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Now on to the post…
My fellow Christians, for the most part, tend to ignore the ideas of Jacques Derrida, but I am going to propose to you that deconstruction is a tool of considerable importance in devotional reading and biblical study. I don’t mean that it is the only useful tool, and I’m not wise enough to argue whether it is the most useful of all tools; I think we would benefit enormously, too, if we did more group reading in the form of lectio divina to learn simply to sit in the presence of God, we who are so trained now to instead run and spin in circles in the presence of Facebook. And I think Christians would benefit — and have begun to benefit — from looking into the Jewish rabbinical tradition and midrash reading. But deconstruction is also extremely useful to both religious and secular readers, and in America, deconstruction has been widely misunderstood and therefore dismissed.
I ask you to bear with me and hear me out before reaching judgment. This post has a lot to say, so it is going to be long. If you don’t have much time, I hope you’ll read what you can and bookmark it. I promise it will be fascinating and worth it.
To keep this post intriguing and illuminating, I am going to focus on just two ideas — the fallibility of human language and Derrida’s idea of a remainder. (For those who are well-acquainted with Derrida, this really is only going to touch on a tiny piece of the questions he proposed; it’s a first step. Otherwise this post would be as long as a book, or likely longer still. This post offers a tentative first date with Jacques, not a marriage.) Then I’m going to offer an interpretive reading of Genesis 1 for religious readers that, if you haven’t encountered these ideas before, may open new doors in your mind or heart (we’ll see).
Let’s go on an adventure.
Fallen Language and the Remainder
Derrida suggests that all language is fluid, indeterminate, and fallible. This is an idea that has since become ingrained in the humanities and the social sciences, but has been met with derision by the unlikely duo of analytical philosophers and religious readers, especially in America. In America, we have a tendency to assume that (a) after a bit of mental work you can identify, beyond doubt, the complete and final meaning of a written sentence, and (b) that everything can be expressed accurately in “common” language, or language that everyone can understand. Jacques Derrida ruffles our American feathers by suggesting that language is much more fluid and that the task of deriving fixed, absolute meaning from language is a task that can never actually be completed.
But while our feathers may be ruffled, I’d suggest that this is an idea that Christians can actually find a lot of sympathy with. After all, we have our story of the Tower of Babel, with its suggestion that the confusion of languages served the explicit purpose of distancing human beings from God and from building a tower to heaven and becoming like God, comprehending everything. We also have the theological hypothesis that everything in the universe is fallen, as humanity is, and subject to decay. Why should language itself be any different?
We know things get lost in translation from one language to another: the Greek agape suggests concepts that aren’t conveyed by the English word love and certainly aren’t conveyed by the Latin or French equivalents.
We also know that commonly assigned meanings to a word shift over time, sometimes rapidly; “condescend,” for example, used to be one of the most beautiful words in our language. It was often interpreted as “to step down with” someone into their moment of vulnerability, to lift them up on their feet and climb out of that moment together. But because of the way Victorian charities “condescended” to the poor, that word began to suggest very different (and far more negative) meanings to us. The meaning of words doesn’t stay fixed.
Even at the exact same moment in time, the meaning of a word shifts depending on who is speaking it and where and to whom. Forgive me for writing such an incredibly ugly word, but the word “nigger” means something very different depending on whether a black man is saying it to another black man, a black woman is saying it to a black man, a black man is in heated conversation with a white man, or a white man is saying it to a black man. And when I write it in this post, reducing it to an object example, the significance of the word is different, again, from all of the diverse cases I mentioned a moment ago. The meanings that word suggests to the one hearing it shift dramatically, not across time but from one speaker (one interpreter) to the next, from one situation to the next. This flummoxes some white Americans, who simply don’t “get” why the word suggests different meanings when a black man says it than when a white man says it. This empirically evident situation frustrates the commonly-held white American belief that the meanings of words are mostly fixed, easy to understand, and can be depended on reliably. “I said what I said, and I meant what I meant” — that’s a very American sentiment that, to our frequent confusion, doesn’t tend to hold up very well in practice.
