Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Emerson Powery- The Bible as a Source of Liberation

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Emerson Powery about biblical interpretation in the Antebellum narratives of the enslaved as they explore the following questions:

  • Why did enslaved people adopt the religion of their enslavers?
  • What is intertextuality?
  • What was the significance of Paul for enslaved people? 
  • What books or passages were emphasized in slave spirituals?
  • Why is resurrection not emphasized in slave narratives?
  • What was the significance of the curse of Ham in the Antebellum period?
  • What is proof-texting?
  • Is the Bible a book of liberation?
  • How is biblical interpretation a living tradition?
  • How has Emerson’s study of history influenced his experience in his faith community?
  • What is the power of imagination in biblical interpretation?
  • How did enslaved people understand Jesus?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Emerson Powery you can share. 

  • “Love God, love neighbor seems to be a fundamental starting point.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “If my reading of the Bible dehumanizes someone, there’s probably something wrong with my reading of the Bible.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “I think the Bible cannot speak for itself, I think the Bible always has interpreters.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “Communities read Scripture best when they are committed to one another and committed to others.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “How does one use the Bible in relation to the other?”@EmersonBPowery

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript



Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Welcome everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Today we have with us Emerson Powery, who is a Biblical Studies Professor at Messiah College and it was a very interesting conversation. We brought him in because, Pete, you had heard him before.

Pete: Yeah, he came to Eastern University a couple of years ago. He gave a talk on this topic, which we’re going to talk about in a second. And it was just very impressive and really awakening in just, ya know, listen, you hear people talk about things they know something about and you don’t know much about it at all, and it was just very impressive and I felt like I was missing out on so much. I just knew I wanted to keep talking to Emerson about this topic.

Jared: We want to be clear about the topic, so we’re putting it off because we want to talk about it a little bit – it’s biblical interpretation in the antebellum narrative of the enslaved.

Pete: Right.

Jared: And that comes from the subtitle of his book and so, let’s just talk a little bit about what that means. We’re talking about biblical interpretation, how the Bible was interpreted in the antebellum narratives of the enslaved. What’s the antebellum narratives of the enslaved?

Pete: Before the civil war.

Jared: Right. So, while they’re enslaved, there’s these narratives that historians like Emerson have been able to recover and read and see how the Bible’s being used in these letters, and he calls them narratives. I think there’s letters and other parts of texts –

Pete: Right. Well, they’re telling their story –

Jared: Right.

Pete: And from the point of view of those who were formerly enslaved. So, these stories are really being documented, let’s say, after the end of the civil war. But, it’s just a wonderful window into, really the nature of Biblical interpretation, that we’re all doing things like appropriating texts in ways that are meaningful to us, and, you know, I just thought it was a fascinating discussion when I heard him first a couple of years, and when we have this interview with him. And, the title of the book is The Genesis of Liberation, that’s the main title. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today, and we had a really enlightening time talking with Emerson about a topic he’s thought an awful lot about.

Jared: Alright, well, let’s get to it!

[Music begins]

Emerson: I think the Bible cannot speak for itself. I think the Bible always has interpreters.

Pete: Well, if there’s no one concrete way of understanding these texts, if we’re all sort of reading these things in light of our experience, how do you ever know which side is right? And the answer might be, well, how are you treating people?

Emerson: No, I think that’s right. You know, love God, love neighbor seems to be kind of a fundamental starting point. So how does one treat one’s neighbor? How does one use the Bible in relationship to the other?

[Music ends]

Jared: Welcome, welcome Emerson, to this episode of the podcast. It’s great to have you on!

Emerson: Great, thanks to be with you guys.

Jared: Yeah, I’m real excited about our topic for today. Before we get there thought, can you just give us a little, one or two minute spiritual biography, both your spiritual journey, but also how did you become interested in this topic, the Bible as a source of liberation, and how the Bible was received in the antebellum period, and all the things that you do now. How did you get into that? So maybe start there.

Emerson: Okay. I grew up in a Christian home. My father is a minister, retired minister, and my parents actually came to the U.S. They came from the Caribbean and they came to the U.S. as missionaries. So, I grew up, in many ways, a missionary kid. I was born in New York. My two other brothers were born on the islands, but I was born in New York. So, I grew up in a home in which there was lots of scripture reading, lots of engagement with the Bible. My parents also worked for the American Bible Society, so they were also very ecumenical and that also shaped my own kind of engagement with the Bible as an early, in my early years. Even though my father was the Pentecostal, was the black Pentecostal representative at the American Bible Society, they had a white Pentecostal and a black Pentecostal representative at the American Bible Society, that’s probably a conversation for another day, but that meant that the way we read scripture was very much about our experience and our, how it can inform our spiritual lives daily. And I grew up in that environment and that, I’m sure had a lot to do with my own kind of, trajectory, in terms of thinking about Biblical studies as a future. I didn’t begin there. I have an associate’s degree in aviation administration, so I began off in a very different route. My two older brothers, one went into accounting and the other one went into computer science, and I was kind of headed in that direction too, but somewhere in the middle of my college years, I felt a call to go into something more directly into ministry. Although, it didn’t feel like pastoral ministry.


So, it didn’t feel like the traditional pastorate, but I went and got an undergraduate degree in biblical and religious studies and then I went to seminary and continued on this journey, wrote a master’s thesis on Moses and the fourth gospel, but was really engaged in trying to figure out how lots of different people were utilizing the Bible. So, my own journey from those early years was starting to kind of inform larger theological questions for me. And so, I continue to pursue them and went on to do a Ph.D. study in what was called at the time Christian origins, early Christian origins, and wrote a dissertation on how Jesus used scripture. I was still very much interested in the function of scripture, how scripture was functioning for different communities, and all of that led me into investigation of how early African Americans in this country engaged the text, engaged the Biblical text. There was recent discussion when I was in grad school, Cain Felder’s edited volumes Stony the Road We Trod came out, and a number of my peers and I were kind of reading that on the side while we were doing our other, more formal work. And although at the time I didn’t quite see how intertextuality and black life was going together in direct, kind of, formal/theoretical ways, when I looked back at my dissertation, I had footnotes in there about Sojourner Truth and how she says I don’t just read small things like letters, I read texts and nations, right?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Emerson: So that was kind of informing behind the scenes, that was kind of doing some work on me.

Pete: Now, Emerson, before we go on, you mentioned a word intertextuality?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: Can you explain that?

Emerson: Yeah, so, I think about it simply as the way later texts interact with earlier texts. So, and that could happen in a variety of ways. So, I mean, early Christians reading from their sacred scripture, and how they might reread it in a specific kind of way. I’m just thinking, I was actually looking at a passage today in a class, we were looking at Deuteronomy 24 and then how Jesus reads it in Mark 10.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Emerson: In Deuteronomy 24, it’s talking about a male, right, giving a bill of divorcement to his wife. And it’s in a women in the Bible class, so in Mark 10 it was not just that the male could be allowed to give the bill of divorcement, but a female could be allowed to give a bill of divorcement, without going into Jesus’ own intention over divorce. You know, it’s just kind of an interesting engagement of one text inside of another text, and how that text functions there, but also how later readers engage with an older text. So, intertextuality, I know can be defined in more sophisticated, theoretical ways, but for me it’s as simple as one text getting new life in another text.

Pete: Yeah, and both of those texts are part of, let’s say, Christian scripture, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right. 

Pete: Because it’s within our Bible we see this relationship between texts, that’s intertextuality.

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right. That’s the way intertextuality is generally used in biblical studies, yeah.

