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Jazz Chords in Genesis

September 7, 2007

It’s always difficult leading folks through the inherent clashes of concepts, ideas and chronologies that make up Gen 1-2. In some ways these two stories provide a great place to star by laying all the issues of biblical texts out on the table. At the same time, the conflicts within the text and in relationship to the larger biblical corpus can be disconcerting — especially for Christians. While I have previously referred to such conflicts as the two creation stories, two calls of Moses, and the like as ‘stereophonic’ in nature, I’m now starting to wonder if a better analogy would be jazz chords. Perhaps it is the dissidence itself that makes the text interesting.

Of course, on one level I cannot affirm this. Gen 1.1-2.4a is a deliberate attempt to guide the reader into the ‘right’ reading of the text. When we pull the two stories apart and notice things like chronological problems, unique vocabulary, differences of theological viewpoint we are reading against the text rather than with it. Yet, who can resist? The differences are so blatant if one does not come to the text with a theological presupposition that we should let the text tell us what to do. The editor(s) cannot get rid of the J creation story and is hence forced to include it in the text. It would probably make the editor(s) wince to know we saw the patchwork for what it is.

However, on another level I need to affirm to a class of largely evangelical students that the text is worthwhile even though it isn’t the all-consuming unity that they thought it was. They want to still be believers at the end of the day; and truth be told, I want them to still believers as well.

Faced with the dissidence of the text then I’m forced outside of facts into faith. The clashes and contradictions of the Bible cannot be allowed to overwhelm the unity of the Canon. The Bible is still ‘inspired’ even in the face of contradictions within itself and with the world in general. In fact, from a position of faith one is almost forced into affirming that the contradictions are all part of the game, part of the music. The clash of tones in a jazz chord. The quarter-tone-flat blues chord. Some times I think that it would be easier to teach Bible at a consortium than at a liberal arts university.

  1. September 12, 2007 9:00 am

    I believe E. Zenger’s “Einleitung in das Alte Tetament” makes much of the music metaphor. As of course do Childs and Seitz. U. Rüterswörden, the Protestant prof. here in Bonn is of a diametrically opposed opinion. He finds Zenger too naive and said in one of his lectures, “Harmonie! Das ist keine Harmonie, das ist eine Disharmonie!”. I guess the theological question is: at what level does the unity lie, and how do the texts relate to it?

  2. jimgetz permalink*
    September 12, 2007 8:28 pm

    Phil, thanks for the reference. I was unaware of Zenger’s article.

    While both Childs and Seitz make use of music metaphors I thought they were more inclined to speak of harmony than dissonance. Then again, I confess I haven’t read them in a while.

  3. September 13, 2007 5:38 am

    Zenger wrote a book, not an article. It’s used by the Catholic faculty here as an intro.
    Seitz and Childs talk of both dissonance and harmony, the question is at what level we are operating on. At the ‘textual level’ there is dissonance, but when read in relation to their theological ‘subject matter’ (the divine reality) then we begin to perceive harmony. I think the harmony/dissonance tension reflects the Word/Tradition tension, or the dialcetcal relation between the literal and spiritual sense of the text.

  4. jimgetz permalink*
    September 13, 2007 9:21 am

    Ah, quote always make me think of articles. My bad.

    I always get a little worried when folks start talking about the “literal” or “spiritual” sense of the text. At what point does the spiritual sense become reader response? Of course, this is the major charge against Childs as well: at the end of the day, his canonical method seems like little more than a very educated reader response method (see Barton’s critique in his Reading the Old Testament [2nd Ed.]).

    As far as the larger issue of where the dissonance lies, it is quite obvious that sometimes different sources are intentionally trying to subjugate earlier ones or force them to say something different from what they originally intended. However, there are also points where alternate visions are also just placed side by side (e.g. Gen 10 & 11) and allowed to live in tension.

    At rock bottom, dissonance seems to be fundamental to the entire theological enterprise. Transcendence/Imminence. Divine Sovereignty/Free Will. Fully God/Fully Man. They all provide something that lies beyond the logical.

  5. Jake McCarty permalink
    September 15, 2007 6:33 pm

    For a NELC guy its interesting to see a guy coming to the conclusions of Brug. and perhaps even to C. Newsom.

    One thing missing for this discussion (among OT theologians) is the fact that many of the so-called creation literature in Mesopotamia exhibits the similar inconsistencies. Did dissonance in the Enuma Elish lead one people to contemplate things beyond them? I think not.

