American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 23

Teaching the Humanities:

Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Development Project


Moving to the Other Side of the Desk:
Teachers’ Stories of Self-Fashioning

Linda Wells

Transforming Canons, Transforming Teachers
Edward L. Rocklin


Lois Feuer

Nationalism, History, the Chicano Subject, and the Text
Darlene Emily Hicks

Ms. Higgins and the Culture Warriors:
Notes Toward the Creation of an
Eighth Grade Humanities Curriculum

John G. Ramsay

History and the Humanities:
The Politics of Objectivity and
The Promise of Subjectivity

Eve Kornfeld

Toward a “Curriculum of Hope”:
The Essential Role of Humanities Scholarship
in Public School Teaching

Paul A. Fideler

Works Consulted

Shaping the Multicultural Curriculum:
Biblical Encounters with the Other

Lois Feuer
California State University, Dominguez Hills

As we expand the range of materials we teach, moving toward greater inclusiveness, we create new dilemmas as well as new richness. When we were willing to work within a standard canon and let the textbook publishers decide what we taught, setting up the syllabus seemed simpler; now, we face decisions that set competing goods against each other. Often, in answer to the question “what should we teach?” we seem to be presented with either/or choices: dead white European males versus the culturally diverse spectrum of authors writing in modern America. The most common tone in this debate is polemical, all sides convinced of their own righteousness, with the Jeremiah intonations of the late Allan Bloom in counterpoint with, say, the angry voices of a recent sit-in by UCLA students demanding a Chicano Studies Department; the political undercurrent — the “struggle for the soul of America” and for its reading lists — is clear.1

Whatever its costs in civility and social cohesion, one of the many benefits of the canon debate is the way in which it has forced us to reconsider the basis on which we choose. What are our criteria? Assuming for the purposes of discussion that my imagined readers, an audience of teachers, are willing enough to rethink what we do and to alter the syllabus in the direction of inclusion, how do we decide what to include? Do we select on the basis of aesthetics (“this is a great book”), of a knowledge imperative (“everybody in this society needs to know about a variety of cultures”), or on the basis of demographics (“our students need readings that reflect their lives and their cultures of origin”)? We know these choices to be significant, for with them we say what we think is worth spending tine on, and since each of these motives comes with its own pedagogical approach attached (the knowledge-imperative requires a lot more giving of “background” information than the aesthetic impulse, for example, though one can argue that fullest appreciation requires familiarity with the cultural context of a work of literature).

Our choices will not only reflect our assumptions about what literature is, and is for, they will also shape our views of the included works — and those left out — themselves. Paul Lauter, a leading figure urging our rethinking of the terms of argument, suggests that the motive for teaching what we now call noncanonical texts is deeper than the issue of representation, mirroring in our assigned authors the ethnicity of our students, valuable though that may be. Beyond that, says Lauter, “I suspect that the central reason it is necessary to read noncanonical texts is that they teach us how to view experience through the prisms of gender, race, nationality, and other forms of marginalization” (161). I would add to this what we take for granted but need to say more often: our job is to teach good literature, and that’s a category whose boundaries extend far beyond the traditional canon. If we want to extend the range of our students’ access to experience, as well as to provide them with the multicultural literacy their world will continue to demand of them, on the one hand, and to present them also with the unarguable benefits of an acquaintance with Homer and Shakespeare, on the other, we need to find a way to arrive at both/and rather than either/or (a straw-man argument in any case), and the problem then becomes one of selection: there’s only so much time in a school term.

I would argue that using narratives and poetry from the Bible in the literature/humanities classroom offers a number of advantages to the teacher seeking to develop a curriculum embracing both Western classics and the expanded canon. We can show our students the relationship between the Bible and other literature, and we can take one of the Bible’s recurring themes — the encounter with the “other” — as the basis for studying the interplay among diverse cultural groups in the modern world.

