Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Disarming Word: Reading Scripture in the Boundary Zones

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Disarming Word: Reading Scripture in the Boundary Zones

Article excerpt

In the countdown to January 1, 2000, National Public Radio's "This American Life" joined the media coverage of colorful end-time theorizing. For his April, 1999, show, host Ira Glass talked to a variety of Americans about the approach of a new millennium. Responses ranged from passionate anticipation of the rapture to scholarly analysis of the Branch Davidians, but the most intriguing reported on the quest for a totally red cow.

In Numbers 19, God instructs Moses about a purification ritual that requires the slaughter and burning of a perfectly red heifer without defect or blemish. Apparently, some people today believe that the appearance on the scene of such a cow will have great apocalyptic significance. The theory is that ashes from such a sacrificed animal could be used in a purification rite that would allow Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Glass interviewed a conservative Christian farmer from a southern state who had offered his services to a group of rabbis in Israel. Having researched cattle breeds in Israel and the U.S., this farmer had determined that it was genetically impossible, or at least very unlikely, that existing Israeli breeds could produce such a cow. So, Glass reported, this American farmer, with some funding from the rabbis, was working diligently toward the birth of a purely red American heifer for ritual use in Israel.

What does this red cow have to do with reading scripture across interfaith boundaries? The National Public Radio segment illustrates the value, maybe even the necessity, of reading each other's scriptures as the adherents of the world's religions enter the third millennium. For his broadcast, Glass had consulted Jews and Christians and Israelis and Americans about the biblical significance of this red cow--and even about its political implications. Those are painfully obvious, since two major Islamic shrines, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, now stand on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Even with all the experts consulted, what the radio program did not ever mention was that there is a similar red-heifer passage in the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an. In fact, Surah 2 is the longest chapter of the Qur'an and one of immense theological importance. This chapter takes its title, translated from the Arabic as "The Cow," from a parable about God, Moses, the people, and a red heifer. (1) There is more than a little irony in the phenomenon of a public radio feature that considers how the dramatic birth of a red cow might affect the one city of crucial importance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims but that takes no account of this red cow's appearance in Islamic scriptures.

Obviously, Glass had not intended to prepare an academic study of the redheifer ritual but, rather, a somewhat playful treatment of popular apocalyptic viewpoints. Yet, behind this public radio segment lie real-world conflicts: historical conflicts that included the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, modem conflicts that, after Samuel P. Huntington's 1993 article in Foreign Affairs are being called "the clash of civilizations." (2) It is naive to assert that discussing each other's versions of the red-heifer text would lead Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims to a peaceful resolution of disputes over the holy city, or that reading sacred scripture together would have prevented the terrible disasters in New York City, Washington, DC, and western Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, it is certainly likely that such scripture reading could help move ecumenical dialogue to the interfaith level and, in the process, enrich the faith and lives of those involved.

My research into the role of scripture in interreligious dialogue and my own interfaith experience have yielded new insights about (1) the role of scripture in zones of interfaith engagement, (2) the hazards while reading with religious others, (3) the benefits of reading with religious others, and (4) concrete ways to begin the process of interfaith reading. …

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