Overcoming Blind Spots
Feb 11, 2011 David Lang

Overcoming Blind Spots

When I was in college, I read a feminist scholar's exegesis of Genesis 1-3 for a class I was taking. I've read this scholar a few times since, and have always found her to be a gifted exegete with the kind of literary acumen I've been discussing over the past few weeks. She tends to unpack the text in a way that helps you appreciate its literary artistry and see dimensions you might previously have missed. Unfortunately, she also self-consciously reinterprets these texts from the standpoint of her own ideology. Rather than merely correcting sexist or misogynist distortions of the text, she unapologetically seems to distort the text in the opposite direction.

For example, many traditional interpretations of Genesis 2-3 have vilified Eve (and women in general) while excusing Adam (and men in general). This scholar rightly corrects these distortions, but then goes on to vilify Adam and make Eve out to be something of a heroine. I would argue that the text condemns both Adam and Eve as complicit in the fall.

Because this scholar sometimes sets aside her undeniable exegetical skill to push her ideological agenda, I find reading her to be something of an uneven experience. One moment I am impressed with her insight into the text, and the next I am dismayed by her willingness to read into the text a viewpoint which strikes me as clearly foreign to it.

My point in telling you all this is not to critique this scholar's exegetical methods, but to relate how reading her work back in college taught me a valuable lesson about biblical exegesis: namely, to watch out for blind spots.

As I was working my way through this scholar's commentary on Genesis 1-3, I was surprised when I came to Genesis 3:6, which says that Eve gave the forbidden fruit to her husband "who was with her" and he ate. She made much of this phrase, using it to vilify Adam and to make Eve out to be some kind of Promethean figure. While I found her interpretation to go way beyond what could legitimately be derived from the text, I could not deny that I had always missed the fact that Adam was present with Eve during the serpent's dialogue with her. The idea that Adam was standing quietly by during this whole episode was undeniably damning, yet I had never heard anyone even mention it before. Strangest of all, I already knew the text said "with her," yet somehow, I had always pictured Adam being absent during the actual temptation.

I'm not sure why that is. I think my familiarity with the King James reading ("she ... gave also unto her husband with her") might have had something to do with it. Somehow, that magisterial phrasing made it sound like the text was saying "with her" in some general sense of living with her in the garden rather than in the specific sense of being present with her at the time of the temptation. My understanding may also have been colored by extra-biblical depictions like Hollywood movies I had seen or Milton's Paradise Lost, all of which show Adam as having been some distance away from Eve during her conversation with the serpent. Whatever the reason, I had always glossed over that phrase without fully accounting for it. I had a blind spot where that passage was concerned.

Even in an age of relative biblical illiteracy, the Bible is remarkably familiar to most of us. Its narratives are woven into the fabric of Western culture, its phrases are echoed in our idioms and clichés, the people it describes populate our artwork and movies. We all have preconceived notions and assumptions we bring to the Scriptures, and those can blind us to aspects of the text which don't fit our preconceptions. To overcome these blind spots, we need help to see the text with fresh eyes. In a series of upcoming posts, I'll discuss Bible study methods you can use to overcome your own blind spots.

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Archived Comments

Adam Payne

February 11, 2011 10:53 AM

I like that you acknowledged your own blind spot here rather than just point out the commentator's. Good blog post. 


Nick Matthews

February 11, 2011 12:30 PM

Very interesting. It's clear that there are many different ways to interpret a text, and there are definitely ways that these interpretations can be coloured by one's existing viewpoint. 

Interesting. The JPS translation of Gen 3:6 merely contains "She also gave some to her husband, and he ate", completely leaving out any mention of his presence with her. An interesting omission.


Alan Houtzer

February 11, 2011 2:25 PM

Thank you for addressing this subject.  I look forward to reading your upcoming posts on this topic!


John

February 11, 2011 4:08 PM

I was convicted on this point when I read Larry Crabb's book The Silence of Adam. 


Sharon Jensen

February 11, 2011 4:10 PM

Amen, David!  You just can not observe the text too closely!  Many times what we are ‘familiar’ with is only what we have been taught the text says, rather than having studied it meticulously for ourselves.  Blind spots are healable, but they require diligent study on our behalf.

Speaking of ‘who’s where?’ and ‘who’s with who?” in the Creation story, back in 2001 I taught the pilot course for a Bible Study course I had written called “HIStory:  A Timeline of Biblical Events”.  The night we studied the Creation, I asked a few simple questions to prove we need to study even the most familiar parts of the Bible attentively (maybe even more so), one of the questions being, “Where was the woman when God gave His command to not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?”

Out of 150 students, not even one knew the answer!  When I told them God had not even fashioned a woman yet, and gave the instruction to Adam alone, they were all incredulous.  While it was not a major doctrinal crisis point, it was a perfect illustration that we who call ourselves Christians far too many times do not study His Word carefully for ourselves, observing every single word, sentence, verse, chapter and book in their contexts.

