Gathering at the Table for Scripture Study: A Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue about Jonah Texts
University of Indianapolis
Gathering at the table for study and fellowship is a practice with deep roots in Judaism as well as in Christianity and Islam – although with different sets of cultural associations, religious resonances, and social implications. Such “table studies” ( chevruta ) of two to three persons for textual study are fairly common in Jewish communities, although more often than not these scripture study groups have been primarily focused on texts from the Torah discussed in isolation from non-Jewish traditions. In Christian contexts, the inclusion of persons at or exclusion of persons from such “tables of fellowship” has been identified as an important mark of the integrity (or lack thereof) of the communities of those who bear witness to the messianic age in Jesus Christ. In Islam, hospitality to fellow Muslims as well as to strangers is also a characteristic of those communities that would dare to claim to be true to their belief in Allah as the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Of course, Jews and Christians have been engaging in dialogue about a wide range of topics for the past two centuries in various contexts and locations. Jewish-Christian dialogues about biblical texts were already taking place in medieval Europe, although it must be said that Jewish hospitality to Christians was rarely reciprocated in kind. [i] Indeed, the public disputations of the Middle Ages might best be described as the antithesis of hospitality. By contrast, discussion between Muslims and Christians about Scripture texts is much more recent, and attempts to foster Jewish-Muslim dialogue have also been difficult to sustain until recent decades.
Thanks in part to the collaborative efforts of the Children of Abraham Institute and the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, scripture study “trialogues” between Muslims, Christians, and Jews are becoming more common in academic circles. The Trialogue Scripture Study Group [ii] that met together in the Fall of 2002 in Indianapolis, Indiana is an example of a kind of table study that is less commonly known – but which is also quite possible to do – particularly in urban contexts where substantial populations of Christians, Muslims and Jews live in closer proximity to one another. This report serves as an account of one such “table study” and is intended to encourage Muslims, Christians, and Jews in other communities to consider taking such initiatives in their own settings.
I. Introducing the Indianapolis Trialogue
A. Purposes: This “pilot project” in interfaith dialogue was inspired by the work of the Children of Abraham Institute and emerged out of conversations about the new “ecumenical and interfaith” emphasis at the University of Indianapolis associated with a set of initiatives known as The Crossings Project. [iii] In the most technical sense, then, this group was formed at the suggestion of two members of the University of Indianapolis religion faculty, who contacted the senior rabbis at Congregation Beth-el Zedeck, Dennis and Sandy Sasso, about whether they and their synagogue might be interested in participating in a Trialogue. The Sassos, in turn, were instrumental in providing information about contacts in the Muslim community.
In a broader sense, the group came together by the interests and concerns of the participants, who responded to the invitation to join in this endeavour. Indeed, the group could not have been formed if informal conversations had not already been forming in the Indianapolis area. The fact that conversations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims were occurring on a regular basis is an indicator of the existence of interfaith leaders. This is particularly true of the two rabbis in our group. As visible leaders in a variety of interfaith initiatives, Dennis and Sandy Sasso provided insightful leadership, often making it possible for the conversations to continue in circumstances that made it more likely that we would have a dialogue instead of a trialogue. [iv]
We also gathered in the lingering shadow of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The previous year had been marked by a few notable examples of xenophobia, and we were all aware that such concerns were still very much in evidence in the wider American context. [v] During the period of time that we met together, one member of our group was stunned to discover that prejudicial words had been attributed to him that he had deliberately sought to avoid in the context of writing an editorial about the work of our Trialogue Group. [vi] Finally, we came to our table study with a growing awareness that the USA was preparing to engage in a war against Iraq, a nation with a predominantly Muslim population. Sometimes we were all too aware of the ways in which the threat of war could create conditions that might divide us. At other times, our conversations were surprisingly free of such anxieties.
B. Participation : The initial goal was to gather five persons from each of the Abrahamic traditions, all of whom would agree to gather on five occasions for discussion of scripture texts from the TaNaKH , the New Testament, and the Qur’an . [vii] Although we were able to meet on five occasions, we were not able to have consistent representation from the Muslim community. Indeed except for the last meeting, we typically had only one or two persons representing the Islamic tradition. This circumstance required that we make various kinds of adjustments in the ways that we structured our gatherings. [viii]
Various participants made adjustments in their schedules in order to make it possible for the group to continue to meet. After the initial gathering at the University of Indianapolis, Congregation Beth-el Zedeck hosted the second meeting. Then we met at Christian Theological Seminary and North United Methodist Church for the third and fourth gatherings. On all these occasions, we took time to share refreshments and informal conversation as well as to learn about our host institutions, where relevant or necessary to do so. In these ways, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities of Indianapolis were all able to offer hospitality at one time or another during the fall of 2002.
C. Differences That We Embodied : The diversity of our group can be registered in several ways. We gathered as company of clergy and lay people, more of the latter than the former. [ix] Diverse perspectives ranging from pre modern to modern to post modern could be found among the scholars, clergy and lay participants in our group. [x] Other professions and civic roles were also represented. [xi] Not surprisingly, we brought different interests to our reading of these texts. [xii] Many of us – perhaps all – had previous experience with “crossing” social barriers. [xiii]
Some participants had known each other for years. In most cases, however, we had little prior acquaintance with one another. Because we met together on five occasions for discussion and study of selected texts, we began to move beyond mere acquaintance to form relationships. Over the course of our four previous meetings, we had enough time together to be able to enjoy laughter and even to tease one another with gentle affection. As this “pilot project” came to a close, we had the sense that friendships were beginning to develop as well as the prospect of future collaborations.