By reading the Bible in conjunction with the literature of the formerly excluded, we see both in new ways: one way of rethinking traditional literature is by juxtaposing it with the non-traditional. Lauter again: while asserting the importance of rereading the traditional canon with the aid of newer perspectives — those of gender, ethnicity, and class, for example — he notes that “the best lens for that rereading is provided by noncanonical works themselves” (161). We will see the Bible itself differently if we juxtapose it with noncanonical texts: for one thing, doing so desacralizes it sufficiently so we can see its narratives as literature rather than as exempla, illustrations of moral or theological “lessons.” T.S. Eliot, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” makes the point that each new great work of literature makes us see the others differently; the analogy he uses is that of a group of monuments which gets ever so slightly rearranged by the appearance of an addition to the existing group.2 So just as James Joyce’s Ulysses caused readers of literature to see Homer’s Odyssey in a new light, so studying the origin myths of Native American groups, such as the Spider Woman stories of the Laguna Pueblo, can make us see the creation in Genesis freshly.

The converse is true as well: we can use the Bible to see noncanonical literature in new ways. And so, for example, the Bible’s pervasive emphasis on the continuing warfare within the family and with neighboring peoples illuminates contemporary discussion of boundaries and borders. The mestiza culture to which Gloria Anzuldua describes herself belonging in Borderlands/La Frontera finds its earlier analogue in the experience of the non-Israelite women of the Bible, Moabite Ruth (presumably), Hittite Bathsheba and dark-skinned Queen of Sheba (as well as the “dark and comely sister” of the Song of Songs), straddling two cultures, shunned by exclusivists on both sides, belonging to two worlds and none. Our students are so often themselves living on “frontiers,” participating in two cultures simultaneously, that their experience of doubleness, of being “the Other,” will find expression both in contemporary literature and in its biblical antecedents.

Given these benefits, what are the costs? We might assume that we don’t need to teach the Bible, given its centrality in our tradition and the pervasiveness of religion — and images of apocalypse — in American life, but we do. Ironically, this most “canonical” of texts is fairly infrequently studied. Even if some of our students are singers in their church choirs, increasingly others come from Asian or other religious traditions which make this foreign territory rather than shared vocabulary. And still others derive from no tradition at all. Even among the traditionally religious Christian and Jewish students, Bible-reading may not be part of their spiritual education. And certainly a literary view of the Bible is unlikely to have been part of their Sunday-school regimen.

We might be concerned about teaching the Bible, making ourselves vulnerable to attacks from parents and community activists embracing the full spectrum from left to right. And certainly my own experience suggests that teaching the Bible in a public institution involves crossing a minefield in which the ways to get blown up are innumerable but those to navigate safely are few. These are valid concerns, but we can’t deprive students of this essential part of a common vocabulary merely because their elders are pursuing their own agendas, and in fact many curriculum guidelines now encourage us to teach biblical texts as part of historical, if not literary, education. The California History-Social Science Framework, for example, mandates reading sacred texts as part of historical literacy: the historically literate student will “understand the importance of religion, philosophy, and other major belief systems in history. To understand why individuals and groups acted as they did, we must see what values and assumptions they held, what they honored, what they sought, and what they feared. By studying a people’s religion and philosophy as well as their folkways and traditions, we gain an understanding of their ethical and moral commitments. By reading the texts that people revere, we gain important insights into their thinking” (13). Without some such acquaintance with this central text in Western literature, our students are ill-equipped to deal with other literature dependent in some way upon it: “a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads” whether that reading is Milton or Morrison.3

We can smooth a lot of difficulties with approach, of course, and each of us will have her own strategies for setting the right tone. In my classes, I talk to students about the likelihood that I’ll inadvertently offend various of them from time to time, and I suggest that the best I can offer is to try to offend everyone equally. I talk about narrative as a form of representation, like painting, and that in this context “Abraham” is no more a real person than a painting of an apple is real fruit. So we are not making judgments about the existence of an historical Abraham any more than an art class makes statements about the existence of apples. By saying some of these things at the beginning, we can head off some of the more obvious confrontations between student belief and skepticism.

One way to keep the focus literary rather than more exclusively theological is to teach more materials from the Hebrew Scriptures than from the New Testament, since the former emphasize story rather than doctrine. As Robert Alter puts it, “the Hebrew Bible is animated by an untiring, shrewdly perceptive fascination with the theater of human behavior in the textual foreground, seen against a background of forces that can be neither grasped nor controlled by humankind. (The New Testament tends to reverse the relation between background and foreground or, at any rate, to make the background obtrude more into the foreground.)” (World 22)

