
  • How 1000 words is really not that many to write, and how students with writing experience know that editing down to 1000 words is ‘way harder than getting up to 1000 words in the first place.

Not three hours later, I got an email from said student, in which she:

  • composed the email in a parody of the epistolary genre of EA 1; and
  • pointed me to where she had demonstrated our point about writing by banging out 1000 words on the first topic to come ready to hand, specifically Ecclesiastes 1–2.

Students who would complain that form criticism is intractable or that 1000 words is a lot to write: you’re on notice!

[Students, You’re on Notice! was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/07/30. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

What I’m Reading: Eastern Religions Edition

I am trying to learn something of the history and development of eastern religions in Korea, and am somewhat hampered by my lack of preparation in the “eastern religions” part. And in the “Korea” part.

Into the fifth of six chapters in Joseph A. Adler’s Chinese Religious Traditions (Prentice Hall: 2002), I can recommend this work to other newcomers to eastern religions. The focus is on:

  • Confucianism
  • Daoism
  • Buddhism
  • “popular religion”

After introducing each of these, the presentation is diachronic, exploring the development of each religious strand in China’s stages of history. The work brings certain running characteristics of each of the “big four” into regular comparison and contrast, creating narrative pathways that help me, anyway, to meaningfully navigate the subject matter’s complexities. This ’graph, concluding a major section on Neo-Confucianism in early modern China, is an example (brackets represent material I add for clarity):

Neo-Confucian self-cultivation bears interesting resemblances to the realization of Buddhahood in Mahayana [Buddhism] and Perfection…in Daoism…. While Confucians objected to the Mahayana [Buddhist] theory of no-self of emptiness, the original Confucian claims that individuals are inherently social beings is logically very similar to the premise of the [Mahayana Buddhist] theory of no-self, namely the radical interdependence of all things. And like the aspiring Daoist zhenren (perfected person), Neo-Confucians understood self-cultivation to involve the transformation of the whole person, including the psycho-physical nature.

This sort of synthesis is typical, and I find it a great help as a novice to the material.

Personally fascinating to me is the inclusion of “popular religion,” which is essentially a synchretic set of practices whose origins precede even Confucius and whose development continues today.

Also in my hands are Daniel L. Overmyer, Religions of China (Harper and Row, 1986), and James Huntley Grayson, Korea: A Religious History (rev. ed.; RoutledgeCurzon, 2002).

I know that this subject matter is not “up the alley” of my usual readers, but if you can recommend further reading, especially on the development of eastern religions in Korea, I would be grateful.

[What I’m Reading: Eastern Religions Edition was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/05/24. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

A Little Help? History of Eastern Religions in Korea

I would like to find some reading on the history of eastern religious traditions in Korea, especially Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. If possible, these resources should:

  • be balanced chronologically: they may include modern times, but the ancient stuff should not be rushed to get to the present;
  • be at a near-introductory level; we can presume some knowledge of the origins of these traditions outside Korea, but I’m looking for textbook-type materials, not cutting-edge scholarship;
  • distinguish between myth and history, acknowledging the scarcity of early data and also the historical value of myth, while not uncritically embracing myth as history;
  • focus on the introduction and development of these religious traditions in Korea.

Anyone? Anyone? Thanks.

[Addendum: I should clarify that the intended reader is me, not my seminary students. So, it’s okay if the readings are academically rigorous and not specifically geared toward Christian learners.]

[A Little Help? History of Eastern Religions on Korea was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/05/21. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Kids Discover: Mesopotamia

My son subscribes to Kids Discover periodical. The current issue is titled, “Mesopotamia,” and is simply excellent.[FOOTNOTE]

Each two-page spread of “Mesopotamia” is on a single topic, e.g. “Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and More”; “Day to Day”; “Gods and Demons”; “Those Accomplished Mesopotamians”; “The Legendary Gilgamesh and the Origins of Writing”; “How We Know What We Know.”

If that list of topics does not have you slavering for a copy, well…what am I saying? Of course it does.