We also know that things frequently and regularly get lost in translation in both spoken and written conversations, even between people with the most similar backgrounds, beliefs, and values. How many times have you been misunderstood over email or on social media?
The meaning of words doesn’t stay fixed; it isn’t absolute, out there in some ideal space, something that we can refer back to. The meaning of words, Jacques Derrida cautions us, is something that is constructed in the moment, by the hearer, based on the context, the speaker, the inter-relationships between different words and phrases, the relationships between different ideas, and what the hearer notices or fails to notice.
Derrida would suggest that what’s happening in these cases is that when we interpret communication that is conveyed in words, we are constructing the meaning, the interpretation, in that moment. And constrained as we are by our context, by the influence of other moments in which we’ve encountered similar words and ideas, by our knowledge of the language, by our own values and views, by our opinion and understanding of the writer or speaker, and by many things, when we construct that interpretation we always leave something out of our interpretation. There is something we neglect to consider. Some remainder that is left over after we’ve constructed the meaning of the word, sentence, or chapter we just read. That’s how we get an interpretation — we focus on something and exclude other things.
Deconstruction (which has seemed either so scary or so absurd to many Christians) is a way of reading. It can be very playful and also very intelligent, but at its heart, it is a stance of humility toward the written word. It means that a reader approaches a text (biblical or otherwise) and starts with these realizations:
- The interpretations others have offered for this text have left something out. There is a remainder.
- If I find what was left out, that finding will deconstruct the established interpretation. It will take that interpretation apart, to one degree or another.
- If I find what was left out, I might discover so much through this text that I never noticed before. There will be opportunity for a deeper understanding and another interpretation.
- However, my new interpretation will also be fallible, because I am also leaving something out. Language is fallible, so while I may understand more or differently, my new understanding can also be deconstructed.
This might sound alarming to some Christians, because you could take this to mean, “We will never finally know what this passage ‘means.'” But that’s a pretty arrogant response, one that assumes that to approach God, we need to fully understand and comprehend his word, completely, without mistakes, and one that assumes that it is actually possible for us to do that. Of course, God sets no requirement that we fully comprehend him. And it is the height of absurd pride to think that we can. Admittedly, it’s a very American way of thinking — we don’t like to exist in what the Catholic mystics called “the cloud of unknowing,” we don’t like to approach God (or anything) in the dark, and we really, really like to have definitive answers. When we don’t have them, we get frustrated. (And when we do have an interpretation that seems good to us and someone approaches us and deconstructs that interpretation, it may annoy us enormously, or even appear threatening to us. We simply don’t like having our interpretations deconstructed. We are often either proud of our interpretations or very reliant on them.)
In fact, that’s one reason a lot of American Christians have a reactionary stance toward science and deep skepticism about scientists’ ability to uncover useful and reliable knowledge for us. There is a perception that scientists are constantly “changing their answers,” and this appears to annoy us to no end. But of course they are, because they’re constantly testing what they’ve learned, uncovering new evidence, deconstructing a previous theory or interpretation, and arriving at a deeper understanding of the natural world and how and why it works. That new understanding may also be fallible if there is evidence that it left out — if, in Derrida’s terms, there’s a remainder that didn’t get noticed or considered. Newton’s interpretation of how the universe worked was a pretty deep and effective interpretation…until Einstein suggested that something was left out. The effective scientist (and I’m not talking about media personalities, I’m talking about people running experiments in labs) has a relatively humble perspective; like the poet Goethe, the scientist’s heart starts with Many things I know; yet many things I do not understand — and then goes on to add, But it’s going to be so fun and rewarding to step into the space I don’t understand, ask questions, test what answers I get, and learn more.
In religious reading, we sometimes forget that there is a humility and even a joy in looking deeper, in looking for what was left out, in finding the remainder, in approaching the word with the base assumption that our interpretation is going to be fallible. That doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It can be a position that glorifies God and humbles man.
This is Very Similar to How Jesus Read
In What Would Jesus Deconstruct? the radical theologian John Caputo makes an intriguing observation: Jesus, in the gospels, tends to read the Old Testament deconstructively. In fact, only on rare occasions does Jesus make definitive interpretive statements about the Old Testament (which is striking, because in the tradition of Christian theology, he may indeed be the one person in history who might claim a right to do so).
