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Rhetoric and Scripture

Sacred Tropes: Tanakh, New Testament, and Qur'an As Literature and Culture  by Roberta Sterman Sabbath (Biblical Interpretation Series: Brill Academic) Contemporary sacred text scholarship has been stimulated by a number of intersecting trends: a surging interest in religion, sacred texts, and inspirational issues; burgeoning developments in and applications of literary theories; intensifying academic focus on diverse cultures whether for education or scholarship. Although much has been written individually about Tanakh, New Testament, and Qur'an, no collection combines an examination of all three. Sacred Tropes interweaves Tanakh, New Testament, and Qur'an essays. Contributors collectively and also often individually use mixed literary approaches instead of the older single theory strategy. Appropriate for classroom or research, the essays utilize a variety of literary theoretical lenses including environmental, cultural studies, gender, psychoanalytic, ideological, economic, historicism, law, and rhetorical criticisms through which to examine these sacred works.

Tanakh. New Testament. Qur'an. Most often, studies of these works appear alone. Often the Tanakh and New Testament are paired for independent analysis of each. Very often, the older work is studied as a foreshadowing of the future. Libraries are filled with these individualized or paired studies. Religious and literary studies in academe reflect the same compartmentalization, specializing in studies of each.

Today's geopolitical global economy of ideas and markets flies in the face of any cloistering of sacred texts. In this age of cyberspace transmission, the mobility of ideas produces their easy flow around the world. Yet, nativism, isolationism, and chauvinism of every kind have never been more entrenched. For both reasons, the one, because of the logistic ease of communication, and the other, because of current political and religious turmoil, the study of the interaction between the texts is a project whose time has come.

One antidote to the individualized or paired groupings of sacred text studies would be to anthologize an equal number of studies from each of the three sacred texts. Essays could be organized by sacred text. First, Tanakh. Next, New Testament. Then, Qur'an. Or, organized by period, ex: patriarchs, exodus, or by topics, ex: family relations, ethics. But essays collected in such ways can produce a tokenism that continues the status quo. Readers are more comfortable with the familiar. Less well-known sacred text references would be ignored while the familiar ones emphasized. In the classroom, teachers gravitate to material they know. The result is to reinforce the same age-old, categorical way of thinking.

Preventing the three texts from having a conversation with one another is like frustrating the otherwise unleashed excitement and energy of old friends who have been distanced by time, space, and squabbling families. Putting them together under one roof produces an explosion of creativity, energy, and pleasure. Putting them together on an equal playing field guarantees the freedom that only trust can produce.

None of these works is a relic, an artifact testifying to a dead culture. They are alive and pertinent to the people of the modern world. They are looked to by billions of people for wisdom, for meaning to life's puzzles, trials, and joys, and for the pleasures of spirituality, of intellect, of adventure. Adding another dimension to this fertile field increases, not diminishes, the magnetism.

Tanakh-New Testament-Qur'an punctuates the synergy between the three works experienced by the contributors in this collection. Without a doubt, there is an idealism sandwiched between these covers. An idealism that acknowledges, even cherishes and celebrates, a difference that enriches, not diminishes, communal life. On a down-to-earth level, contributors represent every corner of the globe testifying to the dynamism of these sacred works and underscoring the vibrant nature of the conversation amongst them.

When this call for papers went out, these contributors "showed up" in the cyber neighborhood that we inhabit without prodding and with great enthusiasm and an idea that needed air, fresh air. Often, the response was, "I've had this essay in my drawer just awaiting the right home." While essays may focus on one, two, or three sacred texts, the invitation to use mixed approaches has produced the foundation for an exciting playing field. The collection is a global airing of sorts. It is a way for scholars to be vessels for the delayed conversation, one that has been inhibited by old ways and habits.

Prior to the last third of the 20th century, literary and religious studies scholars often prescribed a focus on the text itself, a text accepted as a discrete artifact. Then the literary earthquake that broke the crust of the work-encapsulated-in-time-and-space began. Authors in this collection have all benefited from that intense theoretical work of the last part of the 20th century and the willingness of religious and literary studies scholars to apply literary theory to sacred texts.