Each spread comprises a short summary followed by 12–20 photographs and drawings, captioned appropriately for elementary-school-aged kids. I recognize many of my favorite images among these, and also a great many surprises. Speaking of surprises, I am almost embarrassed to say how much I am learning from this juvenile resource (Assyrians crafted a ground-glass lens?).

If you are still on the fence concerning whether to chase down a copy…

I want to say just one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?

“Expisticy.” [Dang: “extispicy”; we used to joke about “extra spicy”; thanks, Chris.]

Back issues of Kids Discover can be ordered for $3.99 through their home page. “Mesopotamia” is Volume 20, Issue 5, May 2010. You can just enter “Mesopotamia” as a Quick Search term on their Store page.

BACK TO POST (Kids Discover is a periodical “curriculum supplement,” and contains no advertising. See their home page or Facebook page for information on Kids Discover. I do not work for Kids Discover and they do not pay me to say nice things about them.)

[Kids Discover: Mesopotamia was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/05/06. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Sting Like a Bee: Waking the Sleeping God (Context of Scripture)

Against the assertion of Psa 121:4 that “the God of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” many of the psalms find that God does indeed sleep while the righteous undergo persecution. Fortunately, God can be awakened with a careful combination of slaps and strokes.

About a week ago in our continuing reading of COS in a year, we read “The Wrath of Telipinu” (1.57), one of the Hittite “disappearing god texts”: in these, the deity is imagined as having wandered off in pique and gone to sleep. In the god’s absence, everything goes badly, and so the god must be sought out, awakened, and convinced to return. In this text, the mother-goddess sends a bee to find and sting the god Telipinu; he awakens angry, of course, and the remainder of the text directs the offering of good foods, like beer-bread, to placate him and draw him back to the people.

The Bible frequently speaks of God as having gone to sleep and needing to be awakened. As God sleeps, God’s people are vulnerable, especially to their enemies. Taking the biblical texts (many of them the “complaint psalms”) at their word about the “sleeping God,” I am inclined to see the sharp rhetoric of the complaint psalm genre function like the bee and the beer-bread of the “Wrath of Telipinu.”

The texts I have in mind are Psa 7:7 (Eng 7:6); 35:23; 44:24 (Eng 44:23); 59:5. One might read Psa 121:4 as an absolute counter-claim (“the God of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” that is, ever) or as a timely reassurance (he won’t sleep right now when you need him). Of interest are 1 Kgs 18:27 (taunting the Baal priests) and Hab 2:19 (rousing wood and stone), and perhaps Psa 78:65; Isa 51:9; 52:1; Song 4:16; Zech 13:7.

Each of these four psalms attempts to rouse God from sleep.

Rise up, O YHWH…Awake, O my God! (Psa 7:7)

Wake up! Bestir yourself for my cause and my defense, my God and my Lord! (Psa 35:23)

Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake! (Psa 44:24)

Rouse yourself! (Psa 59:5)

This imperative acts as a “stinger,” a jolt. So, too, do the sharp complaints themselves that define these psalms: as the wicked continue in victory and God’s righteous suffer loss, the natural order of God’s creation is upset and requires righting. This suggests another “stinger”: that God and God’s favored ones are losing face in the sight of God’s enemies, when it is the latter who should be shamed. Related to this is the formal element of the “statement of trust”: since God has established God’s reputation by saving the people Israel in the past, the trust of the people rests now in God’s hands…will it be in vain? The innocence of the psalmist or the community is another “stinger”: given the injustice of the psalmist’s plight, God is publicly culpable for letting the abominable situation continue.

Of course, the complaint psalms offer “beer-bread” as well. Just as several of the “stingers” revolve around the maintenance of God’s reputation, so too does the “beer-bread” that may positively induce God to awake and save. The “vow of thanksgiving” is the obvious example: after God wakes up and saves, the recipient of God’s largesse will recount God’s saving acts in public worship when he makes good his vows at the shrine or Temple. The “address to God” may include elements of praise that also, beer-bread-like, “sweeten the deal.”

Context of Scripture (William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds.; 3 vols; Brill, 1997) is available in many theological libraries, and Charles’ schedule is an easy one. Jump in any time, and blog about your findings.

[Sting Like a Bee: Waking the Sleeping God (Context of Scripture) was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/04/12. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Context of Scripture: And When I Say, “Context”…

…I mean, context.

