Bible Readers’ Inventories

Many factors influence how we read any document, including — perhaps, especially — the Bible. Spending some time exploring factors that influence our own reading is an important and useful exercise. The complex, multi-faith territory of #ExploringBabylon is just one area in which a good grasp of one’s own filters can be clarifying.

Here are some resources to help in that effort.

1) Social Location

Over twenty years ago, Fortress Press, a Christian-oriented press in Minneapolis since 1962, published two volumes on “Social Location” and Bible hermeneutics:

Are some readings of the Bible more objective than others? More privileged? More true? How does one’s own life situation shape one’s reading of the text? What will acknowledgment of the validity of a variety of perspectives mean for historical-critical methods of interpretation?

The first volume included a “self-inventory” developed by faculty and students of Christian seminaries.

Gottwald, N.K. “Framing Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary: A Student Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics.” Reading from This Place, Vol. 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States. F. F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995. 256-261. (On-line source here.)

Of particular note for the purposes of this blog and #ExploringBabylon:

What is my view of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity? To what extent is my view informed by direct experience of Jews or Jewish communities? How does my view affect my understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and my understanding of the religious identity of Jesus, Paul, and other central figures in the New Testament.

2) Diversity and Social Location

Decades later, the same press issued The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible, designed to help readers both “formulate their own social location as a key to understanding the Bible and its import for them” and “reclaim the Bible as a multicultural, dialogical, and living tradition.” As part of the latter effort, the book includes a self-inventory, updated but quite similar to the previous one, also intended for Christians, primarily students.

“A Self-Inventory for Bible Readers.” Peoples’ Companion to the Bible. DeYoung, Gafney, etal., eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, xxix-xxxii. (Related resources and link to download “Introduction,” which includes the self-inventory, at Peoples’ Companion page.)

In the 2010 version, the question on Judaism is gone, and this one has been added:

Your religious community. If you identify yourself now with a particular religious community, how would you describe the way the Bible is understood and read (if it is) in that community? What is the cultural or racial makeup of your religious community? Is a diversity of people an important value in your religious community? Does this affect the way the Bible is understood?

3) A Different Location

The self-inventories cited above are powerful and useful tools. They are designed explicitly for Christians, however.

On the face of it, Jews and Christians share some sacred text. Our approaches to that text, and the overall context in which we read, differs enormously, however. In addition, Jewish and Christian religious communities are organized differently, so Bible-reading influences will reflect different sets of dynamics.

This blog failed to find a parallel instrument for Jewish readers of the Bible. If anyone knows of such a source, PLEASE share it! Meanwhile, here is a draft effort, “Jews’ Self-Inventory for Bible Readers DRAFT.”

The “Customary Exposure” question, for example, has been adapted for Jewish readers:

How do you usually encounter the Bible, if at all, today?

Through the Torah and Haftarah [weekly prophetic] readings, and any related commentary, during services? Through weekly commentaries/dvrei torah [words of Torah]? Group study, in- or outside of religious services, on the weekly Torah and Haftarah?

Do you recite or study psalms through the prayerbook? outside the prayerbook? Do you study from other Writings or the Prophets?…

Here is Self-Inventory DRAFT in PDF. It is also posted on for sharing in that forum.

Comments and suggestions from those willing to test-drive this inventory are most welcome.

The Hebrew Bible (Greenspan)

The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship. Jewish Studies in the Twenty-First Century. Greenspan, Frederick E., ed. (NY: NYU Press, 2008)

“There has been a veritable revolution, and possibly more than one, in biblical studies over the past generation….questions have led to a dramatic reexamination of the very nature of the biblical account, including both its literary quality and the ideas expressed in it.

“These challenges did not emerge in a vacuum. The concerns they raise reflect issues that plague our society as a whole….

“Meanwhile the fact that the Bible plays a significant role in several quite different communities forces those studying it (at least to the extent that they interact) to think about how it is treated in each tradition. And so the Bible’s role within religious communities has itself become a topic of inquiry as much for those within such communities as for those outside them.