D. Commonalities Amid the Differences : We shared interests, some of which were discovered in the course of our conversations. Other commonalities became apparent in the context of our actions and the ways that we offered hospitality to one another. For example, on the last occasion that we gathered, one of the participants – a woman rabbi! – held a Muslim child in her lap. This pair truly “put a face on the dialogue” by drawing pictures of the participants gathered around the table. [xiv] Meanwhile, her husband – the other rabbi – held the child’s sister on his lap while actively contributing his perspective to the conversation. The ease with which members of the group interacted with the children present on this occasion was but one indicator of the bonds of trust that we had built with one another.
Later that evening, we listened with interest to the perspectives of the young Muslim woman who had recently completed her undergraduate studies and was now studying at a nearby law school. As she shared about her experiences of learning Bible narratives from the other Abrahamic traditions, the older Christian and Jewish participants found themselves thinking about their own childhood memories of Bible stories as well as considering their own roles as parents of adolescents and young adults. In these respects, we found ourselves beginning to realize the kinds of questions that persons outside our traditions have about the ways we read the holy writings of our own traditions.
II. Background to the Conversation at the Fifth Gathering
We came together to discuss texts about Jonah with the awareness that we tended to regard our enemies like Jonah did, but perhaps we are more ready than the Hebrew prophet was to believe that “enemies ultimately turn into people who repent.” [xv] The selection of the three sets of texts that we agreed to read for the final session of our Trialogue Scripture Study Group (Dec. 12, 2002) was prompted by a passing remark made near the end of the previous gathering hosted by North United Methodist Church.
A. Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart: During our Nov. 13, 2002 gathering, we had discussed a set of texts from Exodus related to “the hardening of Pharoah’s heart” as understood in three traditions. We had read essays by Shaul Magid , Stanley Hauerwas , and Vincent Cornell , which served as examples of the divergent ways that the three traditions understood this scriptural phrase.
For some of us, the texts about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart were troubling, because of what they appeared to be saying about God in relation to the exercise of free will by human beings. These texts raised the spectre of the problem of evil, and God appears to be responsible for the injustices described in the texts (the slaughter of the first born children of the Egyptians, etc.).
Others of us read these texts as offering a portrait of God as an actor in human history. The issues of the presence or absence of limits to the moral agency of human beings were of less concern to these participants than issues about the character of God rendered in the stories. The God of the Book of Exodus, who liberates the children of Israel from slavery to the Egyptians, displays the characteristics of covenant fidelity, justice, etc.
B. Discovering Tawhid : All of this led us to a rather extended discussion of the Muslim concept of tawhid, the unicity of God. “The fundamental message of the prophets is all the same – ‘There is no god but God.’ In brief, Muslims understand the word God to refer to the reality that reveals itself through the Koran, and they understand god to refer to anything that is falsely described by any of the qualities that the Koran ascribes to God.” [xvi] While the concept’s definition is clear, several Christian participants were puzzled about how this concept has shaped Islamic traditions, particularly in relation to the various names and attributes of Allah. More specifically, how does the concept of tawhid help us to make sense of the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart, and the actions of God as slayer of the innocent as described in the Exodus narratives?
These concerns led to a more extended explanation of how the unicity of God is understood in Islam in the context of historical relationship and circumstances. The following commentary about tawhid from Murata and Chittick’s book The Vision of Islam (1994) provides a clear and succinct summary of the issues that we discussed at length, interspersed with various side-references and follow-up queries.
As the governing and controlling Lord of all creation, Allah “interrelates with each creature in different ways. Moreover, with any given creature, the ways in which he interrelates change over time. . . .
God is Life-giver and Slayer, but he does not give life to a single creature and take it away at one and the same time under the same relationship. In other words, he gives someone life, sustains that life for a period of time, and then takes it away. He may be giving life to some people and taking it away from others at one and the same time.”
Relationships become much more subtle as soon as we ponder the situation. Every birth – every giving of life – is also a death, a slaying. A child is born into the world, but dies from the womb. A person dies from this world, but is born into the next world. Life-giving and slaying are not so different after all. All the opposite qualities have subtle relationships that allow us to show that their opposition is not absolute. Rather, their opposition might better be called complementarity. As soon as we understand that the two opposite names are in fact two sides of the same coin, we come closer to tawhid, or to showing that unity underlies multiplicity. [xvii]
With clarifications such as these in view, we began to reflect on those aspects of the Jewish and Christian traditions where something like the concern of tawhid is present. As the two rabbis in our group observed, there is no shortage of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures that emphasize the unicity of God. Some of these texts have proven troubling to Jewish readers. Isaiah 45:7 is a good example to consider because of the ways this particular verse has been used in the context of Jewish prayers. “I form light and create darkness, make weal and create woe, I the Lord do all these things.” Out of concern that God not appear to be responsible for evil, rabbinical leaders re-read this text in ways that remove God from having responsibility for evil. As a result God’s responsibility for “woe” disappears in the liturgical formulation, “who makes peace and creates all that is” found in various Jewish prayer books. As Rabbi Sandy Sasso explained, “the change in the Jewish liturgy is an effort to combat dualism and affirm the unity of God as the source of all.” [xviii] This example displays how dualistic patterns of thinking have been dealt with at different points in the history of the Jewish people.
