Widening the Web of Reasoning: Editors’ Introduction to the Responses

Brantley Craig, University of Virginia
Don Nelkin, University of Virginia

The following represent a second stage in scriptural reasoning. Having read the readings by Magid, Hauerwas, and Cornell, other scriptural reasoners responded with brief commentaries or contributions. It is a testament to the nature of scriptural reasoning that these were incredibly hard to organize from an editorial point of view. The topics are many, as are the approaches. Some authors responded to a specific essay; others responded to all three; some used the essays simply as a springboard to discuss meta-concerns about the process, strengths, and foibles of scriptural reasoning. What is more (and more difficult to the editorial mind) is that these offerings are not meant to stand alone. Reading through them individually, one soon realizes that they make more sense the more of them one reads. This is where scriptural reasoning becomes truly exciting. If Hauerwas was correct about the way in which words read in one context remind scriptural reasoners of words they have read elsewhere, this is the next step: the words read in the Moses/Pharaoh narrative and in the three central essays not only remind these respondents of other words, they prompt them to use words of their own. The web has widened. From a single narrative came three readings, and now from those three readings come 12 more. Surely even Pharaoh could appreciate such a pyramid of texts.

The best advice to a reader of the comments that follow is to embrace their intertextuality by studying them while surrounded by the three scriptural sources (and their myriad commentaries) as well as the contributions by Magid, Hauerwas, and Cornell, and then to engage in conversation with other readers. As an introduction, however, the editors would like to note that some themes begin to emerge and converge. Although it is problematic to generalize from a few representatives, especially given the multivocality of each of these religious traditions, a pattern exists that is worth noting even if only true within the community of scriptural reasoners. Questions of justifying God’s role in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart resonate very differently for representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Where the latter see the problem of free will as external to the story (“a problem for us and not for the scriptural narrative”), the former see the text itself as demanding a struggle with the ethics of God’s actions. All acknowledge God’s authority (as well as that of the text) but the different traditions appear to lead to different understandings of how humanity is to respond to in the face of difficult texts.

These differences also seem to represent a different understanding of how one (or the community) is to understand the encounter with the text and what is meant by living a life shaped by the text. Peter Ochs, for examples, reminds us that Israel is named for struggling with God (and consequently the text), a point Dov Nelkin suggests the Talmud considers emblematic of the ideal student. Basit Koshul, echoing similar sentiments in the paper by Cornell, suggests that on the Qur’anic account, failure to yield to God in the signs of the text (and the world) is exactly the sin of which Pharaoh is guilty. Similarly, from within the Christian tradition and text, Bill Elkins suggests that we become, in a certain sense, Pharaoh, when we refuse to acknowledge God’s sovereign right to harden whose heart He will.

Without diminishing the differences that remain, the comments by Bob Gibbs and Peter Ochs remind us that we all share a love of the texts that binds us to each other. Our society is built upon the premise that true debate implies dialogue and that dialogue requires (and generates) the community at the heart of scriptural reasoning.

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