(Reading COS in a year, following Charles’ schedule. Join in any time!)

The archival document for the day is a short Ugaritic letter from “The King to Ḥayyaʾil Regarding an Allotment of Logs” (3.45Q). I know! Hold your excitement! Dennis Pardee offers a record-breaking ratio of commentary to text: the latter measuring about 6 square inches, the former a hefty 52 square inches (in reduced font, no less). In the letter, the king scolds his recipient for asking where to get the logs for a certain temple, and informs him where the logs will come from. In the commentary, Pardee finds opportunity to make illustrative inquiry into

  • indicators of genre, both in the language of the text and in such non-textual indicators as horizontal strokes dividing elements of the inscription;
  • the institutions and practices associated with timber production, sale, and distribution in and around Ugarit;
  • how to “follow the money” involved with dispersal of royal funds to or through civil employees and private vendors and distributors, possibly involving alliterative wordplay;
  • and more! Seriously, lots to learn here for the patient.

The other text for the day is the “Prophecies of Neferti” (1:45). Students in Bible will appreciate this one as an example of “prophecy ex eventu,” that is the literary fiction of prophecy formulated “after the fact” (as in the apocalypses of Daniel 7–12, for example, or in 1 Kings 13:1-3). Here, the wise scribe Neferti is said to live during the reign of Snefru (4st Dynasty), predicting a future disastrous period that will eventually be corrected by a restorative, redeeming king “Imeny” (Amenemhet I, 12th Dynasty). The work itself of course derives from the reign of that same Amenemhet I, justifying his usurpation and reforms.

Students of the ancient Egyptian language will know that this 12th Dynasty defines the “Middle Kingdom” period of Egypt, considered a literary high point, the style of which is considered normative in later periods. Reading “The Prophecies of Neferti” alongside of “The Instructions of Amenemhet I” (1.36; a work likely written after his death to defuse his assassination and legitimate his heir’s succession) and “The Tale of Sinuhe” (1.38; a politically charged fantasy story also reflecting Amenemhet I’s death and succession), while attending to the notes, begins to provide a textured depiction of this watershed moment in Egypt’s past.[FOOTNOTE]

Here in “The Prophecies of Neferti,” where it depicts the disastrous period preceding Amenemet’s usurpation of the crown, we learn a lot about what scares the daylights out of right-thinking ancient Egyptians:

  • Asiatics in Egypt
  • failure to observe ritual, including mourning rites
  • violence, and indifference to violence
  • burdensome taxes
  • breaking down of social hierarchies
  • Asiatics in Egypt.

This is why I have to be careful not to fall behind on our reading schedule, and when I do fall behind, to simply pick up where we are instead of trying to read too much at once. The texts are just so, so good on a second reading after I have had time to marinate in the contexts for a spell.

Happy reading!

BACK TO POST The interested reader might start with Ronald J. Leprohon, “Egypt, History of (Dyn. 11–17)” Anchor Bible Dictionary 2:345-348 (Doubleday, 1992).

[Context of Scripture: And When I Say, “Context”… was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/25. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Barley Flour, Pita, and “Oven Spring”

While the common barley flour used by the ancient Israelite lacks some of the qualities by which wheat flour makes such good loaves, even limited practice yields strategies of preparation that help barley flour produce the most leavened and appetizing possible bread.

As some of you know, the subject of bread production in Israel and the ancient Near East has seized my attention. While getting acquainted with the subject, one of my early projects is spending time learning to handle barley flour. While wheat flour would have been preferred where available (as today), barley flour was more affordable to the common family and, at certain times of the agricultural cycle, even the sole available grain. My Arrowhead Mills barley flour arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of Amazon.

Dough preparation and cooking method:

The cooking method that I am starting with seeks to imitate use of the cylindrical clay oven, or tannûr, against the side of which one slaps a flat “patty”: the flat patty cooks very rapidly against the heated surface, until the cook judges it done and removes it. I am using an oven and pizza stone, heated to about 550-570 degrees Fahrenheit (285-300 C). Patties take about 2-5 minutes to cook, depending on size and leavening.

