Is the Bible an Indigenous Text?
That’s the question my colleague Rev. Ray Aldred, a status Cree from Northern Alberta, posed to his class on the first day. He did define “Indigenous” as “in relationship with the land.” But, true to his subtle teaching style, he did not ask us the question directly.
That’s right: us. I’m a student this week, participating in the Native Ministries Consortium at the Vancouver School of Theology. NMC attracts students from all over Cascadia who want to explore the relationship between Indigenous spirituality and Christianity.
Ray presented our class with two initial readings. The first was an excerpt from Walter Brueggemann’s book The Land. Brueggemann, a Christian theologian, argues that living well on the land is a major motif in Hebrew Bible (Torah). The second reading came from Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories. King, a Native American multi-genre writer, contrasts collaborative Indigenous story-telling with the Bible’s hierarchical creation story.
What do you think? Ray asked.
Of course, I didn’t say much in class, because as a faculty member, a non-Christian, and a non-Indigenous participant, I’m much more inclined to listen to the students. But I did have a lot of thoughts about the two essays, both by writers I admire. Mostly I had good thoughts about Brueggemann’s essay, and annoyed thoughts about King’s essay.
Brueggemann believes Hebrew Bible teaches that land is a gift from God, and must be respected. Of course he is right — this is the plain meaning of much of the text. My favourite expression of it is Leviticus 26 (known to synagogue-goers as the terrifying Parshat Bechukotai). “If you walk according to my rules,” the text says, then you will receive abundant blessings. If you ignore the rules, terrible curses will result.
A famous Torah study question asks: when God says, “If you walk according to my rules,” to which rules is God referring? Why, to the whole Torah, say some classical commentators. But, others reply, don’t be so quick to generalize. Here God is speaking specifically about the most recently presented rule: the sabbatical year, a year of economic re-set that interrupts cycles of debt and over-cultivation of land. Because if you don’t care for the land or its people, you invite the curses of social chaos and war.
King says that the Christian Biblical creation story is anti-Indigenous. Turns out, he has in mind one particular Christian interpretation of the Hebrew creation story. One that doesn’t recognize the interdependence of species articulated in Genesis 1; or the simultaneous creation of both genders in Genesis 1; or God getting right down into the dirt to shape a human from soil in Genesis 2; or the hints in Genesis 3 that only through eating the fruit and expanding their awareness do the first humans step fully into the promise of being created “in the image of God.”
Genesis as I know it celebrates interdependence, equality, divine engagement with the land, and human creativity. To me, Torah reads as a deeply Indigenous text. In it, I see the hand of authors deeply connected to the land. To understand stories about animals, for example, readers need to understand the animals’ ways of life. Some stories are simply realistic, as when ravens bring food to Elijah. Others have an element of magical realism but are based on real animal characteristics, as when Balaam’s intelligent, loyal donkey rebukes him in Hebrew.
Maybe I’ve just said too much. As I am neither Indigenous nor Christian, I don’t have to wrestle with the particular contradictions that challenge my fellow students, such as finding deep meaning in the faith traditions of foreign colonizers. So, I’ll simply conclude: Kudos to Ray for laying out the contradictions in a gentle way, and for inviting his students to harmonize in ways that affirm their lives.