In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Amanda Mbuvi about identity and the function of the Bible as they explore the following questions:
- What is identity formation and how does it relate to the Bible?
- What makes the Bible unique as a piece of literature?
- How is the Abraham story an example of identity formation?
- What is theological about all the genealogies in Genesis?
- What are our intentions when we read the Bible?
- Why are there multiple and different genealogies in Genesis?
- How do we know that the purpose of Genesis is identity formation?
- Why do we read Genesis like it has something to do with us?
- What can we tell about the the culture that produced the Bible because of what they did not edit out?
- What other biblical texts talk about identity?
- What is significant about the designation “Hebrew” in Genesis?
- Why do we need to retrain ourselves to see the Bible differently?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Amanda Mbuvi you can share.
- “When we’re reading the biblical text, it’s telling us something about who we are and that’s part of the design and the intention of those texts.” @amandambuvi
- “I think what Genesis is doing is it’s really emphasizing that Abraham’s identity is going to come from his relationship with God. It’s not a free-standing thing, but it’s something that emerges, that it’s in process, that it’s dependent on God’s work in his life.” @amandambuvi
- “That process of family story telling is actually where family comes from… family is something that the members of a family actively create in large part, by passing on these stories and bits of information.” @amandambuvi
- “I think it’s unfortunate that our society is so obsessed with what I call security camera truth, as though that’s the only kind of meaningful, valid, or the most important truth all the time and I really don’t think it is.” @amandambuvi
- I think a lot of times readers have this assumption about what the Bible is supposed to be doing and it’s actually not that interested in doing that. It’s not as interested in those things as we are.” @amandambuvi
- “That process between living with the structures and expectations of our culture and the people around us while also trying to live into relationship with God and God’s emergent work is already there in the biblical text.” @amandambuvi
Mentioned in This Episode
- Course: How the Bible Actually Works
- Book: The Interesting Narrative of Life of Olaudah Equiano
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead 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]
Pete: Hey folks, before we get started, just a quick announcement: we have a six-part video series coming out based on my book How the Bible Actually Works.
Jared: So go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/biblevideo and find out more. We’re really hoping to help create resources so that you can get a group of people together, probably virtually still, but take some time with other people and go through this six-part video series learning about what is the Bible, what do we do with it, and how does it work. So, go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/biblevideo to learn more.
Pete: Okay great, our episode today is “Finding Ourselves in the Stories of the Bible,” and our guest is Amanda Mbuvi who is a Professor of Religion at High Point University in North Carolina. And this was one of these discussions that just makes you think, “oh, I don’t even really know what the Bible is doing, but now I think I do.”
Jared: It was super fascinating, and it helped me, it’s always fun when we have guests on that teach you something new and not just new facts, but just a whole new way of looking at the Bible. This is one of those.
Pete: Yeah, it’s not about what happened, it’s about the forming of community through these stories. That’s even its purpose. I just thought it was fascinating.
Pete: So, hope you enjoy it folks!
Amanda: When people now read the Bible, especially us, I’ll speak for Americans specifically, there’s a tendency to have this idea that we are a member of a group, we have an identity that we were born with, and it just is. It’s part of our body, these categories that we have, it’s like they were a part of creation and they just are fixed facts about us onto which everything else in our lives, it layers on top, including relationship with God and God’s work in our life.
Pete: Amanda! Welcome to our podcast!
Amanda: Thank you! It’s great to be here.
Pete: Yeah, it’s great to have you. So, we’re focusing on a topic that sounds very specific, but I think it has a lot of broad implications and its identity formation in Genesis. And I think we really need to start by having you help us understand what identity formation even means.
Pete: That’s not the way we usually talk about the Bible.
Pete: At least not normal people.
So, when I’m talking about identity formation, I’m referring to particular kinds of identities, specifically the way we think about ourselves as a member of a group and the way we come and the way that groups come to understand themselves as having a particular character and identity.
Pete: Okay, so group or like, communal identity. Okay, so, why is that important?
Amanda: I think it’s important because, especially for people living in this culture, because it’s such a foundational aspect of our culture that we also don’t really think much about how it’s operating in terms of how it gives us certain assumptions about ourselves and about the world that we don’t even notice, let alone think to ask questions about. And the assumptions that we bring to the table are not assumptions that the biblical text shares. And so, in order to see all the things happening in the Bible, we need to be able to rethink some of the assumptions that we have to be able to allow the text to speak to us in some new and fresh ways.
Jared: Okay, yeah. I also think, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is a bit of a hot topic over the last few years as the phrase “identity politics” comes up again and again, sort of in our popular vernacular and how we talk about things. Is that a similar idea of this, you know, how we think about ourselves as a member of a group but also how that group membership solidifies how we think of ourselves.