    “Introduction to the Old Testament” would certainly make for an interesting article! A short one too, right? 😉

  6. jimgetz permalink*
    September 16, 2007 12:25 pm

    For a NELC guy its interesting to see a guy coming to the conclusions of Brug. and perhaps even to C. Newsom.

    It is all depends what you are trying to do with the text. At Eastern, I’m dealing with the final form of the text (i.e. the Canon as a whole) rather than its constituent parts.

    While part of me thinks that it would be better to pry open the inconsistencies in the text and force the students to deal with the internal contradictions so as to enlarge their view of what “Scripture” and “inspiration” mean, I realize that the attrition rate of such an undertaking would be high. Adjuncts that cause students to lose their faith tend not to be invited back, and I really need a job.

    On the issue of the Enuma Elish, I really don’t think it was read frequently enough in the ancient world for scholars to grapple with the unevenness of the text (more on that in another post).

  7. Jake McCarty permalink
    September 16, 2007 9:55 pm

    Oohhh…. I think my comment might have been taken as some traditional defense of Genesis when I meant quite the opposite.

    I was trying to give an apology for historical critical approaches, instead. The dissonance in Enuma Elish is result of clumsy editorialship… you can decide with Genesis.

    I agree wholeheartedly with taking a pragmatic approach to things. Definitely the best approach.

    As for Enuma Elish, Piotr Mich…. has this excellent article on it being part of scribal argot.

  8. jimgetz permalink*
    September 17, 2007 8:35 am

    It’s alright, Jake. I didn’t think you were doing the “traditional defense” thing.

    When we read the Enuma Elish with students, we don’t try to point out the inconsistencies simply to make the text hard to understand. If we mention them at all, we tend to use it to highlight something “bigger” we want to say. We tend to trust that the text was edited so as to make sense to its original readers.

    Likewise, we need to read the Bible with the ultimate aim of putting it all back together again. Too often the specter of the German Romanticists still hovers over biblical studies. Folks want to get back to the earliest layers and leave teh bigger picture out of their discussion (that’s been my impression, in any case). As such, I’m trying to figure out, on the fly, how to pull it all back together. All that, without becoming one of the “Biblical Theologians.” 😉

    BTW thanks for the ref. I’ll check it out.

  9. September 18, 2007 1:50 pm

    Sorry that I come back to this rather late. I’ve just set up a blog of my own and am surprised at how much time it can take up!

    At what point does the spiritual sense become reader response?
    This is, of course, a typical concern, especial for those concerned to protect the objectivity of the text. But this concern is Childs’ too! He totally rejects all moves which ignore the shape and structure of the text, which exerts ‘coercion’ on its interpreters if they attend to it. This is his criticism of Brueggemann, Moberly and even G. Steins, who tries to refine Childs’ approach into his own kanonisch-intertextuelle Lektüre. As Childs says:
    “The entire OT is consistent in confessing that there is a divine address in Scripture to a covenant people, mediated through the law-givers, prophets, and sages that continually break through the filters of human consciousness in spite of its claims of autonomy”.
    Thus, there is a theological (and not just secular, scientific, academic, or whatever) reason to believe that the text contains a semantic ‘given’ and that it is necessary to retrieve this meaning. The word for this is the text’s “literal sense”.(ZAW 2003)
    Where Childs disagrees with scholars such as Barton and Barr is what the “literal sense” actually is. In an essay from ’77 he outlines the complexity of this concept and the subtle morph it went through after the Enlightenment, where it became synonymous with the sensus originalis, i.e. the historical world behind the text rather than the textual world created the tradents of the text.
    The value of this ‘canonized’ text (in the broad sense of the term) is defended historically and theological. One can argue about the validity of Childs’ historical and theological arguments, but it is not the case that he ignores intentionality or the coercion of the text on our interpretations of it.
    The same applies to the “spiritual sense”. This dimension of meaning need not be so exotic as one would think. In terms of general hermeneutics, Dilthey spoke of the difference between erklären (explanation) and verstehen (undersanding), where the latter represents the attempt “to penetrate to the content of the witness by means of the vesatility inherent in the language itself” (Childs, 1992: 83). The problem with historical-criticism is the claim that the task of description represent true understanding of the text. Childs wants to move beyond it, yet remain tied to it. This means that the task of ‘theological interpretation’ (i.e. seeing Christ in Gen. 1:1) involves a dialectic, whereby one comes to exegesis already with certain theological assumptions, but exegetes the text so well (i.e. at the level of its literal sense), that these assumptions are tested by the text. Sure, a non-Christian would bring other philosophical/theological assumptions to his exegesis, which would also serve to make the text relevant somehow by fitter it into a greater, preconceived ‘picture’. But at this level of abstraction we are already entering into the realm of faith and conversion, a realm rejected by modernist hermeneutics.
    Sorry for the essay, I’m quite passionate about this subject and have just started a thread on it. I hope it isn’t all babble …