Although these kinds of references were offered in response to questions raised by Muslim and Christian participants, they also led us to talk more broadly about the ways that our own traditions have bent prayer forms in order to help people deal with texts that they find bothersome for one or another reasons. For example, John Wesley’s “Sunday Service for the People Called Methodists” (1784) – a modified version of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer – heavily edited passages from the Psalms such as verse 9 of Psalm 137. Even Benedictine communities, which are well-known for their intensive practice of praying the Psalter in weekly, monthly, and annual cycles, have found it difficult to integrate some of the more difficult texts of the Bible.
C. Extrabiblical Narratives : Near the end of this discussion, one of the rabbis present recalled that there is a Jewish legend about Jonah that identifies the king of Nineveh, who repented in response to the prophet’s message of impending destruction, with the Pharaoh described in the story of the Exodus . [xix] The same Pharaoh who did not repent when Moses proclaimed the Word of the Lord, is represented in this midrash in a different way. Pharaoh/the King of Nineveh repents when Jonah announces the judgment of God upon the people of Nineveh.
The implication of this legend appears to be that despite the fact that the book of Exodus portrays God as having “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” that is not the end of the story. When viewed within the wider scope of divine purpose even Pharaoh displays the capability of repentance in response to the word of God announced through the prophet. While this perspective is not offered in direct commentary about the book of Exodus, this extra-biblical perspective does appear to have implications for the way the relationship of God and humankind is understood in the context of history. This more “universalist” perspective proffers the hope that in the end, even our enemies can repent.
This midrash about Jonah and the King of Nineveh intrigued several of the Christian and Muslim participants, who were not familiar with the midrashic traditions as their Jewish counterparts were. More generally, we all were intrigued by the unexpected connections that had been made between the Exodus narrative and the story of Jonah in the Jewish tradition of commentary on the Torah.
D. Texts to be Read : With this particular narrative and the broader context of our conversations about the Muslim doctrine of tawhid in view, we decided that we would conclude this cycle of our trialogue about scripture texts by reading the most significant texts about Jonah from each of the three traditions. Since the Muslim congregation at Masjid al Fajr was hosting this final gathering of our Trialogue, we asked the imam of the Nur-Allah Mosque to choose the texts from the Qur’an. He suggested that we read verses 96-100 from Surah 10 “Yunus” (or Jonah) and verses 139-148 from Sura 37 “Those Who Set the Ranks.” He agreed to provide participants with supplemental commentary material on these texts. In the meantime, we determined that we all would read and/or review the four chapters of the book of Jonah from the TaNaKH along with Matthew 12:33-42 and Luke 11:27-32 , the two gospel texts from the New Testament that deal with the “sign of Jonah.”
III. Gathering at the Table in the Mosque
A. Gathering : This final gathering of the Trialogue Scripture Study Group was the kind of engagement that the African-American novelist and social critic James Baldwin would probably have applauded. African-Americans, Christians and Muslim alike, Euro-Americans both Christian and Jew gathering around the table to talk about something other than race, each listening with care to the perspectives of the others in a searching conversation about our respective religious traditions. Baldwin no doubt would have rejoiced at the prospect of such a “welcome table” hosted by Muslims in this Midwestern metropolis. However, it is also fair to say that this author of The Fire Next Time (1963) would almost certainly have urged this company of American citizens not to deceive themselves about the limited significance of such a gathering. After all, many of the problems that Baldwin wrote about a hundred years after Lincoln’s 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” remain very much a present reality in the USA.
We met at Masjid al Fajr , the mosque of one of the older Muslim communities in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. Founded in the early 1970s by a group of African-American Muslims, this building was built over a period of years (1978-1992). The congregation dedicated this mosque for prayer in 1992. Over the years, the congregation has attracted participation from Muslims of various ethnic and social backgrounds. An adjacent building that is used for a Muslim parochial school opened five years ago. Although we had discussed meeting at one of the mosques earlier in the fall, the group had chosen to wait until after the conclusion of the month-long Ramadan fast so that our Muslim participants could more comfortably host our gathering. The imam of this mosque could not be with us on this occasion, but several members of the congregation were present to serve as our hosts and to participate in this final session of the Trialogue.
As members of our group arrived at the mosque, we were welcomed by our hosts for the evening, Ismail Abdul Alim and Imam Michael Saahir. After taking a tour of the “place of prostration” and learning about how this space was used by the men, women and children of this Muslim congregation, we all moved downstairs to a spacious meeting room on the basement level. As we left the prayer room, several young Muslim men were arriving to perform their ablutions before performing their evening prayers at the appointed time of 8 p. m. As we got settled, we talked about various concerns, including things that had transpired since our gathering the previous month. Shortly, the Muslim call to prayer sounded throughout the building. Our hosts excused themselves briefly to participate in the prayers with other men who had gathered upstairs. At their invitation, most of the Jewish and Christian members of the trialogue group walked upstairs to observe these members of the Mosque making salat. Fifteen minutes later our discussion resumed.