Instead, Jesus constantly asks questions and tells stories — often stories where the ending is left out (as in the case of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan) and the audience or the reader is left with a riddle or a question for interpretation. Will the older son join the father and the younger son in that forgiveness banquet? The audience, many of them uncomfortably in the position of the older son, needs to address that question. (If you want to take a closer look at that example, Tim Keller’s Prodigal God gives a fresh exploration of it.) Looking at the priest, the levite, and the Samaritan, which of these was the man’s neighbor? A Jesus parable is like the opposite of an Aesop’s fable: where Aesop closes with a moral, Jesus closes with a question or a riddle. It’s his method. His stories invite his listeners to deconstruct their previous understanding of how the world works, how God works, and how they could work.
The other thing that we see Jesus do when he teaches is continually deconstruct established interpretations by pointing out the remainder. The Pharisees in the gospels put a great deal of stock in working out, in exactitude and in fine detail, what is meant in the levitical law. They, like today’s American readers, really like to have definite answers, and to have definite answers that don’t shift when you have your back turned. Jesus really, really pisses them off, because he upsets that stability, charging into their interpretations and overturning them as abruptly as a man flipping over tables and whipping moneychangers out of the temple.
Here’s an example. The priests and the scribes notice that Jesus’s disciples are gathering wheat to eat on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is serious business in the Old Testament. So they challenge Jesus on this: You claim to be a religious teacher, so why are your disciples gathering up wheat as they walk through this field?
Jesus responds not with a direct answer but by deconstructing their interpretation of the laws about the Sabbath. You’ve left something out, he says. Don’t you remember the moment in the Old Testament when David took holy bread from the tabernacle on the Sabbath? What can we learn from that moment? “Man is not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath is made for man,” he tells the religious thinkers of the day. That is the remainder, a really big idea that they left out while they were focused on other details.
That’s what deconstruction does: it challenges you with the possibility that in focusing on some things, you might actually be leaving out big things. In Christianity, we believe that the scripture is God-inspired. But Scripture is written down and translated by fallible people in flawed and imperfect language (if you have ever tried to express your love or express extreme grief in words, you know how extremely limited a technology language actually is, though I am extremely thankful that we have it), and the interpretation of Scripture is likewise developed by mortal, fallible, fallen human beings.
It always leaves something out.
Jesus, in the gospels, kept pointing out that remainder, again and again. He also pointed out that when you arrogantly assume that your interpretation is final and that there is no remainder, that has real-world and dangerous ramifications. You make big mistakes. You start to leave people out. You judge when it is God’s role alone to judge, and sometimes you judge unjustly. The letter kills, and the spirit gives life, Paul tells us. Following the spirit of the text is about humility, about approaching scripture not with the intent of arriving at a definitive and final answer, but with the intent of encountering the heart of God and having your assumptions, whether prideful ones or lazy ones, shaken up — because God sees so much more than we do.
Let’s Do Some Deconstruction, Right Now, and See if it’s Useful
Maybe this all sounds a bit abstract and academic. In fact, that’s another reason we tend to ignore deconstruction or regard it as suspect — it looks to us, sometimes, like a bit of an academic game.
Christians have often, throughout history, been accused of that same abstraction. (Remember the angels dancing on the head of a pin?) Philosophers have, too. And as American readers, we regard abstract ideas with especial suspicion. We like things that can be boiled down in simple and concrete terms.
But it is fundamental to Christianity that abstract ideas and beliefs have profound impact on real lives and real actions and motivations. This is not a stance that’s foreign to us; it’s central.
Let’s do a quick experiment to see deconstruction in action; then we’ll be better able to judge if it has something to offer in religious reading.
Let’s read Genesis 1 and start with a humble stance that when we’ve read it previously, we left something out. Let’s take that as a given — just for this experiment. And so let’s approach the text looking attentively for what we left out before. In doing so, we may not arrive at a definitive and final interpretation, but we may gain deeper insights into the heart of God. It might waken our hearts and minds. It is worth doing.
