Number 1.1       
October 2006      


The Relationships of Scriptural Reasoning: An Introduction

by Caitlin Golden

Scriptural reasoning (SR) is a process built on relationships. As part of such a relational project, the readings of the story of Joseph[1] contained within this journal would not be complete without a few remarks on four key areas: (1) relationships within the scriptural texts studied, (2) intertextual relationships, (3) relationships among the SR participants of this group and their respective traditions, and (4) the relationships of our contemporary world insofar as they are—or could be—affected by the SR process. Entering into the scriptural study sessions that resulted in the creation of this journal, I initially expected that our discussions on the story of Joseph would lead me to a better understanding of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish perspectives on forgiveness. However, the actual experience of participating in the SR process and subsequently delving into the four papers of this journal has inspired a shift in my focus away from specific traditions' teachings about forgiveness and toward the nature of the relationships found in the scriptural reasoning process itself.

It is important to note that this shift in focus away from the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish doctrines on forgiveness is by no means meant to suggest that the interaction among members of these three traditions did not significantly contribute to the SR process. Indeed, it was an enlightening experience to bring my own Roman Catholic background to the table to enter into dialogue with Asma Hamid's largely Sufi approach, Amanda Huffman's nondenominational Christian viewpoint, the Virginia Episcopalian perspective of Kelley Shepherd, and the thoughts of Dennis Beck-Berman, a Jewish Renewal rabbi who has been strongly influenced by the Conservative movement. Nevertheless, my role at this point in our scriptural reasoning project is not, as I had initially expected, to study the specific views of these four religious perspectives on forgiveness; rather, my goal here is to bring out the dynamics of the relationships that occur in SR, both within or between the texts and among the people themselves—SR participants and otherwise. In order to commence with this project, it is perhaps most useful to center my introductory remarks on the first two key areas of SR relationships as they are addressed in the four articles that follow: those relationships within the scriptural texts and those between various related texts. Remarks on the final two types of relationships—that is, the interactions between SR participants/religious traditions and the effects of SR on relationships in the world—are best saved for the conclusion of the journal, at which point all four voices of my fellow SR participants will have had a chance to speak for themselves.

Asma Hamid's reading of the Joseph story in Sura XII of the Qur'an addresses a number of themes that are also taken up by the other three authors, and thus it is most appropriate to begin with her work on "The Human-God Relationship in the Qur'anic Story of Joseph." As the title of her article suggests, Hamid devotes a significant portion of her study to examining relationships between the human realm and the realm of the divine, particularly insofar as Joseph's actions in the world are guided by the "unseen."[2] What is most important to note, however, is that Hamid does not concentrate solely on relationships between individual humans and God; rather, she approaches the issue of human-divine relationships by also reflecting on the relationships that occur among humans themselves. As Hamid stresses from the very beginning of her article, the Joseph story reveals that relationships between human beings and God have definite implications on the plane of human relationships; indeed, Hamid writes: "The relationship of Joseph and the brothers is a manifestation of the heedlessness of the brothers of their relationship to God, as opposed to Joseph's strong awareness and perception of the Divine presence." According to this view, restoring the "pact" one has with one's fellow human beings is an essential part of spiritual development; it is this process of transformation that Joseph's brothers must undergo with Joseph as their guide.

Furthermore, in the course of examining the connection between human-human relationships and human-divine relationships, Hamid explores the respective roles of sight and blindness in the Joseph story. She particularly concentrates on the way in which Joseph's visions serve as a "connection to a higher Divine realm"—a focus that certainly suggests that the motif of sight is intimately tied to the relational aspects of the Joseph story. Moreover, in addition to her emphasis on the role of relationships within Sura XII's account of Joseph, Hamid uses intertextual relationships—including a reference to a Qur'anic story about Moses, a passage from the poetry of Rumi, and Ibn al-'Arabi's remarks on man's knowledge of God—in order to inform her reading of the Qur'anic narration of the Joseph story.

In "The Agency of God: A Reading of Joseph," Amanda Huffman explores a question closely related to Hamid's portrayal of Joseph as one who is guided by the unseen: the question of the relationship between God's agency and human agency. Huffman places her study in the context of the framework presented by Terrence Fretheim, an Old Testament Christian scholar, which suggests three possible ways in which God's agency could be related to the human world.[3] After setting this framework as the background for her discussion of agency in the Joseph story, Huffman immediately identifies the intertextual approach—specifically in terms of the relationship between the Genesis story of Joseph and its retelling in Acts—that she plans to take in her efforts to deal with questions of agency. Indeed, Huffman later explicitly discusses the interesting perspective revealed by the simultaneous study of these two versions of the same story: "Through this method of reading the New Testament account of Joseph in Acts over top of the Old Testament account of Joseph in Genesis, the reader becomes exposed to an entirely new dimension of the text. The Acts account serves to clarify the Genesis narrative, while the story in Genesis can fill in the missing details of Acts." This commentary on the process of rereading Genesis through Acts adds an interesting dimension to Huffman's focus on relationships—a focus that she also demonstrates in the way in which she distinguishes Joseph from the brothers based on his differing relationship with God and his ability to "see" the divine presence. While Joseph's actions and the language of the Genesis narrator reveal that God is with Joseph, Huffman argues that "the brothers do not feel the presence of God in their privation." Thus, just as the intertextual relationship between Genesis and Acts plays a significant role in Huffman's reading of the Joseph story, so too do the human-divine relationships in the Joseph story itself shape Huffman's conclusions regarding God's agency.

