The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church
More than ten years ago, the Hebrew instructors at Western Theological Seminary (WTS) began to entertain the possibility that the church’s lack of interest in the Bible, what decades ago was labeled “the strange silence of the Bible in the church,” might be due in part to the way we were teaching Hebrew and exegesis at the seminary. We spent the majority of our classroom time focusing on memorizing vocabulary and grammar as the necessary tools that students could use to dissect a text. In short, we presented the Bible as a passive object and ourselves as the active subjects whose task it was to determine the true meaning of a text. We began to wonder whether this way of teaching subtly undermined what we were hoping students would experience in their encounters with the Bible, rendering its words inert material rather than something living and dynamic, a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, as the Psalmist put it (119:105).
Learning Hebrew by Heart
When we took a hard look at our Hebrew course and the larger curriculum in which it was embedded, we began to identify more clearly the assumptions that were governing it:
- it was hierarchical, placing the instructor above the students as the source of all knowledge and the judge of competency;
- it was individualistic, encouraging personal achievement rather than communal commitment;
- it was informational, focusing on acquiring facts rather than forming character;
- it was threatening, students were worrying about making mistakes and looking foolish, worrying about maintaining their grade point average, and retaining their scholarships.
We realized that a curriculum governed by such assumptions had not and could not foster the relationship with the Bible that we were wanting for our students and the church, and we began to look for alternatives. We studied the latest theories of language acquisition and searched for the best practices. We learned that the classroom needed to be a safe place and that learning needed to be playful and embodied. Students needed to use all their senses in learning a language; they needed to: smell, taste, touch, see, and hear words. The bodily senses are doors through which words walk on their way to the heart. Words kept in the heart—knowing by heart as we often say to each other—was the deeper knowing that we desired for our students.
Over the years by trial and error, we developed classroom exercises that appealed to all the senses. The world that words portray was presented to the students: foods were smelt and tasted; objects were touched and seen; words were heard and used in conversation before they were read in a text. These classroom exercises included playing various vocabulary games, singing Hebrew songs (many of them composed by our own students), praying classic Hebrew prayers, enacting biblical narratives, and making field trips.
Amanda Comes to Hebrew Class
We were a number of years into this new curriculum, when Amanda, a young woman with Down Syndrome living in WTS’s Friendship House, approached the team of Hebrew instructors and requested to join our evening Hebrew class. We were unsure how to respond. We believed that our interactive curriculum could accommodate students with varying levels of ability, but we did not know the level of Amanda’s ability. We did not want to harm her in any way, and we were uncertain how the other students in the class would receive her. We said yes to Amanda but were wary.
Any wariness that we had about Amanda’s place in the classroom was quickly laid to rest. From the beginning she was an enthusiastic participant in our class, and the other students contracted her enthusiasm. Amanda—Lilah was her beloved Hebrew name—found her place; some exercises were beyond her ability, and others she eagerly engaged. At times the other students would help her pronounce words and answer questions; at other times she helped them. As the year progressed, we saw the various barriers that can divide and isolate instructors and students come down, as everyone came to know each other better and appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Such a love for the scriptures and for each other was what we hoped to foster each year, but this year it was especially fulfilling to see it happen with Amanda there.
There are many stories I could tell of this unique year, but I will limit myself to two. When introducing Hebrew vocabulary, we try to create exercises in which the students first hear and understand the meaning of a word, later speak it out loud, and finally read it in the text. This is, of course, the sequence all of us followed as children when we learned our first language. Early in the year, we focus on the students hearing Hebrew being spoken. For example, we teach Hebrew verbs by using their imperative forms. We, the instructors, call out a command, and the students show they understand by carrying out the command.
One day I was introducing a new set of verbs and giving commands. Without thinking much about it, I said to the students in Hebrew, a‘lu a‘l cisotechem, “Climb up onto your chairs.” As soon as I said it, I realized that Amanda, who is a little unsteady on her feet, would have a hard time doing this and could easily fall. Before I could do anything, the students on her left and right took her hands and helped her stand on her chair. When I gave the next command, ridu, “come down,” the students helped her down.