One fairly common way of avoiding the problems described above is to teach historical or textual issues, looking at the doings of the Hittites or the Documentary Hypothesis rather than at the texts. But to do so not only skirts the real issues but belies the nature of the writings themselves: “literary analysis [of the Bible] brackets the question of history, not necessarily out of indifference to history but because it assumes that factual history is not the primary concern of the text and that it is, in any case, largely indeterminable, given the scant data we have to work with at a remove of two to three millennia from the originating events to which the text refers” (Alter, World 203). So although the history teacher will rightly use the Bible as one means of pursuing the study of the ancient world, the literature teacher will focus on the narrative and poetic qualities of the text. Furthermore, too great a focus on the historical dimension risks re-entering the minefield through the side entrance, involving students in asking questions about King David’s “reality” rather than those related to the storytelling skill of his author (and, whatever our students’ views on divine inspiration, it seems unarguably necessary for the purposes of analysis to treat the authors as human).

If the reader will grant for the moment a successful escape from the various dangers facing the teacher of the Bible, we can turn to ways of integrating the study of biblical literature into a variety of curricular contexts. Other literature is related to the Bible in several ways: first, by direct influence of several sorts, second, by common archetypal patterns, and third, by common themes. In what follows, I will describe each of these relations, exploring two examples in some depth, and referring throughout to examples of likely pairings of biblical and modern noncanonical texts.4

Direct Biblical Influence on Later Literature

The most obvious way in which other literature is related to the Bible is by the latter’s direct influence in plot or characters, in image or theme, or in style. The first is the most familiar form, as we have examples that range from the various Christ figures in modern fiction — Billy Budd, Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — to the inspiration of the story of Rachel in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to retellings like the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Equally familiar, and perhaps equally frequently noted by teachers, is the impact of the Exodus story on Negro spirituals.

A far greater richness results when we go beyond merely noting the influence on image or theme to having students read the Exodus narrative while they are hearing, and reading the lyrics of, spirituals like “Go Down Moses” or “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” (which in fact combines Old and New Testament references, not an uncommon synthesis in spirituals).5 Only by such direct juxtaposition will the pervasiveness of the Moses references in African-American culture become clear, along with the complex variety of emphases this reference carries. One such emphasis is the poignant anticipation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s comparison in his last major speech, the leader unable to accompany his followers into the new world his work has helped them create: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land.”6 Another emphasis singles out the quality of leadership, the courage and daring of Harriet Tubman, “the Moses of her people.” Yet a third view emphasizes Moses before Pharaoh, the suppliant negotiating with the established authorities in Aaron Douglas’ powerful painting, “Let My People Go.” When we read Exodus with our students and they see Moses as a reluctant hero who keeps raising objections to his serving when God calls on him, the allusions take on a depth they might otherwise lack. And the dominant metaphor here retains its power through an impressive number of variations; a recent anthology of fiction about immigration and migration, Imagining America, is subtitled “Stories from the Promised Land” (Brown and Ling). America has long been envisioned by those who chose to come here as a latter-day promised land, the place of new beginnings and divine fulfillment, and so the imagery of the New Jerusalem is seen as appropriate by those who view their country as “the last best hope of mankind.”

The third kind of direct influence is stylistic, and the opportunities here are especially useful in the teaching of writing, becoming more visible as we juxtapose the biblical and contemporary canons. Though few teachers these days assign passages of stylistic excellence as models for their students’ imitation, looking at, say, the influence of the biblical pattern of tricolon on Lincoln’s prose in his Gettysburg Address (“we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow”) can illuminate the structure of prose for the student who has never thought of his own sentences in terms of patterns and rhythms.7 The most pervasive rhetorical device of biblical prose and poetry is parallelism and repetition, both in plot and style, and again its presence is felt most obviously in words written to be spoken aloud, like the speeches of Dr. King, but can also be seen in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 8 In the third paragraph of his response to the Alabama clergymen who had objected to his presence in Birmingham, King wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ’thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. . . . Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (343). Both the parallelism of the “just as . . . and just as . . .” structure and the repetition of the words “justice” and “injustice” demonstrate the biblical rhythms. One of the reasons Dr. King was able to communicate so effectively to a broad spectrum of Americans is that he worked out of a biblical tradition, the prophetic call for justice, that was the common heritage of black and white America alike, and no assertion of that point is as effective as its demonstration through juxtaposition of texts.