The application of a fresh theoretical lens to a sacred text proved an exciting turn. During this period, scholars applied one theory to mine a text for an underlying meaning that fit that theory. Results provided break through readings. New readers and readings, both lay and scholarly, emerged. A quick visit to commercial bookstores and academic libraries alike reveals shelf after shelf of space reflecting diverse inter pretive vibrancy. This period can be described as the modernist phase of literary theory. A scholar was aligned with one theory or another and served as guide, enlightening the uninitiated.

The call for papers for this collection asked for something else. A scholar could apply polymorphous readings that incorporated fields of literature, philosophy, history, popular culture, law, and anthropology. The charge was to have the scholar serve not as guide but as participant in the exploration of meaning and to bring the reader along as a willing adventurer. A global dimension became a critical part of this collection embracing the reception of these texts in the greatest variety of time and space, culture and politics, individual and communal practice.

Contributors who answered the call offered just such a rich portrait of the sacred texts. Collectively and individually, they enlisted a variety of scholarly strategies, testifying to the dynamic nature of these three texts and the ways they interact with one another. There was no, "A Semiotic Reading" or "A New Historicist Look." Rather the familiar literary theories were often brought in as a team to make connections, to broaden exploration and audiences, and to discover rhetorical power; in short, to reveal the magnetism that keeps readers coming.

Many of these essays spring from academic panels on this topic organized over the past four years at several literary conferences. During each of these years, about a dozen or so scholars traveled, often from afar, in response to a door wedged open by universities and literary studies organizations serving as hosts to the panels. The virtual community that these panels generated has operated within the safe landscape of academe, a real community to be cherished.

To establish a sense of community in the discussion of these three sacred texts, six themes organize the conversation. Each theme represents a layer of the universal human experience. The journey begins with the theme that examines the most completely internalized of all the dimensions, that of language, a focus reflecting the title of this collection, Sacred Tropes.

The journey continues with the next theme that describes the spiritual human experience; followed by the next theme, the experience of the body and environmental landscape; then the next, the experience of the composite of the previous three layers—language, spirituality, and the body—addressing the complex internal life of the individual; the next, the dynamic of the individual and the immediate social context; and the final theme, the largest frame, that of the relationship of the individual with the larger community politic.

Part I: According to the wisdom of philosophers, literary scholars, and psychologists alike, language is the vehicle that mediates the individual human experience within time and space. Language is the two-way street that both enables the individual to express and to integrate. Thus the dimension of focus on language and rhetorical expression of these sacred works is the first organizing theme, Poetics.

Part II: Spirituality is personal, some would say, more personal than language. Like language, spirituality serves as another mediating mechanism between the material world and all that is not material: all that imagination, all that wonderment, all that fear that defines our common human experience. The theme Negotiating Boundaries: Crossings and Defining the Human and Divine explores the expression of that mediation as voiced in the sacred texts.

Part III: The literal dividing line between our individual selves and the rest of time and space is our skin. In the environmental context of the earth, the topography of the planet stands in as the dividing line between the chaotic forces of the underworld and the potential civilizing order of the world above ground, and possibly, depending on the cultural context, the heavens above. The sacred texts pay a lot of attention to the skin and topography. Both skin and topography are the site of ritual and power. Often, in the sacred texts, they share the very same metaphors and narrative purpose so much so that the one often stands in for the other in production of rhetorical meaning. Topographies: Landscape and Body explores these two related expressions of boundary, those of skin and topography, both porous, between the human experience and the divine.

Part IV: For the individual experience of being alive, that powerful force charged with integrating what lies beneath and outside the skin, is often conveniently labeled "subjectivity." Subjectivity is the helpful word that acknowledges the impact of time and space to the experience of being human. It acknowledges that selfhood is no static matter. It is neither, on the one hand, completely bequeathed, nor, on the other hand, completely controllable. Subjectivity has a dynamic dimension that is portrayed in the sacred texts and is addressed by the theme, Subjectivity.

