I have been asked by the good folks at RBL, the SBL book reviews division, to review the new Genesis volume in Fortress Press’ new Texts @ Contexts Series (the Genesis volume is edited by Brenner, Lee, and Yee). In reading through the series introduction written by Athalya Brenner and Nicole Wilkinson Duran I was struck by the following lines:
The project of recognizing and emphasizing the role of context in reading freely admits that we all come from somewhere; no one is native to the biblical text, no one reads only in the interests of the text itself (xii).
While the basic premise lying behind these words may seem patently obvious and thus presumably goes without saying, I would contend precisely the opposite is the case. No one is a disinterested reader; we all bring biases and assumptions to the text. Not incidentally, in every paper I write, as well as my dissertation, I always include a section titled “Assumptions and Methodology” where I try to articulate as clearly as I can that which I am assuming to be the case (it isn’t as cumbersome or dull as it may sound!). I simply think interpreters need to be blatantly obvious about this dynamic of interpretation: as I say in my dissertation (and this is hardly a new idea), meaning occurs in the interaction between text and reader. The text, though, is a sort of control, and serves as the basis against which the success or failure of any meaning can and should be adjudicated. But much (more than most openly admit) of one’s conclusions also stem from context, be it geographical, political, economic, gender, race, etc. I don’t believe these comments quoted above are endemic only to a volume such as this one in the Texts @ Contexts series. This is part of my frustration with some, though not all, historical-critical scholarship: typically earlier twentieth century biblical scholarship purported to know what the biblical writers meant to say better than the biblical writers themselves, and felt free to correct the text accordingly, or postulate a tradition history or redaction that produces a text that may have never existed. I think it is only academically honest and responsible for scholarship to admit at the very least its biases and to recognize, in print or at the very least in the process of writing, where these readings come from: readers and texts interacting in symbiotic relationship. In good postmodern fashion, no reading can or ever will be the definitive, final reading of a text. This is not to say all readings are equally valid; it simply wishes to press others into recognizing that one’s reading of a text derives not simply from the text itself, devoid of any a priori assumptions. No ‘final’ reading is possible. Not until all contexts have been exhausted.