Pete: Yeah. So okay, I mean, that brings us then, I think, to our topic, because we’re looking at the, and something you’ve written about recently, fairly recently, the way in which the Bible was used, can we say appropriated?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: Or maybe reimaged or something like that –

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: On the part of enslaved African Americans before the Civil War. And that’s an exploration on your part on just, on hermeneutics, on interpretation, right? And on how people have used texts and why they’ve used texts the way they have, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Jared: Well, that bring us to something we were talking about earlier before we hit record that we thought was really interesting, which is, you know, at the very beginning when we’re talking about enslaved peoples, it’s interesting that African Americans adopted the religion and the religious texts of those who enslaved them. And just curious if you have theories or thoughts on, or studies on why that is, like what was going on that led to that? Because it seems a little counterintuitive.


Emerson: No, I think that’s right. I think that’s, I would not say that that was the original question behind our work, but I would say that we were surprised by it as well, right? I mean, it’s one thing to, and it’s complicated. So, some formerly enslaved folks, and I’ll kind of use that, because most of the work that I was working on was working with traditionally called slave narratives. I like to refer to them as freedom narratives, because these are all written by formerly enslaved individuals who were then reflecting back on their time during human bondage. So, but some folks, when they heard “slaves obey your masters,” one particular writer by the name of Charles Ball, he talks about his grandfather. My grandfather finally heard “slaves obey your masters” enough, and finally walked away from the Christian religion altogether, and decided to return to the faith of our African gods. So, it’s complicated. Some people heard that message, “slave obey your masters,” and they decided to try to find another way to read Paul, right? So, and found, in Paul, a person, a fellow sufferer, a co-sufferer.

Pete: Uh huh.

Emerson: One that we could use, he now stands with us, right? And so, the Paul of Acts who says, God hath made, they’re all reading the King James version, right? God hath made of all nations one, made one of all nations, right? This idea from Acts 17, that’s the Paul they wanted to engage with. So, that was a way of putting in conversation with, hang on – the “slaves obey your masters” can’t be the final word. Must be something more.

Pete: So, they were capitalizing, is it fair to say they were capitalizing on the complex portrait of Paul in the New Testament itself, because Paul can sometimes sound like he’s not questioning the institution of slavery, and elsewhere he’s suffering at the hands of oppressors.

Emerson: Yeah, no –

Pete: So, you take, you sort of run with, and who hasn’t done this, right? You run with those parts that speak to you more directly.

Emerson: Yeah, the themes that you find, right, that kind of support your view.

Pete: Well, one question, just backing up from that a little bit.

Emerson: Sure.

Pete: I don’t know if this is even answerable, but, all, what we’re saying now assumes something that is still hard for, I think, some of us to understand, which is why that would’ve been an important argument for some enslaved peoples to make, which gets back to I guess Jared’s original question, like, why even have an interest in the religious system of people who were oppressing you? Is it, I mean, do you have an answer to that? To me, that’s a curious thing. I mean, we could just say cause they discovered that God loved them, and, you know, they went with that. But this is a foreign concept you would have to think.

Emerson: Yeah, I mean, I think that many of them were religious people, right? So, I’m not thinking here now of kind of first-generation folks who came over from Africa. They certainly came with some religious perspective. Al Raboteau and his Slave Religion book shows this. But those who were second, third, fourth generation here, and still in human bondage, the Frederick Douglass period, the Harriet Jacobs period, these folks grew up in circles, not just within the families that they serve, the white families that they serve, but they also knew other folks who were having religious ceremonies, right, in the brush harbor meeting. So, they were religious folks, and there are certainly lots of struggles. You can hear some of that in the spirituals, although we don’t wrestle with the spirituals in biblical interpretation. You could, but in the spirituals how those songs played out, right? So, there’s lot of spiritual songs about, a couple people have written on this, where there’s lots of suffering in the spirituals, and even crucifixion, Jesus, right, Jesus dying. But there’s not a lot of spirituals about resurrection, right? So, it’s kind of, so they’re religious and trying to understand what God is doing in the world, but at the same time it’s very complicated.


So, it’s an attempt to, I mean, what does one do if you’re having to develop your own theological construction, right? If the one that has been given to you doesn’t work, because it doesn’t, it’s not that it doesn’t feel right, it’s hard to begin with a God who doesn’t like me –

Pete: Right.

Emerson: That’s tough, so there’s lots of engagement, I think, through those songs, and we know they are, Frederick Douglass tells a story, not in the first narrative that he writes, or even in the second narrative he writes, but one that he writes towards the end of his life in which he found several pages the Bible that were soiled. They were just in the street. He says he just, he got ahold of them and he just cherished them, because he thought, here he got some access to the text that, yeah, his mistress had taught him to read, and by the way she taught him when he was nine years old, or seven years old, I can’t remember now which year, but it was very young. From the book of Job, that’s what he’s learning for the first time! I mean, can you imagine? The book of Job as a child, right?

Pete: Oh gosh, yeah.

Jared: Wow.

Emerson: So, he found these pages and he thought, I can read now. I get access on my own, I can kind of start to develop my own thinking. This is now, this is the Douglass, the later Douglass reflecting back on that. So, trying to wrestle out a theological system or a faith in God that feels and looks different than what you might be hearing on a regular basis, right? It doesn’t begin with God wants me in human bondage, he wants me enslaved; it begins with God loves me and this is, something’s wrong here. And so, Allen Callahan who wrote a book a number of years ago, different, very different, because he was looking at lots of African American sources, but he talks about the Bible as giving the early enslaved an opportunity to ask questions. So, it wasn’t just answering questions, it was giving them an opportunity to ask questions. And I find that to be very useful in my own, kind of, reading of the slave narratives. There’s lots of wrestling with scripture, so, that seemed to be just kind of part of the faith practice, part of what it meant to be a follower, part of what it meant to go out to the brush harbor, to sing these difficult songs in the middle of difficult times.

Jared: Well, when you’re talking about the spirituals, it made me think, you know, you said there’s a lot of emphasis on death and not as much on resurrection. It made me think, you know, we talk some on this podcast about how we all pick and choose from the Bible because it’s so diverse. And we can pick different starting places, like what you were saying, so do you find that in some of these freedom narratives, or in these freedom narratives, you find themes of a different starting place or what books or passages would’ve been emphasized over others and what does that kind of tell us about the faith of these folks?

Emerson: Yeah, one of the things we were actually, we never did it, but we had wanted to put kind of an index in the back of this book because we were really pleasantly surprised to see how many books of the Bible, how numerous passages that are just kind of referenced or highlighted. We went after some specific themes in our own work, but there were lots of books of the Bible that were being read and engaged. Harriet Jacobs, her critical biographer, Jean Fagan Yellin, who says that during her time, during Harriet Jacobs time when she was stuck in the garret, an attic of her grandmother’s house. For seven years she was up there. She actually ended up developing some significant leg cramps the rest of her life from this, but during that time she had no one to communicate with, but she had her Bible. Her grandmother had given her her Bible, and she just poured over those pages, and there’s lots of evidence of that in her narrative. She just has Job and Isaiah and the gospels. I’m actually working on something right now where I’m looking at Harriet Jacobs’ engagement with the Good Samaritan. I mean, just, lots of different texts that show up in her narrative. Some more subtle, some just seeming like just kind of an illusion. Other places where she’s really engaging the text more fully, and you can see it kind of play out in the narrative. So, there are lots and lots and lots of, for our work, we were trying to do a couple of things. On the one hand, I mean, it’s hard not to tell this story without thinking about how masters used Pauline language.


