Reading Genesis 18-19 in this Society, a Post-Meeting Commentary
I stood in the hallway in a hotel in Denver, waiting for someone outside the room where I met with the Society for Scriptural Reasoning for the first time. There was hope in the waiting. And this comment records some streaming-reflections on the practice of reasoning around Genesis 18-19 in this Society, after the fact.
Every Reading a New Reading (Wolfson)
I have written down the word “pray” in notes to myself about Abraham “bowing” towards the ground (18.2ff), which strikes me as part of the logic of this text, the enactment of prayer-in-body (seeing, sitting, standing, walking, washing, eating, drinking, judging, speaking, communing). I misread my handwriting and think for a moment that it says “play” rather than “pray.” For this moment I read Abraham as playing – and think immediately of Sarah’s laughter (18.12-15) and of the levity that attends the sons-in-law (not in body), so that they “play” with the urgency of Lot’s warnings (19.14). For this moment my misreading leads me deeper into the text (or does it?), and I am reminded that it doesn’t say “play” but “pray” – but my own self-correction is now irrelevant. I now am reading a tension between laughter and judgment in this text, in this Society. Professor Wolfson writes: “The originality of hearing-again is predicated on the recognition that every reading has the potential to be new and, consequently, the writing of a text is never complete for in each moment both the substance of text and reader is refashioned” [see link for context]. The various notes I have made to myself now all appear to lend themselves to this laughter and judgment-which I take, in a pragmatic sense, to be “musement” and correction. That is, in Peircean terms, the play, musement, or abduction which leads to hypothesis-making (e.g. by misreading ‘pray’ as ‘play’) is bound by neither deductive nor inductive logic, and is then refashioned by reparative judgments (from ‘play’ to a thickened description of ‘pray’) in a constant opening up of ‘original’ horizons. Is this a novel reading?
The tension between musement and correction unfolds for me again as I think about Professor Watson’s typology. I am uneasy with it. What seems to him most “theologically profound” (namely, Justin) strikes me as coming too close to a closing-off of the text because it seems to exclude the undiscovered profundity of the other readings. It closes off, rather than opens up, because it makes judgments that do not ‘play’ well with others . Do I mis-read him? Is that an unfair judgment? There is, surely, another way to read Watson. But then I also worry again about what seems to be the dismissal of Augustine as Reader. For him, Augustine is “most problematic” and he seems to exclude him for fear of his very “attractive” reading (even invoking the language of temptation). I would have thought that the “most problematic” could also be academic code for dismissal and the dismissal of that which is ‘other’ in Augustine’s reading should itself be a problem for us as a Society. This is too easy, too quick a dismissal. It closes us off from an original reading. For this moment, my misreading of Watson (if it is a misreading) leads me to think that the logic of musement and correction could be happening in his paper too (whether intentionally or unintentionally). The movements between Gunkel and Calvin, between Augustine and Justin play together as mutually correcting each other, inviting other bodies into this movement of play and correction in the community of inquiry.
Inscribing Flesh (Kepnes)
A very brief comment by Steven Kepnes about “inscribing flesh” prompted me to look again at his written response to Elliot Wolfson. “If we follow what Buber called the leitworte or leading words as the key to the text’s own immanental form of reasoning, the words “I, Me and You” (given often in Hebrew suffixes) jump out at us and call for interpretation.” This is given “incarnational” significance, or rather “the dynamic of immanence,” reading God’s appearance as physical – in a triadic way. This is given “incarnational” significance, or rather “the dynamic of immanence,” reading God’s appearance as physical in a triadic way. This is to read the sign of God onto flesh, and also to play this sign against the (painful) brit of inscribing flesh in circumcision. It is the writing onto flesh, apparently, which moves us from brit to brit olam , and which inserts the letter ” heh ” in Abram’s name. In these senses inscribing flesh becomes an invitation to the eternal reading and re-reading of this embodied covenant. The writing and reading of bodies has this transformative quality: playing, judging, mourning, healing, correcting, leading us into life, into this embodied covenant.
Laughter and the play of language in the face of judgment, or correction, or attempts to address suffering stand as dialectical figures in my own reading of this text, at this moment, in this Society. Not only in times of crisis, but perhaps especially in times of crisis, we turn to Torah. That is, we turn towards that which is most generative – the embodied covenant, the Word, the invitation to renewal – and the promise of laughter. It seems to me that this promise comes to us by way of mourning, by way of judgment and correction – and that tension between laughter and judgment is a tension worth having in our ways of reasoning and reading the inscribed – an inscribing that always points beyond itself and opens up into life. Call it scriptural reasoning.
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