From Horror to Prevention

Jason M. Silverman, University of Helsinki

Recently the field of Hebrew Bible has been rocked by another scandal, following closely on the heels of allegations of theft and smuggling of ancient manuscripts. Yet I was still shocked by the recent revelation that Jan Joosten, the now suspended professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, Oxford, was convicted of possessing tens of thousands of images of the sexual abuse of children. A flurry of activity on social media and the websites of related academic societies ensued; the most eloquent response I have seen so far was posted on the Shiloh Project (by Johanna Stiebert). To date I have largely remained in stunned silence, for what words suffice in the face of such abuse? And this is merely the tip of a depraved iceberg: there is an entire list of biblical scholars convicted of similar sexual offenses. Even worse, as noted by M. Adryael Tong in the “Annual Meeting Hotel Lobby,” the number of victims of child abuse is staggering: 10% of children. The victimization of children—particularly those of color—is a daily occurrence at the behest of the US government, to little censure by faith leaders. Networks for trafficking children such as those run by Epstein remain un-dismantled, while those supposed to prosecute them are implicated in perpetuating them. We need to mobilize our horror at these things towards stopping them.

How can we, as Biblical scholars, respond in a meaningful way, to change structures that allow such abuse to exist and persist, to protect potential victims, and help heal surviving victims? Biblical scholars might be inclined to turn to their specialty and offer commentary on distressing passages such as the rape of Dinah in Gen 34 or on broader themes of sexual violence in the text.

However, another question is how to treat the publications of scholars convicted of such crimes. From the perspective of the sociology of research, citations are the currency by which reputations and careers are made, funding granted, and positions of power offered. This means that a citation has an effect beyond just the ideas in the work towards the author’s place in academia. Should one continue to cite them as if normal? Erase their memory by never citing them again? Cite them with a footnote noting their crimes? Christianity has long had this debate over art and artists, theology and theologians as well. Should we reject Tillich or Barth because they couldn’t stay zipped up?

Even more, how can we support marginalized communities in and around the guild? Such groups include children, adult survivors of abuse, and transgender students and scholars to only name a few. One response is to donate to organizations that work with and for victims, as Ron Hendel has announced he will do with the proceeds from his co-authored book. There are a number of organizations that work towards child welfare which one could support.

As worthy as all of the above responses are, they are unlikely to accomplish enough structural change in the field of biblical studies (or in the academy at large). In this they are somewhat ‘prophetic’[i] in addressing specific problematic behaviors while leaving intact the social structures that enable them. We need to think more broadly—either with regular ethical and meta-disciplinary seminars on best practices in the field, and/or by fostering more open and democratic structures that reduce the ability of perpetrators to hide behind power and influence. Maybe faculties or professional associations need to make access to confidential spiritual, psychological, and addiction support services easier for victims as well as potential perpetrators. We need better structures for dealing with abuses that neither ignore the voices of victims nor degrade the rights of the innocent. Such changes take time, but they would help address other abuses of power as well (e.g., sexual harassment).

Whatever decisions one comes to in relation to these specific ethical questions or ones I have not mentioned, one thing is clear: neither professional nor lay readers of the Bible can remain content with the status quo. Our responsibility includes changing the structures that enable abuses to occur and their perpetrators to repeat their abuses, not just in their repudiation. This may require some radical rethinking of the way we work.


[i] I.e., like the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, which call for social justice, but do not call for any changes in the social structures that create oppression.

Their Eyes Swell Out With Fatness: Metaphor and Emotion in Psalm 73

Their eyes swell out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.

Psalm 73:7 (NRSV)

Richard Liantonio, University of Manchester

Gorged-out eyes, fat bulging between eye and socket, a horrifying gaze, an evil scheme. The picture is stark and perhaps shocking, but a reasonable first impression from the line their eyes swell out with fatness. This expression only occurs once in the Bible, prompting debate over its meaning and even proposals to correct the Hebrew text. Some commentators call the expression “absurd,” or “incomprehensible.” Others refer to it as an “ancient” or “archaic” metaphor.  The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer (BCP) translates “Their iniquity comes from gross minds.” This seems to follow the path of changing one consonant in the Hebrew text of “their eyes” (Heb. עֵינֵמוֹ) to “their iniquity” (Heb. עֲוֹנָמוֹ), while interpreting the Hebrew “from fat” (מֵחֵלֶב) metaphorically as a “gross mind.”