So, we were trying to then think about how the formerly enslaved, not only retold those stories in those settings in order to get some sense of reactions to those sermons, but also how they might’ve re-appropriated Paul and I mentioned earlier about the fellow sufferer of Paul, the Acts Paul, the Paul who sometimes we have a number of stories in the narratives where Harriet Jacobs actually tells one, but she’s not alone. Solomon Bayley tells one where they would hear a “slaves obey your masters” type sermon and the enslaved would simply hear the sermon and walk away and never come back. So just kind of a silent critique and then sometimes the narrators would tell you how the white minister would respond. There would be some reaction to it. So, there are lots of ways for engaging with Paul, but we also found that they wanted to think also about race and racial construction. So, the Genesis 9, curse of Ham myth that’s probably the dominant myth, Biblical myth, of this moment, antebellum period, there was some direction reactions to that.

Pete: Can you explain the curse of Ham for those who might not be familiar with it?

Emerson: Yeah! So, Noah and his sons and his entire family, right, they survived the flood in Genesis 9. And now Noah has had a little too much wine, and he is in, he’s drunk in the Genesis 9 narrative, and Ham, one of the children, sees his father’s nakedness. He comes out and he tells the other two brothers, Shem and Japheth, and they march in backwards with a cloth, with a garment to cover their father. They cover their father, Noah comes to, and he curses Canaan, the son of Ham. So, he doesn’t curse Ham directly, he curses Canaan and he says, well, one of the things he says is you will be, servant of servant shall you be. You will serve your brothers and their families and so, of course, there is right, in Biblical scholarship there are ways to think about that in relationship to Israel’s relationship to Canaan. For the nineteenth century context, that curse of Ham, or curse of Canaan became really crucial for thinking about, at least one rationale for why African people could be enslaved, right?

Pete: It was a proof text, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Pete: For pro-slavery people and let’s say, a very creative appropriation of that text.

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Pete: Because it really has absolutely nothing to do with this, but again, it’s a way to hook an existing belief into a sacred text.

Emerson: Right, and in the nineteenth century context, it would fit in well. I mean, not just in terms of the pro-slavery argument, but the idea that lots of people, even those not thinking about slavery directly, although it’s hard to imagine people who weren’t. But in the nineteenth century, lots of identification conversations were going on, right? As people groups and migration and the movement of ethnic groups was happening, lots of folks were reading the Bible or listening to the Bible and they were finding potential proofs for these identification markers, right? So, and they were using, yeah, there were lots of proof texts in this way. So, it would have fit quite naturally in that sense. Ah! That might explain it, right? Because lots of people are digging up stuff in the nineteenth century to think about identifying markers like that.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

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Pete: Yeah, and this, I mean, I don’t want to introduce more terminology than we need to –

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: But what we are talking about here is how communities receive this Biblical text and what they do with it.

Emerson: Yup.

Pete: Right? And that’s just a fascinating thing because I think we all do that on some level. We engage the text based on what we already believe and what we know to be “true,”-

Emerson: Right.

Pete: And we find hooks. I mean, maybe, I don’t know how you feel about this Emerson, but maybe a contemporary example of that is finding immigration reform in the Bible.

Emerson: Yeah, no, I think that’s a good one. I think there are several that one can find and when folks think about the present political moment and then they go to the Bible with that question, right, that’s all of a sudden, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting kind of interpretations that happen. Exegesis just –

Pete: To say the least.

Emerson: Right!

Pete: I guess, of course, in the period of time we’re talking about now, there is dehumanization happening.

Emerson: Right, that’s right.

Pete: Systemic dehumanization. So that might be, ya know, well, cause the question. You get this, I get this all the time. Well if there’s no one concrete way of understanding these texts, if we’re all sort of, like, reading these things in light of our experience, how do you ever know which side is right?

Emerson: Right.

Pete: And the answer might be, well, how are you treating people?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: That’s sort of the first thing to go to.

Emerson: No, I think that’s right. You know, love God, love neighbor seems to be kind of a fundamental starting point, so how does one treat ones neighbor? How does one, how does one use the Bible in relationship to the other, right? And so, if my reading of the Bible dehumanizes someone, it’s probably something wrong with my reading of the Bible.

Pete: Right.

Emerson: So, yeah.

Pete: Okay, well let me throw something at you then, and just to see how you would respond to a statement like this. The Bible is not really a book of liberation, but it can be read that way. Or would you disagree with that? The Bible is a book of liberation.

Emerson: No, yeah. I know lots of good people, people I would consider friends who would disagree with that. I don’t disagree with that. I think the Bible cannot speak for itself. I think the Bible always has interpreters. That is what complicates this, for lack of a better term, the American Bible, or any Bible in any particular culture, but this is where we are and this is, so the Bible comes to us through a variety of traditions, but it has to, we want it to now say something or at least those of us who are committed to having the Bible as a resource, as a theological resource, are committed to finding ways to allow it to speak in our contemporary moment. But part of what that means is I have to interpret it. So, it just can’t speak directly on its own.

Pete: It’s never just there.

Emerson: Right, yeah. So, I would agree with the way you put that.

Jared: Well, but, you know, just to add onto that, I think it doesn’t, you said it complicates it. I think it does complicate it, but it’s also, as you’re saying, it’s also that particular element of a text is also the opportunity for us to have it be relevant, have it be connected to our lived experience. So, it’s sort of two sides to the same coin. We can’t necessarily have it be relevant and connect to our lived experience without that, the risk of that interpretive element that it’s never just there. It’s never uninterpreted, but that’s the very act of making it alive today.

Emerson: I think that’s what makes it a living tradition. Yeah, that’s right, is the ongoing attempt, our ongoing attempt to interpret. And to interpret in community, to engage one another and not just to do it on our own. That’s what helps keep us all, I think, somehow, I mean those of us who are committed to reading the Bible within community, it helps keep us all in check. So that way we can call out one another if there is a dehumanizing, because I do think that draws the line. Someone within my community has to say to me, Emerson, something’s not right about that.


Jared: Good, well maybe you can carry on that line of thinking, because that’s exactly what I was going to ask is what are the values of, I would have grown up in a tradition more in line with sort of, it’s me and Jesus and this is a personal, devotional book. And there would have been a sense of community, but it wouldn’t have been the emphasis of reading this book in community and the value that it brings, so maybe, could you say a word or two more about the value of reading in community and maybe even what does it look like to read in community? What are the actual, like, just very simplistically, what does it mean to do that?

Emerson: Yeah. I mean, and first of all, I would say, you know, I’m not opposed to people reading the Bible devotionally. I think that’s a necessary practice, but I think that’s one practice, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.

Emerson: And people need multiple practices with scripture. And a practice that I find very useful is to read it along with others. To read it with others with whom I may, I’m committed to but I may not necessarily agree with. I may not agree with them in terms of their own theological systems that they’re speaking from. I may not agree with them in terms of even their political agendas, but to read scripture in communion, in that way, puts lots of, I think, really hard questions, both to the text and maybe we can hear the text differently. We can hear the Biblical text differently in that way. And I think to make this even, maybe more simple, I think as communities read scripture best when they’re committed to one another, and committed to others, right? Committed outside of themselves, so they’re looking at others around them, and I think reading scripture in the middle of that setting will raise the kinds of issues and questions and force us into actions, so, I don’t think that should be separate from, right? So, Harriet Jacobs, she was engaged in not just reading scripture, but she was running anti-slavery reading room. She was raising money, right, at the end of the Civil War for schools in D.C. and down in South Carolina and Alexandria, Virginia, and then down in South Carolina. I’m convinced, even though she doesn’t say this explicitly in her narratives, I’ve read all of her letters. The University of North Carolina published her letters and she’s the only African American female formerly enslaved for whom we have letters, and extraordinary, extraordinary documents. We can kind of trace her history and her faith is really crucial for the things that she’s doing. Her reading of scriptural texts and her engagement with others kind of go hand in hand, so, I think if we’re reading scripture on behalf of others, for their well-being, I think that’s a good starting point.

