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Simeon Zahl: Scripture’s depths through the eyes of other faiths

page 5 Simeon Z

Scripture’s depths through the eyes of other faiths

Simeon Zahl 

Not long ago I found myself in a conference room at the University of Cambridge engaging in a spirited discussion of a beloved scriptural text. The text was Genesis chapter 45, the climax of the story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers but now Pharaoh’s right hand in Egypt, with power to feed his starving family. Face-to-face with the perpetrators of the great tragedy of his life, Joseph reveals himself as their brother and tells them: ‘it was not you who sent me here but God.’ Every Christian knows this story, and knows its power as a sort of theodicy, a story that helps us to understand how God in His wisdom and power is able to redeem evil events in human lives and in history and use them for His greater purposes. As Joseph puts it a little later on, ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good’ (Gen. 50:20).

Why then was our little Cambridge group in vigorous disagreement about the meaning of the text? What was unusual about this particular Scripture study group is that it was not just Christians who were participating: a third of the group were Jewish, and another third were Muslim. We were engaging in a practice known as ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ (SR), in which members of the three Abrahamic religions gather together to discuss each other’s Scriptures – Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New Testament, and the Qur’an. There is no agenda in this practice other than to see where the discussion leads and to get to know the texts, each other, and each other’s traditions better in the process. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are each in their own way deeply oriented around central scriptural texts. By bringing texts from all three traditions together, what is ensured for all participants is a heady mix of the strange and the deeply familiar. SR gives the opportunity for participants from each tradition not only to learn about the others’ texts from those who know the texts ‘from the inside’, but also to learn about their own texts by seeing how they appear to those from without one’s own tradition. So, for example, through the discussion I get the chance to learn about a Qur’anic text from a practising Muslim, and they get to see what their text looks like to a Christian like me.

Returning to Joseph and his brothers, I had just been explaining to the group the power the Genesis text had always held for me as a way of seeing God’s providence at work in the world, when my friend Adam, who is Jewish, started shaking his head. ‘Isn’t that interpretation a bit naïve?’ he asked. He argued that the key verse here is in fact 45:2, where Pharaoh’s household hears Joseph weeping. In Adam’s interpretation, this is where the Egyptians realize that Joseph is not one of them after all, that he has loyalties to people outside of Egypt and therefore can no longer be trusted. Adam pointed out that when we next pick up the story the Jews in Egypt have gone from being invited guests to Egyptian slaves. Joseph may think God is doing all this for good but he is wrong – coming to Egypt was one of the worst things that happened to the Jewish people in the Bible. Joseph was too trusting, and his whole people suffered as a result. Joseph’s claim about God’s intentions in the episodes tells us a lot more about Joseph than it does about God.

I was floored by this interpretation. On the one hand, it had never once occurred to me not to take Joseph’s statement about God’s plan at face value. On the other hand, even if in the end I still interpret the passage as a theodicy, Adam’s interpretation was surprisingly plausible, and I realized that as a Christian I had never really taken the period of slavery in Egypt seriously enough as a large-scale human tragedy – it had always been just one unfortunate episode, long past, in the great journey of salvation history that would later culminate in Jesus. Adam had grown up with this text just as I had, but our different contexts and traditions had led us to completely different interpretations – and, as a member of a tradition that had a long history of suffering and abuse at the hands of those in power, his had particular weight.

This episode reveals some of the key strengths of Scriptural Reasoning as a mode of inter-faith dialogue. First, by using Scripture study as the central structure for encounter between members of these three faiths, participants do not have to shelve their own personal faith before participating. What is very often most interesting to one’s colleagues in SR is how the text really matters to you personally and religiously – as a practising Jew, Christian, or Muslim. What unites participants is not agreement about the meanings of texts, but the fact that, as religious people, in our own different ways we take these texts extremely seriously and have been shaped by them throughout our lives. Adam and I both felt very strongly and personally about Genesis 45, even as we disagreed about its meaning, and recognizing this in each other fostered immediate religious respect (and soon, friendship), even as it helped us also see how deeply our interpretations of the texts had been shaped by our own specific religious backgrounds and histories.

A second great strength of Scriptural Reasoning illustrated here is how it thrives upon disagreement. Too often in inter-faith dialogue, there is an idea that explicit engagement with deep and abiding disagreements between the religions – whether about God, the world, eternal life, ethics, or salvation – is dangerous and could shipwreck the whole enterprise. Better to stay on the ‘safe’ ground like ethics of love and compassion and hospitality. The danger of such approaches is that the engagement can be superficial, never really engaging honestly with the deep passions and inner motors of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. SR, by contrast, thrives on discussion, including disagreement, so long as basic respect is maintained. As Adam and I found, far more is accomplished through an hour of heated, honest, face-to-face discussion of a valued text than would be through an hour of bland inter-religious platitudes. As different participants have put it over the years, the goal of Scriptural Reasoning is ‘understanding, not agreement’, and to ‘improve the quality of our disagreements.’

The practice of Scriptural Reasoning grew in the 1990s out of a practice of Tanakh and Talmud study among Jewish philosophers known as ‘Textual Reasoning.’ The earliest founders and participants were academics – including Peter Ochs at the University of Virginia and David Ford at Cambridge – but the practice has long since spread beyond the confines of the academy, from London to Ontario, Jerusalem to Beijing. Its success is due to many factors, including not least its appeal to those who wish to engage with other faiths without checking their own faith at the door, and its ability to foster community and respect across traditions without requiring consensus. But a final great asset is its long-term sustainability, whose fruit is friendship. Because the texts contain such depths of meaning, and can change with every session, SR groups are able to meet regularly over months and even years, and this often produces lifelong friendships across traditions. SR orients inter-religious dialogue around the encounter of a small group of people with their Scriptural texts, and in doing so it not only deepens understanding, it also gives a face to religions outside of our own. In a world full of religious conflict, ignorance, and misunderstanding, this is a valuable asset indeed.

To learn more about Scriptural Reasoning and to find out how to participate, see the SR website at www.scripturalreasoning.org.  f

Dr Simeon Zahl is Junior Research Fellow in Theology at St John’s College, University of Oxford, and co-Chair of the Scriptural Reasoning Group at the American Academy of Religion.