B. Queries and Responses : In each of the gatherings, we found it helpful to take some time to address questions that may have been only incidental to the texts in question, but which were important to address given the interests and concerns of the participants. Such queries reflected the simple fact that the knowledge base of the three traditions that we each brought to the Trialogue was uneven. Because we took seriously our spotty understanding and/or real ignorance of one another’s traditions, we felt free to ask questions of one another that opened up various avenues for discussion.
Some questions were evoked by the setting in which we had gathered. Meeting in a mosque gave Christian and Jewish participants the opportunity to observe members of the Muslim congregation engaged in the practice of evening prayer as well as the congregation’s enactment of rituals of preparation (ablutions, etc.) that occurred before the salat. The first set of queries, therefore, involved information and clarification about the rituals associated with evening prayer.
A second set of questions arose as a result of the circumstance of having a Muslim woman present for the first time. [xx] Ms. Kameela Shaheed, the daughter of one of the Muslim participants, prepared our refreshments and had joined us for the evening’s conversation. Later Kameela shared her perspective about the importance of water as a symbol of Paradise in the Qur’an, thereby providing a nice connection at the end of our gathering with the visual images of washing feet that we all had upon our arrival.
A third set of questions arose from Muslims who sought clarification from the Christians and Jews present about the origin and authorization for their prayers. An elderly Muslim man who joined our conversation for a brief time expressed his puzzlement about the status of the Bible in relation to the prescribed prayers of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Noting that “revelation stops” with the death of the Prophet Muhammad, he stated: “We do not deviate an inch from what the Prophet says. Nobody tells us something different after him. We follow his teachings without traditions.” (I doubt that this perspective represented the views of the Muslims in our group who participated in the previous four sessions of our conversation, but given that no one directly contradicted his views, it is not possible to say this with certainty.) From this man’s angle of vision, the fact that there is additional “input” of Christian witnesses such as Mark the Evangelist or Paul the Apostle (beyond the teachings of Jesus) did not make sense.
This question called forth different responses from the Jews and Christians present. Christian participants explained that unlike Muhammad, Jesus did not write any of the texts of the New Testament. These writings of the apostolic period are “witnesses” to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jewish participants also offered clarification in response to the Muslim man’s query. One of the rabbis clarified that the Torah is not the exclusive source of prayer in the Jewish tradition. The first codified prayer book does not come into existence until the 9 th century C. E., when Rav Amran Gaon edited it. From that point, the Jewish prayer book continues to grow.
This set of queries gave our group the opportunity to make explicit our awareness of some of the significant differences in the ways Scripture is used in the three traditions. For example, some Christians follow a lectionary of readings and others do not. According to Jewish participants, the appointed readings from the Torah are arranged according to a liturgical calendar that is based on the lunar cycle. Seven times in a period of nineteen years, an extra month is added to reconcile the lunar calendar with the solar calendar. [xxi] This conversation, in turn, intersected with the dialogue that emerged about the set of three texts that we had agreed to read in preparation for this final gathering of our trialogue.
IV. Report on Discussion of the Texts
A. Discussion of Qur’anic Texts — Suras 10:96-100 and 37: 139-148 : Our Muslim hosts for this particular dialogue stressed the importance of understanding this particular text in the Qur’an in the light of the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation to the people at a particular point in time. Sura 10 is an early “Meccan surah” that is, it has its origin in the period when Muhammad was trying to teach the people about existential issues. [xxii] At the beginning of Muhammad’s mission, the people of Mecca found it difficult to grasp the Prophet’s message about the hereafter and revelation. The concept of human beings being brought back for judgment and being held accountable was foreign to them. These were old stories that the merchants of Mecca had heard before, but they did not accept the concept of accountability in the hereafter. Muhammad was addressing this set of concerns in the context of these familiar narratives.
Paraphrasing texts from various places in the Qur’an, the imam from Nur-Allah Mosque offered the following explanation: “The one who has not faith can be described this way: He who feeds not the hungry and doesn’t clothe the naked. In Islam, faith is understood as translated into action.” This can be illustrated by the example of the “Five Pillars” of Islam. In the first pillar, the Muslim states his or her belief in Allah. The other four practices are ways of enacting his or her faith in Allah.
When the two Qur’anic texts are read alongside the texts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the synoptic gospels, the resurrection language of Sura 37:144 stands out. The righteous action of the Ninevites is regarded as sufficient in the Hebrew texts, not faith (belief). In the Qur’an, faith (belief) becomes the focus. One of the Muslim participants noted that where the Qur’an refers to the repentance of God, the doctrine of tawhid provides the context for explaining perceived inconsistencies or contradictions.