Pete: Mmm. Well, let me, let me ask, Emerson, I want to get back into the Old Testament a little bit here. I’m thinking about what you explained earlier, the formerly enslaved people writing freedom narratives. And, you know, clearly, the Exodus story is an obvious source of, let’s say, their spiritual imagination for how they relate to their creator and how they can have hope for, you know, eventual liberation. But how, I mean, how did they handle, I mean, if we know this, something like this, but how did they handle those places in the Old Testament even in the book of Exodus where it seems like enslaved people were not really thought of as fully human.

Emerson: Yeah, well, I mean, James Pennington, who publishes his narrative in 1849, he is a prominent minister, Shiloh Presbyterian Church, pretty fairly large church in New York City at the time. He sat outside the classrooms at Yale Divinity School, they wouldn’t let him inside the classroom, and he kind of secured some theological education that way. Eventually, at the end of the 1840’s, right around the time when he’s writing, publishing his narrative, he also receives a honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Pete: Wow.

Emerson: James Pennington is actually the one, who when Frederick Douglass escaped, he was, along with Anna Murray, he married Anna Murray. And Anna Murray was a free black woman, but she lived in Maryland with him and came north with him. James Pennington married them. James Pennington is well connected, he had one of the most popular narratives in that day in terms of just sales. He puts it this way about these passages – if we could find some Canaanites, maybe we could enslave them.

Pete: [Laughter]

Emerson: I mean, he really found this, kind of right this way of saying, what’s happening? All of a sudden, on the one hand, people do these literal readings of biblical texts, and then they stop doing it, right? And that was, that’s one way to respond to that.


Pete: Okay, if I were speaking to him –

Emerson: Yup.

Pete: I would say, okay, I get it, but also, it’s the assumption, at least in Exodus and Deuteronomy, that you can have Hebrew slaves.

Emerson: Yeah. No, I don’t think Pennington would have any problem with, not having them now, but this was something that ancient Israel did. And it wasn’t, right, by the time of Jesus, there’s still slavery going on.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Emerson: So, he actually writes, he gets the honorary doctorate from Heidelberg because he wrote a volume called The History of Colored People. Sometimes it shows up as The History of Negro People, but I think The History of Colored People was the original title. But, very much aware of, he starts with ancient Egypt, right? So he’s very much aware of ancient populations, ancient slavery, ancient practices; he just doesn’t think that those practices should have continued. Now, I don’t know, at least I haven’t found in Pennington’s work where he thinks it stopped, right? I don’t find, but he just thinks what happened back then in biblical days needs to remain back then, with regards to slavery anyway. God has no, this is his, I’m summarizing him, but he uses this language of the immaculate God. The immaculate God has absolutely nothing to do with human bondage, with slavery.

Pete: Mm hmm. It’s inconsistent with like, the nature of God or something, yeah.

Emerson: Completely inconsistent.

Pete: I mean, that argument was made, by origin for example, talking about violence, divine violence.

Emerson: Hmm, yeah.

Pete: There’s no way.

Emerson: Right, right.

Pete: There’s no way the creator would do this, so we’ve got to do something with this story. Again, it’s starting with spiritual experience in this sense, and saying, these things are just incompatible, and you wind up picking and choosing. And I know people say that’s like, a bad thing, but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t do that.

Emerson: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Who’s continuing to cast lots, right? I mean, there are some Mennonites who continue to cast lots, but they’re few and far between. I mean, right, but nothing said stop casting lots, so I think, right. I think, in some ways, if we had different language besides picking and choosing or selecting, it might work better, right?

Pete: Exactly. It sounds very negative to put it that way, but it’s, yeah.

Emerson: Right.

Jared: What are some of the, you know, you’ve done a lot of historical work. What has been the impact of that on how you currently engage scripture in your faith community?

Emerson: For me, one of the things it does is to recognize the significant value of, we all read from a certain vantage point, and so, when I’m in my community, we have different positions. Sometimes, I’m male, so I have certain power as a male, right? There are certain powers statuses I have, and there are other times I might not, and to help people to kind of think about when they’re reading and engaging scripture out of their perspective of power. That’s one thing it’s done for me. That’s, I think that’s one of those starting points, to helping us to do as much as we can to read on behalf of the other. To read on behalf of the one who, I mean, if we can all, right, I mean obviously – if we could all be like Jesus that would be great. But I mean, but even Jesus imagining the Samaritan, right, just to imagine the other as the hero of his story, what a great, what a great hermeneutical principle! Imagine that my reading of scripture, whatever passage I’m dealing with, would be best if I placed the one who is less like me or one I cannot even conceive of as significant at the center. If I can imagine like that, then perhaps that might be a better way to conceive of God’s work in the world.

Pete: Hmm.

Emerson: Working for these years with the documents of the enslaved, and trying to, kind of, hear them, trying to hear them well, has made me think about my own, you know, I have a Ph.D, right? And I operate from a position of authority in my classrooms, right? Even in my church setting, right? When we –

Pete: You have authority in your classrooms? How do you pull that off?

Emerson: [Laughter]

Pete: I’m still trying to find it.

Emerson: I have to keep reminding them.


Pete: I’m going to retire.

Emerson: [Continued laughter]

Yeah. Oh.


Jared: With that, I mean, what I’m hearing you say, maybe I can reframe it using language that is more common for me, but is, it reminds me of what Jesus says in Matthew 7 about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. And basically, our reading strategy, what I hear you saying is we need to actually first adopt a Jesus ethic of, we have to have a priority or a prioritization of those without power, those who are oppressed, those in our society who are looked down upon, and our reading strategy, we have to begin with that ethical framework and assumption in order to read the Bible well, and when we don’t do that, when we read it from a place of privilege and we don’t recognize it as privilege and we use it to defend our places of privilege, we are inevitably going to find ways to do that. So the Bible doesn’t necessarily correct the ethical framework, it’s this adage that Jesus says that, you know, the bad tree, if you start with the bad tree, if you start with the bad hermeneutic or bad ethic, you can get bad fruit, but it’s bad.

Emerson: Right.

Jared: And if you start with a good foundation, a good root system, a good tree, and you read the Bible through that framework, you’re going to end up with good fruit. And so, the Bible, in some ways, can be a neutral source of what we come to it with. And that just is a, it’s an interesting thing because in my tradition, it would have been, no, you start with the Bible, and if you read it as it should be written, or read, then you come out with a good ethic, and in some ways it sounds like it’s flipped that we begin from this place of, the Jesus way of seeing the world, and that includes then, how we read the Bible. Would that be a fair way of saying that?

Emerson: Yeah, I think so. We almost, with the Genesis of Liberation book, we almost published the book without writing an excursus on Jesus. And the excursus on Jesus we wrote was because the editor said you can’t write this book – if people in the Black church get this book, they want to know about Jesus. And I thought, no, that’s right. That’s right. That’s the starting point. And that’s the starting point for the enslaved. So, in our excursus on Jesus, because we were really dealing with scriptural passages, right? Biblical passages, scriptural texts, and we thought well, I mean, I know Jesus is a kind of text, but Jesus is not really a text, but Jesus is a text! And for the enslaved, it’s, we actually called the, we titled the excursus “Jesus Christ was Sold to the Highest Bidder.” That actually comes directly out of Peter Randolph’s narrative, because for them, the starting point was yeah, you’re about to sell us and break off our families, but Jesus is on the auction block with us. He’s not with you, selling us. That’s impossible for us to conceive of Jesus that way! Right, so, it begins with Jesus. Jesus is the text. And then you go to the text next, and I think that’s right. I think the way you put that, Jared, I think that’s right.