When I read Genesis 1, I notice 3 things that usually get left out. There are more, and there are also things I am leaving out. My reading is fallible. The language that I’m reading is fallible. The language in which I’m sharing these observations is fallible and unfixed, and much will be lost in translation when each of you reads this. There are things I haven’t noticed at all. But those 3 things I did notice are pretty huge things, and they challenge me to pray and ponder.
Here are 3 things that some contemporary, American Christians have left out when they read that text:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
An interpretation of this was offered in the fourth century, and we have rarely bothered to look deeper since; we just read the way people in the fourth century did. They suggested the idea of creatione ex nihilo — creation of the universe from nothing. This was because the Greek and Latin words for creation are words for making and because the idea of ex nihilo was very attractive to Roman thinkers, who liked to focus on power and authority as divine attributes, even at the risk of forgetting about other attributes.
Let’s assume something was left out. What?
The next verse got left out. “The earth was without form and waste.” The Hebrew word that I just substituted “waste” for connotes a dry and empty desert; in Latin and English translations, the word’s meaning shifts around like stones sliding down a slope. For example, we often see this translated “void.” But while the Hebrew word suggests emptiness and dryness, it’s empty like a desert, not empty like blank space.
That isn’t nothing. A desert isn’t nothing. It is just, in this verse, a dry waste without life and without form.
That intrigued me. I looked into some research that’s been published on this passage (there has been some vigorous conversation about it in recent years), and I also studied the etymology of bara, the Hebrew word here that we translate create. In other words, the people whose work I was reading had noticed something that got left out and I launched an investigation into it (albeit a small one).
Bara doesn’t mean making something out of nothing. It suggests taking an object that is without use or purpose and creating out of it a new object that has purpose, use, and beauty. For example, when you take a reed and carve holes in it and turn it into a flute, you are doing the kind of creation that is bara. When you take a rock and make a statue, that is bara. When you take twelve people of diverse classes, traditions, and motivations, and weld them into a team of apostles, that is bara. When you take dust and form it into a human being and breathe life into it, that is bara. When you take cells that are not a fetus and develop them embryonically into a fetus in the womb, that is bara. Bara is taking raw materials and making out of them something of purpose and beauty.
This isn’t even a new interpretation, just one that’s been largely forgotten and is now less popular. John Milton, when he wrote Paradise Lost, described God making the universe out of “his dark materials.” (That phrase His Dark Materials became the title of Philip Pullman’s recent fantasy series that has prompted such controversy.) Milton was reading his Old Testament in Hebrew; in fact, some accounts suggest that he had the Old Testament memorized in Hebrew, which staggers my mind if it is true; I haven’t checked. Regardless, he was more familiar with the possible nuances of the word bara than most.
Physicists will inform you that we are all made out of stardust. The atoms in us and in everything we see are the same atoms that burned at the heart of the first stars in the universe. Once reduced to “dust” (or, rather, component atoms), these no longer had any purpose or beauty or use. But we, and the other things we see, that have been remade from those atoms, from those “dark materials,” do or can have purpose and beauty and use.
Take a moment and just ponder the ramifications. Creatione ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and bara (taking raw materials and shaping them into something purposeful and beautiful) are very different concepts. One of these is about emphasizing God’s power. The other emphasizes purpose. One emphasizes what God can do, while the other is briefly suggestive of how and why God does things. If you are a religious reader, this has some big implications.
The other thing that sometimes happens in America when we read Genesis 1 is that we get completely focused on the first verse, as if that is the only verse in the chapter that matters. The question of creation takes up our whole mind; we’re anxious about it. So we get lost focusing all our attention on one thing, and we miss other things that may be just as or more important.
For example, as John Caputo notes in his book The Weakness of God, “created” isn’t the only verb that gets repeated several times in Genesis 1. “Called” and “said” get repeated, too. God calls the world into being — an idea that later gets repeated often in the Psalms.
In fact, look at what does get spoken first in Genesis 1: “Let there be light.”
That isn’t a command. That isn’t the imperative voice. That isn’t the same as, “Light, be!” That’s “Let there be light.” Subjunctive voice. It’s a call, a suggestion, a strong request.