Amanda: Yes. I think it’s important to make that connection. I mean, to think about that process and kind of how we struggle with it as a society. One other thing I want to add is about identity formation, is that I think it’s also helpful in a lot of ways to use that as one of the genres present in the biblical text. To think, in other words, what I mean is to think about the biblical text as being designed to create a community, that’s it’s not like when we read our kids a fairy tale before they go to sleep and it’s like, here’s some nice, a story to think about that we sort of go off into the story world and then we come back into our own. But that when we’re reading the biblical text, it’s telling us something about who we are and that’s part of the design and the intention of those texts, and so, to be sensitive to the role that they play in trying to sponsor and inform a community.
Jared: Okay, that’s fascinating. So, can we, maybe, dive into the Bible a little bit? And what are some examples where we see this playing out in Genesis?
Amanda: Sure. So, there’s a couple ways of looking at this. So, with Genesis, for example, there are a lot of genealogies, and for a lot of people, that’s the sort of yada yada yada part of the Bible. It just sort of goes on, people kind of don’t know what to do with them unless they’re trying to do kind of do some deep dive and, you know, track all the people or something. But to really think theologically about the role of genealogy and to think about how much Genesis puts family at the center of what it’s doing and how it’s setting up what it means to be human and what it means to be the people of God. So, I think first in the very structure of the book, in the very way that it uses genealogy as a framing device, that genealogies come up at strategic intervals of the book and give it structure, keeping in mind that when we read Bibles with chapters and verses, those were things that were added later. But these genealogies, that’s kind of the internal structure of the book of Genesis beyond what we or other people later added to it to make it easier to manage. So, that’s kind of at the macro level. In terms of thinking about a specific example of how that works, I think it’s helpful to think about Abraham and for the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to call him Abraham even though his name changes in the book of Genesis, and that’s very important, I just don’t want to make it confusing by switching names around. So, I’m just going to consistently call him Abraham. But this idea of the very intentional way that God calls him and creates a new community with him and looking at that in contrast to the way a lot of people interpret the stories about him and about his family, his immediate descendants, the contrast between those two things.
Pete: Well, I mean, there’s a very interesting, getting maybe to some specifics about Abraham and identity formation and family, one of those famous scenes in the Abraham story is where he’s planning on slitting his son’s throat.
Amanda: Mm hmm.
Pete: So, let’s work that in this conversation.
Yeah, because I know there’s so much substance to what you’re saying. Let’s get into some of the details about the story of Abraham and how that functions as identity formation and just, to be clear about something – you’re saying that the function of these texts is for identity formation.
Pete: Right, for the ancient Israelites and also potentially for others who’ve come after.
Pete: Right? That’s what they’re there for. They’re not there for historical curiosities, they’re there for, this is who you are, this is where your identity is.
Amanda: Yes. I would argue that that’s a primary function and that these, the other sort of genres and things serve that purpose.
Pete: Right, okay. And yeah, so, I mean, Abraham is such an interesting story. Or maybe we don’t have to go to the binding of Isaac episode where I’m alluding to, but just help us, help us understand a little bit about how the Abraham story functions in this way as identity formation.
Amanda: Sure. So, when people now read the Bible, especially, I’ll speak for Americans specifically and American culture, but there’s a tendency to have this idea that we were, we are a member of a group, we have an identity that we were born with and it just is. It’s just part of our body and these categories that we have, it’s like they were part of creation and they just are fixed facts about us onto which everything else in our lives, it layers on top, including what relationship with God and God’s work in our lives also layers on top. But Genesis really kind of messes with that because it doesn’t even begin with Israel. If we’re looking at this as the beginning of Israel’s story, it doesn’t even begin with Israel. We get eleven chapters before we even get the call to Abraham who is the first, you know, kind of the first beginnings of Israel. And by the end of the book, we still don’t have a full-fledged people and they’re still not in the promised land.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Amanda: So, if we look at the things that we think are really important to self-definition, Genesis almost systematically messes with that by keeping those things away by not providing that information. When we do get the call to Abraham at the beginning, and that’s a reference to Genesis 12:1-3, when that does happen, the first things that God tells Abraham to do are to leave everything that would’ve defined him, to leave his land, to leave his father’s household, and it doesn’t even specify the destination. It just says go to the land that I’ll show you.
Amanda: So, it doesn’t even name what that place is going to be. So, in that way, I think what Genesis is doing is it’s really emphasizing that Abraham’s identity is going to come from his relationship with God. It’s not a free-standing thing, but it’s something that emerges, that it’s in process, that it’s dependent on God’s work in his life.
