Self-Consciousness And Conversation: Reading Genesis 22 -- By: Ellen F. Davis

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 01:1 (NA 1991)
Article: Self-Consciousness And Conversation: Reading Genesis 22
Author: Ellen F. Davis

Self-Consciousness And Conversation: Reading Genesis 22

Ellen F. Davis

Yale Divinity School

The major task of biblical scholarship in the last one hundred years has been to establish historical contingency as a principle of interpretation. The application of scientific method to the question of the composition of the biblical texts has enabled us to view them as products of ancient Israel’s culture and yielded insight into the complex social processes through which they emerged. The present essay seeks to supplement that line of investigation by drawing attention to another dimension of the historical or cultural conditioning of the text: namely, that which unfolds when it is read. The same forces which gave rise to historical study of the Bible also produced the discipline of literary criticism, whose concern is systematic reflection on the activity of reading itself. In the past two decades, “literary readings” of biblical texts have proliferated in response to what some scholars perceive to be the sterility of the historical approach. Yet to date, biblical scholars have benefited only slightly from the insights of literary theorists, whose own art or science has evolved as a slightly older contemporary of critical biblical study. It is my contention that attention to literary criticism poses questions about our treatment of the biblical text no less fundamental than those occasioned by the refinement of the historical and social sciences.

The current generation of professional readers is characterized by a preternatural degree of self-consciousness, and it is precisely that which makes their discussions important for biblical scholars. Literary critics challenge us to acknowledge the complexity of our responses to the text and the way in which those responses are conditioned by participation in certain traditions of reading. This essay reflects on the activity of reading by looking at three interpretations of a single biblical text, Genesis 22 (the Sacrifice or Binding of Isaac). Its principal aim is to induce self-consciousness: not to suggest a new interpretation, but rather to highlight the presuppositions underlying those that are

already established. A secondary purpose of this study is to suggest that such self-consciousness is an important factor in the fostering of conversation among different religious communities, communities which are in large part defined by different ways of reading Scripture. Because the three perspectives treated here have been influential among Protestant Christians and Jews, what follows may contribute something to the dialogue between those groups.

Stated in their briefest form, those three per...

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