What if, in bara creation, God took the raw materials of the universe and called them to be something of purpose and beauty? What if God is like Isaiah and John the Baptist’s “voice crying out in the wilderness,” calling us to change the world? What if God is, sometimes, a still, small voice that approaches us not with a command but with a call? Elijah hears the still, small voice say not “Elijah, get your butt back into action,” but calling him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” God walks through the garden in the evening calling for Adam. Jesus calls the disciples. Today, we talk about having “a calling.” God calls Samuel into his presence in the middle of the night. And so on. The Bible is full of calling. In fact, the whole idea in the New Testament of the reformation of the heart is that God takes a heart that has become a wasteland and calls it to purpose, justice, love, and faith. “Grace” isn’t just that God forgives; it’s that he remakes, in a bara sense. He calls us and begins to make us into something new and beautiful.
Just as a Christian might imagine God taking stardust and forming it over time into planets and trees and people, we might think of God taking fallen hearts and calling them to be something new. That is continuing the work of creation and calling that we see in Genesis 1. “Let there be light.” “Let there be waters above the waters.” “Let there be living things.” And so on. That’s God standing at the edge of a formless waste and calling forth life. That’s Jesus standing on the waters calling Peter out of the boat. That’s Christ calling to a desolate heart.
It’s not a command. We can always ignore it. It’s a call. John Caputo would call it a persistent and insistent call, one that can be refused but one that sometimes gets inside us and gets more and more difficult to ignore.
And that idea of “calling” — that big idea that may be core to God’s work of creation described throughout Scriptures, that may even be very core to the Christian faith — gets left out of most of our readings of Genesis 1. Often, when we’re done reading about creation and we finish constructing our understanding of what we’ve just read, that idea of “calling” is one remainder, left over and forgotten.
3. Tzelem Elohim
Here’s another. This is one that the Jewish tradition has not left out; in rabbinical reading, this one is central. But Christian readers often glide past it without really focusing attention and really taking it in. And this one has huge, everyday, real-world implications. We can’t afford to just leave it out and let it be a remainder.
In Genesis 1 we find that we are created tzelem elohim, “in the likeness of God.” In fact, we find that all people, “male and female,” are made in the likeness of God. Paul later comments on this when he tells the Galatians that there is no male or female, no slave or master, no Jew or Greek, no hierarchy or system of classifications in God’s eyes; we are all loved, we are all made in God’s likeness.
That’s a really Big Idea. In fact, if you think about the time in which Genesis was written down, the idea we usually focus on — that God was creating the world — wasn’t a big idea. Almost everyone living in the Near East at that time took it for granted that a deity or deities had created the universe. What would have been a bigger issue is how the world was created (bara) and why (calling) and what kind of world got created. When we get so focused on whether or not God created the world, our attention gets so narrowed that we miss many of the big things that the story may have been addressing.
The ancient Hebrews didn’t miss it. They wrestled with tzelem elohim. In fact, they had an incredibly hard time with it. They lived in a world that was prior to Greek thought and prior to Christian ethics and prior to Talmudic teaching and prior to the Pax Romana and prior to democratic representation and universal suffrage and prior to modern views of slavery. They lived in a world of near-constant warfare, raiding, and violence, a world in which tribes and nations constantly had to protect themselves or attempted to conquer others and harvest their resources (which, for the ancients, meant land, herds, labor, and women). It was also a world with very little restraint; our world still has little restraint, but theirs had less. There was no United Nations. There was no Geneva Convention. There was nothing to prevent one tribe from kidnapping and raping and marrying the women from another tribe — nothing except for either a rival show of force … or a powerful and widely accepted idea.
Let me tell you a story.
