An interview with Ellen Davis

A Conversation With Ellen Davis on Opening Israel’s Scriptures

Unsplash / Mick Haupt

Whenever a congregant or student asks me what to do with the Old Testament, I recommend Ellen Davis’s book Getting Involved With God. It exemplifies the kind of careful, creative, and genuine reading that the Old Testament—and New Testament—expect of any reader. That Ellen Davis wrote such a book is no surprise. Throughout her career, she has written with critical rigor for the sake of the church. 

In her most recent book, Opening Israel’s Scriptures, Davis offers us, in her words, “the grown up version” of Getting Involved With God. It is grown up in two ways. First, the writing requires a bit more from the reader; second, the book covers a much wider range of the Old Testament writings. Nonetheless, for professors and pastors, this book gives us a joyful taste of theological, canonical, literary, and ecclesial approaches to exegesis.

Ellen Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. She has graciously agreed to respond to some of my questions related to Opening Israel’s Scriptures. (Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy of this book.) Enjoy the conversation below. Join in by commenting!

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Zen Hess: Dr. Davis, thank you for agreeing to engage in this conversation for Theology Forum readers. And thank you for this new book! As I mentioned to you, I’ve found it incredibly useful for my own expanding interest in Old Testament interpretation but also for teaching undergraduate students how to grapple with the Old Testament. I wonder if you’d begin by sharing what your own hope was as you wrote this book? How do you hope it will serve its readers?

Ellen Davis: Your language—“expanding interest” in the Bible, and “grappling” with it—points to exactly what I was hoping for. (Thank you!) For a long time the working title for the book was “Open My Eyes,” an allusion to Psalm 119: “Open my eyes, that I may see wonders from your torah, ‘your teaching’” (v. 18), and so I sometimes thought of myself as writing a kind of travel guide through Israel’s Scripture – “the Bible” to Jews and “the Old Testament” to Christians. I tried to write in a way that would be stimulating to people in both religious traditions, and the early returns on that are encouraging. Further, I hope the book will speak to Christians across a wide theological spectrum, including evangelicals and “mainstream” Protestants (whatever that means), Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, North Americans, Africans, and Europeans. Among my own students, all those populations and traditions are represented. I heard their voices as I wrote and tried to be respectful of what I have learned with them in our shared work of interpretation. The analogy of the travel guide relieved me of feeling a compulsion to deal with everything one might expect to find in a standard Old Testament introductory textbook, if there is such a thing. That sounded boring to me and presumably would be boring to readers. Therefore I have focused entirely on things that my students and I have found to be compelling or challenging, helpful and even potentially healing in light of the concerns and genuine needs of contemporary people(s) of faith. Happily, that is most things in the Bible, and so I have written a rather long book. It could have been a lot longer, but at some point one has to stop.

For a long time the working title for the book was “Open My Eyes,” an allusion to Psalm 119: “Open my eyes, that I may see wonders from your torah, ‘your teaching’” (v. 18), and so I sometimes thought of myself as writing a kind of travel guide through Israel’s Scripture – “the Bible” to Jews and “the Old Testament” to Christians.

– Ellen Davis

ZH: For many students of the Bible, I imagine these essays will be refreshing because they aren’t barren of practical and theological content. Yet, they’re still incredibly careful readings that are attentive to many of the questions of historical-critical research. In the introduction, you describe your approach as “more fully critical, in biblical studies and beyond” than the traditional idea of critical research (p. 3). You then summarize what you mean by “critical interpretation,” saying that it “essentially demonstrates respect for the complexity of the text, for reasoned argumentation, and for other readers, including those who have preceded and will follow us.” Would you try to help us understand what convictions underlie this view of critical reading? Said differently, how did you come to this kind of critical consciousness, which both accepts and rejects parts of conventional critical approaches to Scripture?