Pete: That’s really interesting, his identity comes from the God of Israel, which will eventually become Israel. Yahweh, right? And I’m tying that in my mind to the fact that he’s Babylonian. You know, right? So, it really is, his identity as the father of Israel, the first, the one from whom all Israel will come, his identity is actually formed solely in the text on God’s behest, taking him from a people that the Israelites are not going to get along with later, the Babylonians. That’s where it starts, and as I’m sure you’re familiar, you know, Jewish commentators throughout history have said, “What did he do to deserve this?” Like, what was he called for? But it’s interesting, he’s – nothing! You know? So, it’s as if his entire identity, maybe this is where you’re going. His entire identity is something that is shaped by God.
Pete: Okay, that’s pretty cool. That’s a way of reading the Abraham story that I hadn’t thought about. That’s pretty good. Yeah, all right.
Jared: I can’t help but think about the disconnect, and maybe you can speak to this, that what you said is ringing in my head – identity formation is, as a genre, whereby a lot of these texts were designed to create a community. And I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that as an individualistic American. So, in my mind, is that a difficult bridge? I mean, I would assume it’s a difficult bridge for people who grew up like me in kind of an individualistic situation to hear that the design of the Bible is actually to create community, not to be the me and Jesus Lone Ranger way of reading a text. Would that be a fair way of saying that?
Amanda: Yes, yes. I think it would. So, some things that can help are to notice some features of identity that are tendencies that we have from our culture that aren’t helpful. So, now when we think about genealogy, we think about it like genealogy is DNA, it’s the truth of who you are, you are 13.9% whatever, and that’s it. That is not how the Bible is using genealogy, not just because they didn’t have DNA testing, but it’s not about biology, it’s about understanding one’s place in the world. So, if we think about it from the standpoint of cultures in other places and in other times where that’s played a more important role. So, in my husband’s culture, in Kenya, for example, you can’t even greet somebody in his family’s village until you know how they’re related to you. The very way you say hello reflects your relationship to that person, and it’s a much more essential part of life in a way that, for most Americans, it isn’t present in our daily lives. So much so, and I’m sorry that I don’t know the culture that this story, another culture that this story comes from, but there was an anthropologist studying a culture and there was a dispute over two names in a genealogy. Are these two names a man and his wife, are they two different people, or are they two names for the same person? And they couldn’t figure it out, and the reason it mattered is it had to do with the logistics of some people getting married. It wasn’t an incest situation, but just the logistics of kind of how that needed to go. And what they ended up doing was deciding the best outcome for the couple getting married, and on that basis corrected the genealogy and that became the definitive answer in the genealogy. So, it wasn’t trying to get to some sense of who are they really, it was trying to get a sense of how is this genealogy serving as a map of our community and of our relationship and our responsibilities to each other and just as the community changes and evolves, even genealogy can change and evolve. It’s not a static, fixed thing, but it’s something that gets re-expressed and rearticulated with little adjustments so that they can continue to do that role of describing people. Something that’s a little more relatable for people in, for more people in an American context is thinking about it in terms of a family, and this is actually how I got into bringing this perspective to the biblical text, but just in family storytelling, just in contemporary American families, and looking about how people tell a story about what it means to be the Johnsons, or whatever the name of the family is. How families have particular sense of a family character and personality that they share and the ways that people pass that on. So, a family story doesn’t just mean it’s something with a full narrative structure, you know, a plot and a beginning and a middle and an end, but it’s the things that families tell their members that pass on who they are and what’s important to them, what the value in the world, the kinds of decisions they make, the kind of qualities they celebrate and things like that, and that that process of family story telling is actually where family comes from. So, it’s not that family is sort of a fact in your blood, sort of a truth waiting to out, but that family is something that the members of a family actively create in large part, by passing on these stories and bits of information and things like that.
Pete: So, I mean, there is, I like to use the word creativity there. There’s a flexibility in the story telling, I guess, to serve the needs of the community and where my mind goes, and I’m sure yours is too, that really renders the question of like, history and what happened as at least not of primary importance in these texts. Would you agree with that?
Pete: That’s a whole modern thing there, Amanda, you know?
Pete: So, okay. Yeah, you’re making a point because maybe, you know, getting into the whole, like, the event behind the text kind of thing which is such a complicated and almost hopeless thing to get into, but the text is not – I don’t want to overstate, but I’m trying to articulate this – the text is not designed to help you get to that level, to the event level.
Amanda: Right, because the sort of factual angle is less important than kind of the version of history that people live with and what the story is supposed to mean to the family.