For leavening, I am using a sourdough starter that I created from white flour in February 2008 and have fed since. I use just a small smear of starter so that only a negligible few grams of white flour contribute to the barley loaf.

I use 1/2 C barley flour with 1 T olive oil and 1/2 t salt to produce four pita-like loaves.

Working with barley flour:

(Here I deal with leavened loaves. Unleavened barley bread is as easy and as uninteresting as unleavened wheat: a flat, crisp loaf. Nice for dipping into stuff, though.)

Modern recipes reflect the difficulties of working with pure barley flour: they all use a relatively small portion of barley flour, mainly for flavor, while relying on wheat flour for its material properties: more gluten, with its elasticity and potential for a good “rise.”

Barley flour has relatively little gluten. Therefore, even when you knead it a lot (layering the strings of gluten and creating overlapping web-like matrices of strings), it does not assume the strength of kneaded wheat dough. Since the dough does not “hold together” well, the gasses created by the yeast tend to just “ooze out” of the dough altogether: fewer bubbles, less “rise.”

Early discoveries:

So far, I find two inter-related strategies that help solve the problems in working with unmixed barley flour:

  1. The first is the concept of “oven spring.” When dough first heats up in the oven, the yeast responds by “going into overdrive,” metabolizing very quickly and producing bubbles rapidly before getting too hot and dying off. This is why a baker slashes the skin of a (large, non-pita) loaf before baking: it allows the expansion to happen and prevents unsightly rupturing of the skin. My point here is that “oven spring” allows for a peculiarity of pita preparation: we allow the dough to rise, then smoosh down most of that rise when we flatten balls into patties. This proves to be okay, because “oven spring” will buy us a final, rapid rise, helping to produce a tender loaf. The intense heat of a clay tannûr (or pizza stone) yields an awesome “oven spring.”
  2. The second, related, strategy is to be gentle in making flat patties of the pita-like bread made for slapping against the cooking surface. A rolling pin smooshes the dough down too much, losing almost all of the bubbles produced during the rising period. Also, the rolling pin crushes and tears at the already-crumbly barley dough, opening fissures through which the essential gasses of the “oven spring” will escape. But, by working the risen balls of dough with my hands, I can be gentle, preserving as much as possible of the lengthy “rise,” and also keeping the surface smooth and without fissures in order to contain the precious gasses of the “oven spring” during cooking.

The current result is a pretty tasty, tender, hand-sized pita with a flaky crumb and enough larger bubbles to make it interesting. Unlike a wheat-flour pita, it does not have the whole-patty rise that produces the characteristic “pocket” associated with the pita.

Future experiments will begin to achieve a more organized character, with attempts at different amounts of hydration and, eventually, working with molds.

[Barley Flour, Pita, and “Oven Spring” was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/19. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

A Middle-Eastern Origin for Small Dogs

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has its opinions about dogs. To call someone a “dead dog” is to insult them as ineffectual and non-threatening.[1] In conversation with a superior, you might humbly refer to yourself as “but a dog.”[2] Dogs return to their own vomit.[3] They growl at passersby,[4] but can be shooed away with sticks.[5] Like the birds of the air, they will eat your flesh, if you do not enjoy a proper burial.[6] They are not brave like lions, but for that reason, may live longer.[7]

Perhaps the dog would have cut a more impressive figure in the ancient Near East if at least some of them weren’t so small.

A genetic study has found that small domestic dogs probably originated in the Middle East more than 12,000 years ago.

Here, a modern dog attempts to capture something of the deportment of his diminutive but noble ancestors:

Copyright G. Brooke Lester

h/t to BAR on Twitter.

REFERENCES:
BACK TO POST (1 Sam 24:14 [all numberings English text]; 2 Sam 9:8; 16:9)
BACK TO POST (2 Kgs 8:13; cf. 2 Sam 9:8)
BACK TO POST (Prov 26:11)
BACK TO POST (Exod 11:7)
BACK TO POST (1 Sam 17:43)
BACK TO POST (Psa 22:20)
BACK TO POST (Eccles 9:4)

[A Middle-Eastern Origin for Small Dogs was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/15. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]