Several of the Christian readers of the Qur’anic texts about Yunus (Jonah) were struck by the fact that the Qur’an does not attempt to retell the narrative of Jonah, [xxiii] but simply presupposes that the other narrative has a currency that is available to readers of the Qur’an. Having “grown up” hearing the story of Jonah at home and in Sunday School, several Christian participants wondered how “a thirteen year old Muslim boy or girl would learn the story of Jonah.” This question was referred to Kameela, the daughter of one of the participants in our group. She did not attempt to speak for all Muslim children and youth, but she indicated that she had taken courses on the Old Testament and New Testament during her undergraduate studies. She had also felt encouraged throughout her teenage years to read texts outside the Qur’an that might provide context for understanding the Prophet’s teachings.
B. Discussion of TaNaKH Texts — Jonah 1:1-4:11 : Our discussion initially focused on the character of Jonah and his recalcitrance in the face of God’s decision to repent. Some of the Christian readers were intrigued to see that while Jonah seems to have had a good understanding of God’s attributes, he does not act in ways that reflect that understanding. Does this discrepancy indicate a lack of faith on the part of the prophet or something else?
Later, the two rabbis in our group called our attention to the liturgical context of the use of the book of Jonah. The book of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur , the Day of Atonement. Like other texts from the Prophets (Isaiah 57-58, etc.), this book testifies to God’s power to save an individual (like Jonah) or an entire nation. Yom Kippur conveys a very personal message to each member of the synagogue. One person went so far as to describe his experience each Yom Kippur as being like being in the belly of the whale. In a sense, this “high holy day” comprises an invitation to hear again the Torah, to consider the ways in which Adonai’s instructions for his covenant people have not yet been heard. Like the book of Ruth, the story of Jonah can be read as offering a universalizing perspective that stands in contrast to the concerns registered in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah about the corrupting influences of foreign peoples, and the need to purify the post-exilic community that is represented as “returning” to Zion with the intention of rebuilding the Temple.
We also learned that the name of the prophet Jonah comes from the same word as “dove” in Hebrew. Of course, the dove is closely associated with the story of Noah (Genesis 6-9). The dove and the rainbow are symbols of God’s promise not to destroy the world again. There is another parallel: In the story of Noah, God’s repentance is indicated at the beginning of the story (Genesis 6:5-6). At the end of the story of Jonah (3:10), God repents. It is very striking that the same phrasing occurs in these two contexts.
In the Jewish tradition, it is not the fact that God repents that is remarkable but the timing of the repentance that is most noteworthy. We noted that there is a tension in Christianity on this point. Some Christian traditions are more comfortable with the prospect of divine repentance of avowed actions than others are. [xxiv]
C. Discussion of New Testament Texts — Matthew 12:33-42 ; Luke 11:29-32 : Like the texts from the Qur’an, these two texts from the synoptic gospels presuppose the narrative of Jonah rather than retell the story from the TaNaKH. Most of our conversation about these texts focused on the two concerns that appear to have been laid alongside one another by the writers of the Gospels: the judgment that the people of Jesus’ time have brought upon them, and what the “sign” of Jonah signifies.
First, the sign of “Jonah” is invoked as a word of judgment. “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” (Luke 11:29) The judgment against the unrepentant people who have witnessed Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God is invoked in the context of the memory of the different response to Jonah’s proclamation: even the Ninevites repented. On the last day, they will judge the generation who heard Jesus but did not repent.
The “sign of Jonah” also has been invoked in these two texts in a second way — as an image for understanding the resurrection of Jesus. While it is clear that the earliest Christian communities associated the three days that Jonah spent in the belly of the whale with the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, this notion appears to function as a kind of archetype of the “depths” of human experience, particularly when correlated more specifically with the full narrative of Jonah as found in the TaNaKH.
It is difficult to say which of these concerns has figured more prominently in Christian exegesis of these texts from the synoptic gospels but there is no question that the “sign” of Jonah has proven to be an evocative image that has been put to various uses in the course of exploring Christian identity. [xxv] We did not discuss the connection with “wisdom” in these texts except to note that the “Queen of the South” functions in the text in much the same way as the repentance of the king and people of Nineveh: even the Gentile peoples repent when given an opportunity to hear the Word of God.
V. Gathering the Threads of Conversation
A. Comments and Queries: By the end of this fifth session of our trialogue, several different questions and observations had been voiced. No attempt was made to establish a consensus about these matters, but in several of these instances, the character of the conversation suggested that these viewpoints were not unique to one person.
1. Some members of the group thought that they discerned a “progression” in the three sets of texts with respect to what God requires. In the text of Jonah the Hebrew prophet, the righteous action of the Ninevites is regarded as sufficient, not the faith (belief) of the Ninevites. In the New Testament texts, the fact that the people have not obeyed is taken as that they did not hear the word of God spoken by the prophet(s). In the texts from the Qur’an, faith (belief) becomes the primary focus – with the assumption that righteous action will be consistent with the faith professed by true worshipers of Allah.
2. As the commentaries suggest, in the context of affirming tawhid, the narratives of Noah, Pharaoh, and Jonah (Yunus) all are read as texts that display prophets and peoples acting responsibly in ways that are consonant with their believe in the sovereignty of God. The texts from the New Testament by contrast, constitute an indictment of the people of God for having failed to hear God’s word.
3. Some of the Jewish participants suggested that the text of Jonah can be read as an indication that there is not an ultimate predetermination of all things. By contrast, the texts from the Qur’an do not reflect such ambivalence about human freedom.