My PhD research focuses on the use of metaphor and metonym to express emotion in the Psalms, particularly happiness. Metaphorical language can be notoriously difficult to interpret. Part of the joy of my research is discovering new ways to view texts in light of their ancient linguistic contexts. Psalm 73:7a is often interpreted as a negative metaphor (BCP “gross mind”), as a caricature depicting the disgusting, bulging eyes of an abhorrently evil person. I would like to suggest the possibility that instead of referring to being “gross,” “callous/unfeeling,” “gluttonous,” “lustful,” “proud,” “lazy,” or “unreceptive,” (as other scholars have suggested) this line is a metaphorical figure of speech[1] for the excitement, pleasure, and even happiness of the albeit wicked person. The reasons are as follows:

  • Though at times fat, when occurring with heart (לֵב), has negative connotations related to callousness or lack of feeling (cf. Ps. 17:10; 119:70; Isa. 6:10), we see earlier in Psalm 73:4 בָּרִיא fat, a word semantically related to חֵלֶב (cf. their use together in Judg. 3:17, 22; Ezek. 34:3), where the reference is clearly positive: For they have no pain, their bodies are perfect and fat. The use of fatness to refer to health and well-being is common in the ANE.[2] The larger conceptual domain of fat (דשׁן, חלב, שׁמן, etc.)  is commonly associated with prosperity, abundance (Gen. 45:18; Num 18:12; Deut. 32:14; Psa. 81:17; 147:14), fertility (Num. 13:20; Neh. 9:25, 35), well-being, and happiness (cf. Psa. 23:5; Prov. 15:30; Sir. 26:13, 43:22).
  • While translations like “swell out” (NRSV) and “bulge” (NASB, NKJV, HCSB, CEV) can suggest an abnormal anatomical phenomenon, these are interpretive translations of the Hebrew יָצָא, which simply means to go out. Obviously eyes protruding can seem prima facie abnormal, but not necessarily when contrasted to the opposite – a sunken eye which can indicate (or be a metonym for) unhappiness: my eye becomes weak from grief (Psa. 6:8, also 31:10); my eye melts away (sinks?) from sorrow (Psa. 88:10); my eyes are finished from weeping (Lam. 2:11; cf. Ps. 69:4). In this light, the eye that “goes out” rather than sinks reflects the normal, healthy, and happy condition.
  • Swelling is a common metaphor for happiness in Akkadian and Ugaritic (two ancient languages closely related to Hebrew), though this swelling routinely occurs in the heart or liver/innards, rather than in the eyes. As a representative example from the Ugaritic Baal epic:[3]

Her innards/liver swelled with laughter

Her heart filled with joy

Anat’s innards/liver with victory.

The Hebrew Bible does not seem to contain this particular metaphor, but is replete with broader metaphorical frameworks that happiness is swelling participates in: happiness is expansion/unhappiness is constriction (Psa. 4:2; 18:20; 25:17; 31:9; 66:12)[4] and happiness is an object/fluid in a container (a flexible container will “swell” as it is filled; Psa. 4:8; 16:11; 19:3; 45:2; 119:171; 145:7). 

  • The parallel phrase: their hearts overflow with follies (NRSV) also contains a metaphor for happiness. As noted above, a number of biblical passages depict happiness as a fluid inside the container of the heart, which enthusiastically overflows, often in the form of speech. For example, Psalm 45:2: my heart overflows with a pleasing theme (cf. Psa. 19:3; 119:171; 145:7).