Amanda: So, an example from one of my favorite books on family storytelling, the author of the book as part of her process talked to a lot of people about their family stories, and one people, one woman told her this story about a courtship, this kind of very slow, drawn-out courtship process of some of her ancestors. And so, the author thought, wow, this story has a lot of, you know, it’s exciting, it’s got a lot of sexual tension and I was like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You don’t know my family. Like, that is not what this story is about. This story is about being very deliberate and making very careful choices and all these things. And so, the author’s interpretation of the story, it’s not that it was illegitimate, but it didn’t really capture what that story meant to the family that told it. And that was more important than sort of what a security camera would’ve picked up watching those two relatives.
Jared: I think that’s why I keep coming back to the first thing you said around this, the text being designed to create a community because most modern readers of the Bible expect the Bible to do something else. They don’t go to the text in order to foster or create or cultivate a community, they go to it for either kind of personal edification, or what really happened. Like, I have to see this for what really happened, and I think there’s some beauty to rediscover in that ancient way of saying, maybe there’s some really valuable insight more into how does this give us the fuel for creating a community.
Amanda: Mm hmm.
Jared: And I just think that’s a really robust and valuable question. It feels a little less sterile than the “what really happened here?”.
Amanda: Yeah, I think it’s unfortunate that our society is so obsessed with what I call security camera truth, as though that’s the only kind of meaningful, valid, or the most important truth all the time and I really don’t think it is. But, yeah, I mean, even if we think about the act of reading now if we say to America now, “go read something,” you think about, you know, curling up in a corner and opening a book. But in the ancient world, you know, these texts come from reading meant to read out loud. Reading was something done in a community, it wasn’t something people sort of did one-one-one. It was very much a group act even from just to engage the text at all, let alone think about its implications.
Pete: You know, back to genealogies, which is the part that people skip, you know, the begats. But you know, in the, you mentioned the opening chapters of Genesis, there are what – like four actually separate genealogies in those eleven chapters and I don’t, I mean, I don’t know if this is a helpful question to ask for everyone listening, I hope so, but there are different types of genealogies. There are linear, and segmented, I guess that’s the language I’m used to hearing for these genealogies.
Amanda: Mm hmm.
Pete: Do they function differently in terms of this identity formation? I mean, like why have, why have parallel genealogies that one is just like, so and so begat so and so, and other genealogies that take into account brothers and wives and things like that.
Amanda: Sure. So, linear genealogy was just one name per generation. The purpose of those is usually to connect the last person to the first person.
Amanda: It’s usually to establish that relationship. A segmented genealogy has, where it lists multiple offspring, usually, it lists multiple people in each generation, is more of a map of a community and it’s even, I think in some ways we can think of it as an ancient version of international relations, kind of political mapping trying to describe the sort of historically and in present terms, the relationships and alliances of the world that people live in. And I think part of where people go wrong with their genealogies now is that they expect them to be precise.
Amanda: They expect them to be sort of factual and true, and if there’s multiple genealogies that contradict each other, which does happen in Genesis, that, I think, the takeaway from that is just to remind is that it’s not trying to be factual and precise.
Amanda: They, each of those genealogies is serving a purpose as it is, and for the sake of saying both of those things, they’re perfectly willing to tolerate the contradiction, that that’s less important than making the point that each genealogy contributes.
Pete: Just to jump on that one point there, Amanda, I’ve heard many times in my life people assuming that, well, you know, the Bible can sort of mess with history a little bit here and there, but the genealogies, that’s just a list of names. This has to be right. This has to be accurate. And you know, the language that I’m used to using is just the theological import of the genealogies, which isn’t really fixated on, you know, the security camera thing that you’re talking about. But you’re adding really, another dimension here. It’s, they look the way they do because of community identity formation and they’re there for that kind of a purpose. I just think that relieves the tension, doesn’t it, Jared, from having to feel like, oh gosh, some of these names. How can these two genealogies be different? That just is impossible. But they’re not. So, there they are.
Jared: Yeah, I mean, I have a question. I want to go back to the beginning foundation because we started with this idea that it’s designed to create a community, this is about identity formation. But I was curious, I was thinking, I was thinking of some of our listeners who might say, well, she’s just saying this, sort of kind of, without a lot of evidence or proof. So, in terms of Genesis, how do we get this idea that this is what Genesis is trying to do rather than say, any number of other purposes we could put to it? So, what do you find in the text that led you to this conclusion that hey, maybe this is what this purpose of this text is about?