ED: Like nearly every scholar, I think and write in ways that reflect how I was taught at early stages of my education. However, historical criticism came quite late in my biblical education; I had very little exposure to it until my second year of my doctoral studies at Yale (1984), when for the first time I served as a teaching assistant in the introductory Old Testament course at the Divinity School. We started with source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and so on, and all that was almost as new to me as it was to the master’s-level students. Although I found some of it quite useful (and I am glad you find traces of that in my writing!), I have never become an instinctive historical critic. I gravitate toward a slow, careful reading of the final form of the text, which is itself deeply textured. (If you can hear echoes of Robert Alter here, that may be because I wrote my undergraduate thesis in comparative literature at Berkeley under his direction.)  

ZH: In my initial e-mail to you, I shared that the “method” your essays teach was helpful for preparing lectures to students approaching the Bible in a university setting (some of them approaching the Bible for the very first time). I put the word method in quotes in the e-mail because it’s not altogether clear to me that you have a method in a systematic sense. (I laughed out loud when, in your response, you shared that Brevard Child’s used to “scratch his head” over your “lack of any apparent method.”) Yet, I think you do have a method, just one that emphasizes attention more than it does system. I’ll put it differently, leveraging a metaphor you and Richard Hays used in the title of your edited volume. An artist might have a rough system for approaching a painting, but an artist allows their attention to the materials at hand, the medium in which they work, the techniques available, and so on to guide their method. An artist won’t use the same approach for each work if their attention leads them to employ another approach. Does this seem a fair description of your own process in these essays? If so, would you try to build out the metaphor a bit, perhaps giving us some examples from the book? (Or, if it seems incorrect, would you offer another way of thinking about your method?)

ED: I am very grateful to you for putting a label on my method, which I don’t think anyone has ever succeeded in doing before. Yes, I think attention is the key – individuating attention, which recognizes and even honors the distinctive features of what is under consideration. 

I like your analogy of the artist, but that may better suit the way I work as a preacher than how I approach exegetical essays such as these. A preacher is an artist, creating something new. However, as an exegete, I am interpreting what is already before me, so I might more closely resemble a good farmer, who looks at the particularities of a certain piece of land and asks (here I am channeling agrarian writer and plant geneticist Wes Jackson, mutatis mutandis), “What will it allow me to do here? What will it help me to do here?” and even, “In what innovative ways can I help it become productive, express its inherent power?”

The Song of Songs may be an example of a text that needs “help” in order to be maximally productive, and for me that means noticing how the language invites interpretation at more than one level. Most contemporary readers have no difficulty affirming that the Song evokes the joy of sex, but they may miss the fact that countless echoes of other scriptural texts urge us to see it within the larger context of the canon, as part of the great love story of God’s passionate pursuit of humanity and Israel. This may be the one place where God’s passion is fully reciprocated from the human side: “I am for my lover and he is for me.”  

ZH: In your introduction, you list five “movements” of the practice of critical interpretation. The first movement may come as a surprise to some readers. You say the first movement is “giving clear expression to the presuppositions and prior concerns with which the interpreter comes to the text.” This movement is clear from your previous works, and specifically your book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, which keeps agrarianism always at the fore of interpreting certain passages. Would you tease out why you think such a movement is so important, rather than trying to become neutral or invisible as many modern interpreters have thought we should do?

ED: Thanks for this question, which moves me to try to identify (in fact, for the first time) how I came to the view that it is important to name where one stands as an interpreter. But since you asked, two things come to mind:

First, I am a preacher and advocate of exegetical preaching (several of my books deal directly with exegetical preaching). The preacher cannot be invisible and probably should not be neutral, and I think I can be most helpful in my scholarly work if I don’t pretend to be either. My aim is to invite people into interpretive conversations, in which they hear the voices and views of real human beings (myself included), who are inescapably situated. Only through owning our various situations can we open ourselves to the somewhat different perspectives of others and give them a fair chance to enter into the game (a serious but often pleasurable game) of interpretation.