Taken together, it seems less likely that the line in question is a caricature, an intentionally exaggerated and disgusting physical depiction of the wicked. This especially so, considering none of the surrounding verses attempt to do likewise, and the physical descriptions in verse four are overwhelmingly positive (their bodies are perfect!). Rather, in this line, the protruding rather than sunken eyes seem to depict the emotions of a person experiencing happiness and prosperity, similar to phrases describing the shining eyes/face of a person (cf. Num. 6:25; Psa. 34:6; 104:15; Eccl. 8:1; Isa. 60:1). Perhaps this line is automatically taken as negative because it is describing otherwise evil persons. But central to this Psalm is that the wicked are prosperous and well off, while the righteous suffer, creating a crisis of faith for the psalmist. I hope this brief exercise shows the significance of metaphor and emotion in our reading and interpretation of biblical texts.


[1] Technically an instance of metaphtonymy, an interaction between metaphor and metonymy.

[2] cf. Dan 1:15; Gen. 42:2ff.

[3] CAT 1.3 ii 25-27. Cf. also CAD E: 88; CAD : 8-9; 138 for more examples.

[4] Philip D. King, Surrounded by Bitterness: Image Schemas and Metaphors for Conceptualizing Distress in Classical Hebrew (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 140–209.

Take My Unicorns But Leave the Hyssop

by Steven Bishop, PhD, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX

Students gaze at me in wide wonder when I tell them that unicorns are in the Bible, at least in certain translations of the Bible.  To add to their wonder, I tell them that the 1928 Book of Common Prayer has unicorns in three Psalms (Ps. 22:21; 29:6; 92:9). 

Psalm 92:9 But my horn shall be exalted like the horn of an unicorn; * for I am anointed with fresh oil.

Putting unicorns out to pasture was at least one of the goals of the 1979 revision of the Psalter and it succeeded. The unicorns have been replaced by ‘wild bulls’, which is a more fitting translation.

However, not all the excisions made to the Psalter of the 1979 Prayer Book are to be commended.  This Ash Wednesday we recited Psalm 51 together as a penitential prayer. One of the most evocative lines is verse 7:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

                       

Hyssop, also known as marjoram, is a central element of this imagery.  Hyssop is a plant used in the sprinkling of blood on the eve of the Exodus (Ex. 12) and in rituals of cleansing for leprosy and certain ritual purifications performed within the sacrifice of the Red Heifer (Num. 19).[1]  The poem has already mentioned washing, and this verse adds the imagery of sprinkling in a purification rite without using the word ‘sprinkle’.

In addition, the poem adds the evocative metaphor of snow. What does it mean to the psalmist to be washed so thoroughly, so completely that not one stain remains?  Is it not the prayer of one deeply penitent individual who realizes that without God’s cleansing they are powerless to attain forgiveness?  It seems to me it is.

It was therefore quite surprising to read this Ash Wednesday the same verse revised this way:

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Where did the hyssop go? Has it been sent off to grow in the pasture of the unicorns?  Without hyssop or snow the verse is pedestrian. It lacks the richness of the imagery present in the psalm and instrumental to appreciating the deep need of the psalmist who desires, no needs, this purification rite to be restored to God.

In a 1960 letter to a Mr. Beamer of Cleveland, Ohio, Rev. Charles Guilbert, the chair of the Drafting Committee at that time, agreed that ‘hyssop’ was obscure. He had offered the translating committee this revision:

Purge me, and I shall be cleaner than a gushing stream.

The committee did not accept that suggestion, to our great relief.  But it did offer something less gushing, less poetic, and without imagination.  This aspect of the revision is a failure.

Though talk of a revision of the Prayer Book seems to live perennially, talk of revising the Psalter is less prominent.  The Psalter of the Prayer Book has its problems but it doesn’t need a complete revision.  We only need to leave the unicorns out to pasture and allow the hyssop to bloom once again in Psalm 51.