Amanda: Hmm, that’s a great question. I think, well, I think it comes from a couple different directions. I mean, I think the first sort of thing to look at is why are we reading Genesis in the first place? There’s a lot of stuff that came out of the ancient world. Why are we reading Genesis? And why is it that when we read Genesis, we read it as though it has something to do with us as opposed to just here’s an interesting story? So, I think it’s already sort of baked in to the way that people approach the Bible, this assumption that Genesis is somehow speaking to what it means to be the people of God. So, I think there’s a sense in which it’s embedded in the very concept of scripture and how people read it. In terms of where it’s coming from in the text itself, I think it’s a recurring assumption throughout the biblical text if you look at how within Genesis and you see it a lot, especially emerging in Exodus, emerging even more strongly, but this idea that these events that happen are going to be repeated and narrated, that they’re going to be commemorated in holidays, that it’s always concerned with how this is going to go down, there is someone who’s observed that in Exodus. They start talking about how the exodus is going to be commemorated before the people have even left Egypt. They haven’t even gotten out yet, and they’re having this extended discussion about how they’re going to remember how this happened. Which, you know, if you’re watching this in a movie it would be a little, right, to kind of have that
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Amanda: But it’s sort of shows up in those ways. I think if you, I think it’s embedded in the concept of genealogy and the prominence of genealogy in the sense that the readers are, that the genealogies and the texts are in some sense the genealogies of the readers. And there are different ways that the different communities understand that to work, but that the reader, it’s their genealogy, it’s not just somebody else’s family, but it’s a genealogy that we are somehow connected to. So, I think it comes from a lot of places. I think the kinds of things that are there, this idea of kind of what it means to be Israel is also there just in the placement of Genesis at the start of the cannon, this idea that this is somehow foundational in kind of establishing the contours of this identity and this relationship.
Jared: It strikes me too that I think, I wouldn’t know this. I’m not an expert in this, but I would think in studies of ancient cultures that would be a pervading theme throughout any culture in the ancient world of preserving, protecting, and promulgating our identity as a people. And that seemed to be, even just outside the Bible, a pretty foundational purpose for story telling when we think of even Greek tragedies and these other pieces of art. It’s really about that formation of reminding ourselves who we are and our place in the order of things here.
Amanda: Yes. And it’s really instructive to compare Genesis to something like the Enuma Elish, to compare it to a Babylonian creation story, where you have from the very beginning this idea that Babylon is at the center of the cosmos, that Babylon’s god is the dominant god, that you get that kind of identity right from the beginning. It’s not as sort of open ended as Genesis is. It’s not as all encompassing. It doesn’t drill down to the specifics as much, which in itself is a statement. It’s a statement that’s more difficult to read than the Babylonian statement because of the way it’s not as in your face as the Babylonian ones. But I’m suggesting that people should pay attention to what Genesis is not doing, to what it’s holding back in addition to what it is.
Pete: Yeah, one thing you just said before too, Amanda, it just really struck me how the, you know, command to commemorate the exodus before it even happens is, you know, for critical scholarship, an indication that well, you know, this is being edited later on and they’re inserting things and of course, this isn’t happening in real time, this is what the editor is doing. And sort of leave it at that, but I think, again, to try to bring, draw a circle around this, I guess what you’re saying is that, well, yeah, exactly. That is what’s happening. This is edited for the purpose of communal identity formation. That’s why these things, it’s not enough to say this was edited later on, and sort of a fashion in a certain way. The purpose of it is for identity formation.
Amanda: Yes, and I think it’s a tendency of modern, and I use modern like a biblical scholar to cover the last 200 years or so, but I think it’s really funny how modern readers kind of say, oh, we just need to correct this text a little bit. It’s trying to do this and, you know, we can fix it a little bit it does a little better. But it’s not enough to sort of say is the Bible accurate, we have to sort of ask accurate at what?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Amanda: And I think a lot of times readers have this assumption about what the Bible is supposed to be doing and it’s actually not that interested in doing that. It’s not as interested in those things as we are. It’s not as interested in a particular kind of historical accuracy. It’s not as obsessed with that as we are, and so if it’s not doing that, then what is it doing? People will look at the genealogy in Genesis 10 that people like to call the table of nations. I don’t like that term, but people will look at that genealogy and then go, we just need to clean it up a bit and make it, you know, make the categories more rigid. And it’s like, well, no! It’s, why? It’s doing a perfectly good job of what it’s trying to do. Why are we trying to say it’s doing a bad job of something else we think it should be doing?