While Huffman's emphasis on the agency of God leads her to concentrate on human relationships with the divine, Michael Kelley Shepherd, Jr. centers his article "Sight, Obligation, and Forgiveness in the Joseph Text" on the obligations that humans have to one another, particularly to those to whom they are related. Like both Hamid and Huffman, Shepherd picks up on the motifs of sight and blindness in the Joseph story; however, rather than stressing sight solely as a means of knowing God, Shepherd highlights the relationship between sight and knowledge of one's obligations to other humans—a knowledge that Joseph's brothers clearly lack.[4] This focus on the obligations inherent in human relationships leads Shepherd to describe forgiveness as something that can occur only when one can truly "see"; thus, the relative blindness of Joseph's brothers prevents them from understanding forgiveness in the way that Joseph does. Again, in a manner similar to both Hamid and Huffman, Shepherd uses intertextual relationships to enrich his study of the Joseph story, particularly drawing from St. Ambrose's commentary on the story and the section of Acts to which Huffman also refers. Moreover, in studying the role of intertextual relationships in the scriptural reasoning process, it is especially interesting to note that Shepherd uses the Christian commentary of St. Ambrose to broaden the perspective of the Joseph story in Genesis. In other words, Shepherd's references to St. Ambrose are not designed to clarify the Genesis story, as are Huffman's references to Acts; rather, Shepherd asserts that he turns to St. Ambrose in order to bring "a layer of depth" or "an interesting wrinkle" to the story, as well as to put the Joseph narrative in a Christian context. Thus, while intertextual relationships may at times be seen to serve as tool for the clarification of meaning, so too can these relationships among texts contribute to the existence of multiple or more complex meanings (i.e. polysemy).

As a work with a clear focus on the effects of scriptural reasoning on relationships in the contemporary world, Dennis Beck-Berman's "A Partial Paradigm of Conflict Resolution" is highly appropriate as the final major article of this journal. Yet prior to his emphasis on the real-world implications of the SR process, Beck-Berman examines the role of relationships within the Joseph story itself—particularly highlighting, as Shepherd does, relationships among humans. While Beck-Berman does raise the issues of divine providence that especially fascinated Huffman, he identifies the belief in divine providence as "the most powerful element in conflict resolution," thus bringing his focus back to human-human relationships.[5] Perhaps the most unique aspect of Beck-Berman's study of the element of forgiveness in human relationships is the way in which he identifies Joseph as one who, like his brothers, must seek forgiveness; by stressing the need of all of the brothers, including Joseph, to ask for forgiveness, Beck-Berman presents a situation in which the acceptance of mutual responsibility can occur. Intertextual relationships are evident in this last paper as well; whether referring to traditional Jewish commentators, the Psalms, or the Mishnah, Beck-Berman explores both relationships within the Joseph text and relationships between that text and other texts with relevant themes.

As is evident from this introductory survey of these papers, the human-human and human-divine relationships within the texts of the Joseph story—biblical and Qur'anic—as well as the intertextual relationships that result from the comparison of the narrative to other scriptural and non-scriptural sources play a significant role in the scriptural reasoning work performed by Hamid, Huffman, Shepherd, and Beck-Berman. Yet as one reads through their papers and picks up on the themes of sight, divine agency, human obligation, and forgiveness contained within these pages, it is important to keep in mind that these articles are not works written in isolation. Rather, this journal is a written continuation of a dialogue in which these authors and I participated—and as such a dialogue, it contains numerous traces of the mutual influence of five different perspectives on one another. Moreover, it cannot be stressed enough that these papers are the continuation of a dialogue and not merely the record of previously held discussions. Therefore, my concluding remarks will of necessity focus on the relationships among these papers and the SR participants themselves as well as on the possible implications of the relationships involved in scriptural reasoning on the world in which we live.


[1] JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society, 2003) Genesis 37-50; The Koran Interpreted, trans. A. J. Arberry (New York, Touchstone, 1996) Sura XII.

[2] Asma Hamid, "The Human-God Relationship in the Qur'anic Story of Joseph."

[3] Amanda Huffman, "The Agency of God: A Reading of Joseph."

[4] Michael Kelley Shepherd, Jr., "Sight, Obligation, and Forgiveness in the Joseph Text."

[5] Dennis Beck-Berman, "A Partial Paradigm of Conflict Resolution."

© 2006, Society for Scriptural Reasoning

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