  10. Jake permalink
    September 19, 2007 10:52 pm

    What do you guys think about Eissfeldt’s concept of biblical theology? Keep historical work separate from theology–operate in two different worlds: the church and the academy.

  11. jimgetz permalink*
    September 20, 2007 8:49 am

    Jake, I’d say that Eissfeldt’s concept is a great way of talking yourself out of a job 😉 Seriously, most of us keep coming up against those, even in the academy, who think that the Bible is not relevant to their lives (let those who know keep silent), or that biblical studies as an academic discipline is of no use to the Church. Why would you want to encourage such a belief?

    Phil, I think that your quote from Childs makes my point: it is a completely subjective statement that he asserts and builds upon. The same is true of his choice of canon, choice of text type, and even choice of order in which to address texts. Sure, once you give him those assertions, Childs is a theological powerhouse; and I don’t think anyone can doubt his academic street cred; but his givens aren’t all that given and cause much vexation concerning his method as a whole. One last thought: the formation of the canon in and of itself can be seen as coercive, so basing one’s interpretation on the canon would be (almost by definition) coercive.

    BTW: guys, this is very intellectually stimulating. Thanks for keeping up the dialog!

  12. September 21, 2007 5:00 am

    separating the two would contradict Christianity, which is about the salvation of the whole world, and not just some privatised realm where I can remain untouched by the challenges of created reality. Interestingly, Kugel makes a similar statement as Eissfeld in his new book How to Read the Bible. What I find fascintating is the New York Times review (here), which at the end asks the following question:

    “The ancient interpreters’ boldness in rewriting was motivated and justified, Professor Kugel writes, by a fresh apprehension of God and the corresponding need to flesh out the command, found in the Book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere, “to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.” Is it so impossible that modern scholarship, too, could be put to that service?”

    I note a certain desire here to make the Bible speak to the modern world, not just to segregated Orthodox Jews. This, I think is a major, missional advantage of Childs’ approach as it tries to straddle the divide. I actually believe the Church needs to take his preposals seriously in order to be a serious witness in this generation.


    which quote from Childs is “a completely subjective statement that he asserts and builds upon”?

    Second, your comments on text, canon etc. have all been adequately responded to by Childs (some more clearly than others, but these issues dog the discipline anyway, so it’s hardly an issue Childs alone must deal with). I’ve spent a lot of time debating this with various people. I recommend Seitz’s essay “The Canonical Approach and Theological Exegesis” (2006), where he deals with each of your criticisms point by point. The frustrating thing is, Childs has been defending himself all along. But the criticisms that are consistently levelled against him never take into account his response. Whether he’s right or wrong, one would have thought that his opponents would give him the benefit of a hearing!

    I’m looking at him bit by bit on my blog, though it’s a slow process as there are so many misunderstanding to be cleared away.

  13. Jake permalink
    September 21, 2007 10:31 pm

    My impression is that Eissfeldt wasn’t quite as agnostic or unsupportive of the church as you might think. There’s a wonderful little selection of his in the compendium of OT theology that Eisenbrauns published. It’s about 20 pages and represents (in my opinion) the most mature HC perspective.

    I haven’t read Kugel so I can’t comment on any possible connection.

    As for Childs’–I actually read the entirety of his biblical theology and found it to be more of a history of scholarship of any given field with the occassional cheap shot at anyone advocating a type of sociological model. I never really understood what he was trying to say in a succint way. To me, his logic seemed a bit “dialectical”–that is to say, he wanted to agree to principles that inherently have tension, much like Barth (though Childs’ wasn’t quite that arcane). Tension is something I can’t wrap my head around as easily as maybe I should.