Part V: As a product of being alive, the dynamic "I," the subject, experiences intercourse with other subjects, other "I" 's. Demands of socialization intimately affect daily life. Each dynamic "I" or subject is valued within each of these organizing categories, one way or another. The theme Gift and Sacrifice explores ways sacred texts describe and prescribe the value assigned to individual subjects.

Part VI: In order to explore the tectonic configuration of the human experience, authors look at a variety of historical and political patterns and events, including contemporary ones. In Imperialism, Revolution, and Community, contributors examine rhetorical messages gleaned from the works by various political communities, messages that helped form organizational roadmaps in the construction and maintenance of their societies.

Contributors were unaware of the decision to group the essays within a configuration of these six themes. Thus none of the essays was written for a prescribed purpose. As a result, the essays represent the broadest possible sweep of polymorphous readings. For every volunteer, there has been a unique blend of readings; for every essay, a fresh view into the complexity of interpretation.

Without this invitation of freedom in the choice of literary strategies, any group of essays might result in a reading reflecting a tunnel vision bequeathed by earlier practices. In her essay, Yvonne Sherwood advocates the charge of this volume which is to combine literary theories for analyzing sacred texts. While Sherwood testifies to the "trickling of influence between the Bible and Literature that has always been going on," she bemoans the enduring problem that results when solo critical readings ignore textual richness. "[Individual readings work] like a net; they catch some aspects of the prophetic corpus and let others fall to the ground."

Contributor Mustansir Mir echoes Sherwood's commitment to literary criticism and to the use of a rich array of literary theory, suggesting its importance in Qur'anic studies. He opines, "The Qur'an, like the Bible, is an acknowledged literary masterpiece. But, unfortunately, it has not yet received the kind of attention ... [as does] the Bible."'

What Sherwood and Mir call for is the goal of this collection. Rather than submit these sacred texts to a net that filters out all but the seamless and beatific, or the persuasive and powerful, these articles suggest a few of the many lenses that bring sacred texts to life.

By applying contemporary reception to these sacred texts, contributors help us read against the grain of accepted or familiar interpretations. These texts continue to speak to us individually and through our institutions. By hearing these new voices of polymorphous interpretation, the reader opens up to fresh conclusions, fresh judgments, and hopefully fresh bridges of understanding and acceptance.

The sequence of the six themes, explored through the rich variety of voices included in this collection, forms the journey summarized below. It tells the story of the human condition inspired by the Abrahamic tradition as read through its sacred texts. The journey is a testimony to human resilience, imagination, and search for meaning. From the communal perspective, these essays serve as a reminder that living includes not only daily life within the boundaries prescribed by institutions but in the crossings of those boundaries. This collection attempts to articulate some of those internal experiences along with the crossings.

Part I. In his introduction to the section on Poetics, Peter Heath reminds us of the rhetorical or persuasive aspect of sacred language and the many different strategies used to achieve that purpose. The title of this collection enlists the Greek word "trope," meaning "turn twist," to highlight the lively activity between the innocent or literal meaning and the plethora of meanings and associations of a word, phrase, or pattern of language.'

To make their case, sacred texts rely on numerous figures of speech, many of which are described in the Qur'anic analysis of Mustansir Mir. Rhetorical persuasion also depends on patterns of language. Rosalind Gwynne examines the patterns in Qur'anic language to describe divine presence and power. Thomas Hoffman focuses on Qur'anic verbs and predicates used to portray the awesome nature of divine dynamics and power.

Figures of speech present complicated sets of references and meanings. A typical sacred text selection will shift registers between literal and figurative meanings, often producing dramatically different and even contradictory interpretations. To say that only one register is the right one misses textual richness. Jessie Cheney advises the reader to be aware of the numerous and sometimes subtle shifts between the literal and the figurative layers of meaning production (see Ulreich). William Kimbrel explains the powerfully persuasive New Testament rhetoric and commentary of typology that constructs Tanakh narrative as prophetic of New Testament events and revelations (see Geissinger, Ulreich).

