Samuel Bak, Interpretation Danna Nolan Fewell


Teaching & Courses

Danna Nolan Fewell is a three-time recipient of the Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church (in 1999 by Southern Methodist University; in 2004 and 2010 by Drew University), most recently announced in the Drew Theological School newsletter, TheoSpirit (see p. 22 in the PDF).

Courses Offered

Biblical Literature I: Torah, Prophets, Writings

The question is a great religious act; it helps you live great religious truth.
         — Rabbi Shmuel Sperber

An introduction to the first testament as a source for understanding and appropriating the religious experiences, insights, commitments, and expectations of the various communities of ancient Israel. The focus is on learning to interpret biblical texts with theological and ethical sensitivity, using the tools and skills of historical-critical, social-scientific, and literary-critical research.

Preaching Hebrew Scripture

Does the Hebrew Bible, taken on its own terms, have any relevance for the Church today? How does one preach these strange and ancient texts to contemporary communities? This course provides opportunities to hone both our analytical and our performance skills. We will attend to close reading and exegetical research on selected biblical texts; we will review various interpretive approaches; and we will explore and practice various ways we might translate our critical investigations and reflections into effective and informed preaching.

But our investigation will (hopefully) not stop there with practical concerns. We will also attempt to reflect upon and struggle with our understanding of the Hebrew Scripture as revelation. To co-opt the words of Jewish philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas,

The aim is also to keep the passages which are entirely to our taste—in their talk of spiritualization and interiorization—in contact with the tougher texts, in order to extract from these, too, their own truth. And, by developing those remarks which seem most severe to us, we may also bring the most generous moments of the text closer to its hardest realities. The language of the Old Testament is so suspicious of any rhetoric which never stammers that it has as its chief prophet a man 'slow of speech and of tongue'. In this disability we can see more than the simple admission of a limitation; it also acknowledges the nature of this kerygma, one which does not forget the weight of the world, the inertia of men (sic), the dullness of their understanding.
                                          — Revelation in the Jewish Tradition

Judging Judges

Judging is nothing less that the wielding of power over life and death through language.
         — Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference

Study of what has been a troubling book for many Christians, primarily on account of its violence and God's seeming sanction of, even participation in, that violence. Special attention is given to the book's narrative complexity and moral ambiguity; the ways in which its images continue to permeate contemporary society; and the problem posed by its existence in the biblical canon.

Law and Ethics in the Hebrew Bible

To know God is to know what must be done.
         — Emmanuel Levinas

Whatever our particular vocations, we have found, or will find, ourselves called to attend to ethical questions, both our own questions and the questions of others. For Jewish and Christian communities, the Bible is a common resource for ethical reflection. However, the Bible, with its multiple literary genres, social contexts, historical particularities, and political and theological agendas, demands a more attentive reading than it usually gets in congregational and communal life. Our task is to engage an ethics of responsibility as it manifests itself in various biblical texts and as it makes certain claims on us as readers. This task arises out of a need to speak and act responsively and responsibly in a world in sore need of betterment, but equally important for us as a community of learners, this task arises from our need to think, and to prepare ourselves to help others think, about why we should respond to and for other people. This includes preparing ourselves to give an account to others of what the Bible is and is not, what the Bible says and doesn't say, how the Bible itself is a multitude of Sayings (i.e. responses to questions and needs of the ancient world) and not merely a Said (some universal or absolute static body of information or revelation).

We will proceed by exploring various ethical issues as they manifest themselves in the legal codes of the Hebrew Bible as well as in other biblical genres. In addition to basic exegetical work on particular biblical texts, we will be investigating the ethical values represented in those texts, the theological worldviews these values presuppose, and the political interests they represent. We will also engage in theoretical reflection upon ethical responsibility as it finds expression in the biblical text and as it makes claims upon us as both scholarly and religious readers.

Children, Trauma, and the Bible

Statisticians tell us that millions of children around the globe are suffering physical and psychological traumas. Psychologists tell us that what constitutes "healing" for a child who has undergone trauma is still a mystery. How are religious communities to respond to these children in crisis? How do we create awareness? How do we minister to children and their families? For the church, the Bible has been the book most often turned to for guidance in times of trouble. But does the Bible really address the needs of children? In this course we attempt to explore various dimensions of childhood trauma and how the Bible can be both a weapon and a tool when it comes to the care of children.