Jared: Mmm.

Pete: Well, listen, wonderful. Emerson, we’re really getting to the end of this time now we have together, sorry about that.

Emerson: Oh no, wow.

Pete: Pretty powerful stuff, but anything you want to leave us with, like if you’re working on anything at the moment? I know you published this book not too long ago, and you’re probably grading things too. Or just where people can find you if they want to connect with you at all online.

Emerson: Yeah. I mean, I have a Twitter account, that’s my activity in the social media, @EmersonBPowery. And I’m actually working on a project on the Good Samaritan, thinking about the Good Samaritan through both in terms of Luke’s context in Luke 10. Luke’s the only gospel that has it, but also in later voices. So, Augustine and trying to dig deep in Augustine’s world, his conflict with the Donatists and his telling of the Good Samaritan there, and then Howard Thurman. I’m putting Howard Thurman in conversation with Augustine. Howard Thurman’s little volume Jesus and the Disinherited was carried around by Martin Luther King and his, along with his Bible, he carried Thurman’s little book. And then I’m putting a conversation with Harriet Jacobs and her reading of the Good Samaritan in conversation with a Nicaraguan community from the 1970’s, the Solentiname community that was led by Ernesto Cardenal. And they have these great, popular Bible studies and a number of engagements with the Good Samaritan, so I’m putting those in conversation as a way of then going back and thinking about Luke’s context, right? And just, how Jesus himself imagined the other as the hero of the story, so.

Pete: Yeah. Well, these ongoing conversations between the horizons of the ancient and different contemporary moments. That’s powerful stuff Emerson, we appreciate it. Thanks so much for being with us, we really had a great time, glad you had a chance to stop by virtually.

Emerson: Great. Thanks for having me on!

Jared: Absolutely, thanks so much.

Pete: See ya.

Emerson: Bye bye.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well folks, thanks for listening to another episode of The Bible for Normal People. We hope you have a chance to check out Emerson’s book and find him on Twitter and engage him further on, to understate the matter, a very important topic.

Jared: Yeah, and while you’re online, we did just want to remind everyone that we appreciate all the support that we get on Patreon. So if you can, we would appreciate you heading there to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. There are ways to engage in the conversation we just had as well as many others there for different levels of support, so we really appreciate everyone that makes this podcast possible, and we’ll see ya next time.

Pete: See ya!

[Music ends]

[End of recorded material]

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What Archaeologists Do & Why It Matters with Cynthia Shafer-Elliot

Interview with with Cynthia Shafer-Elliott: What Archaeologists Do & Why It Matters

February 19, 2018

Archaeologist Cynthia Shafer-Elliott turns a 2D Bible into a 3D picture by digging up artifacts from everyday ancient Israelite life. These were real people with real habits and customs that we never really see on the pages of the Bible.

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Read the transcript

Pete: Okay, welcome listeners, to another episode and welcome to Cynthia Shafer-Elliott for being our guest today. Hi Cynthia, how it going?

Cynthia: Well, how are you?

Pete: You’re from California.

Cynthia: I am, and it just started winter, like, the other day.

Pete: Oh, what’s winter like? 70 degrees?

Cynthia: It has been, yeah, but now it’s raining so I feel really bad for you all as you had that big artic blast.

Pete: We did, it was horrible.

Jared: We’re like Game of Thrones; our winter lasts years.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Yeah, yeah. A thousand years actually, so…

Cynthia: Oh, you poor people.

Pete: Hey, listen, Cynthia, in case you haven’t noticed you are an archeologist.

Cynthia: I am, yeah.

Pete: You are. You know, I studied that a little bit in graduate school, but I’m not an archeologist myself. I don’t like getting dirty –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: And I don’t like getting up early. So, apart from those two things, help us, just, you know, what do you do? What do archeologists do? And that’s something that, you know, if you think of it as Indiana Jones or something like that, but –

Cynthia: Yeah…

Pete: That’s not it. But what do you do and why do you do it?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, I have to explain this to my students all the time because I’m trying to bribe them to come with me to Israel to dig. So, what we do is we’re trying to understand ancient Israel better. And we do that by, well, I do that by both examining the biblical text and examining what we call material culture. And material culture is all that physical stuff that they left behind that could be buildings, architecture, features of a house, say like, an oven or a cistern that could be what we could call the artifacts that they left behind, like pots and oil lamps and things like that. And so, what we’re trying to do is uncover what they’ve left behind in order to understand ancient Israel better. So, we do have to get up very early, because we’re there in the summer and it’s very hot. Yeah. So, we work early hours and it’s not for the faint hearted. You know, it’s hard work. It’s kind of like akin to the academic fat camp –



Where you go and you’re working so hard and you’re using muscles that you didn’t remember that you had and you are having a hard time because it’s hot and dirty and you’re in the sun, but at the same time, you are the first person to uncover something that hasn’t been seen or touched in thousands of years. Yeah!

Pete: What’s the most interesting thing or exciting thing that you’ve ever uncovered, or maybe you were a part of a team that uncovered something?

Cynthia: Yeah, I get asked that a lot. I think all of us in that field get asked this question a lot. It’s a really interesting question though, because what I like is probably not what most people find exciting, but I would think what most people would find exciting is, I was part of a one-season on a Venetian Tomb excavation back in 2002 I think, yeah. I think that’s when it was, with Eliat Mazar, and this tomb, this little tomb hadn’t been excavated and it also hadn’t been robbed. And so, we had this little tomb full of artifacts that people would take to, when they’re revering their ancestors. So, these are high end materials. These aren’t everyday artifacts like cooking pots or something, but these are fragile or precious things, like a metal sword or bronze sword, excuse me, or some scarabs, or jewelry, and then all this, if I can say this, all the skeletal remains too, but we’re not supposed to talk about that.


So, but that’s really, that was really exciting, and the fact that it was right on the Mediterranean probably didn’t hurt either, but for me personally, it’s when we’re, I’m right now, I’m excavating houses and one of the things I love, it sounds –

Pete: So am I, you should see my basement.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Horrible. Anyway…

Cynthia: One of the things I love that I find, as simple as this sounds, is sometimes you find a handle of a vessel, like a jug or a pot or something, and while the vessel itself was wheel made, the handles are pressed on usually by hand. And so, sometimes you see and feel the potter’s thumbprints and sometimes you even find their thumbprint and to see their thumbprint on this vessel, it just, it takes my breath away every time. I think it’s just, wow, look at this, reminds me that somebody made this pot and it begets all those questions of who made it and why and what did they do with it and why did they leave this behind? And for me, it’s the stories behind the artifacts, behind the architecture, the stories of the people that used these items and lived during this time that I find the most fascinating.

Jared: So, at some point we’ll talk more about some of those findings and what does that mean for your understanding of daily life in ancient Israel and the time periods that you studied, but maybe talk some about how does biblical archeology impact how we read or have read the Bible. Like, what’s the interplay between the scriptures and archeology?