4. The emphasis on judgment in the Christian texts appears to shine the spotlight on human recalcitrance to hear the Word of God as proclaimed by Jesus, and by contrast shies away from the implication that God repents of his actions. Other participants suggested that the Christian understanding of God is more complex.
B. Recognitions: At the end of this particular discussion (and the five discussions as a whole), members of our group were left with a growing awareness that the three traditions intersect in ways that should not be ignored.
1. Unexpected Convergences: Although we did not attempt to explain to ourselves how the three Abrahamic traditions might also be interdependent, we were struck by particular convergences. For example, the Qur’an appears to presume that Muslim readers will need to consult texts such as the TaNaKH and New Testament from time to time in order to fully grasp the Qur’an itself. While we would not claim to have probed deeply into this set of three texts, we do have a greater awareness of the evocative depths that can emerge when these texts are read together.
2. Stories of Repentance and Reconciliation: We did not attempt to make any particular correlation with what we learned about the repentance of the peoples of Nineveh or the repentance of God with how our respective traditions think about reconciliation between peoples. Nevertheless, some of us found ourselves making new connections in the context of this trilateral conversation that enabled us to read the interpretive texts of our traditions of our respective “houses of God” with renewed awareness of the importance of telling stories of repentance for interfaith reconciliation.
3. Patterns of Identification and Unorthodox Connections: In our conversation, we noted the tendency to identify ourselves with Jonah and our enemies with Nineveh. We also recognized, however, that this is not the only pattern of identification that might exist in the context of these three sets of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts. Recalling that the final discussion of our group was actually suggested by an extra-biblical commentary (the identification of Pharaoh, whose heart is hardened in the Book of Exodus with the King of Nineveh who repents in the book of Jonah), it might be useful to give focused consideration to the roles of imaginative commentaries about scripture in altering the way we have read the holy writings of our respective traditions. [xxvi] In this particular instance, given the stated interests by several women in the Trialogue, conversation about the legend about Jonah’s wife [xxvii] might also be provocative. Given that the Jonah texts overlap with texts about divine judgment and the prospect of God choosing to destroy cities or even all of creation, having a conversation about the tensions between these text and those texts like Jonah that portray God as repenting of such intent could lead in several different directions.
C. Concluding Speculation: Prospects for Further Conversation: It is tempting to speculate about how – if we had the opportunity to bring our Trialogue Scripture Study Group together again – we might extend our conversations by exploring the relationship between the texts in Genesis 6-9 and Jonah and one or more of the later New Testament epistles (2 Peter 3: 1-13) with regard to judgment and the ways they appear to revise the vow of God (Genesis 9:8-17) not to destroy creation again. [xxviii] I can imagine that discussion of these texts would evoke questions, e.g., “How do these early Christian reflections extend the story of the repentance of God ?” Other questions may not be so obvious, but we might ultimately find ourselves confronting their insistent interrogation if we took the time and trouble to follow the logic of these texts with respect to portrayals of God and the destruction of creation. What, if any, imperative can be discerned in such texts for those who claim to be “children of Abraham” to bring about reconciliation between peoples so that God does not resort to “the fire next time”?
To address this latter question of course, would require that we hear the voices of Jewish and Muslim participants. What if any parallel texts exist in the Qur’an that we should consider alongside such texts as the ones from Genesis and 2 Peter? What other texts might be brought into the conversation from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings of the Hebrew Scriptures? These are questions for another time. It is beyond my competence as a Christian reader of scripture to project the ways that Muslim and Jewish participants might approach such a conversation. This is but another reminder of why it is such a privilege to gather at the table of study with one another. Given the relative poverty of our knowledge of one another’s traditions of scripture interpretation, we discover yet again how much we rely on one another to access the rich insights that can be gleaned from the holy scriptures of one another’s traditions. [xxix]
[i] As Sandy and Dennis Sasso rightly point out, “In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Jewish scholars taught Hebrew to Christians so that they could have access to the original text of Scripture.”
[ii] The following persons participated in the Fifth Trialogue gathering: Prof. Wilma Bailey, Christian Theological Seminary; Nancy Bate, Congregation Beth-el Zedeck; Michael G. Cartwright, Univrsity of Indianapolis; Stuart Green, Congregation Beth-el Zedeck; Perry Kea, University of Indianapolis; Martha Yoder Maust, Shalom Mennonite Church; Sidney Miskin, Congregation Beth-el Zedeck, Imam Mikal Saahir, Nur-Allah Mosque, Ismail Abdul Saleem, Masjid al-Fajr; Rabbi Dennis Sasso, Congregation Beth-el Zedeck, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, Congregation Beth-el Zedeck; Kameela Shaheed, Masjid al-Fajr. Judge David Shaheed, who is affiliated with both Masjid al-Fajr and Nur-Allah Mosque, was not able to attend this last gathering of the Trialogue, but he had participated in each of the previous gatherings. Imam Umar al-Khattab participated in the first of our gatherings, but was not able to participate in the remaining four conversations due to schedule conflicts.
