Biblical Narrative: The Summer Session to Take

It’s 9 AM on a Friday morning in summer. Instead of enjoying the pale Michigan sunshine, seven students sit indoors around a seminar table. Dr. Justin Jackson, Associate Professor of English, enters with books under his arm and a cap on his head. He excuses himself for keeping his hat on: “I played basketball this morning—I didn’t have time to do my hair.”

The students laugh. They pull out copies of The 5 Books of Moses and The Art of Biblical Narrative and flip to fresh notebook pages. Dr. Jackson reads a familiar passage on Joseph and his brothers, then says, “All right, let’s just stop here. What are some things about the narrative that jump out at you?”

“Jealousy and rivalry,” a student replies.

“Good, what else? What about Joseph?”

“What jumps out at me,” suggests another student, “is that Joseph is kind of a tattle-tale.”

Dr. Jackson nods. “We’re used to thinking about Joseph as the good guy, but here he’s ratting on his brothers. Is he naïve, or truly a tattle-tale? We don’t know yet. We need to hold these two hypothetical interpretations in tension to see which one plays out.”

In a few minutes, they’ve moved beyond the narrative difficulty of determining Joseph’s motives to the universal problem of showing favoritism. “My wife likes to tell our children, ‘I love you all equally, but differently,’” he says. “One day, my daughter was telling me how she loved me and loved Mommy and loved the dog too. ‘I love you equally,’ she said, ‘but differently.’

“‘Can you explain that to me?’ I asked her. She replied, ‘It’s like I love Mommy more.’”

The students burst into laughter.

“Students seem to like the class, and I love teaching it,” says Dr. Jackson. “Discussions during summer session are wonderful. They’re even better than the ones during the regular semester because we meet every day, and students are only studying one thing.”

Ellen Sweet echoes this assessment of summer school. “You can devote all of your attention to one subject. It allows you to give your studies the time they actually deserve.”

Studying biblical narrative requires particular focus because of its unique challenges. As LaRae Ferguson explains, “I feel like we have to unlearn more things when studying the Bible than with other texts. We come to the Bible with many assumptions, primarily that it’s holy literature. We have to temporarily set those assumptions aside before we can bring them back and gain a richer understanding of the text.”

Dr. Jackson believes the class’s emphasis on the poetic and literary devices of Scripture provides a “neutral ground” for students of all religious and non-religious affiliations. “It’s not about religion, it’s not a Sunday school class. We deal with scholarly issues,” he says. “At the same time, a narrative reading is not opposed to a religious reading. In fact, it can supplement it. When we’re going through the text, religious questions come up and we deal with them, but we’re discussing different ways of reading the text, not primarily the philosophy and theology those readings lead to.”

The professor, the summer class setting, and the literature make Reading Biblical Narrative one of the most popular English courses offered over the summer. “You need to take this class,” says Ellen. “Dr. Jackson told us that he teaches the Bible in an English class not because of his Judeo-Christian worldview, but because it’s remarkable literature. Having a teacher who believes that biblical narrative rivals Shakespeare is awesome.”