Cynthia: That’s another really good question, and depending on who you ask, you’ll have a very different answer. But part of the issue that a lot of us in our field have to answer is kind of even how you phrased the question using that term “biblical archeology.” You have people within the field who say, “well, yes, you should be calling it biblical archeology and you should be digging with your trowel in one hand and your Bible in the other.” And then you have others who say, “absolutely not!” Because archeology is its own discipline and you have no other archeology that uses a text to define or interpret its answers. So, people often think that archeology is, it’s more scientific, there’s less interpretation than say, in biblical studies, but I would say that’s not the case.


I would say that there is maybe just as much interpretation within archeology as there is in biblical studies and as much as I love doing both biblical studies and archeology, I understand that they’re, and I try very hard to notice that they’re two different disciplines, and that these disciplines need to be done in their own ways and the interpretation from those studies and some of those artifacts need to be done in an appropriate methodological way. Now, that’s not to say though, that you can’t use the Bible to help us understand the physical world of ancient Israel or vice versa, that you can’t use archeology to help us understand the Bible. You absolutely can! But I think it has to be done so carefully that you can’t just be digging in Israel and say, “oh, I found,” let’s see for example, “I found this gate for this city and we think it might be from the time of the Iron Age, the Iron Age I. And so, therefore, we know Solomon built gates, so therefore, we think this is Solomon’s gate.” You know, that’s kind of a big jump. You have to have a little bit more evidence than that. So, even kind of in that crosshairs between those two disciplines, you absolutely want to use everything at your disposal to understand ancient Israel better. You want to use Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, you want to use other artifacts, like, textual artifacts like ancient near-Eastern texts. Also, archeology and iconography, which is representational art, like, figurines and things like that, it’s my opinion we want to use everything at our disposal, but we also want to do so carefully that we’re not allowing these other disciplines to kind of take our interpretation into a direction that maybe the actual physical evidence isn’t, or maybe is going in. Does that make sense?

Pete: Oh, yeah. It makes a lot of sense. Cynthia, you used the phrase I think, Iron Age I?

Cynthia: Yeah, sorry.

Pete: Explain that. Explain, you know, the epics, the eras, the stages that you archeologists have to work with all the time and maybe how they overlap with the biblical story a little bit if that’s possible?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, depending on who you read or which scholar, archeologist you talk to, those dates are going to fluctuate a little bit, especially with, when you think of possibly very early Israel. Those dates are not set in stone because we realize that some things transition a lot longer than other things. So basically, we break down, just like in any history in any archeology, we’ve got different historical time periods, or archeological time periods that we look at ancient Israel. And the time period that most seems to represent when Israel would have existed is the Iron Age, and the Iron Age can be further subdivided into smaller ages like Iron I, Iron II, some even say Iron III, but some would call Iron III by a different name. So, it kind of depends on who you read and you know, what kind of school you belong to, but Israel is fairly firmly planted in the Iron Age. Now, when Israel comes on the scene and how they come on the scene is another question, but for me personally, the time period I’m most interested in is the Second Iron Age, and that’s roughly from around 1000 onto when Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 by the Babylonians.

Pete: And Iron Age I, that’s 1200, right? 1200 to about 1000?

Cynthia: Right. And that’s a pretty small time period, but that transition, that time period, early Israel is still very much debated by archeologists and biblical scholars on how Israel came on the scene and when, and so that’s a whole big discussion. But, yeah, so Iron I is roughly from 1200 – 1000, Iron II is roughly from 1000-586, and then you go on into the, you know, Neo-Babylonian periods then Persian and so on.

Pete: Yeah. Yeah, it’s, you know, when you get to the origins of Israel, I guess, one reason why scholars debate that back in Iron I around 1200 is because there isn’t a lot of archeological evidence, right?


Cynthia: Right, correct.

Pete: Yeah. That’s a shame.

Cynthia: It is a shame, because as, you know, historians and archeologists, we want as much evidence as possible and unfortunately, we don’t get a whole lot outside of the Bible. What we do know is the earliest mention of a people group called Israel is from, outside of the Bible, is from a stele called the Merneptah stele. And Merneptah was a pharaoh of Egypt after Ramses II I believe, and he did a military campaign into Canaan. And in this stele, which is a stone monument, it’s a victory monument, in this victory monument he talks about this campaign where he destroys a few city states. He names Ashkelon, but also names a people group called Israel, and this is our first mention of a people group called Israel in what becomes known later as the land of Israel, and that’s from about, I think the stele dates from around 1207 BCE. And then we don’t have extrabiblical anchor for King David until the Tel Dan stele was found. And the Tel Dan stele doesn’t date until the 9th century, which is after David would have existed. But the stele, again, a stone monument erected by Hazael, King of Aram-Damascus talks about his campaign against Israel, Judah, and he mentions Beit David or the House of David, which could mean the dynasty of David and that’s our, and that’s from the 9th century. So, what’s interesting is because of those two artifacts, we have the earliest reference of Israel with the Merneptah stele, and then we have the earliest reference to the kingdom of Israel established by David, which provides a solid beginning and end for the emergence of Israel and a kingdom called Israel. And so, unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of monumental type artifacts that talk about this people group called Israel or this kingdom called Israel or Judah or talking about David or Solomon, and that’s the stuff that most people like to hear about is the monumental stuff.

Jared: Right.

Cynthia: Yeah! So, most of what we do isn’t the monumental. It’s most of the, you know, “oh hey, I found this pot!”


Jared: So, before we go to kind of the pots and pans of everyday life, I think it would be good to even talk about some of that and some of the interesting things there. But can you just replay, because you used a lot of language I think is pretty common in archeology. The stele and the tels, Tel Dan, you mentioned, can you just rehearse real quick that lesson of those languages, like what’s a stele, what’s a tel, and maybe if there’s other common language that you guys as, that you as archeologists would use to describe places or things, that might be helpful to orient us.

Cynthia: Right. The term that you would need to know is the word “tel.” And tel being a not like a poker-tell, but basically a hill, a mound, it’s an artificial mound and you find them all throughout, you know, Israel and Southern Levant. And the Southern Levant is a geographical territory that Israel belongs to, so that would include the modern-day states of Israel, West Bank in Gaza, Palestine, Jordan, southern parts of Lebanon and Syria. And so, a tel is basically a artificial mound that they realized back in the pioneering days of archeology of ancient Israel that these mounds are basically the remains of layers of a buried city or town and that when we excavate them, you are basically going back in time. So, the most recent occupation of that city is at the top and the further down you excavate, you are going through the different layers of when that city or town existed and what was left behind.

Jared: So, how many tels would there, just a scope that we’d be talking about in this region that archeologists work on?

Cynthia: Oh geez, that’s a really good question and one I don’t know the answer to. But there’s tons.

Jared: So, it’s many, many, there’s a high volume.


Cynthia: Yeah, there’s a high volume and they range in size, you know. You’ve got some very small ones that maybe it was just a little village that existed for a short amount of time, and then you have some really large ones, like Lachish. Where Lachish was the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah and it was occupied for, you know, many, many, many centuries. It’s just a huge site. So, when we excavate, most of the time we’re excavating on these tels, and most archeologists though, we realize, well, it’s one reason why it’s so laborious is you’re moving all this dirt from all of these different layers and your wheelbarrow skills get really good taking care of all this dirt. But, we basically have a very slow methodological process, which is why excavations take so long because you have a process and you have a question your, or time period that you’re trying to concentrate on, but you have all these other layers before your time period. So, for instance, I’m interested in the Second Iron Age, like we already talked, which is roughly the time of the divided monarchy, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And that’s the time period I’m most interested in, but the site I’m digging in Tel Halif, that site was occupied after the Iron Age II, it was occupied during the late Roman, excuse me, even before that the Persian and late Roman Byzantine, and so we have to go through those other layers and treat those other layers like they’re just as important as the layer we’re interested in. So, we have to document everything, take heights and measurements and keep everything and analyze everything. So, it’s a really lengthy process but when you get to a tel and you realize that these are layers of a buried city.

Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.

[Producer’s group endorsement]

Pete: So, how do you know when you are? You dig down, and the further down you dig, the further back in time you go. How can archeologists tell what century they’re in –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: Or what age they’re in, whether Iron Age or Bronze Age or whatever?

Cynthia: Sure. The biggest indicator that we use is pottery. So, the pottery just changes over time. So, we call that typology or pottery typology, how those types change. So, the example I usually give in class is let’s say we talked into a room and we had all these different cell phones in a box, and we said you need to put these in chronological order. And you would more than likely do a really good job at putting those phones in order from when cell phones began to today because cell phones, when they first started, they were actually car phones and they were really big and they had these huge antennas and then they get to a flip phone and a smart phone and, you know, they kind of evolve over time and pottery evolved over time. And so, when we look at, let’s say, a jug, we know by looking at the handle, the rim, and the base of that jug, we can tell what time period it’s from because time periods have very certain features of their pottery.

Jared: And to clarify, I mean, I’m just clarifying with you, but in my head, pottery seems like a strange, like, décor element. But back then, it would have been the basic building blocks of domestic life, right?

Cynthia: Right, and you have pottery everywhere. You have broken pieces, which we call shards, sometimes you’ll have sometimes whole vessels, or we put vessels back together again. And so, if you were to, say, look at oil lamps and oil lamps are the little lamps that you would put oil in to help see at night. And they change, they evolved over time. They went from being just a simple bowl with like a slight pinch all the way to being more enclosed with decoration. And so, when you see these oil lamps, you see how they refined, how they made these lamps, maybe they realized that if they made them with multiple spouts, they’d have, they could see better or maybe there were influenced by other people and so, we look at pottery typically to date things and that’s one way that we specially do it on the digs, like, hands on when we’re excavating.


We say okay, we’re looking at all the pottery we excavated today, we’re looking at all these pieces, the indicative pieces like the rims and the handles and the bases or if it happens to have decoration on it. We look at those pieces and we say, okay, this is very clearly from the late Bronze Age, or this is very clearly Persian because it has very distinguishing features from those time periods.

Pete: Yeah. Pottery just the everyday stuff that, you know, you might not think much of and broken pieces and all that they can tell a tale of the past.

Cynthia: Mm hmm.

Pete: Well, you’re obviously very excited about it.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: What’s wrong with you? Anyway. Getting up early and digging, but I imagine you talk about this with your students a lot too, but what are, you know, the benefits of knowing some things about everyday life in the ancient world? And I want to try to really ask that question more succinctly – maybe they could be theological benefits or just faith benefits, you know, like, has this changed you at all and in terms of how you think of the nature of Christian faith by digging things up out of the ground?

Cynthia: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think you can be involved in this and not have it impact you. When I first started excavating, it was history that I could feel, history that I could touch, it was that tangible connection to the past. And I feel that very profoundly still, like, when I was talking about the fingerprints on the pottery, and I think it connects us to the people, our own spiritual ancestors in ways that we may not realize how it can, because you’re there, you’re uncovering this stuff and you think, these are the people that the Hebrew Bible talks about, these are the people who were connected with their kingdom. I mean, the site I’m at right now is a site called Tel Halif, it’s in what would’ve been the kingdom of Judah and it was destroyed by the Assyrians in 701 when they came down to Judah after they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. And to think about these people fled this house because the enemy was at the gate and it was either flee or be killed. And when I think about their lives and I think about that I’m handling what’s left of their physical existence, their daily lives, that touches me in a way that I think, gosh, no, that’s not gonna happen for me when I’m dead! I think about how those people lived and how their story is still being told and I wonder what story am I telling with my life and how was that affecting not only my own spiritual journey, but those that I encounter on a regular basis and it really makes me wonder if what I’m doing is going to be as profound as what I find that those people left behind.

Jared: That’s really well put, Cynthia. And maybe you can go more in depth in just, you know, you talked about their life and the things that you’re uncovering. What was family life like in the Iron Age, like, what have you learned about these people that are written about in the Hebrew Bible that are living these stories out? What was life like?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, it’s, archeology helps us a lot because the biblical text, the Hebrew Bible, it wasn’t, we don’t get a lot of daily life stuff in it. The narratives, the end things that we have in the Hebrew Bible, they’re mostly talking about significant or monumental people, places, events, and things and sometimes we get a glimpse of what daily life would’ve been like, but that’s not the point of the scriptures, we’re not going to find a collection of recipes in there, you know? As much as I would love that. So, when we excavate these houses and we’re focusing on daily life, so we want to shift our attention from what historically has been within archeology of ancient Israel has been the focus, has been the monumental, the temples, the palaces, the city gates. All of those reflecting the elite people and that’s really interesting, but I’m interested in the everyday, your average ancient Israelite man, woman, and child. What was their life like?


Cynthia: And so we, when we excavate we need to shift from the monumental things to the everyday, and that would be the home. And so, at Halif we’re doing what we call household archeology where we’re focusing on houses primarily from the 8th century, so, within the Second Iron Age, this would be the time of King Hezekiah of Judah and Isaiah the prophet. And we’re uncovering their lives and when I’m studying what we find and then also what we can learn from the biblical text, I find that daily life was much more, can’t decide if I want to choose the word complex or simple.


But you hear –

Pete: Yeah, they mean the same thing.

Cynthia: Yeah. You hear from people who keep talking about the patriarchy within the text, right, and we hear a lot about that, and there have been scholars who have been doing this work far longer than I have, and I primarily think of Carol Myers from Duke University, where if you are focusing your attention more to the daily life, the social structure would have been less patriarchal. In fact, she would call it heterarchy, where depending on the circumstances, there is more room for negotiation and roles of power and authority within the household. If we look at the household level, who was part of that household? Well, that would be a multi-generational family. Grandparents, their married son and his family, that family could include unmarried daughters or aunts, it could include his married sons and their children, it could include hired workers and servants and all sorts of people that were related or maybe not related but were working together on the household farm, if you will. And when you take a look at the household and just daily life, you realize that we are putting on them this notion of, I think what people would call gender roles, that people in ancient Israel, any ancient society really, if their one focus on a day to day basis is survival, you would probably not have that so-called luxury of gender roles, that men do this and women do that.

Pete: You get everybody on board.

Cynthia: Yeah! Everybody on board! Especially in times of planting and harvest and if you think about it too, when the men were called to war, the women would be left behind at the house and they had to be able to do everything, because, they had to. You know? It wasn’t, oh, I’ll wait ‘til Joseph gets home and have him do it. No! Everyone had to participate regardless of your age, regardless of your sex, regardless of any other differentials for the survival of the family. And I think that keeps being the one thing I find as I’m studying these households in this daily life is, we keep putting things on it that we’re saying, oh, it’s part of our society or we’re living biblically. Well, what does that mean?


What does biblical worldview mean and which worldview are you talking about? I mean, are you…yeah! Whose worldview? And if you really want to talk about what life was like in ancient Israel, I’d be more than happy to have that conversation, but I don’t think it’s gonna sound like the way a lot of people think it would.