Prior to the High Middle Ages, before the Crusades, in the handful of centuries after Rome’s fall that we often poetically refer to as “the Dark Ages,” Europe was a political mess. Roaming tribes, mercenary troops, and local warlords all churned against each other in decentralized and violent conflict over land and other resources. The Catholic Church was an institution that, at the time, did not have the wealth or the political power that it later did; but it did wield significant influence nonetheless, because people gave credence to the Church’s claims of moral authority and representation of God’s will on earth. There were several Popes who attempted, in this climate, to take Jesus’s words about peace and apply them to the real world. They looked at their increasingly violent and chaotic continent, and tried to suggest restraints. Flawed ones, the best they could think of at the time. For example, there was the Pax Dei or “Peace of God,” where a Pope declared immunity for unarmed noncombatants like peasants and clergy. Essentially, the Pax Dei suggested, “Ok, you’re going to fight and kill and slaughter each other, but God says that unarmed villagers and clergy are immune; you cannot kill them in the course of combat.”
This did not always work very well.
That is probably no surprise.
But when at first you don’t succeed, you try, try again. So the Church later came up with the Treuga Dei, or “Truce of God.” This declared that there must be a ceasefire on all holy days. (And, not entirely by coincidence, the Church around this time established a lot of holy days and saint’s days.) This worked a little — but not always. Still, it had an impact, limited as it was. It echoes down the years through European tradition even into the twentieth century; there are cases in which temporary ceasefires have been declared over the Christmas holiday, as in the case of the Brits and the Germans in World War I. But obviously, this does not always happen.
Why did I tell this story? Because it provides a parallel to a project that the ancient Hebrew, levitical priesthood may have attempted around three thousand years ago.
Leviticus and Deuteronomy are immensely well-read books in Jewish traditions of reading, and Jews read these books very differently than anyone else does (and, in many cases, more intelligently, but that’s a topic for this other post to cover). Christians and secular Americans tend to ignore these books to the extent possible. Christians either choose not to read them (much) because they’re “dry” and because the topics addressed in the levitical code are so unsavory (rape of female war captives, for instance), or they may put strong emphasis only on selected passages (like the sentence about gay sex, for example). Secular readers tend to either withdraw from these texts in horror or seize on them as evidence of the latent evil in religion. (“See what your Bible says to do! It says to rape and commit genocide!” That is a comment I have heard quite often.)
Neither of these are very useful or informed approaches. They rely on a glib reading of levitical code as absolute, timeless instruction for religious readers, and by reading in that narrow way, they miss so much that’s important.
Suppose that you were part of a levitical priesthood three thousand years ago, living in the world we just described: roaming tribes coming into frequent conflict, cities being burned and rebuilt and burned again, ubiquitous slavery (which, for the ancients, was their alternative to genocide; they hadn’t yet come up with a third or fourth option for dealing with conquered peoples, to every historian’s sorrow; and one has only to look back at what was done to the Native Americans to realize that some of the third and fourth options we did come up with eventually were also atrocities), and the widespread capture and enslavement of foreign women. It was not, by modern standards, a very kind or just world. It was a mess. (I say “modern standards” to describe what we today expect, not what we have; we can probably each cite a number of occasions on which the “modern” world has proven as bad or worse.)
Now suppose that your priestly community is undertaking the long project of establishing and improving a legal code that you want twelve diverse tribes to adhere to and obey. There are appointed judges, there are now some rudimentary systems for trials and gathering witnesses, and you’ve taken a set of 10 proclamations (that you preserve on stone tablets, to last for all time, because stone is pretty durable) and a set of ethical propositions that are ascribed to divine origin, and you work out a system of over 600 laws. That’s pretty complex for that time. And those laws order and organize many facets of life, from agriculture (how long to leave a field fallow, for instance) to violent disputes (we’ll establish places of refuge where a fugitive and can flee for safety and demand a trial, and if their angry pursuer enters those places and kills the fugitive, that is an offense before God and an abomination) and combat (what restraints will we put around the treatment of war captives?).
Actually, why put any restraints at all?
Well, because the statements your God is recorded as having made (all human beings, male and female, are made in God’s likeness; the sabbath must be kept holy; blood spilled unjustly defiles the land, and the land must be kept holy; keep yourselves a people set apart, a just people; shelter the stranger in the land) are pretty radical, and you are tasked with somehow translating these religious and ethical precepts into actual laws and courses of action for your tribe.
If all people, male and female, are made in the likeness of God, what are the implications?
It means if I look in the eyes of another, I am looking into the eyes of another person who bears the image of God. That is a holy thing.