I was deeply moved by this simple gesture. The students and Amanda thought nothing of it. They did it naturally, instinctively. I realized that we were learning much more than the meaning of the Hebrew verbs, a’lu and ridu; we were learning to be attentive to one another and to share in each other’s learning. It was a sacramental moment, a foreshadowing of the community that Jesus has called us to be, a community in which the barriers dividing people and the resulting prejudices had broken down.
One of the biblical narratives that we use is Genesis 22, the Sacrifice of Isaac or the Akedah (Hebrew for “binding”). Over the years, I have come to understand biblical narratives like this as not so much historical texts but dramas. They develop in scenes in which the characters dialogue with one another. In the opening scenes a conflict arises, in the middle scenes it is developed, and in the closing scenes it is resolved. Each year we ask students to memorize the Akedah in Hebrew and to enact the drama. We perform with limited props and casual clothing—a version of street theater. We divide students into groups of six, two sharing the role of narrator, one playing the role of Abraham, one Isaac, one the angel, and one the voice of God. The students work together to block out the scenes, determine the movements, and give voice to the characters. In so doing they learn how to work together and discover nuances of meaning that elude standard methods of exegesis. The instructors move from group to group while they rehearse in order to observe and explain the process.
In her group, Amanda said immediately that she wanted to be the angel, partly because she has an angel costume that she likes to wear. We did not resist her wearing her costume rather than casual clothing. As the group continued, however, it became clear that being an angel meant something more to her, something more akin to a guardian angel. When Abraham raised the knife over Isaac, his son, at the climax of the drama, Amanda entered as the angel and said, “I want to take away the knife.” She proceeded to take the knife from Abraham’s hand, cradled it in her arms, and walked away with it. Amanda’s contribution to the drama was her deep desire to protect both Abraham and Isaac and put an end to violence. So she took the knife and walked it off the stage and out of the world.
Our Hebrew students perform the Akedah every year, and every performance has unique features based on the unique composition of the group putting it together. The drama is extremely unsettling and problematic for many people. The problem focuses on the knife. For what purpose did God test Abraham and demand that he draw the knife to slay his son? Was Abraham supposed to learn something about God in this ordeal? Was God supposed to learn something about Abraham? Many ignore the drama altogether; many timidly offer their interpretations. Amanda’s interpretation was intriguing to me. I had not encountered it in thirty years of reading and reflecting on this drama.
The composer of the Akedah never tells the audience what happened to the knife after the angel called out to Abraham from heaven. The actors need to fill in this gap in order to move the action forward. Some of our student actors over the years have had Abraham use the knife to cut Isaac free from the ropes that bound him, a brilliant insight if you think about it, a dramatic reversal in which the instrument of extirpation is used for liberation. Some have had Abraham simply throw the knife far away. As the angel, Amanda took the knife and walked it out of the world.
Her interpretation reminded me immediately of Isaiah’s vision of beating swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2: 1-4), of the people of Nineveh turning from the violence that was in their hands (to the chagrin of Jonah) (Jonah 3: 7-9), of Elisha telling the King of Israel not to kill the Syrians but to feed them (2 Kings 6: 21-23), of Jesus telling his disciples to put away their swords, for all who take them will in the end perish by them (Matthew 26: 52). God’s rejection of the weapons of violence and Jesus’ call to non-violent resistance are an important tradition in the Bible. I had never considered the possibility that the Akedah might in some way also belong in this tradition.
I want to be careful with this last story. I do not want to romanticize what happened in this performance of the Akedah. I do not want to suggest that Amanda was as good as or better than the other students. In fact, I do not want to compare students in this way at all. I do want to witness that Amanda as a non-neurotypical student brought an intuitive, spiritual sensitivity to the classroom. Like all my other students, she came to this Hebrew class with her own constellation of abilities and disabilities. They formed a community around the learning of Hebrew, and the words of the Bible came alive for them and for me.