The application of that illustration became very real as we worked our way through the entire Bible--we didn’t want to miss anything God said because to believe something we had been ‘taught’ rather than believe what the Bible actually said on some other issue might just be the difference between Truth and error, or Life and death.

Thanks for your blogs.  God is using you through them.


Benoît Cordoba

February 11, 2011 7:11 PM

A very important subject.  I think we've all encountered "discoveries" in what we considered to be familiar passages.  On the fall of man, I was surprised to learn that Eve actually misquotes the instruction of God when she adds "or touch it" as I had often assumed that Eve' quote was accurate and I had not read it carefully.  Perhaps this is the reason why she was deceived and Adam transgressed (since he knew better and yet did not correct, protect or obey himself and we have to wonder if he taught it correctly to Eve since she was not created when the instruction was given as Mrs Jensen mentions).

I often think of epistemology when I think of our biases and blind spots.  Questioning our assumptions is well worth the effort.  Einstein questioned the linearity of time and thus developed the theory of relativity.  What other understanding are we not questioning?  That is a very good question and I look forward to your presentation of Accordance tools or techniques to use.

Thanks for the stimulating post.  


Adam

February 11, 2011 9:34 PM

Hmm. Of course not everyone would agree that what you've described is a "blind spot" at all, but rather the inevitable voice of the interpreter brought to bear on the text itself.

To be perfectly honest, as a progressive Accordance user, it bothers me a little to see how conservative the material "surrounding" Accordance is becoming. Most of the modules are extremely conservative in their approach (including the new releases); Dr. J's podcasts, while helpful for learning the interface, tend to be theologically conservative; and, now, the blog is clearly suggesting that a hermeneutic based on authorial intent is somehow the "right" way to interpret the scriptures.

While I'm fully recognizant of the fact that most biblical scholars (and, thus, Accordance users) are conservative, not everyone is. It might be nice to see some more critical and minority approaches to the text in future blog posts as well as how Accordance can be of use to those interpreters as well.


Barry Francolino

February 12, 2011 5:05 AM

Hi. I'm a first-time blogger. 

Adam, due to my blind spots, please help me to understand how you are using and understanding the word "conservative"? Also, I'm a little bit in the dark by what you mean by "a progressive Accordance user". Are you comparing yourself to a conservative Accordance user? If so, would you be so kind to explain how you see they are different?

I guess for me, at the heart of it all is: why does anyone study the Bible? We all have assumptions--at least I believe that we can all agree on that. We all have "blind spots" and again, I think that we can at least agree on that. So what's in it for us--no matter what our theological persuasion is--as we come to the ancient text of the most meticulously examined book in the world? My assumption is that we all want light!  


David Lang

February 12, 2011 2:26 PM

Adam, the only blind spot I described in this post was my own failure to account for the phrase "with her" in Genesis 3:6. This can hardly be described as "the inevitable voice of the interpreter brought to bear on the text itself," because in this case the interpreter (me) was missing an important aspect of the "text itself." I think both conservatives and progressives would agree that this constitutes a blind spot rather than a legitimate interpretive option.

With respect to the movement toward theological conservatism you perceive, I would argue that it's a mistaken impression. Yes, many of the modules we've recently released have been staunchly conservative, but that has more to do with the materials we have ready to release than any agenda on our parts. Before all the recent Zondervan material, we released JBL, Hermeneia, Semeia, etc. When each of those resources was released, we might very well have had conservative users perceiving a progressive shift.

As for my post "clearly suggesting that a hermeneutic based on authorial intent is somehow the 'right' way to interpret the scriptures," I think you're reading into my post suggestions which are not there. I said nothing about determining the author's intent in this post; I merely suggested that we need to do our best to become aware of our own interpretive preconceptions so that they do not blind us to important aspects of the text. Whatever our hermeneutic, if we ignore or gloss over aspects of the text, our understanding of that text is sure to be flawed.


Adam

February 13, 2011 4:12 PM

David,

I was referring to your comments about the feminist scholar's exegesis of Genesis 1–3. While you begin by praising her as a "gifted exegete," you go on to say that she "distort[s]" the text "from the standpoint of her own ideology," thus implying that she, too, had a "blind spot" that you wanted to point out. My comment was simply meant as a reminder that not everyone would consider her exegesis a "distort[ion]."

You state your hermeneutic rather clearly when you suggest that "her willingness to read into the text a viewpoint which strikes [you] as clearly foreign to it" is a negative thing. Again, I have no problem with that; you are welcome to your views on these issues, and I appreciate the viewpoint that you – and others – bring to the text.

All of that said, I should have been more generous to you saying, "My point in telling you all this is not to critique this scholar's exegetical methods." My apologies for focusing my attention on the things that bothered me in your post rather than your obvious willingness to be as neutral as possible.

As always, I look forward to your upcoming posts.




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