Pete: Yeah, you know, we sometimes think, and maybe I shouldn’t generalize but I’m right anyway –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: You know, I’m, people think of, you know, ancient Israelites as sort of running around with their Bibles –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: And all, you know, listening to the voice of God of what God is telling them about worship, this, and that, but it’s probably not the case.

Cynthia: Right!

Pete: I mean, would you agree that they’re just trying to survive and –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: I sort of think of like, in our contemporary culture, people who just sort of go to church because that’s what they do –

Cynthia: Mm hmm.

Pete: But they’re not actually thinking theologically about everything.

Cynthia: Right, yeah.

Pete: Which is a little unsettling, because you read these things like everybody is supposed to know this and, well, they don’t. You know, one thing I remember, this blew me away when I was in graduate school and I took my one archeology course because, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t want to get dirty or get up early.

Cynthia: Who’d you take that with?


Pete: Larry Stager.

Cynthia: Oh yeah.

Pete: Who just passed away a week ago or so, yeah, right around Christmas time. Yeah, I had my course with him which was wonderful. But I remember these figurines, these fertility figurines –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: That apparently thousands of them were found.

Cynthia: Oh yeah.

Pete: In your time period –

Cynthia: Yeah. 

Pete: Well, you’re not supposed to worship with idols.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: But it seems like that was a pretty common practice!

Cynthia: Yeah.

Pete: What were Israelites like? Well, they probably did that because that’s just what you do when you’re religious.

Cynthia: Right, exactly. We find those figurines; they’re mostly found in domestic or households in houses.

Pete: Yeah, like up on the mantle or something like we would have.

Cynthia: Yeah, right. And so, when you think about it you think, well, these figurines, some people think they might represent the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah, others have argued that it could be really a number of fertility goddesses, but they also, you see them in different forms and most of them are female figurines. There are some male figurines, there are some animal figurines, but the discussion is that these figurines were used in Israelite households to worship at home, they all didn’t go to Jerusalem every week to go to the temple, you know. Most of the time it was done at home. And that the fertility of the people and of the land was of utmost importance, and if you’re trying to just survive, then that’s what you’re going to pray for. You’re going to pray for rain, you’re going to pray that your wife is able to give birth to a healthy child that’s going to be able to help on the farm. And you can imagine if you’re this, you know, I give this kind of story to my students where if you can imagine you’re, you know, an Israelite farmer and say, your Canaanite neighbor, his field is doing really well but yours isn’t. And you say to your Canaanite neighbor, “hey, how is your field doing so well?” And they say, “oh, well, I pray every day to Asherah, and I, you know, offer libation offerings to her.” And you go, “huh, okay, well, I worship Yahweh, but I’ll also say a prayer to Asherah too.” And you know, Pete, that really throws people off a lot of times when you say, well, they worshipped Yahweh and. And I tell them, well, I ask them, I say, well, how much of the Old Testament have you read?


Pete: So you’re snarky too? Okay, good.

Cynthia: Yeah, a little snarky. Because it says it very often that the Israelites sometimes worshipped the Lord one-on-one, just really well, and other times they didn’t. And then archeologically, we have inscriptions like they found at Kuntillet Ajrud, which is a site way down south in Sinai where it talks about an inscription that says Yahweh and his Asherah.

Pete: So sort of his wife.

Cynthia: Right. That they were practicing, you know, worship of Yahweh and. And the biblical text dates it, you just gotta make sure, not a lot of people read the Old Testament anymore.

Pete: I think about the Ten Commandments, you know, and you shall have no other gods before me and no idols.

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: We read that today and we say, well, obviously, how hard could that be?

Cynthia: Yeah!

Pete: That’s counterintuitive in the ancient world.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Pete: That’s asking an awful lot of people to have this belief that only one deity is worthy of any sort of worship because, you know, your neighbors’ fields are doing pretty well and yours aren’t. I mean, I think that really drives home the offense of belief in Yahweh in an ancient culture. It’s not an easy thing, like, don’t you remember all those old stories? Don’t you guys see miracles every five minutes or something like that? They don’t see anything!

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: They’re just trying to hang on, and I, to me, that’s a humanizing part about what you do.

Cynthia: Yeah, it is.

Pete: It really brings that out in a way text, these texts that we read are not equipped to do that.

Cynthia: Yeah, exactly, and I, again, the texts are, their purpose isn’t to, the purpose is, you know, people talk about how they’re written by elite urban men, and so, it’s not like they’re purposefully trying to ignore just women, for instance, but they’re ignoring your average person. They’re ignoring the daily life of the average men, women, and children, except for when it intersects with the story that they’re trying to tell. And so, that’s where archeology really is helpful, because it gives that humanizing view of the past.

Jared: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re coming to the end of our time, Cynthia, so thank you so much for really educating us, I think, on archeology and the basics of what it is you do and why it matters and intersects our faith. Is there any projects that you’re currently working on or where can people find you online if they want to learn more about the work that you’re interested in and the work you’re doing?

Cynthia: We welcome people on our excavations, you don’t have to be a student, you don’t have to have any prior experience or knowledge, you just have to have a good attitude and be somewhat physically able –

Jared: Well, Pete would be out on both accounts.

Pete: [Laughter]

Yeah, right.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

The attitude part, yes.

Pete: Exactly.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Jared: You’re not allowed after, you know, talking trash about it.

Pete: Yeah, well.

Jared: That’s great! So where would people go to know how do to that? Like, I’m sure they shouldn’t just buy a ticket to Israel and try to find you.

Cynthia: Well, they can contact me directly, you know, my Jessup email is all over the place, but also if the BAR, Biblical Archeology Review, their dig issue I think just came out. They do an issue every January just for digs and they give a list of the digs that are going to be going on the following summer, and to give you a breakdown of what time period they’re on, what they’re working on, and how much it costs, and what the accommodations are like, and all those sorts of details and when they’re digging and how to apply to go on a dig. And they also have some scholarships you can apply for too.

Jared: That’s excellent, I’m thinking maybe I should.

Cynthia: You should! You can come with me.

Jared: I have four little kids, so I don’t mind getting up in the morning or getting dirty.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Or being away for six months.

Jared: Exactly!

Cynthia: Well, digs are normally, you have to go, usually they want you to volunteer for at least two weeks and the digs are usually four weeks long.

Jared: Oh, man. Well, that’ll be fortunate if I say I have to go for two weeks. That’d be great.

Cynthia: Yeah, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram and all my digs and when I take students or tours over to Israel –

Jared: Do you Instagram your actual digs?

Cynthia: I do.

Jared: Do you take pictures and post them?

Cynthia: Mm hmm, yeah. I’ll put them on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. You know, I’ve got my profile up at https://jessup.edu/ and projects, yeah, I’m always working on projects. So, last year The Five Minute Archeologist book that I edited came out and that’s been great because it’s one of those books that is trying to help people who are interested in archeology of ancient Israel in particular, what do we do and why and who pays for this and do you get to keep things and the idea was to take questions that people often ask of archeologists when they meet them, like, on the plane or something. And so, there’s about thirty different archeologists and there’s really short essays in there. But the next couple of things I’m working on is, one will be writing and analyzing the House at Halif that I’ve been excavating for the last four years. So, I’ll be at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem there doing that, and then I’m coediting a project with Janling Fu from Harvard and Carol Myers from Duke on “A Handbook of Food in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel.” We’re just getting started on that, that will be with T&T Clark.

Pete: That’s great, thank you Cynthia. That’s a lot going on. And again, we appreciate your time with us and, you know, giving us a glimpse of daily life in archeology and intersection and all that sort of stuff. It was very, very interesting, it was great to have you.

Cynthia: Well, thanks for having me.