[iii] This Lilly Endowment-funded project will create eight different sets of theological exploration of vocations initiatives at the University of Indianapolis between July 1, 2002 and June 30, 2005. Some of these programs are specific to the Christian faith; others are intended to be interfaith in conception and operation. The restructuring of our campus ministry to encompass “ecumenical and interfaith” programming displays the dual intent of reaching out to non-Christian engagements at the same time that the university continues to expand its commitment to providing Christian students with enriched opportunities for Christian formation. For further information about the new “ecumenical and interfaith” emphasis at this university, see the booklet “Giving and Receiving Hospitality: Ecumenical and Interfaith Programs at the University of Indianapolis,” by Michael G. Cartwright
[iv] I am grateful to Sidney Mishkin for offering his perspectives on this aspect of the Trialogue.
[v] At the time that Michael Cartwright made the initial round of contacts (August 2002), the popular press was reporting on the controversy in North Carolina that swirled around a freshman orientation involving Michael Sells’ book Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations . The decision of the faculty at the University of North Carolina to require students to read this book during the summer prior to enrolling at the University evoked concerns from various quarters.
[vi] Rabbi Dennis Sasso wrote an editorial column entitled “Jews, Christians, Muslims seek dialogue on faiths” for the Indianapolis Star newspaper that was published on Nov. 5, 2002. The text that Sasso had submitted to the newspaper for his monthly column stated: “Christianity bypasses the Mosaic covenant at Sinai and reverts directly to God’s initial promises to Abraham.” The editor who was responsible for the editorial page for that particular issue of the newspaper changed Sasso’s text to read “Christianity supersedes the Mosaic covenant at Sinai and fulfills God’s initial promises to Abraham.”
Sasso formally requested that the error be corrected. In his letter to the editor (Nov. 5, 2002), Rabbi Sasso explained his disappointment with the change that had been made: “I had purposely avoided the language of supersessionism and fulfillment. While that is the teaching of classical Christianity and of many evangelical fundamentalists today, the Second Vatican Council revoked such teaching for Catholics and many mainline Protestants have followed suit. I would certainly never have used such language myself. The whole purpose of my essay was to show that Jews, Christians and Muslims can come together and transcend such triumphalist and supersessionist notions.”
[vii] In our first three sessions, we focused on texts that register the ways in which Jews, Christians and Muslims understand themselves as “children of Abraham” (Genesis 18-19, Luke 1: 67-80 and selected verses from Sura 2 “The Cow”). During the fourth session, we discussed how the theme of the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” in the book of Exodus was understood in all three traditions.
[viii] We had originally planned to divide into two or more smaller conversations at each gathering, but given the fact that at times there was only one Muslim present, this was not viable.
[ix] One of the Christian participants was an ordained United Methodists clergyman. Two of the Jewish participants were senior rabbis of a large suburban congregation affiliated with the Conservative and Reconstructionist traditions of Judaism. Two of the Muslim participants were imams of local mosques, both of which have been influenced by the Sunni tradition.
[x] While the two university professors were colleagues and members of the same department, one is a member of the Ekklesia Project and the other is a member of the Jesus Seminar (groups that typically are regarded as working from near-opposite sets of assumptions about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth). We also had scholars with expertise in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and scholar-clergy with expertise in the Jewish and Christian liturgical traditions.
[xi] Two members of our company were lawyers, one a local attorney, the other a judge. One person, who is employed by the Indianapolis Fire Department, serves as an imam of a mosque during those portions of time that he is not scheduled for duty at the firehouse. Several members of the Trialogue are involved in education in various settings. In addition to the two university professors, a biblical scholar from a local seminary participated in our group. One member of our company was a professed monastic in a nearby Benedictine community who teaches religion at a Catholic parochial school while another person teaches writing in several different contexts. One person was a local physician who was a founding member of a local Mennonite fellowship.
[xii] Some lay readers were interested to know how these texts registered personally. Some scholars and clerical participants were interested to register patterns of interpretation between the traditions that reflect various historical disruptions in the identity of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. Still others asked questions about psychological aspects of the interpretation of these texts.
[xiii] Some of the Muslim participants had grown up in Christian families and congregations. More than one of the Jewish participants had grown up in contexts strongly marked by Christian influences. One of the Christians has been involved with Jewish-Christian dialogue and more recently has participated in “trialogue” conversations through the Children of Abraham Institute. One or two of the Christians had studied Muslim texts and traditions in other contexts. Several had traveled or spent time in Israel and Palestine; one person had lived for short period of time on the West Bank during the al Aksa intifidah where he had daily contact with Muslim individuals and communities. Another had lived in Galilee a quarter of a century before, serving as a volunteer in a hospital that served a predominately Arab-speaking population. While there were African-American as well as Euro-American participants, in the context of this trialogue the principal marker of our identities was religious affiliation not racial background.
[xiv] I am grateful to Rabbi Sandy Sasso for clarifying this matter.
[xv] Rabbi Dennis Sasso quoted this comment attributed to Harold Schulweiss.
[xvi] Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam (St.Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1994), 47. As Murata and Chittick have observed, “When someone says, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ Muslims familiar with their own religion’s teachings find it easy to reply, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.'”
[xvii] Ibid., 67-68.
[xviii] I am indebted to Sandy and Dennis Sasso for clarifying this particular example.
