Dov Nelkin, University of Virginia
This issue of the Journal of the NSSR takes the form of several readings of the story of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4-14). This narrative is shared by the scriptural traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The SSR brings these three traditions together to share each of their practices of reading, and to practice a special form of shared reading. The story of Pharaoh as it appears in scripture provides both an occasion for particular readings and a setting for conversation between readers of all three traditions. Scriptural reasoning is practiced with open hearts and open minds, with pens and voices, in print and in person. In their readings of the encounter between God, Moses, and Pharaoh, the three traditions encounter each other, and, within the context of the SSR, leave their readings open to be encountered by others.
The story of Pharaoh and Moses is an apt starting place for scriptural reasoning because of the way it handles the themes of reasoning and revelation. In Moses, who encounters the divine personally and bears the divine message to Egypt, and in Pharaoh, who also encounters the divine in such a way that his heart is hardened and thus cannot really hear the message of Moses, we have embodied two approaches to reasoning in the presence of God. Moses, despite his initial protests, is open to the revealed word, internalizes it, and takes it to Pharaoh with the aim of effecting, by God’s power, the release of the Israelites. Pharaoh, who encounters the divine power in two forms: in the messages relayed by Moses and again when God acts to harden his (Pharaoh’s) heart, is not open to the revealed word, and does not appropriate it. The most problematic aspect of the narrative is that Pharaoh is in fact made incapable of appropriating the message. There is in this story a call for those of us who claim to reason within traditions shaped by the reading of revealed scripture to reflect on the ways in which our traditions have been open to or incapable of taking in the revealed word – and how to deal with the assertion that such “hardness of heart” is somehow a part of the divine will.
In addition, the roles of Moses and Pharaoh in the narratives reflect the conviction of scriptural reasoners that we are “bound to” our scriptures. If we are to reason from within our traditions, we must deal with those traditions as they are. We cannot ignore the signs any more than Pharaoh could ignore the plagues God sent upon Egypt, though we may harden our hearts against them from time to time. A deeper theme in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is the necessity of scriptural reasoning. Scriptural reasoning is not something we do on a whim, but rather something that is demanded of us by the texts which shape our traditions. Is it troubling that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Yes. And that is exactly why this story is a perfect locus for interfaith scriptural reasoning. We need only glance at history to see how our respective traditions have gotten into trouble. In interpreting these scriptures together, we share some of the ways we have gotten out of it.
The practice of scriptural reasoning is thus at once communal and individual. It flourishes in community, but it begins with individual action. The three central articles in this volume represent the individual encounters of Shaul Magid, Stanley Hauerwas, and Vincent Cornell with the story of Pharaoh, but each author undertakes his reading in the context of his own tradition, and with an eye on the readings of the others. These readings then provide the fuel for other dialogues – both written and spoken – within the community of scriptural reasoners. These dialogues move freely between levels of discourse: from questions about the plain sense of the narrative, to distinctions among theological issues prompted by the text, to meditations on the very practice of reading with which the authors began. The combined result is a practice of reading that recognizes the overlapping concerns of the traditions while respecting the uniqueness of each. The articles by Magid, Hauerwas, and Cornell, and the discussions that follow, provide a snapshot of this practice in action.
Shaul Magid opens his paper by asking “What is a ‘Jewish reading’?” a question which immediately raises another question, “what is this text?” Although Magid asks these questions from within his readings of both the Exodus narratives and their attendant Jewish traditions, the questions he asks resonate for the Christian and Muslim scriptural reasoners as well. A Jewish reading, per Magid, is a reading in dialogue with the generations of Jewish readers who preceded us. As Magid writes, a Jewish reading depends upon the presupposition that “the Bible be understood outside the orbit of its own literary and theological world-view. That is, to assume that the Bible speaks to every generation and contains wisdom for any readership.” The atemporality of the narrative in our dialogue with it is mirrored by the flattening of the exegetical history in Magid’s reading. Nahmanides precedes his teacher Maimonides in the discussion because his interest in exegesis locates him conversationally closer to the earlier Rashi. A Jewish reading, and this is true for the other traditions within the society for scriptural reasoning, is aware of the history of both the text and its commentaries (both Jewish and those of the other scriptural communities) but uses this knowledge to foster, rather than stifle, dialogue. Where Magid’s reasoning about the text differs from the Christian and Muslim readings (and, perhaps, from other Jewish readings of the text) is his understanding that the essential relationship with the text is a wrestling with perceived injustice within the text, while the Christian and Muslim readings tend to locate any injustice outside the text, either within improper readings (Hauerwas) or failure to take notice altogether (Cornell).
Stanley Hauerwas , responding to Magid, takes a similar approach in presenting a reading that is composed of a series of readings from the church fathers. At the heart of scriptural reasoning, Hauerwas asserts, is the ability to “know how the words you are reading in one context remind you of words you have read or will read in another context,” and Magid’s words remind him of the words of Christian thinkers past and present. From the story of Pharaoh and the words of these thinkers (and readers!), Hauerwas opens up questions about the importance of free will, the purpose of plagues, and the meaning of telling and reading a story in the Christian tradition. When words remind us of other words, we learn that we do not read or reason in a vacuum, and we learn that to place ourselves in a story that is shared with others is to place ourselves at risk both for gaining knowledge and receiving plagues.
Vincent Cornell uses Pharaoh’s story to emphasize unity. Unity in his essay encompasses tawhid (the “oneness” of God), which Cornell describes as the “basic theological principle of Islam,” along with the unity formed by the sharing of the story of Moses by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Like Magid and Hauerwas, Cornell’s reading includes the readings of others (here, Ibn Arabi), and the words of other passages of scripture resound throughout. In the spirit of divine oneness, many readings become one, and many stories become one. The story of Pharaoh is held up as a counter-example – the story of a man who sees himself as separate, whose sin is the seeking of division rather than unity and of self-glorification rather than submission (to God). Cornell’s reading, drawing as it does on scholarship and scripture to build to one conclusion, shows that oneness is also at the heart of scriptural reasoning. Readers are many, but the text is one; and where many readers gather with unity of purpose, the voices are plural but the reading is a shared one.
What follows are multifaceted lessons. They are lessons on the meaning of texts and on the meaning of reading texts. They are lessons about the heart of Pharaoh and lessons about the hearts of those of us who read Pharaoh’s story. They are lessons on how to respond to the call of text and community, on how we shape the texts we read and how we are shaped by the texts we read.
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