Editor’s Preface: Home is Where the Heart Is

William Wesley Elkins, Drew University

This phrase simply encodes central aspects of the hermeneutics of scriptural reasoning as a hermeneutics of common sense. When we are at home we naturally feel no need to explicate what is familiar to us. However, when something we naturally understand becomes strange to us or is unfamiliar and problematic to another, our hearts are restless with interpretations until the unfamiliar becomes familiar and we and make the stranger feel at home with what we normally and naturally understand. We just do not interpret what is plainly common sense. In addition, when we do not feel at home, a little common sense is enough to get us back to where we belong. However, sometimes we may be struck by the difficulty of feeling at home or making a stranger feel at home when everything we thought was common sense just does not work to make us feel at home or to make a hospitable place for the stranger. In general things are not as complicated as this. From time to time, however no matter what we do (family or stranger, insider or outsider) we find that we are taking refuge in strange and inhospitable places.

In particular, in the context of modernity the Abrahamite traditions do not feel at home. Modernity treats religious belief as a matter for scientific or historical analysis. Moreover, modernity limits what is reasonable to the logic of these models and does not validate forms of scriptural interpretation that shape the practices of communities of faith. So, for the Children of Abraham, if we have not been evicted by modernity (a worst case scenario supported by some) we are uncomfortable in the house that modernity has built. Scriptural Reasoning is a response by the Children of Abraham to respond to and repair the problematic conditions of modernity so that we can rediscover ways of being truly at home by rediscovering the promise and possibilities of our own traditions.

So in the normal state of things, a certain amount of homelessness is necessary for Scriptural Reasoning in the Abrahamite traditions. There are times, however, when things get more difficult. In particular there are passages of scripture that displace the sureties of our traditions in different, complicated, and conflicting ways. For example, in scriptural passages on the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart,” what is common sense and interpretative-reparative response for one tradition may seem, more or less, to miss the point for another. In these cases the wager of Scriptural Reasoning is that there is wisdom in the insight that in the context of modernity our shared sense of homelessness may be mitigated by a shared process of dialog that helps us rediscover our true homes and ways of being hospitable to others. It is the hope of the Society of Scriptural Reasoning that in a profound and, as of yet, incompletely specified way, the journey we share together is a way of recovering the unique shapes of our scripture-formed homes.

This is, of course, a complicated process and requires different approaches, each with varying patterns of success. However, from time to time, it is possible to state succinctly what has been achieved in any one dialog. Willie Young, managing editor of Journal of Scriptural Reasoning , described what was at stake and what was accomplished in the last year’s interpretations of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

In focusing on the topic of Pharaoh’s heart, the 2000 meeting of the National Society of Scriptural Reasoning brought together three particular communities and their respective readings of scripture. In what could best be termed a community of separation, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim readers of scripture shared study and reflection on the difficult issue of God’s permission or willing of Pharaoh’s hardened injustice and tyranny, as depicted and interpreted by the commentators of their tradition-rich communities, without thereby converging into a unitary or homogenized voice. In diverse ways and to varying degrees, the papers deliberate upon the characterization of divine and human justice. Together, they open an unfinished conversation, allowing each community in its particularity to speak to troubling and difficult issues of punishment, reconciliation, and divine and human agency in the world. A scriptural reasoning understanding of justice follows from appreciation for both the harmonies and dissonances that emerge in the discussion.

(1) One of the primary issues that troubled the participants is the significance of free will in and for the interpretation of the hardening of pharaoh’s heart. This issue is much more that an issue of a philosophy of obligation and the relation between ifs and cans: if he can he should; if he cannot then he is not responsible for failing to do what he should. It appears that free will may be a problem internal to the scriptures concerned with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. In particular any generalization of the covenant to include all humanity seems to require that Pharaoh be able to choose to free the Exodites. However nuanced the relation between divine power and human potentiality, this position cannot avoid a crisis of meaning introduced into biblical scripture by the death of the first born of Egypt. It would seem that the end may be just but the means may have been, if not unjust, then excessive. This issue, however, may be radically irrelevant if free will is a modern issue and is simply imposed on the text on a text that is about what we must acknowledge: God’s sovereignty or unity. In this position the force behind God’s claims is simply a matter of how forcefully we choose to deny them.

(2) The persuasiveness of interpretations that affirm the centrality of free will may depend upon the clarity and variety of the means used to make the claims of God understood. In this regard the Muslim commentators provided a detailed account of a balance between the claims of God’s sovereign unity and the signs directed towards guiding a voluntary submission to Allah. The semiotic variety and clarity of this position may provide philosophers with the concepts needed to interpret the relation of God’s will and God’s willingness to be known. However philosophical and faithful this approach is, there may be certain darker intervals and trajectories in scripture that call for interpretations that go beyond a faithful reason towards a faith formed in the particular mysteries of the divine will. Whether the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” is one of these darker intervals is a question that each of these commentaries addresses in its own ways.

(3) In this regard, any final analysis is simply a prelude to further interpretations that call us to speak more and quite differently. There is a certain terrible and awe-filled mystery in the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” that is not simply addressed to Pharaoh. It applies to all those who encounter the purpose and promises of the God of the Children of Abraham. In the tension between the home from which we are displaced, by the difference between God’s ways and our own, and the promise of the home that we will find, when God’s will is done, we may find that we can help each other journey home in our different ways. This is the hope and the significance of the following papers.