[xix] According to the summary of these tales provided by Louis Ginzberg in Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956), the Nineveh to which Jonah went was a “monster city covering forty square parasangs and containing a million and a half human beings” (606). Ginzberg describes how the prophet conveyed his message of destruction to the inhabitants:
“The voice of the prophet was so sonorous that it reached to every corner of the great city, and all who heard his words resolved to turn aside from their ungodly ways. At the head of the penitents was King Osnappar of Assyria. He descended from his throne, removed his crown, strewed ashes on his head instead, took off his purple garments, and rolled about in the dust of the highways. In all the streets royal heralds proclaimed the king’s decree bidding the inhabitants to fast three days, wear sackcloth, and supplicate God with tears and prayers to avert the threatened doom. The people of Nineveh fairly compelled God’s mercy to come upon them. They held their infants heavenward, and amid streaming tears they cried, ‘For the sake of these innocent babes, hear our prayers.’ …” (606).
In some versions of the Jonah legend, the King of Nineveh is identified with Pharaoh. Even in the version cited above, it is clear that the behavior of the king and the inhabitants of Nineveh are precisely the opposite of the recalcitrance of Pharaoh described in Exodus. It would not be surprising, therefore, that this linkage would be made either at the level of behavior (repentance versus non-repentance) or by name.
[xx] From the outset, Christian and Jewish women participants in the Trialogue group ad expressed the hope that they would have the opportunity to engage Muslim women in these conversations. Much to their disappointment, during the first four sessions, only men from the Islamic community had participated. While the conversation on this occasion did not focus on women’s perspectives as such, this interest probably did inform some of the questions that Christian and Jewish participants asked. Following this gathering, one of the Christian participants in our group began exploring the possibility of bringing together a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women in 2003 to discuss various issues of common interest.
[xxi] I am grateful to Rabbis Dennis and Sandy Sasso for clarifying this matter.
[xxii] Michael Sells offers the following explanation in his book Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999). “The Suras from the Meccan period brings in more extended discussions of sacred history and the prophets known in the Biblical traditions. The message of the Qur’an is more explicitly fitted into a prophetic lineage beginning with the creation of Adam, the first prophet of Islam, extending through the stories of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus, prophets of the Arab tradition such as Hud and Salih, and ending with Muhammad.” (14)
[xxiii] Apart from references to Jonah as “Dhu al-Nun” – the man of the fish — the closest that we get to an explanation is found in Surah al-Saffatt (37:142).
[xxiv] For example, in the African-American Christian tradition, there is a spiritual that brings the memory of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19-31) together with the memory of the parable of the Wise Man who built his house upon the rock from Matthew 7:24-29. The spiritual in question – “Better Get your Home In-A Dat Rock, Don’t You See” – has proven to be evocative in a variety of contexts, particularly in the writings of African-American advocates of civil rights. This is the basis of James Baldwin’s prophetic critique of American Christian racisim in his book The Fire Next Time (New York, NY: Dell Books, 1963). In the conclusion of this book, Baldwin invokes the concluding line of the spritual: “God gave Noah the Rainbow Sign, no more water, the fire next time.” Some commentators have suggested that this spiritual expands into an extra-biblical tradition that goes beyond the fire of judgment envisioned in the Jewish-Christian midrash on Genesis 9 found in 2 Peter 3:1-13.
[xxv] We were reminded that this notion inspired Thomas Merton, one of the great monastic writers of the twentieth century, who published a journal of his life from 1946 to 1953 under the title The Sign of Jonas (1953).
[xxvi] Or to put this same point somewhat differently, the exercise of wisdom would seem to require that we know when we need to initiate innovations in order to remain faithful to the revelation that we believe that we have received. I am indebted to conversations with Caroline Simon of Calvin College for this insight.
[xxvii] Consider the following Jewish legend about the prophet Jonah’s wife. “Like Jonah, his wife was known far and wide for her piety. She had gained fame particularly through her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a duty which, by reason of her sex, she was not obliged to fulfill. On one of these pilgrimages it was that the prophetical spirit first descended upon Jonah.” Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956), 608.
This suggestion that a woman was part of the drama of repentance associated with the prophetic narrative of Jonah, the canonical text of which is strictly male in its orientation, adds an additional level of subversive tension that calls for further midrash about the possibilities of the surprising ways that God brings about repentance and reconciliation in the midst of human history.
[xxviii] If this suggestion were embraced by the group, I would suggest that we look at some of the “double-voiced” readings of Scripture that arose in the African-American Christian tradition in which “Egypt” and “Ham” were used in ways opposed to the ideological uses of Euro-American defenders of slavery. For a case study of the hermeneutical profundity of the African-American Christian Tradition’s “double-voiced” pattern of interpreting Scripture, see Michael G. Cartwright, “Ideology and the Interpretation of Scripture in the African-American Christian Tradition” in Modern Theology 9/2 (April 1993): 141-158.
[xxix] I am grateful to Mary Wilder Cartwright, Martha Yoder Maust, Sidney Mishkin, Rachel Muers, Michael Saahir, Dennis Sasso, and Sandy Sasso for their comments on an earlier draft of this report. While I have tried to take into account concerns that members of the Trialogue Group raised at various points in the composition of this article, this views expressed in this paper express my own views. I take it for granted that some members of the group may disagree with some of the judgments that I have offered.
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