“The goal of this book is to share these conversations, which have been going on in academic circles for decades, with a larger audience.”
— from the preface

Extra Note: The volume I’m reading comes from the library of Max Ticktin, z”l, and includes some of his pencil notes — which create a bit of on-going, if cryptic, counsel. I am grateful to Max (1922-2016), who retired from teaching Yiddish and Hebrew literature in 2014, for all he taught so many of us in- and outside the university. I miss him every day that I struggle through this project.


Belshazzar and the Wall

“Mene, Mene, Tekel”

Harold Rome (1908 – 1993), from 25th Anniversary “Pins and Needles” (1962)

Zimmers, Tighe E. Lyrical Satirical Harold Rome. Jefferson, NY (McFarland & Company 2014)
Obituary NY Times

Joe Glazer (1918-2006), from “The Jewish Immigrant Experience” 1989

Glazer, Joe. Labor’s Troubadour. (Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois, 2001)
Obituary NY Times

Lyrics (both versions) here

For more on this song, see “Babylon and the Writing on the Wall.”

Johnny Cash’s “Belshazzar” (1964) is a relatively straightforward re-telling of the biblical story, although it adds a detail not in the Tanakh (or in famous depictions, such as Rembrandt’s): the writing is in blood.

Wikipedia lists many more literary and artistic renderings and references.

Ur and Har(r)an in Bible and History

Writing in 1949, biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) sounds almost giddy in declaring the question of Ur’s location settled, following centuries of conjecture:

Today, especially after the brilliant results of Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations (1922-1933)…all agree that the Biblical Ur of the Chaldees is none other than this famous city, which was one of the most important…
— Umberto Cassuto. A Commentary on the Book of Genesis Part Two: From Noah to Abraham (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964; Hebrew, first published 1949), p.272

In 1983, when the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute was planning an expedition in the area, Harran was assumed to have importance both “in its biblical context” and “study of ancient Near Eastern religion” (OI News and Notes on The Harran Expedition [PDF: nn88]; more News and Notes on OI’s website).

Please note: For the purposes of this blog, Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldees) of Genesis is understood as the historical Ur, and “Haran” of Genesis is understood as “Harran” of history. In addition, Padan-Aram and Aram Naharaim, other names used in Genesis for Abraham’s country, are understood to mean something similar to “Mesopotamia,” i.e., place between the rivers.

And just to be clear: None of this means that Terah &Co were historical figures; there is (to date, I’m pretty sure) no extra-biblical evidence of their existence. Instead, what it means is that the narratives of Genesis are tied up with historical places that carried specific meanings we will miss without some background on those ancient places.

Cities of “Sin”

One of the things we’d miss without looking at what archaeology and history can tell us is the long-lasting worship-based connection between Ur and Harran:

The foremost astral deities were, of course, §ama§ (Sumerian Utu) and Sin (originally Su’en, Sumerian Nanna), the sun god and the moon god. Each had two major centers in Mesopotamia, §ama§ in Larsa and in Sippar, where his temples were called “White House,” and Sin in Ur and in far-off Harran. Both maintained their popularity throughout the entire history of Mesopotamian civilization….
— A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization by A. Leo Oppenheim, revised by Erica Reiner. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964, 1977)

In the course of Nabonidus’s reign [6th Century BCE], it became increasingly clear that there was to be a new, more inclusive religious identity uniting the empire: the worship of the moon god Sin, who unlike Marduk was not tied to a single city but was indigenous to both the Babylonian south (Ur) and the Aramean north (Haran).
— Albertz, Israel in Exile, p.65 (see sources cited)

See also Cassuto in “Babylon: Back Home

from OI News and Notes 1983

Everybody Comes to Harran

North from Babylonia. West from Assyria. South from Anatolia. Wherever your point of origin or final destination in the ancient near East, your caravan was likely to take you through Harran — a city identified with the Haran [חָרָן] of Genesis:

A clue to the importance and function of Harran in the economic life of the ancient world can be found in the name of the city itself. Harran means “journey or caravan,” and its location at the crossroads of some of the most important ancient trade routes explains the frequent references to the city in sources that date from the third millennium to the first millennium [BCE].
— Douglas Esse (1950-1992), then Associate Director of The Harran Expedition,
the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, OI News & Notes, 1983

Oriental Institute

The University of Chicago’s first president, William Rainey Harper, was a Professor of Semitic Languages, and his brother, Robert Francis Harper, was an Assyriologist. They both taught a the university from its founding in 1891, and the university established the Haskell Oriental Museum, focusing on the ancient Near East, in 1896.

