Old Testament

Ellen F. Davis: An Interview with the Old Testament Scholar

The Old Testament is an overlooked book in today’s world. Join theologian Ellen F. Davis for a discussion of the book’s relevance.

The Old Testament is one of the world’s most influential books. While related works such as the Dead Sea Scrolls get plenty of press, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t usually receive the same level of attention. Old Testament theologian Ellen F. Davis discusses her background and the relevance of the Bible today.

Who is Ellen F. Davis?

I am a “cradle Episcopalian,” and as a child I always enjoyed the church service, including the hymns, the liturgical prayers, and sometimes the sermon, more than Sunday school. Since Anglicans “do theology” best through liturgy, I suppose that was my introduction to theology.

I first studied the Bible seriously at the age of 18, when I spent a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Take it slowly, a chapter at a time. Learning to read slowly is crucial. Don’t read for plot (you know it!); read for character, for relationships. Look for what surprises you when you slow down.

It was ten years later, while working as an administrator at the Protestant Radio and Television Center in Atlanta, that I began to desire a theological education and applied to seminary.

The rest is my personal adult history.

What academic mentors shaped the way that Ellen F. Davis this?

My high school Latin teacher, Robert Kuehnl, was the pre-career mentor who taught me intellectual rigor, and without him, I might never have learned it.

As an undergraduate at the University of California in Berkeley, my philosophy professor Joseph Tussman taught me to read texts in depth, and through careful writing to discover what I thought.

Years later, my Doktorvater Brevard Childs (at Yale University) helped me learn how to do theological exegesis and encouraged me to think in ways that are appropriate for both the academy and the church — even at the same time!

Is Ellen F. Davis most proud of her first journal article or book?

My dissertation became my first book, Swallowing the Scroll (on Ezekiel). I am still pleased with the argument and the way I developed it — that is, in brief compass, in a way that seems to have been genuinely helpful to people who develop their academic careers to Ezekiel (which I do not do).

What was it like for Ellen F. Davis to serve as interim dean of Duke Divinity School?

At this (fairly) late stage in my professional work, contributing to the well-being of the institutions and bodies I serve—especially Duke University and its Divinity School, and the Anglican Communion — is more important to me than personal advancement, which is now more or less a done deal.

As for the Deanship itself, one cannot do much that is genuinely creative as an interim; I tried to foster better communications and processes of decision-making in some areas.

The “obstacle” for me was putting a book manuscript in a drawer for a year and a half, as the deanship was followed by a heavy load of doctoral work and teaching, and I worked on the University’s (very successful) search for a new President.

I am now back at work on the manuscript, with hope of finished in the coming months, thanks be to God.

How does Ellen F. Davis feel about being on the list of Ten Important Female Theologians That You Should Be Reading?

It is an honor to appear on that list with some of my friends and colleagues. Among rising figures, I would mention my colleague Kate Bowler, who is becoming well-known as both a creative and compassionate historian and a practical theologian.

What would you say to encourage someone who wants to study the Old Testament but feels the language, length, and content daunting?

Don’t try to read the whole thing at one go! For obvious reasons, one good place to start is Genesis.

Get one of the brilliant newer translations, such as those by Robert Alter (my teacher) or Everett Fox.

Take it slowly, a chapter at a time. Learning to read slowly is crucial. Don’t read for plot (you know it!); read for character, for relationships. Look for what surprises you when you slow down.

Moving on, you don’t have to read straight through the whole Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and probably should not do so. If you want to start with a little book, my annotated translation of Ruth, with woodcuts by Margaret Adams Parker (Who Are You, My Daughter?) might be useful.

Is there an Old Testament figure other than Job to whom Ellen F. Davis looks as an example of coming to know God through suffering and trial?

I have just mentioned Ruth. She herself embodies the three classic biblical categories of the vulnerable person; she is widow, sojourner, and orphan-by-choice, having left her birth family to accompany Naomi to a foreign land, a small rural town (Bethlehem) where a Moabite woman would be viewed with suspicion.

She is a model for me of someone who crosses borders for the sake of life — borders both literal and figurative, as she acts in unconventional and selfless ways to create a new community out of a situation of profound loss.

I don’t know that I have modeled myself after her, but I tell her story and have found that many people, especially my colleagues working in reconciliation work in East Africa, respond strongly to it.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints focus on the Old Testament every four years. What are some benefits of returning to this text on a regular basis? What might be some drawbacks of only focusing on it every fourth year?

The most obvious benefit is that the Old Testament is three quarters of the Christian Bible, and the New Testament assumes that readers know the story, locate themselves with reference to the story, and also know how to think theologically in ways that the Old Testament sets forth (e.g., in terms of covenant, exile, the kingdom of God).

Since some churches NEVER focus on the Old Testament, I would say that a genuine focus every four years is a decent average!

Has Ellen F. Davis ever experienced a trial of faith during school?

No, I have not. On the contrary, an adult lifetime of study, including history and theology, has given substance to my faith.

History helps us to see how these texts have emerged from cultures and situations where we can recognize the basic challenges that the original hearers faced; it should also enable us to see how those cultures differed (greatly) from our own, so we often have to adjust our thinking to comprehend the Bible.

Theology is altogether a matter of learning to think in radically new ways, to see the wider dimensions of reality which we mostly overlook in the press of our daily business — until we suddenly discover our need to think in new ways, to reckon more fully with the “invisible” dimensions of our lives.

Being a professional theologian is an enormous privilege, simply because it challenges me to think daily about what is most essential for a truly human life.

How can biblical interpretation be applied to today’s political environment?

The Bible does not ignore the political dimensions of life. It takes them seriously (think of the books of Samuel and Kings, and the Prophets), but it reminds us that they are not ultimate.

Nor are they the place where (in most cases) full humanity is most fully realized.

I mentioned Ruth above. That little book begins “in the days when the judges were judging Israel”; thus the redemptive story of covenant loyalty demonstrated among ordinary people stands in contrast to the book of Judges, which is mostly about public figures, self-absorbed political and religious leaders who send Israel into a downward spiral.

Yet politics is not a completely separate sphere of existence; it is out of the family of Ruth that the royal house of David is born. Ruth is “the mother of the Messiah.” The house of David is of course wracked with much human evil and trouble, and yet the biblical tradition in both Testaments never gives up hope of redemption coming from it.

If Ellen F. Davis could enter the dreams of anyone living today and implant a biblical interpretation in his or her mind, who would you select?

Well, in these desperate and dangerous times, I would seek a change of heart for the President of the United States.

I would not focus on a single issue. Rather, I would ask for him to have a listening heart, a capacity for recognizing the need for repentance, which is the mark of every good king in the Bible, and genuine wisdom—also associated with kingship at its best. Biblical wisdom begins with “fear of the Lord—that is, with humble recognition of the true Source of power, genuine security, and compassionate leadership.

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By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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