Jared: That touches on a theme we talk about quite a bit here on the podcast, which, I think it was C.S. Lewis who used the term chronological snobbery, but I see a lot of that in modern scholarship and in churches where it’s sort of like, well, we have it right and we have to go fix this because they were just so primitive and look at all these mistakes they made, dumb editors, and I think that’s just such a blindly arrogant way to approach the text rather than having the humility to say, maybe they were pretty smart and maybe they were just after something different than what we’re expecting of this text. And I really appreciate this community creation. You have this phrase, I think it’s in your dissertation where you say, “the community is created and recreated through the telling and retelling of its foundational stories,” and I think that’s something we’ve lost in our church communities and faith communities. We’ve spent so much time running around trying to find how we can be accurate and fit kind of what, we were trying to defend ourselves against this modernistic understanding of the world instead of just owning what the text is trying to do and building on that by recreating and retelling those stories in ways that make sense to our faith and bolster that. So, or to our communities, I would say. So, I just think it’s a powerful thing to say, maybe there’s something here that we could recapture rather than just saying, oh, dumb editors.
Jared: We’ll just solve the problems and then we’ll get it right. Like, being right isn’t the point.
Amanda: Mm hmm. And I think, also, the other side in what you’re saying is also that what it means that we are reading these texts that are thousands of years old and that they’ve been read for all this time in all these different places and are still read in a lot of different places and a lot of different communities and a lot of different cultures and that through sharing these texts, through sharing these scriptures, we are also bound to the other people who are sharing it too. So, there are things that don’t make sense in our culture. I like to tell students about Olaudah Equiano. In his memoir, he describes hearing the book of Leviticus, hearing things from the book of Leviticus and how much that resonated with his experience in Africa. And that is not the experience most people reading the Bible now, like, oh now I get it. Leviticus! Now all this makes sense.
Amanda: But from his culture, it was something that kind of, that resonated, that was sort of speaking a language he understood. And so, the things that one person goes “this is weird, I don’t know what to do with this,” someone else is, “yes, this is perfectly straightforward and clear.” And so, when we think about that community formation, that community goes beyond our time and that community goes beyond our culture and that because of that diversity, it’s able to speak through our blind spots that we could never see on our own.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, something is striking me here, Amanda, that I think a way of maybe describing what we’re even talking about here is when reading the Bible, it’s really all about proper genre recognition. Knowing what kind of literature you’re reading, and as we’ve said already, the assumptions we make about, well, it’s got to be historical. You know? In our sense of the word, and imposing categories on it. It’s trying to be sensitive to the literature itself, to let it define its own categories and sometimes things that are problems in texts are like, contradictory genealogies or things like that. Those might actually be close to us as to the type of literature where you’ve been dealing with.
Amanda: Mm hmm, yes. The very fact that they tolerated those contradictions, the very fact that they left them alone and they didn’t feel the need to correct them, they didn’t feel the need to establish a clear timeline shows that they, you know, that that wasn’t an obstacle to them. That that wasn’t something they felt that they needed to smooth out, that they were focused on something else.
Pete: And in fact, it’s worth keeping!
Amanda: Mm hmm.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, it’s important to keep, you know, the conflicting genealogies within, you know, a few verses of each other and, I just, I mean, I just find that fascinating and just a very liberating thought because, again, it’s shaking up the Bible in a good way.
Amanda: Mm hmm.
Pete: You know, maybe we’re just coming at it. I’m saying we, I mean, you know, a lot of our listeners are in a process of sort of deconstructing and thinking of fresh ways of thinking about the Bible, but I think this is one of those pathways that can be so supportive of people looking, looking for different ways to be reading the Bible and just thinking about what it is, you know? And our assumptions of maybe getting in the way of that.
Amanda: Mm hmm.
Pete: Yeah, I was gonna ask a question too about Genesis. Okay, if Genesis is written, this is sort of a two-part kind of question here. If Genesis is written for the purpose of like, community identity formation, do you feel comfortable identifying like, what that community is that is giving Genesis this shape that it has? Like, I guess I’m asking like, do you have a sense, or is it even important to ask when that community is existing, like who wrote this stuff and made it look the way that it does?
Amanda: I think that’s a worthy question. For me, it’s been more important to try to deflect attention away from that question because when it comes to identity, that question has been used to smuggle the modern assumptions about identity back in. So, where we have Genesis very specifically not presenting Israel as not yet a people and not yet in its place, a lot of times the, situating it in its historical context is then used to say, well, this is who they really were. They did have this identity. So, even though Genesis doesn’t have it, they kind of pull it back in
Pete: Ok okay.
Amanda: From the history. Yeah. So, for the purposes of this question and for this topic, I think it’s sort of important to bracket that question to really force us to reckon with the absence of a fixed, established community.
Pete: Right. So, that question actually will get in the way, so to speak, of recognizing the community identifying function of the text.