Shared Archetypal Patterns

A second sort of relation between the Bible and other literature is comprised of the shared archetypal patterns that are the fundamental ways human beings have imposed order on our otherwise chaotic experience. Through archetypes, biblical and classical literature can be juxtaposed with popular culture, and with myth. We tend to think of our lives, for example, as journeys with a beginning, middle and end, and so literary works from the Bible to the Odyssey to Star Trek see human experience in journey form. Likewise, we tend to assimilate human beings, real and fictive, to certain types such as the hero, the tempter, or the scapegoat. These are, in fact, the two basic categories of archetypes, one following a story-pattern and the other grouping people into different kinds of archetypal characters (these categories eventually merge, but we can talk about them separately). These archetypal patterns cut across a wide variety of human creations, from fairy tales to historical narratives, and can be seen as related to the human creation of myth. We would use myth in this instance not as meaning something untrue, but in Aristotle’s sense of the word mythos, story. This point needs to be considered more fully.9

Myths, let me say briefly, give a humanly comprehensible structure and meaning to the universe, which “human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life” (Watts 7). We are apparently incapable of believing that our lives or the universe have no meaning, that life is just one thing after another with no pattern or shape. Myths seem to be a part of our mental equipment, a pair of glasses we can’t take off. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer calls us animal symbolicum (26), defining humankind as the symbol-making animal; we may in fact be the story-making, pattern-imposing animal. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” asserts the first line of Joan Didion’s The White Album.

These myths fall into recurring patterns: they show up in our children’s stories, in our dreams as adults, in the way we think of famous people in the past and in our own time, in our novels, movies and television programs, and in fact, in the Bible. The clearest example is the journey. A minute’s thought will produce an amazing number of instances of the journey. One can start a list with Little Red Ridinghood, who travels to Grandma’s house only to meet up with the wolf, and continue it with the journey of Odysseus, the Greek hero who took 10 years to return home from the Trojan War, continually meeting up with monsters and the wrath of angry gods who tried to stop his return. How much a part of our own culture is the journey westward of the pioneers, their courage and hardship as they traveled to the promised land of California? Their more recent equivalent, of course, is the immigrant: willing, like so many grandparents who came over on the boat in the early part of this century, or unwilling, like the Africans who came here as slaves. The Godfather series of movies is an immigrant journey saga from Sicily to America and — in Part Three — back. The journey of the boy Huck and the runaway slave Jim as they travel the Mississippi to freedom from their restrictive society in Huck Finn mirrors the journeys of fugitive slaves northward to freedom.

In our dreams we often travel out into mysterious — often threatening — landscapes, encountering strange beings who remind us of people we know but are something beyond that. The medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight captures this dream-journey landscape in the terms of the Christian and hierarchical society in which it was written. In our own time, technology has focused our attention on our idea of the journey to the stars: space travel has an emphatic hold on our imaginations, as became clear when that journey was interrupted in a burst of flame and smoke and death when the Challenger blew up.

The next step in this line of thought links biblical with other archetypal patterns. Adam and Eve journey out of Eden into a world of pain and sorrow. Moses has two journeys: one he makes down the Nile as an infant in a reed basket, and the other as the leader of his people as he takes them out of the Egypt of slavery into the promised land of freedom. Jesus, too, makes a journey out into the wilderness for forty days, where he meets up with and conquers the temptations of the devil before returning home and beginning his ministry. In fact, the whole Bible is the story of a journey from Eden lost and then back to Paradise, the new Eden (or New Jerusalem) which will be ours, we are told, after the end of the world as we know it. Milton, in his poem about part of the journey, makes the connection clear when the angel tells Adam that he and his descendants will have, in compensation for the paradise that has been lost, “a paradise within thee, happier far.”

These wanderings are transformative; the person who goes on the journey comes back changed. The astronauts return to earth (the way it’s supposed to happen, anyway) with new knowledge and information about the universe. The Israelites, after their slavery in Egypt and their wandering in the wilderness, have a new covenant with their God and a new sense of their destiny as a people. Huck Finn has decided that he’d rather be an outcast than accept the idea of slavery for his friend Jim. And even Little Red Ridinghood has encountered the danger of the world and learned something about life in the process. Journeys are, then, journeys of self-discovery in our imaginative shaping of them; a trip is not just traveling over territory but traveling into ourselves and learning something about ourselves or about our world that changes us forever.