The Bible and the Holocaust

[T]he Holocaust refuses to go the way of most history...because the events surrounding it are in a very real sense incomprehensible... . Ordinary human beings simply cannot rethink themselves into such a world and ordinary ways to achieve empathy fail... .The World of Auschwitz was, in truth, another planet.
        — Nora Levin, The Holocaust

What does the Bible have to do with this "other planet"? This semester we will be exploring a number of questions: What biblical themes, theological formulations, religious conceptions of morality impelled and facilitated the incalculable evil perpetrated by the Nazi death machine? (How) has biblical reading and critical scholarship been altered by this attempted genocide? How does the Bible continue to be employed in genocidal rhetoric? How is the Bible currently being revisited and revised (in commentary, art, and literature) in light of the Holocaust? What is, and how do we assume, our responsibility for reading the Bible and the Holocaust together?

Methods of Biblical Interpretation

An advanced introduction to some of the principal methodologies that have been employed in the critical study of biblical literature, especially biblical narrative, ranging from traditional methodologies, such as source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism, to new methodologies, such as feminist criticism and poststructuralist criticism.

In the Beginning: Genesis 1-11

In the beginning was the interruption.
        — Danna Nolan Fewell and Gary A. Phillips, "From Bak to the Bible"

A concentrated study of the Genesis 1-11 with attention to the content of the text itself and the theological, ethical, and interpretive questions it raises for readers, the socio-historical situations the text may have been addressing, and subsequent ways the text has been interpreted and utilized. A special focus this term will be the consideration of Genesis 1-11 as literature of communal trauma.

The Genesis of Identity: Genesis 12-50

A community...exists by virtue of a story which is articulated and accepted, which typically concerns the group's origins and its destiny, and which interprets what is happening now in the light of these two temporal poles... .[N]arration, as the unity of story, storyteller, audience, and protagonist, is what constitutes the community, its activities, and its coherence in the first place.
        — David Carr, "Narrative and the Real World"

An exegetical exploration of Genesis 12-50 with the theme of identity as the primary critical lens. During this semester we will become familiar with the literary and rhetorical character of the narratives in Genesis 12-50; learn to ask critical questions and to apply the techniques and tools of contemporary biblical interpretation; become familiar with the social and historical context of these texts in order to explore what these stories might have meant and how they might have functioned at the time they were written; think theologically and ethically about the ways in which a critically-informed understanding of this literature can enhance the ways in which these texts function as Sacred Scriptures in contemporary religious communities.

The Book of Esther: Satire and Survival

In comedy, as in jokes, we can confront our worst fears: death, dismemberment, deformity, hunger, abject poverty, raw sexuality, aggression, violence, stupidity, and failure. We can even face the evil in ourselves and recognize that it is often critical to our survival.
        — Michael Roemer, Telling Stories

The book of Esther never mentions God, is wildly violent, and exaggerates beyond belief. What is it doing in the Bible? Why was such a story important to the ancient community? How are we to read it now? And what possible difference can it make in our various communal contexts? In this course we will explore the biblical book of Esther, how it is told, how it has been retold, and how it retells other stories. We will focus in particular on the book's constructions of religious, ethnic, social, and gender identity, its depictions of violence and genocide, how it functions as a tool for survival under Empire, and the ways in which it might be read in contemporary culture.

The Books of Samuel and the Politics of Representation

Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives a voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the language of politics excludes or attempts to exclude.
        — Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature

An exegetical exploration of the books of Samuel and 1 Kings 1-2, with particular attention to its literary features, its possible underlying political agendas, and its "afterlives" in post-biblical culture, fiction, art, and film.

Cultural Identity and the Book of Ruth

It is known to all who have been given understanding that the soul of David was clothed in the shell of Moab and that it was freed from Moab through Ruth. Concerning this, too, Scripture says: Who could with draw purity from impurity?
        — Megilat Setarim

The course will examine how theories on cultural identity (including discussions on literature, history, and ethnicity) are assumed, constructed, challenged, and re-imagined in the book of Ruth. With particular emphasis on ethnogenesis in ancient Israel, the course will interpret the book of Ruth as a product of the Persian period but will also expand the discussion to contemporary interpretations of Ruth.


    Image: Samuel Bak, Interpretation, 2003, Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in. BK937. Pucker Gallery, Boston, Mass. Used by Permission