Amanda: Yes. I think it’s really telling that people who write about identity don’t usually like to write about Genesis unless they’re doing, because it doesn’t have the things we think we need to talk about identity. It doesn’t have those markers and then people tend to gravitate towards texts with a stronger imperial imprint that, you know, that show something like Daniel or something like that where it gets closer to the way we operate. And that people sort of avoid something like Genesis that doesn’t seem to fit. And I think it’s that very not fitting that is so valuable.
Pete: Mm hmm. It also makes it more, I guess it really capitalizes on the flexibility of it all for different communities at different times in different places to, I guess, access Genesis and other texts for their own community identifying formative task.
Amanda: Mm hmm, yeah.
Amanda: And I think for us, I think, I guess something to sort of balance out the things I’ve already said, would be to point out, so I’m not suggesting that if we’re trying to think about what does this mean for us who live in this world where we have these strong ideas about identity and we have where they’re so influential in shaping our society, are we supposed to just act like they’re not there? Genesis actually depicts that struggle, which I think is really interesting. So, you have God calling Abraham into this new identity, but then it’s not fully fleshed out and then he’s interacting with other people. And it’s not like when other people see it and they go, oh, I see that you are the beginning of a new thing that God is doing, right? They’re not going to make sense of him in terms of this new emergent identity, they’re going to make sense of him in terms of the categories they already have. So, the word Hebrew, for example, as an ethnic term, when people use it in Genesis, it can’t really mean the covenant community that God’s creating that becomes Israel. It can’t be that, because other people don’t know about that yet. That Hebrew can become that in later texts, but not yet in Genesis. And so, we see Abraham sort of caught between these different kinds of definitions, and the way the word Hebrew shows up in Genesis only when its outsiders describing people in the family of Abraham, it’s never a word that they use for themselves. And so, that process between living with the structures and expectations of our culture and the people around us while also trying to live into relationship with God and God’s emergent work is already there in the biblical text.
Jared: I’m, just to come at this, I think it’s basically saying the same thing that we’ve said, but coming from a different angle when, you know, you guys are talking about history and the text, there’s something about the power of story here that I think is really valuable that, it seems like ancient people valued story telling as a tool for community or identity formation, which is kind of what we’ve been saying, but I think what’s sticking out to me is this idea of storytelling almost as a craft and as a skill that can be fostered for this purpose. And I think I can’t help but just make the connection to our world because I think we have, we’re lacking a lot in this area. But it’s another one of those things that I think points out some blind spots that we have where for me, you know, I tell this story sometimes where when my kids were younger, we’d be reading the Bible and they would ask the question, naturally, because this is a modern world – did it really happen? And we would say, well, you know, I don’t, probably not. It probably wasn’t exactly this way. And then my kid would say, “Oh. So, it’s just a story.” And my wife would interrupt and say, well, not interrupt, but jump on that really quickly and say, no, no, no. Stories are really valuable, and they’re really important. But it’s so funny at such a young age they had learned to devalue and downplay storytelling. “Oh, it’s just a story,” meaning, it’s not historically accurate.
Amanda: Mm hmm.
Jared And so, I think there’s some retraining and that’s why this is exciting to see. There’s some retraining we can do in our lives around storytelling and seeing that for ancient people all the way up until recent times, this was a really valuable skill.
Amanda: Mm hmm, exactly.
Pete: And we’ve lost it, I guess. I mean, we’re such modern people.
Pete: I can explain things, I’m not a good storyteller.
Jared: yeah, I can confirm that.
Amanda: Well, the next thing with family stories is that they don’t have to be sort of well crafted, well told stories. So, even just little facts, like even little snippets that don’t go anywhere. Like, if we talk about Methuselah lived to be 969, that’s a story. It doesn’t have to be something, you know, that had this plot, movement, and a climax, and you know, jokes or something.
Jared: Can you, could you maybe apply that to Genesis because I think that’s helpful too. Are there points in Genesis where it’s not a narrative, it’s not this beginning, middle, and end, that maybe has this formative aspect, but there are, I’m trying to get a grasp for what that means because when I think of story I do think of like, a narrative arc and an ending. Is it because, what’s the difference between a story, a family story let’s say, in the Bible, and just facts or, you know, not like historical facts but just statements about families? Are those the same thing?
Amanda: The difference is how this is, is how they’re told. Who tells them and how and why that they’re told. So, I’m thinking you could go find the census data on your relatives going back as far as you want if you’re allowed to access that kind of thing, I don’t know. But you can find out, you know, you can gather that information from say, government sources and find out, you know, facts about your family. But that’s really different than what your grandparents choose to tell you about their childhood. What they choose to tell you about your parents’ childhood, and why they’ve chosen to tell you one thing versus another and what they hope that will mean to you. How they hope that will shape your life.