  14. jimgetz permalink*
    September 22, 2007 9:03 am

    Phil, your quote of Childs:

    “The entire OT is consistent in confessing that there is a divine address in Scripture to a covenant people, mediated through the law-givers, prophets, and sages that continually break through the filters of human consciousness in spite of its claims of autonomy”.

    Was what I was referring to. It is an affirmation of faith that he then uses to build his interpretation on. At best it’s confessional biblical theology, not simply canonical. IMHO James Sanders does a much better job canonically because he comes from a less doctrinal position.

    Childs may have been defending himself all along, but it makes no difference in terms of specific work in and of themselves. IOW, Childs may deal later with criticisms of his Intro, but it in now way makes that work less subjective if he later tightens his methods.

    I might have to check out Seitz’s essay. Thanks for the tip. Just because I think that Childs Intro doesn’t hold water doesn’t mean I want to scuttle the whole canonical enterprise.

    BTW: at the end of his book, doesn’t Kugel say that traditional confessional views of Scripture and higher-criticism are irreconcilable? That would basically affirm what Childs is doing (how can you talk about the Megilot without mentioning the feasts to which they were attached?

    But I digress….

    Jake, I too have felt that way reading Childs. I think he was trying to do a Hegelian thing and couldn’t pull it off as well as Walter Brueggemann does (over and over again).

    I like the excerpt of Eisfeldt in the Eisenbrauns volume, but his gigantic, two volume work as a whole fell flat for me. I think he winds up boiling down the theologies of the Old Testament to too great a degree. Of course, I’d rather talk about the religions of ancient Israel than an Old Testament theology, so take that into account 😉

  15. Jake permalink
    September 22, 2007 8:33 pm

    Your comment about AI religion(s) and OT theology is very incisive. I miss the days when the two were one and the same (e.g. Eissfeldt), but that was 80 years ago. Most recent treatments on AI religion(s) make little (if any) attempt to consider Judeo-Christian theology.

    Two synthesis’ that maybe more historically oriented than say Childs’, yet theologically astute can be found in the writings of P. Miller and P. Hanson. I think they are more honest about the problems associated with using historical texts theologically, and they were both students of Cross, Lambdin, and Moran.

  16. Jake permalink
    September 22, 2007 8:36 pm

    One more thing: In confessional circles Childs’ is always treated with a bit of disdain, as if he were playing a bit fast and loose–but when the rubber meets the road–they tend to agree with his theory. Ironic. Building one’s theology on Qohelet and Job make things much easier–you can then poke fun at pretty much every other biblical author and perspective.

  17. October 4, 2007 4:58 pm


    Sorry that this response is so late.

    I’m afraid I still don’t get how the quote is a pure assertion, detached from the nature of the texts. Childs says “the whole OT”. Surely a proper response is to show how this is in reality not the case. Where is the faith claim? You don’t even have to believe this claim is true in order to agree that the whole Old Testamet makes this basic claim. Can you provide evidence for where the OT claims that God does not address his people is such a way that his intended message can get accross? I find that hard to imagine!

    Yes, do read Seitz’s essay. I have spent about 5 months reading nothing but Childs and have come to the conclusion that no one understands the man as well as Seitz. The essay should be a bench mark for further discussion on the subject.

    As for Kugel and Childs: they are totally different! That’s why I quoted the NYT, as I believe that Childs’ approach can be a way of getting over the impass between confessional and secular reading which Kugel proposes. Childs’ whole career was an attempt to provide a theological response to the genuine challenge of historical-criticism. He openly talks about the way the continuity between text and world which the Reformers assumed has broken down, how Driver broke the back of conservative opposition in England, of the brilliant insights of form criticism. The canonical approach (as Childs and Seitz understand it) is designed for what Seitz calls “our historical season of interpretation”. I don’t know how you could think that this is similar to what Kugel suggests. (I should add that Kugel was critiqued by Sternberger on the point of the relevance of extra-textual reality to biblical interpretation, and that Childs agrees with Sternberger on this [1992: 20]).


    Childs is treated with disdain by just about everybody. But that, for me, is part of his strength. When both liberals and conservatives and criticising you on the same topic but from opposite ends of the spectrum, then you are probably on to something. As Seitz points out in the aforementioned essay, part of what makes Childs susceptable to this kind of thing is his sheer ambition. The scope of what he is proposing is incredible, and given his critical training in Germany and the position of his career at the transition point between two generations of scholars, I think he’s suited to the enterprise.


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