Second, I have been privileged to teach very diverse students, both in my classrooms in the US and when I have opportunities to teach in Africa and Asia, and my students have made me aware of the non-universality of the kind of critical thought that my own education has privileged. Perhaps I first began to think about the varieties of critical thought when Sudanese Bishop (later Archbishop) Daniel Deng Bul said to me, at the end of a year of study in the US, “I have never before studied the Bible critically, and this is so important for me to share with my people.” Of course, he was not planning to lead them deeply into the mysteries of source criticism of the Pentateuch. Nonetheless, his comment led me to wonder how he might do justice to the complexity of the text in a country torn by war and yet anchored by faith, and how the urgency of his situation might have implications for my own work as a critical biblical scholar.  

“I am a preacher and advocate of exegetical preaching (several of my books deal directly with exegetical preaching). The preacher cannot be invisible and probably should not be neutral, and I think I can be most helpful in my scholarly work if I don’t pretend to be either.”

– Ellen Davis

ZH: Your essay on Ruth begins by identifying Ruth’s changed canonical location from the Hebrew Bible to the Christian Bible. You suggest that, in the Christian Bible, Ruth’s place after Judges—and as a story set in the same era as the judges—renders Ruth as “the still, small voice after the cataclysmic storm of Judges,” a storm that includes horrors almost unspeakable committed against women. This is a very clear case of how the order of the canon helps us interpret the writings it contains. However, I’m interested to hear a bit more about the interplay between traditions in your writings. You make a choice in this essay to follow Christian tradition by working with the Christian canonical order. In other essays, however, you work with the Jewish tradition, like thinking alongside “musical” rabbinic exegesis. I wonder if you could highlight one of the most important gifts Hebrew tradition has offered your interpretation? And what do you hope your interpretation, as a Christian, might offer your Jewish counterparts?

ED: You have identified one of the several ways I am flexible – not to say, “inconsistent”! – in my use of Jewish traditions alongside Christian ones. Overall, the greatest gift I have received from Jewish interpreters is the seriousness with which they are committed to reading the text in Hebrew and laboring to make sense of it, even when that is difficult. The impulse of most translators is to appeal to common sense (that is, their own accustomed way of thinking) and make emendations in that direction, whether or not they acknowledge that emendation or simplification. In my teaching and writing, I try to work out of the Hebrew and to show through my translations how that may reveal new possibilities and difficulties. My students often comment that the Bible seems to them to have more rough edges than was previously evident to them, but that also makes the work of interpretation more interesting and consequential. 

As to what my work might offer Jewish interpreters, I must speak not in terms of gift but of gratitude long overdue. It has been tragically rare through the centuries for Christians to attempt sustained, respectful interaction with their rich traditions. Generally, Jews know much more about Christianity than Christians do about Judaism; this is the burden of being the minority culture. However, when a Christian comes to a Jew seeking deeper understanding of the text, the response in my experience is invariably gracious. I am already hearing from Jewish friends who are intrigued by something they now reconsider in light of my book (not necessarily in direct response to an insight I had), and they now have new questions about the New Testament and Christian interpretation of the Bible. The aim is not that one side should convert the other, but that both of us should advance in our understanding of the texts we share, which have often been the source of bitter division between us.    

ZH: One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from your work, here and elsewhere, is the encouragement to engage the texts playfully. Probably, for academic credibility, I should use the word “creative” rather than “playful,” because “playful” sounds childish. But I want to describe your work as playful because of the delight you have with details, characteristics, and elements that folks less playful may overlook as unimportant. When a child is deep in play, everything has a meaning. This is how I see you approaching the texts. I’m interested in what keeps your heart playfully engaged with these texts? And have you found any tried-and-true ways to communicate this kind of infatuation to your students? From a slightly different angle, has the turn toward literary criticism in biblical studies helped with this way of reading?