The Oriental Institute was founded in 1919 to research the ancient Near and Middle East. OI sponsors excavations and surveys, operates a museum, publishes many resources, and shares materials on-line.

Here are some of the OI materials available on-line:

Israel in Exile (Albertz)

Albertz, Rainer, Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E., translated by David Green (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

A review in the Journal of Religion calls this book a “biblical, historical, literary, and theological masterpiece.” Albertz is a Christian scholar of “Old Testament,” trained in Protestant Theology at Heidelberg. (See also “Babylon and the Beginning.”) His training is evident throughout this work, but he offers a lot of background and insight focused solely on Tanakh.

Using biblical text and materials of the Neo-Babylonian period, Albertz explores life for exiled Judeans in Babylon. The first two sections, “The Biblical Picture of the Exilic Era” and “The History of the Exilic Era,” offer plenty of detail (in 138 pages).

The next section, “The Literature of the Exilic Period” (roughly two-thirds of the book), analyzes biblical text. Albertz shares detailed insights about the vision and world view behind various narratives and prophecies, but the reader has to work to get to them: The bulk of the discussion involves assigning portions of the Tanakh to appropriate documents, such as “PH (Patriarchal History)” and “JerD (Deuteronomist Jeremiah).”

The final section on “Theological Contribution” is overtly Christian.

Citations to scholarship in German and other Christian sources are unlikely to be helpful to many readers of this blog.

The quote above is all that’s available without paying $10 for the review. Here’s the citation: John Ahn, “Rainer Albertz, Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E,” The Journal of Religion 85, no. 2 (April 2005): 305-307.

Another note: If anyone reading this knows of volumes of any comparable depth by Jewish studies authors — especially ones that are not $140 for an ebook or $300 for print — please advise. Titles local college libraries are likely to stock also most welcome.

Babylon Complex

Runions, Erin. The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty (NY: Fordham University Press, 2014)

Babylon is a surprisingly multivalent symbol in U.S. culture and politics. Political citations of Babylon range widely….A composite biblical figure, Babylon is used to celebrate diversity and also to condemn it, to sell sexuality and to regulate it, to galvanize war and to worry about imperialism.
— abstract

Runions devotes 300 pages to unpacking various uses of Babylon in U.S. culture and politics. Her work, to be clear, is not about Judaism, although she focuses on the Hebrew bible; her essays encompass Christian scriptures and interpretations, as well as details that, while illuminating, are otherwise beyond the scope of this project. Still, recommend The Babylon Complex and hope to explore some of its ideas in #ExploringBabylon.


Everyday Life

Contenau, Georges, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria (NY: The Norton Library, 1966).

This classic study focuses in on the period 700-530 BCE, both as an era, in itself, “so pregnant with events that shaped the face of the ancient world” (p.2) and as somewhat representative of two and a half millenia of the region’s history. The chosen period is also, more pragmatically, a period about which more is known that other eras of Mesopotamian history.

Originally published in French, 1950. More on Contenau.

Contenau Babylon

Babylon by Kriwaczek

Paul Kriwaczek, Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2010).

Reviewers called Babylon “a pertinent, accessible study, more lively than scholarly,” and “a first-rate guide to a fascinating ancient civilization that continues to influence us today” (Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, respectively).

It has also been noted that Babylon over-reaches, giving too much credit to Mesopotamia in terms of influence on later cultural developments (The Independent). This is something to keep in mind while enjoying this thoroughly readable, insightful — and occasionally funny — book on an otherwise formidable subject.

Kriwaczek Babylon

Paul Kriwaczek (1937-2011) was a BBC journalist for 25 years and head of central Asian affairs for the BBC World Service. Here are two touching obituaries at The Guardian and The Independent from colleagues who knew him.