Archetypal story patterns include, in addition to the journey, initiation when youth encounters experience (which we see frequently in novels and films about adolescents, Catcher in the Rye being one of the most obvious examples) or the quest, where the hero sets out to recover something precious — the holy grail, for instance. These forms overlap, one story having parts of another, as Luke Skywalker’s journey of initiation becomes a quest to save the princess and ultimately his own self-discovery, the knowledge of who his father is.

Archetypal characters include the hero, the temptress (this is a pretty sexist one — if women had written the stories we’d likely have another sort), and the outcast — Jonah, for instance. They also include the devil as a figure of temptation, and the Faustus story is the story of the man who makes sort of a reverse journey, away from self-knowledge rather than toward it, journeying not into light and knowledge but into darkness by succumbing to temptation. This is a negative rebirth, where, after selling his soul (succumbing to temptation), the hero/villain descends to hell (either literally or into a hell of his own mind: “Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it”) rather than completing a journey.

Looking at archetypal patterns shared by biblical and modern materials, whether “Young Goodman Brown” or “The Lottery,” whether Luke Skywalker or Bruce Lee, can enable students to see their own experience in patterned ways, and to see a connection between the literature they read in English class and the movies they watch for entertainment.

Shared Themes

In addition to direct influence and to the sharing of archetypal patterns, the Bible has a third sort of link with other literature, and that is the sharing of themes whether through influence or through universality.

The theme of rebirth is a pervasive one, and nowhere more so than in African-American slave narratives and autobiographies. St. Paul sets the pattern by telling us that the old man must die so that the new man can be born, drawing on Jesus’ paradoxes in the Beatitudes. Repeatedly, the narratives composed by former slaves such as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs speak of the new self emerging when they gain their freedom, or, to a lesser extent, when they learn to read. This motif of the new self, says Henry Louis Gates, reappears in the autobiographies of African-Americans such as Malcolm X, whose new name sharply distinguishes the old and new selves, or Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (note that we’ve combined several sorts of Biblical relationship as Brown’s title indicates), and the autobiographical fiction of Invisible Man, where the protagonist’s moments of revelation give birth to successive new selves (Loose Canons 43–69).

One of the most significant biblical themes tells of the encounters of the Israelites with their neighbors, often seen as an alien and threatening — or dangerously seductive — “Other.” Since many biblical narratives, Jonah, Ruth and Exodus among them, are shaped by this theme, it provides a way to look at “otherness” in cultural studies and at the interactions between and among groups in modern America.10

We commonly focus on the exclusivity of the Israelites, in the tradition of the prophets inveighing against whoring after false gods, understanding this as part of the struggle of this people to retain their group identity rather than be swallowed up by the myriad of related and more powerful cultures surrounding them. This resistance to assimilation finds its modern analogue in the desire of many members of ethnic groups to preserve their cultures: the dominant metaphor for cultural mix in modern America has become the salad, whose ingredients remain distinct even when they become part of a new whole, rather than the melting pot.

Closer examination of this issue in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to contradict that exclusivity, however. In the story of Joseph, for instance, “Joseph does not hesitate to mix with Egyptians; of course he has no choice. But he even marries an Egyptian girl and is not condemned for it by the writer. Joseph is able to communicate with the Egyptians on moral issues by appealing to the universal sense of right and wrong. Both he and the Egyptians speak of ‘God’ with no further qualification, and there is no disapproval expressed at the thought that Joseph, a pious Israelite, is moving among outright idolaters” (Redford 247).

The stories of Jonah and Ruth take this willingness to mix freely with “the Other” while retaining one’s own group identity a large step further, and so I would like to look at these two biblical narratives in some detail. They seem positively designed to assert human interconnectedness and the overcoming of social and cultural barriers, and therefore can function effectively in the multicultural curriculum.

Let us notice at the outset that Jonah is an example of the unlikely hero, a figure which turns up a lot: Moses with his speech impediment tries to suggest that God find someone else, and Samson’s wild violence, moral obtuseness and lack of self-discipline do not make him the most likely candidacy for champion of God, but that’s what he is. And King David, at first an obscure adolescent and later a murderous adulterer: can this be the hero of Israel? This theme of the unlikely hero suggests, perhaps, that Israel itself, most unlikely of victorious nations, third-rate power beset on all sides by more powerful neighbors and torn from within by gaps between rich and poor and even among families, continually backsliding from its good resolutions — Israel itself, unlikely hero that it is, will be God’s champion and, in the longest of long runs, triumph over those rivals who are now remembered only because they were rivals.