Speaking to the political and cultural rhetorical power and purpose produced by these works, both Bruce Fudge and Mehnaz M. Afridi reflect on the selective references made to the Qur'an proving that interpretation and translation are always subjective and determined by the reader. Andrew Hock-Soon Ng points out the gothic language used to great emotional purpose. He discusses cultural and religious oppositions portrayed through sibling conflicts (see Belcher and Boer/ Abraham).

Yvonne Sherwood seeks to broaden the view of the prophetic works. She challenges critical readings limited to the seamless and beatific in prophetic rhetoric and emphasizes the richness of the rough-hewn, often erratic and changeable, writing style. Sherwood compares the language of John Donne's poetry to the fleshy, visceral, baroque style of the Prophets.

Part II. Writing the introduction to Negotiating Boundaries: Crossing and Defining the Human and the Divine, Andrew Rippin suggests that language is the most human of tools serving to calm the tension and breach the isolation produced by a separation between the human and the divine (see Chiwengo). Taken as a sign, the boundary that marks that separation becomes a battle ground, bedroom, boardroom, public square, written page, or language itself.

This theme discusses ways the sacred texts portray the encounter between the human and divine. Some encounters spring from the folklore that informs sacred texts. Beth McDonald explores the at once reviled and beloved Lilith, name for Adam's independent, first wife. This portrait from Midrash (Jewish extra-biblical narratives) attests to the imaginative human need to create an identity for forces unexplained by human reason (see Fudge, Hagen, Seesengood/Koosed).

Some of the human-divine encounters described in the text suggest that the boundary between the human and divine moves. Expectations for divine behavior change. The human spirit is filled with hope or devastation. Marvin Sweeney examines the development of Abraham's conversation with a divine presence, creating, in the end, a sense of

trust on the part of Abraham. Marianna Klar investigates the difference in quality and quantity between the divine Qur'an conversations with David and with Solomon.

Her work illuminates the differences and implications of these human-divine communications. The concept of the divine also takes different forms. George Aichele highlights the four depictions of Jesus in the Gospels.

The sacred narratives depict the human condition. This suggests the Deuteronimic wisdom, "They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you" (Dent 16:17). The stories can be simple or complicated, depending on what the reader brings to them.

Part III. According to the Topographies: Landscape and Body introductory comments of Jonathan Bordo, the desert landscape represents a holy surface, one that witnesses the interaction between the human and the divine. This section discusses the parallels between the bodily surface area of the inhabitants of the holy land and the topography of the holy land itself. The human body and skin are treated as holy as are the environment and its landscapes.

The human skin is the literal and metaphorical boundary that guards the individual. Thus the health of the skin plays a central ritual role. The integrity of bodily fluids is controlled by a healthy skin and, by extension, the actions of a healthy body. Any appearance of fluids is met with specific ritual practice to guard the separation, not only between man and women, but also between human and the divine. Fluids associated with life-creating forces, blood and semen, earn ritual regulation in the Levitical holiness codes.

The purity, simplicity, and even smoothness of the desert landscape suggests a boundary between the chaotic forces of death and disorder located in the underworld and the forces of life ordered by the Levitical codes located above ground.

The occurrence of a flood on the surface of the desert topography breaches and thus challenges the orderly containment of the human-divine boundaries. In her article, Christine Dykgraaf compares the mythical flood stories including that of Gilgamesh with the stories of the Tanakh and the Qur'an. She notes how the Qur'an contrasts the flood and the unbelievers to the ark and the righteousness of Noah. Natural occurrences and the landscape contribute important details as figurative depictions of the human success at maintaining a holy environment inside and out.

William McBride discusses the inscription of the covenant and meaning on the body (circumcision) and the heart. Betsy Bauman-Martin takes up the breach of the human and divine separation in the form of the virgin birth of Jesus. In her essay, Bauman-Martin takes the human perspective of Mary and argues that the submissive depiction of this conception has romanticized male aggression in literature and culture (see Geissinger).