Jared: So, the editing and the meaning that’s already infused by who’s telling you is part of that process.
Pete: So, Amanda, would you say that this function of Genesis for community identity formation, that extends to other parts of the Bible itself? Or maybe all of it? I mean, I can see it in Exodus, but you know, the story of David, Kings, and things like that
Pete: Yeah, the Psalms. Ecclesiastes, you know, Job, are they all part of identity formation in your opinion?
Amanda: I think so, yes. And I think so from, I guess, from the standpoint of their role in the Bible in the biblical cannon. That’s part of, that’s a big part of what the biblical cannon is doing.
Pete: Yes, yeah. Okay.
Jared: Right, overall. Overall.
Pete: So, it’s sort of like what is the Bible? You, one way of answering that question, it’s a question we ask here a lot and we’re getting different answers. What is the Bible? One answer to that question is it’s a community-forming document.
Pete: Community identity-forming document. That’s interesting, okay, yeah.
Jared: Hmm, hmm.
Amanda: Another example to think about is a lot of the biblical laws have something called a motive clause. You know, something like don’t abhor the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, something like that. Where it’s not, it doesn’t just say do this or don’t do that, but it gives you this little snippet of why that taps into the narrative, that taps into those things, but it’s illustrating the role that story plays in informing the ongoing life of the people. We’re also sort of dealing with it across a sense of loss. So, I like to tell students sometimes, looking at Leviticus, it’s easier to look at that and kind of be sort of baffled by it, but I tell them, you know, from our vantage point reading about these rituals in Leviticus, it’s like, if you can imagine some sort of sci-fi future where people don’t eat, you know, they put stickers on their arm and that’s how they get nutrition. And so, living in that society, you’re trying to explain what the holiday of Thanksgiving is based on a turkey recipe. It’s going to be totally baffling to people! Like, you’re not going to get the larger context of all that just from looking at details of one practice. You’re not getting the sort of larger world of meaning and things that’s also transmitted alongside it and around it. You know, that the other sort of side of the family story telling is it assumes a family that’s telling the story. It’s not just looking at things in isolation and as that context shifts, it can be harder to understand those dimensions.
Jared: Okay. We have a lot of listeners who this is new information to even think about what the Bible is. It’s been a fascinating conversation. So, as we wrap up here, what’s a, maybe some words of wisdom for people who say this really resonates, but how can it change how I approach the Bible? Would you have anything to help them take some next steps as they try to wrestle with what this means in their, you know, faith practice?
Amanda: Sure! And we can talk about that from a couple different directions. So, from the identity standpoint, I think that the thing to do is to look at the Bible as informing your identity at the deepest levels to assume that who you are is a work in progress and that the Bible can speak to that. That it’s not just something that that’s set in stone and the Bible can only kind of lead you in a certain direction with this idea that you can be formed as you’re reading these texts. From another direction, I think a really practical thing to do is to consider when you have those moments when you’re reading and you feel like, well, this is a contradiction or I don’t feel like it’s answering my question to ask yourself, you know, that’s a good time to kind of take a step back and sort of wonder well, “what kind of questions is this text interested in?” instead of assuming, you know, instead of sort of being stuck on your questions and kind of wondering why the Bible isn’t answering them, to kind of use that as a moment to reframe and sort of see, well, what is important to this text? What is it talking about? And to look at it from that point of view.
Pete: Well, thank you Amanda. That’s wonderful. This has been so informative and we both just want to thank you for taking the time and talking to us about the Bible. It just, a different angle for I think a lot of people that’s going to be very, very helpful. So, thank you so much for coming on!
Amanda: You’re welcome, thanks for having me.
Pete: Well folks, thanks for tuning in. Just a quick reminder, How the Bible Actually Works, we have a six-part video series, right?
Pete: Don’t we Jared?
Jared: That’s right. And so, you can just go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/biblevideo and learn more about that. We hope that it’s a time where, again, you can gather together some friends. We talked about in this episode, identity formation. These kinds of studies are good for that kind of thing. Get together, have arguments, have conversations about what the Bible is and what we do with it.
Megan: We also want to give a shout out to our producer’s group, who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Thanks, as always, to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.
Jared: We would really encourage you to grab some people, not physically…
Pete: Yeah! Don’t –
Jared: I mean, not physically. We’re still in this –
Pete: Don’t make it a legal thing, you know?
Don’t get in trouble.
Jared: But maybe a virtual group gathering, we’re trying to find a way to help… Damn it. All right, we gotta redo it.
Jared: Yup, exactly. I think it’s fine.
Pete: Let’s just leave that as it is.
Jared: Okay. Thanks Dave!
Pete: Thank you Dave! Bye!
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