Relief of Israelite deportees from Lachish

Reading an Ancient Past

By Patricia Dutcher-Walls

A world behind the text, in the text, and in front of the text

Imagine the following scenario. One day, you heard of a demonstration in a city near your home being held to support the recent wave of refugees and migrants and to confront the political leaders of the city, province and federal governments to create supportive measures for immigrants, especially for refugees who came to the country desperate for safety and well-being. Curious, you attended the demonstration and saw a platform full of leaders from various religious traditions – Christian, Jewish, Indigenous, Muslim, Buddhist – speaking eloquently in favour of positive action. All around you were people from all types of backgrounds, some wearing religious or cultural clothing or symbols that identified their faith. Intrigued, you listened in. You heard many ethical declarations from the religious leaders about why people and governments should take action to support refugees and exiles. And you were deeply moved by a Christian pastor who spoke about welcoming the stranger; they quoted Jesus, using a verse from Matthew, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”¹ That seemed to make sense, a Christian quoting Jesus.

… called to take “‘prophetic action’ to extend ‘radical hospitality’ to immigrants and immigrant communities.”However, you really started wondering when the pastor went on to quote several verses from the Old Testament. You knew of the Old Testament, of course, but thought it was pretty much full of violent and archaic stuff. But here was this pastor, referring to the prophet Isaiah as one who said the Lord welcomes foreigners, even though foreigners were usually not considered worthy of worshipping at the temple at that time. The pastor read an Isaiah passage saying, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, and hold fast my covenant, these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.”² You were really surprised when the pastor quoted Leviticus, because you always thought that ancient law book had nothing nice to say. But the passage they quoted certainly seemed relevant to the purpose of the demonstration, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”³ The point the pastor drove home was that the audience was called to take “‘prophetic action’ to extend ‘radical hospitality’ to immigrants and immigrant communities.”⁴ When you finally went home, you had a lot to think about how all the religious leaders, and especially that pastor who had quoted the Old Testament, had made their religious values and sacred texts so relevant for a current political issue.⁵

For a modern reader, the Hebrew Bible can seem foreign and complicated because there is such a gap between when it was written and today.Helping you think well about an interpretive situation like that described in this imaginary, but realistic, scenario is one of the goals of a course introducing the Hebrew Bible.⁶ Questions such a course can raise include, How can we read the Hebrew Bible well? What do we need to know as readers to understand the text?

For a modern reader, the Hebrew Bible can seem foreign and complicated because there is such a gap between when it was written and today. The writers – storytellers, psalmists, prophets, poets, sages and scribes – were living in social structures and environmental, geographical and political settings in the ancient world that can seem very different from anything a modern reader knows. And yet the stories and poetry of the Bible might seem familiar to some readers, especially if they have been involved with a church. Little about that perplexing combination of strangeness and familiarity make it straightforward to describe how the Hebrew Bible might be interpreted today. Whether a reader identifies as a member of a group that looks to the Hebrew Bible as Scripture or as a sacred text, there are many reasons to do good interpretation today – for preaching in a service of worship, for teaching in a church or community context, for giving consolation in times of difficulty, for praying with and for the community and the world, as a source for spiritual insight, for grounding and motivating mission, for joining with other religious leaders in compassionate action for the world.

… there is a limit to how much anyone can know about life 3,000 years ago, but we can understand some of the ways of life and patterns of behaviour…We might think of the situation of ourselves and the ancient text this way, picturing three “worlds” behind, in, and in front of the text.⁷ A picture of the world in which all the storytelling and writing of the Hebrew Bible occurred can be described as the “world behind the text.” That ancient reality can be examined and recreated by fields of knowledge like history, archaeology, sociology, anthropology, geography, and economics. Of course, there is a limit to how much anyone can know about life 3,000 years ago, but we can understand some of the ways of life and patterns of behaviour then. As well, there is also a “world in the text,” a description of events and experience portrayed by the story or poetry. This “story world” or “poetic world” is accessible through methods that study the narrative artistry, poetic imagination, and persuasive or rhetorical skillfulness of the writing. This reading is sensitive to the way texts create and intersect with theological insights and commitments.

Finally, we as readers today stand in the “world in front of the text.” We are interpreters of the text; we are located in our own times, spaces and contexts that shape how we see and think, and the assumptions we make about life, the universe, etc. Methods that take seriously the world of interpreters include approaches that appreciate how the Bible was interpreted in the history of the church, or methods such as feminist, liberation and post-colonial readings, reader response theory, and other approaches that recognize that our own “world” might shape how we understand the world behind the text and the world in the text.

Any given biblical scholar or interpreter will approach their task making assumptions about what one or combination of these “worlds” they most want to emphasize or pay attention to. Some interpreters will be up front about their assumptions and inform their readers of their approach; others will write as if their approach is the only way imaginable to understand the Hebrew Bible. Readers of biblical interpretations do well to be aware of various ways authors and other interpreters like preachers and teachers approach the Hebrew Bible. In studying the Hebrew Bible, we will take the approach that it is helpful to know more about the world behind the text and the story world in the text to aid us as interpreters in understanding what the texts say to the world in front of the text today.

Patricia Dutcher-Walls is Professor of Hebrew Scripture at VST. In addition to teaching, she is also the Dean, giving administrative oversight to student programs and services, the Registrar’s Office and the Diversified Education programs, and the school’s relationships with sessional lecturers, guest lecturers, and other contractual teaching staff. Her most recent book is Reading the Historical Books: A Student’s Guide to Engaging the Biblical Text (Baker Academic, 2014).

1. Matthew 25:35
2. Isaiah 56:6-7
3. Leviticus 19:34.
4. “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America just became the country’s first ‘sanctuary church body,’” by Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor, Updated 1:52 PM ET, Thu August 8, 2019;; accessed August 10, 2019.
5. This scenario is imaginary, but the issue about welcoming refugees was inspired by the August 2019 vote of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to become a “sanctuary church body.” See the article quoted in the previous footnote and the following: Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod, ELCA, Sanctuary Background Documents;; accessed August 10,2019.
6. This chapter will use the term Hebrew Bible for the sacred text also known as the Old Testament for Christians and as the Bible for Jews.
7. Paul Ricoeur discussed the terms used here of the “worlds” of the text in Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976).