What does that mean for our tribe, which regularly takes women captive after a conflict? What if those women, too, are made in the likeness of God and have irreduceable and intrinsic value as God-created human beings?
If the spirit of your law is that we are all made in the image of God, the letter will be a flawed, real-world attempt to wrestle that into practice at a specific time, under specific conditions. The regulations we record in the Old Testament can be interpreted and read as just such a flawed attempt to put that spirit into practice in a world very different from our own. Deuteronomy 21 doesn’t say, unfortunately, “Don’t take women captive,” perhaps because no one thought of it or perhaps because taking women captive was too desirable in that culture, or perhaps because no one would actually have obeyed such a prohibition and there would have been no power to enforce it. Just like with the Pax Dei, the man holding the spear could simply laugh at your law and do as he pleased.
But maybe you can apply some restraints and give those restraints religious significance — warn the man that he must “fear God” and observe God’s ways. If that woman who is now a captive, who has witnessed and will suffer atrocities, is truly made in the likeness of God, then she cannot be treated trivially, the way one might, for example, treat a jewelled necklace that one has seized from the burning city, using it immediately or selling it to someone else for a high price. A woman and a jewelled necklace are not the same. There are no feminists in the ancient levitical priesthood — just men wrestling with the concept that a woman is made in the image of God. If that’s true, they propose, then you cannot simply seize her and then rape her. You must recognize, on some level, her humanity. You must grant her one month to mourn for her parents whom you have killed. You may not “go in to her” at that time. You may not force her to wear cosmetics or pretty clothes or show her off as a trophy to the other men, either. You must permit her the mourning customs of the time — shaving the head, wearing clothes of lament. Providing that month to a war captive becomes a law. It also might give the man who has seized her time to consider her slowly, to notice her weeping, time for her to speak to him and appeal to his empathy, time for the initial feeling of triumph and lust to dull and some empathy to develop. Or it might not; that could well be a too-comfortable illusion, something I would prefer to think because the idea of inflicting such suffering on others without empathy disturbs me deeply. As a father of two daughters, that kind of situation is barely comprehensible to me, and I am ill-equipped to understand it. So I must guard against wishful thinking. The likely fact is, that woman is eventually going to be raped and abused. It remains an atrocity.
But the levites make the attempt at restraint, just as the Catholics do with their Pax Dei. There must be some restraint. You must allow the captive her time of mourning. You must recognize her human need to grieve. And when you have, in the end, done as you will, if you then tire of her, the levites say, you mustn’t do any of the things that a tribal warrior three thousand years ago is most likely to do. You may not sell her to another or “treat her as a slave” — she is still a woman made in the image of God. “Let her go where she pleases,” the priests say. The levitical code tries to put in place some protections for these women, because they, too, bear God’s image. A war captive in 1100 BC is not the same as a seized ewe or cow. She has the right to grieve. She cannot be sold or kept as a menial work slave. Horrifyingly, many terrible things can be done to her, but not those things.
As with the Pax Dei and the Treuga Dei, I am a bit skeptical that the levitical regulations and restraints actually worked all that often.
This has been a long tangent, though I hope it has been interesting. The point is that the Hebrews who began writing what eventually became recorded as the Old Testament wrestled with tzelem elohim and with other statements that the priests said God had made. These ideas did not jive well with the circumstances of their world, in which top tribal priorities were often keeping the tribe pure from outsiders and gathering more resources.
Today, we typically choose to just ignore passages like the one we just examined (or we take them as literal instruction for us, and then we are justly offended or horrified). But there’s a way of reading (one that Conservative and Reformed Jews do, and that Christians arguably should do) where you look for the spirit of the text, and learn from watching the ancestors wrestle with how to put that spirit into action. As Paul is careful to note, the deeply flawed levitical code is not law for us; it is an ancient example that these issues need to be wrestled with. It is useful and instructive in that sense because those of us who are religious need to wrestle with tzelem elohim today, too, even as the levitical priests once did, and under cultural and political pressures that are different but no less difficult. Will we look into the eyes of children caged on the US/Mexico border and say, “These children are made in the likeness of God, human beings even as our own children are, and we must find a way to treat them accordingly.” Reacting to the Ferguson riots, a young woman told her mother (in the hearing of an author friend of mine at an airport in Florida), “Mamma, they’re animals. They’re just animals.” Well, no, they’re not. Whatever cultural drives or prejudices prompted her conclusion, it is incompatible with tzelem elohim. “They” are not “animals” in the sense that the young woman probably meant the word; they are human beings made in the image of the divine.
