Attending a meeting of SBL/AAR (the Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion) is not unlike strolling along San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk: options abound, and all of them interesting, at least to people of a certain bent. The Alamo is just around the corner, a relic of days gone by but still commemorated for its symbolic meaning. The Bible is at the heart of SBL meeting — an ancient document, but still celebrated as a living book that’s worthy of continued study.
That study takes many forms, and the SBL/AAR meeting offers hundreds of sessions exploring various aspects of biblical study, both directly and indirectly. I like to sample a variety of sessions, so I began by attending a section called “Jonah Among the Prophets.” Three scholars from Rhodes College joined forces to discuss various angles of Jonah 4:5-6, wondering why God would raise up a miraculous qiqqayon (gourd) plant to provide Jonah shade (v. 6), since Jonah had already built for himself a sukka (booth) to provide shade. Steven McKenzie offered a historical review of various attempts to solve the problem through denial, text criticism, narrative solutions, and redaction criticism. His colleague Rhiannon Graybill sought to apply more recent approaches including spatial theory, trauma theory, and affect theory (all new to me), along with a nod to a postcolonial and ecological reading. John Kaltner took a different approach, reviewing ways in which Jonah is treated in the Quran. The various presentations didn’t solve the problem, but had fun trying.
Hugh Pyper, of the University of Sheffield, offered an interesting take in a provocative paper called “Why Didn’t Jonah Jump? The Priority of the Jonah Psalm as a Solution to This and Other Puzzles.” His starting point was the question of why Jonah, aboard a ship and knowing he was guilty of having incurred the wrath of God that resulted in a storm, didn’t jump overboard on his own, but put the poor sailors on the spot by requiring them to throw him overboard. He finds the answer in 2:3, a line from Jonah’s prayer/psalm that says “You cast me into the deep.” That wouldn’t work, Pyper said, if Jonah had jumped. Most redaction critics argue that the psalm is later than the prose part of Jonah, but Pyper argued that the psalm came first, and served as the backbone upon which the prose story was constructed. He may not get many takers, but it was a fascinating idea.
Two other papers explored a reading of Jonah by Abravanel (a 15th century Jewish statesman, philosopher, and Bible commentator), and a discussion of how or why Jonah is placed in it’s canonical context. In short, in Jonah Nineveh escapes destruction by repenting, while Nahum announces the destruction of Nineveh: Jonah offers hope, but Nahum gets the last word.
For the afternoon (instead of watching Duke play Penn State in basketball) I chose a section on Assyriology and the Bible. Spencer Allen of the University of Arkansas compared ways in which local goddesses were transformed in Roman Catholicism into the Madonna (such as the Lady of Guadaloupe) with ways in which local goddesses in Mesopotamia were absorbed into the image of Ishtar. Rannfred Thelle of Wichita State University offered a fascinating review of ways in which advances in understanding of the Enuma Elish (an ancient Babylonian epic that includes a story of creation) have rarely been incorporated by modern biblical scholars, who cling to familiar but outdated comparisons of the Enuma Elish to Genesis, particularly with regard to Tiamat as a chaos goddess. Maria Enid Rodriguez of the Catholic University of America compared the term “word of Yahweh” to similar terms regarding the word of various gods in Neo-Assyrian oracles. Dominik Markl discussed the use of the rare Akkadian term ilu shu ilani (god of gods) to the expression “God of gods” for Yahweh in Deut. 10:17 and other texts. Don’t you wish you had been there?
A late afternoon section on “Current Historiography of Israel and Judah” began with Carly Crouch of the University of Nottingham arguing that Jeremiah sometimes used the terms Israel and Judah, not for the northern and southern kingdoms, but as code words for people of Judah who were carried into Babylonian exile (Israel), and those less-favored persons who were left behind (Judah). Lauren A.S. Monroe of Cornell University discussed the meaning of Bet-yosef (“House of Joseph”) in the biblical narrative. She argued that it was not mainly a reference to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s sons), but may have been a political entity that contributed in some ways to the early monarchy, corresponding in some ways with the Bet-dawid (“House of David”). Daniel Fleming of New York University and Brendon Benz of William Jewell College explored several references to the am-YHWH (people of Yahweh) and Israel. Were they the same, or different? There was more, but you probably don’t want to hear it.
For a change of pace, tonight we’re attending an AAR session called “The People Against George Lucas,” which includes a documentary on the way people who loved the original three Star Wars movies (Episodes 4-6) with almost religious fervor have been unmerciful in their criticism of the three “prequels” (Episodes 1-3) and the latest edition, Episode 7.
Tomorrow I’m checking out sessions on Genesis and the Archaeology of the Biblical World, plus others to be named later.
In between, we cruise the Riverwalk and eat. After weeks of stewing in the country’s depressing polarization, it’s a refreshing break.