ED: I like your choice of words, as I do find my work recreational, which I suppose means “playful.” As to your suggestion of communicating “infatuation,” I am reminded of a memory recounted by a scholar of English literature, of his high school teacher coming into the classroom, opening whatever book they were reading, and “falling in love before our eyes.” That is a risky way to teach, but the quality of the material warrants the risk. The primary way I have found to sustain and share my own infatuation is to do spontaneous translation of the Hebrew text in the classroom—often debating over how to render something, and thus demonstrating that translation is the first stage of interpretation. As such, it is always unfinished work. I also use a lot of art when I teach (mostly visual interpretations of biblical texts, and occasionally music and dance). When I ask the students what they see and what that might suggest to them as interpreters of the text, they are never at a loss. In this generation, many are more adept readers of images than of texts, and so considering artistic responses helps them build confidence in their own interpretive ability. Since I was myself a student of literature in college, as a younger scholar I was much encouraged by the move toward literary interpretations. However, as a teacher I have learned that people preparing for ministry are more likely to become seriously engaged with an aesthetically and theologically rich sermon text than with a piece of theoretically driven literary criticism. Therefore I often assign sermons of preachers ranging from Augustine to Calvin to John Donne to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to our contemporaries, famous or not—including sermons by my colleagues and myself. 

ZH: In light of the delight so prevalent in your readings, I wonder if any essay in this volume stands out to you as especially beloved? Which one and why?

ED: Whatever I was working on was my favorite biblical book of the moment, and I am not the best judge of the quality of any of my essays. However, I will say that I probably gained the most new ground, in terms of my own learning, in writing on Daniel. That is a book I have never understood well, and in teaching it, I have always been uncomfortably conscious of cherry-picking the easy parts (mostly the “court tales” in the first part of the book, the part we know from Sunday School). But on my second (or was it the third?) attempt at the essay, finally I began to see the ways in which those relate to the more formidable apocalyptic visions that comprise the second part. Rather than being an arcane prediction of the end of the world, the book is “a serious yet playful [that word again!] piece of literature that speaks from the perspective of those on the underside of harsh political, military, and cultural domination” (p. 387). It offers assurance that the current tribulation will end through God’s action and encouragement to hold on in faith. That message has significant import for many within our culture and around the world. 

ZH: A final question. You’ve had a long and productive career. And, with this book, you’ve now offered a sampling of interpretations based on what you’ve learned throughout your career. In some sense, the book sets in ink the way you’ve learned to read the Bible. I wonder if you perceive any ways this book challenges the next generation to continue your work? In other words, do you see any next steps or unresolved problems that are especially important for biblical studies that this book only begins to uncover?

ED: As you say, this book is “a sampling of interpretations”—a set of proposals rather than a finished work of interpretation, and I hope people will receive it as such. At this early stage, perhaps my favorite comment from a reader is a seminary student who noted that the selective format, with a focus on a few themes and passages in any given book, encourages readers to go back and apply ideas and methodologies on their own; my book offers not a systematic overview but rather possibilities for structured exploration. Putting that another way, it has a lot of empty spaces in it – not to say “a lot of holes”! I would hope that others would open up Israel’s Scriptures further by developing conversations in areas that I am not necessarily well equipped to explore. Certainly the prominent biblical themes of forced migration (“exile”) and immigration have tremendous cultural, political, and economic significance—and therefore great theological significance—in our own time. I hope that in the near future others will press further the conversation between North American and European “mainstream” scholarship and exegesis coming out of the global South and East, and also give sustained attention to how the Bible is read by minority populations in the so-called West.

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Many thanks to Ellen Davis for taking time to respond to my questions. You can hear more from her by listening to her recent podcast on OnScript. You should also buy the book we were discussing. Whatever you do, I hope you will go and read the Scriptures with playfulness and attention, as Ellen’s own readings so winsomely teach us to do.

One thought on “An interview with Ellen Davis

  1. Pingback: Want to Give Good Books for Christmas? – Theology Forum

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