Ruth Tsoffar provides an alternative reading of the story of Ruth and Naomi as a response to the trauma of Otherness and its internal ideology. She resituates the narrative within the history of Moab, going back to Genesis, to the story of Lot and the conception of Moab, as the experience of destruction and hunger that continues to inform the reality of Ruth. Ruth's ability to survive is her ability to reverse hunger into plenty and in the large scheme of things to transform tight boundaries of exclusions into the ultimate inclusion of Otherness.

Kecia Ali examines the most personal of topographies, the female body as it is legislated within the lines of the Qur'an. She suggests a Qur'anic reading which advances partnership, gender equality, and ethical sexuality.

Part IV. In her introduction to the section, Subjectivity, Ngwarsungu Chiwengo brings more than theory to this collection. Her subjectivity, by her own description, is that of the Congolese, non-Western, Christian reader. While the Abrahamic tradition deals in boundaries, cultural influences on human subjectivity have no such limits.

Fundamental to the practice of the Abrahamic tradition is a demand for religious exclusivity, but the reality can be quite different. Viviana Balsera attests to the hybridization or deep intersections of Christian and indigenous mezzo-American cultural and religious practices. Balsera writes that a 20th century shaman living in Huatla, Oaxaca, Mexico, interwove Christian theology and indigenous practices that include fortune telling, astrology, and spells.

J'annine Jobling and Alan Roughley discuss how authority and power are transmitted and utilized by Queen Esther, a complicated, empowered figure and one that the patriarchal text seeks to silence and some feminist readings seek to dismiss (see Chiwengo).

In practice, any institutionalized entity such as a religious one, typically requires unquestioning faith. Critical thinking is frowned on. The doubter becomes the leper. Yet, these sacred texts supply ample room for the full spectrum of emotional encounters with the divine presence. Kathleen Lundeen shows the emotional richness of Job's story with its

acknowledgement of the important role played by doubt in any spiritual journey. Roberta Sabbath explores both the unexpected Abrahamic laugh in the face of divine promise and the equally unexpected advocacy in the face of divine wrath (see Schwartz). The implicit human compassion towards Sodom and Gomorrah shown by Abraham's advocacy serves as a corrective to divine wrath and punishment.

The interaction between sacred stories and popular culture has a rich history, unbridled by institutional constraints. Robert Seesengood and Jennifer Koosed show how post-Civil War Missouri popular culture associated Jesse James with the victimization of Jesus. Gottfried Hagen argues that a mythology involving the prophet Muhammad began to spring up shortly after the death of the prophet. In spite of the institutionalized Islamic attempts to resist the production of narratives, stating that the extra-Qur'anic stories were built for amusement, Hagen argues that these stories of the prophet Muhammad supplement and enrich the Qur'an.

Part V. Gift and Sacrifice dominated social relations in the earliest civilizations, according to Andrew Wernick's introduction. Using the work of Marcel Mauss on the exchange value of gift, counter-gift, and sacrifice, Wernick points to numerous accounts in the sacred texts that provide benchmarks for the Abrahamic tradition. Particularly in ancient cultures, the gift, counter-gift, and sacrifice rituals permeated social intercourse, setting a value to the relationship between the giver and the recipient. The object given or sacrificed reflected that value. In religious rituals, such logic could require giving up the most valued thing: the first born, the prized wife, the best warriors, a cherished companion.

The Akedah, or sacrifice of Isaac, is the narrative benchmark of the fundamental shift from human to animal sacrifice. The moment the divine orders the sacrifice of the son be replaced with the ram is a watershed showing the compassion of the God of Abraham. John Ulreich decries a religious practice that requires a father to sacrifice his son and discusses the compassion implicit in the Akedah.

Sacred narrative is largely dedicated to the decisions, actions, desires, and visions of men. The two sacrifices of the son, whether by the earthly father, Abraham, or the heavenly father, God, serve as foundational religious moments while the sacrifices and exchanges of women barely earn narrative mention. Magda Romanska remarks that the sacrifice of Sarah is erased. After the Akedah, Sarah disappears from the text completely. Readers are left to wonder whether the prospect of Isaac's sacrifice killed her.