How does tzelem elohim affect the way we look at the violence in Ferguson, or in the Near East? These are uneasy questions that we are called to address — because right at the very start of the Bible, this is one of God’s first pronouncements, and one that the rest of the Bible continues to wrestle uneasily with. If we are religious readers, when we turn to Genesis 1, we can’t overlook it. We can’t leave it as a remainder.
Approaching the Word like Little Children
To recap: Deconstruction is the practice of taking apart our current understanding of what we’re reading, looking closely at the parts, and identifying what we’ve left out. A deconstructive reading opens our eyes to potentially important things we’ve missed. That’s why it’s not a mere academic exercise, and that’s why it can be really important (and useful) to Christians, who probably should be starting anyway from the base assumption that our current understanding is limited, that it’s prideful to “lean” unquestioningly on our own understanding, and that our language and our interpretations are necessarily flawed, fallen, and incomplete. When we are willing to deconstruct what we think we know and look for the remainder that our previous interpretation left behind, we find things like bara creation. We learn more deeply that God, from the beginning, has been calling the universe into life, purpose, and goodness, and expecting the universe (and us) to respond. And we are reminded that tzelem elohim stands at the very beginning of the Word and then resonates and troubles the rest of the Bible. Not only should we not just glide blithely by it; it could be central to how we choose to live out a life of “loving our neighbor.” If our only takeaway from reading Genesis 1 is to reinforce the established interpretation that it is all about the fact that God created the universe (and, to some minds, how long it took him to do so), we are missing so much of what’s there in Genesis 1, and so much that may be incredibly important to our lives, to our actions and values.
The purpose and function of deconstruction isn’t to destroy. It’s to take apart a flawed interpretation (which, because it’s flawed, might miss opportunities or even be dangerous). You might then reconstruct, developing a new interpretation that takes into account and is partly shaped by the remainder you’ve noticed. But, because you are a flawed human being using flawed, fallen language, it would be wise to realize that your new interpretation is also tentative and also deconstructible.
The interpretations I’ve shared above as examples are tentative and deconstructible. I am convinced that I have left things out. And I will look for those things when I read the text again or the next time I discuss it with someone. In fact, just now I’ve spotted something I missed in my thought-experiment with Deuteronomy 21. Those words “let her go where she pleases” are pretty vague. Her city might be burned to the ground; where will she go? Is she going with, or without, provision? Is she being simply abandoned? Is this one of the passages that Jesus responds to in the gospels, deconstructing the Pharisees’ teachings on divorce and arguing that it is a great injustice in the eyes of God to put one’s wife away (remember that Jesus was speaking to a century and a culture that had not yet invented alimony and in which employment for unmarried women barely existed, other than prostitution). Or is this passage unrelated to that? Perhaps some rabbinical scholar has explored the passage and can point me toward a new reading. Or perhaps I can look at the Hebrew words that we translated “let her go,” and there may be clues there. I don’t know what I would find if I looked into it; I don’t even know for certain whether I would find something useful; I would have to try and then see. It is just clear that this is something I have left out of my reading. I probably left other things out, too, and the reading I’ve given necessarily stands on shaky ground.
If we approach the Bible (or any other written text) with a willingness to deconstruct our previous interpretation, that is a humble act and may even be, for the religious among us, a devotional act. It is a way of letting go of our desire to master God and his word, and instead open ourselves to encountering God’s heart and his word anew, each day. It is a way of letting go of either our pride or our desperate need for certainty and saying, “God, I will not lean today on my own understanding. Before you, what I think I know is insignificant. I am going to approach your word and your kingdom like a small child, with questions and new eyes and a willingness to notice things for the first time. God, what do you want me to notice today?”
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.