You are here

A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible instructor feedback--Dan Clanton

Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Second Edition
Instructor review

We asked Dan Clanton, associate professor at Doane College to provide feedback on how using John Collins's A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Second Edition assisted his undergraduate class in studying the Hebrew Bible. Read what he had to say!

Dan Clanton, Doane College

Dan W. Clanton Jr.
Doane College

View Professor Clanton's syllabus

I teach at a small, residential, coed liberal arts college right outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. A good number of our students are from rural areas, and many of them are first-generation college students. Not only is Nebraska a politically conservative state, but we also boast the most conservative Catholic diocese in the country. It's safe to say that the vast majority of our students have never encountered the academic study of religion or read the Bible in an academic setting.

At the same time, the Bible suffuses the lives of the majority of our students, most of whom self-identify as Christians. The Bible is omnipresent in our Nebraska culture, and especially in the political and legal issues we've engaged in our community recently. In the past few months, we've dealt with issues that are deeply meaningful to Nebraskans of faith, such as the repeal of the death penalty in our state; the impact of Pope Francis's Papal Encyclical Laudato sí on a state that's heavily agricultural; and the Supreme Court's recent decisions on same-sex marriage and religious discrimination in job hiring. There have also been minor issues that have flared up, including a visit from Pastor Joel Osteen and former Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz's comments to Catholics that they should avoid practicing yoga because it "could be an occasion of serious sin."

In thinking about and through all these issues, many Nebraskans turned to their Bible as a resource. In the Lincoln Journal Star, four of the five letters to the editor on 21 June 2015 expressed religious views on one or more of the above issues, and three of those four letters cited specific biblical texts to support or augment their claims. All of this is to say that the majority of our students come from a context in which the Bible is central to their community, even if the students don't identify as religious.

The challenges I face as a teacher in the academic discipline of religious studies are mostly related to the assumptions and presuppositions of this context. To be sure, some of the problems I have to address likely transcend our specific context, like a general lack of student preparedness and curiosity coupled with what we like to call the "over-activitied" nature of our students' obligations. Furthermore, I've found that a number of the students I encounter in my introductory courses suffer from a common predicament: they think they know what "the Bible" says about specific issues, yet they have limited experience with the biblical text itself. That is, as Peter J. Gomes noted in his wonderful The Good Book, "religious people" often purport to be "Bible-believers," but "seldom read it with any industry or imagination" (xii). This paucity of primary scriptural engagement too often leads our students, and many others, to make claims at odds with the biblical library. As such, the stated goals (or SLOs, "student learning outcomes") of our "Introduction to the Old Testament" class include, "(a) To gain familiarity with as well as an appreciation of the literature in the Hebrew Bible; (b) To understand this literature in terms of its historical and cultural context (i.e., events; movements; values; ideologies; and self-understandings), as well as to engage it as literature; and (c) To explore the influence these texts have and continue to have on our culture(s) and thought(s)."

Obviously, these goals are difficult to achieve in a one-semester course on Old Testament. We never have enough time to read everything contained therein (and it's an open question as to whether neophyte students need to do so), nor do we have adequate time to engage every modern issue or painting, film, opera, etc., that I'd like to connect with the Bible. So, as with all courses, hard choices must be made, not only in terms of content to be covered, but also in terms of what resources to provide students. This latter choice is especially relevant given the context I mentioned earlier. That is, I have to be careful in my choice of textual resources like textbooks, as I have to balance (a) presenting students with a current and reliable source of the results of the academic study of biblical literature, while at the same time (b) choosing a textbook that walks the fine line between respecting faith commitments as valid ways of orienting oneself to the world, on the hand, and remaining theologically neutral and religiously nonadvocative on the other. Put simply, I have to find a text that won't alienate my students with its lingo or presentation but one that accurately represents the current state of our field. For the past seven years, I've found that Collins's A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible has both walked that fine line as well as helped to contextualize the Old Testament for my students.

Let me give one short example of how Collins's text meets these needs. As I mentioned earlier, Nebraska recently repealed the death penalty, and much of the debate amongst religious folk here centered on what the Bible said about this issue. One of those letters to the editor I referred to above quotes a few texts from the great law collections preserved in Exodus and Leviticus. I always have my students read through what biblical scholars call the Covenant Code (Exodus 21–23) and the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26). They usually don't enjoy reading through biblical Law as much as, say, Genesis, but I tell them it's good for them, like Brussels sprouts are. One of their favorite texts to mention in discussing the death penalty is the so-called lex talionis, or "an eye-for-an-eye" passage in Exodus 21:22-25. This passage is one of those sections of Bible that has transcended its original context into bumper-sticker popularity. In so doing, though, its original context and meaning have been obscured. In his text, Collins provides two key data for students that help them both place this section in its original ancient context as well as understand its original meaning better. First, on p. 76, Collins notes the distinction between "apodictic" and "casuistic" laws in the ancient world. The former are "absolute commandments or (more often) prohibitions, with no conditional qualifications." Casuistic laws, though, are case or conditional laws, that is, laws that require a specific act or offense in order for the stated punishment to be enacted. This distinction is important, as Collins notes on pp. 80-81 in his discussion of Exod. 21:22-25. This section is a case law dealing with a very, very specific situation: "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage…" The text then specifies two different outcomes: one if "no further harm follows," and one "if any harm follows." The former results in a monetary payment determined by the woman's husband; the latter—presumably referring to death or some other serious medical repercussion—includes "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." The importance of noting that 21:22-25 is an example of case law is that the specific, yet famous, punishment adumbrated in the case of “any harm [that] follows,” is dependent upon the first action mentioned in the text. In other words, "an eye for an eye" can be narrowly construed to apply only in cases in which a pregnant woman has been accidentally injured to the point of miscarriage by people that are fighting. The second point Collins makes is equally enlightening. He writes, "This law has often been derided for inculcating a spirit of vengefulness. . . . [However,] Taken in context, 'an eye for an eye' is not vengefulness, but moderation. The point is that you may not kill someone who knocks out your eye," (80-81). Put differently, in spite of the common sentiment that "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind," 21:22-25 actually serves as a limit to claims of vengeance; by restricting retributive punishment to the same injury the woman received, this text demarcates the potential for revenge.

This is only one example, and there are many more I could mention. But to return to my main point, again, it's a safe bet that our students have never engaged in this kind of critical, academic reading of biblical texts. However, it's equally safe to opine that doing so is good for them, not just within the confines of our one class, but in their roles as informed citizens of our community. That is, by providing them with contextual and interpretive information in an accessible and religiously neutral fashion, Collins's text is helping our students to examine, some of them possibly for the first time, the implicit bases for many of their beliefs and practices. The benefit of this critical engagement is to allow students to hone their reflective capacity in the hope of understanding their own stances and identities better. After all, that's the goal of our college’s mission: to prepare students "for lives rooted in intellectual inquiry, ethical values, and a commitment to engage as leaders and responsible citizens in the world."