Continuing a look at the sacrifice of women, Aisha Geissinger suggests that the Qur'an makes a typological connection between Mary and the virgin birth of the Messiah to Miriam, sister of Moses, and her vigilance over Moses. Both women, the one as mother, the other as protector, serve as vehicles of the divine will through their personal sacrifices. Mary in particular undergoes the humiliation of giving birth as an unmarried woman in a censorious patriarchal society. Geissinger breathes air into the character of Mary, pointing to the ways in which some Qur'anic passages present her as a socially marginalized, even seemingly scandalous figure (see Bauman-Martin; also Kimbrel).

If the exception makes the rule regarding the dearth of female portraits, then the story of Achsah, according to Ken Stone, is notable as one of the rare women characters who acts independently, succeeds in commerce and family life, and even arranges for gifts that meet her own high standards (see Jobling/Roughley).

Sacrifice comes in many forms. When each individual counts as an integral entity, the giving up of any part, either physical or emotional, of that integrity must be framed with narrative meaning. This can include either reward for the sacrificed or punishment for the perpetrator. Cautionary messages of the breach of human worth abound in these sacred texts which do not mince words in describing the despicable or the cruel. By recognizing the exchange value of a gift or sacrifice of all human interaction, the Abrahamic texts make each individual count. All human interaction must meet the test of dignity for the individual and honor for the community.

Part VI. In his introductory comments to Imperialism, Revolution, and Community, Stephen Moore explains the importance of applying a variety of literary tools to extract meaning from the text and make the works more relevant, serving to build bridges between readers.

Regina Schwartz highlights the importance of all the sacred texts in setting ethical standards designed to instruct citizens in their responsibilities to the community. Her thesis also applies to what the community owes the individual and what each individual owes the other. She discusses the values bequeathed to the Hebrews at Sinai. She expands her conversation of ethical practice and responsibility with the work of philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas and enlists philosopher Alain Badiou's concept of the moment of truth to argue that the Sinai gift of the tablets sets the stage for fidelity to the Abrahamic tradition.

Wendy Belcher comments on sacred text social and political values as she explains the African mythology that describes the conflict between two monarchies, one ruled by King Solomon and one by a virgin Ethiopian queen. The mythical tradition includes the theft of the Ark of the Covenant by the Ethiopian military forces from Solomon's court. The myth denaturalizes the patriarchal social structure of the Abrahamic tradition and invites readings about the role of gender and power (see Jobling/Roughley, Tsoffar, Stone).

Sacred texts also reflect on the freedom of social classes. The work of Boer and Abraham suggests another conflict and reminds the reader of the profound influence of the Muslim world in Europe. Colleen Conway's work on the Pauline letter to Philemon addresses the complicated issue of slavery. She suggests that the Pauline letter brings to light the conflict that occurs when a human being is property. Paul's letter implies, but does not resolve, the conflicting demands of ownership and human rights.

Paul's letters to the Romans inspired Jay Twomey's examination of the political question of the rights of the individual vs. state powers. Twomey compares the polemics of the sermons of 18th century, pre-Revolutionary polemicist preacher Jonathan Edwards with the positions taken by Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia. Twomey finds the 18th century preacher a stronger advocate for government accountability than the Supreme Court Judge.

Imperialism, Revolution, and Community addresses the ability of a society to set standards that affect the well-being of all of its citizens. The quality of life of its members, is as much a measure of a society's success as its standing in the outside world. These sacred texts grapple with the charge of balancing the welfare of individual citizens and the necessary powers of the state.

When a text, sacred or otherwise, is unfamiliar, that unknown may invite suspicion, fear, avoidance, and, ultimately ignorance. The charge of this collection is to promote polymorphous readings and to energize a lively dialogue. As readers, we may see ourselves in the portraits of the sacred personages whose hopes and struggles suggest our own journey and our own quest for enlightened humanity.


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