[1]Irene Jacob, s.v. “FLORA,” 2:812. Ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1992 by Yale University as assignee from Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 4.1

https://accordance.bible/link/read/Anchor#39636

Exploring the Markan Jesus’ “Sea” Crossings

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, for the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars

Like most AABS members, I relate to the Bible in a number of ways: as a New Testament scholar; as a retired professor from a state university (unusual among AABS members); as a lay member of a local Episcopal church (AABS also includes many priests within the Anglican communion). I’d like to share an example of my approach to the New Testament by means of an exploration of the Markan stories of Jesus’ voyages on and around the Sea of Galilee.

The Gospel of Mark is a story, a narrative, a narrative about “the beginning of the good news of Jesus (the) Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Thus, the questions we ask of narratives are appropriate to ask of Mark’s Gospel: What is the narrator trying to communicate to the audience (in the first century, the audience would have been listeners more than readers)? How do the actions of the characters in the settings depicted help the author and narrator communicate with the audience?

Monika Liu Ho-Peh, The Stilling of the Tempest (1950s)

As a scholar, it became clear to me (and not to me alone) that Jesus’ two feedings of multitudes with their settings on the west and east sides of the Sea of Galilee function as a “Jewish” feeding (6:31-44) and a “Gentile” (non-Jewish) feeding (8:1-9). Telling these two parallel stories in these two settings portrays Jesus acting in an inclusive way. In fact, chapters 4-8 make a point of showing Jesus’ outreach not only to Jews, his own people, but to Gentiles—in teaching, healing, and feeding. These chapters also show the difficulty Jesus’ disciples experience in following his lead. When the Markan Jesus sends his disciples “to the other [east] side, to Bethsaida” at 6:45, they do not go as sent. The storm on the sea, Jesus’ walking to them on the water, and Jesus’ leading them from Galilee to Gentile territories to the north while continuing his teaching and healing—what I have called the “Markan detour”—eventually bring them “to Bethsaida” at 8:22, where one who is blind is made to see. Are those in Mark’s audience who are blind to the inclusive outreach of Jesus also made to see?

The author of Mark seems to be the first one to apply the term “Sea of Galilee” to the inland, fresh-water body of water that Luke calls by its more usual name the “lake of Gennesaret” (5:1). But Mark’s use of the term “sea” is likely not accidental. By calling the lake Jesus crosses so meaningfully—with or without a boat—the “sea,” Mark taps into the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament echoes of the chaotic sea as the place where God’s people must rely on God’s protection and direction (e.g., Psalm 107). In addition, Mark alludes to the story of the prophet Jonah, who was sent by God to bring a message to the Ninevites, a Gentile nation, but, reluctant to do so, booked passage on a ship in the opposite direction, falling asleep in the boat during a storm on the “sea” (like Jesus). The sailors, like Jesus’s disciples, “feared with a great fear,” and Jonah ended up at the bottom of the sea (not walking on it like Jesus) before eventually reaching the Gentile territory and proclaiming his God-given message. Although the Markan Jesus does not need such a nudge to proclaim God’s message to Gentiles, the disciples in Mark seem to. But Jesus, like the God he follows, gives his followers a second chance. Does the Markan author also give his first-century audience a second chance to see God’s surprising message of inclusivity?

While Mark’s geographical knowledge has been questioned in 21st-century terms, I am convinced that he expected the audience to understand, in 1st-century terms, the ethnography indicated by the geographical references: this is a story about Jesus interacting with Jews and Gentiles. My latter-day audiences have needed some help with this, and I have used a variety of strategies in my multiple contexts. In a university classroom with a large table, we constructed a map of Galilee on the table, with a roll of blue crepe paper for water and signs for the place names, and traced the movement of the Markan Jesus through the narrative. Without the table, we constructed the map on the floor and had students take turns walking across the map to the next destination. Without a large table or room on the floor, I projected a map of Galilee on the white board and students took turns marking the journeys with colored markers. In a good-size church, I once envisioned the main aisle as the River Jordan and the chancel area as the Sea of Galilee and marked the journeys with my own movement in those spaces. In a fourth- and fifth-grade Sunday school classroom, I once used a child’s wading pool for the Sea of Galilee, and we made paper boats to blow across the sea. Have my audiences been enabled to see this expansive good news? That is the goal of AABS members.