This theme of the least likely hero is related to that of the reluctant prophet. I said earlier that Moses keeps saying, “why me?” and that is exactly what happens to Isaiah, who feels unworthy to carry God’s message until, in a magnificent image, his lips are touched by a burning coal (held by an angel) and he is purified and compelled to serve. Jonah, however, carries this idea of the reluctant prophet to an extreme: when God tells him to go preach to the Ninevites, he immediately takes ship for Tarshish, in the opposite direction.

As we look at Jonah’s story we’ll see at least two themes, that love and mercy are stronger than mere reward and punishment “justice,” and that this love, on God’s part, is universal. These themes are among the things Jonah has to learn, and he is an unlikely hero not only in his resistance to learning them but also in the fact that we don’t know, even at the end, if he has learned them — though we have.

These themes are expressed through the structure of the story, in the three instances of mercy God offers: Jonah is saved from the storm (or the whale, depending on which you see as the greater danger), Nineveh is saved from destruction, and Jonah is given and then loses a sheltering vine, to show him the point of pity.

Jonah’s actions contradict his words. His name means “son of the faithful” but his immediate response to God’s command is to flee. As Edwin M. Good puts it, “Jonah . . . is a ‘son of faithfulness or truth,’ but he abandoned his faithfulness at the first opportunity and speaks truth only under duress, even then not understanding it” (42). He tells the sailors he fears God but of course he has tried to escape His power by sailing to Tarshish — out of His sphere of influence, perhaps, or at least as far away as he can get. The incongruity of Jonah seeing Yahweh as the creator of the sea, as Jonah professes to the sailors in 1:9, and his attempting to flee His command on that very sea, is lost on Jonah but not upon the readers of his tale (45).

In fact Jonah is satirized, made fun of, I think, through much of the story: he sleeps in unjustified assurance during the storm; the sailors have more compassion for him than he for the people of Nineveh, and when he has the most spectacular success in the history of prophecy — he says five words and this whole kingdom, down to the animals, repents in sackcloth and ashes — instead of rejoicing, he sulks. His response to the loss of the vine is as excessive as his response to his unexpected success at Nineveh: it would have been better for me to have died, he says. So the narrator has a bit of ironic fun at Jonah’s expense, beyond the quite hilarious picture of the cattle in sackcloth. The serious point is that this irony helps shape our attitude toward Jonah. At the beginning, we are, I think, prepared to see things from his perspective, but by the end we see them from God’s.

Even when he prays, in the whale, after having been delivered from the storm, he offers no recognition of his error in fleeing God’s command. He’s learned he can’t get away with running and hiding, but has learned no deeper sense of mercy or obligation. He thinks in simple terms of “fault”: the sailors should throw him overboard because the storm is his fault, but he sees no more profound point here.

So he goes to Nineveh, having acknowledged God’s power to make him do so, and he preaches perhaps a bit beyond his instructions. God told him to “cry unto the people of Nineveh” but what he does is say “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Again, in other words, he sees things in terms of simple reward and punishment. God mentioned the wickedness of the Ninevites, but it is Jonah who envisions consequences and punishment. At this point we may be reminded of Job’s comforters. They, too, think in terms of reward and punishment: Job must have done something wrong, because look, he’s being punished.

And so when the Ninevites, in an astounding, magical and therefore fantasy conversion, do repent, Jonah is angry: now, in his prayer to God, he says that’s why he fled in the first place (we were not told this before), because he knew God was merciful. He is thus in the position of being angry that all these people were saved — his prophecy has been proved incorrect and perhaps he feels foolish — and blaming it all on God’s mercifulness. He goes and sulks, “till he might see what would become of the city,” perhaps hoping for a relapse.

God puts up a gourd-vine to shelter Jonah, then takes it away, in an attempt to show Jonah that his “I wish I were dead” is beside the point, as is his anger. “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night,” says God; “And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right and left hand?”11

We don’t know if Jonah got the point; the crucial thing is that we do, and that we see that love and mercy are more important than simple “justice,” punishment for wrongdoing which would condemn the Ninevites. That is why the story of Jonah is read at Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. And the author takes his point further still, because the city in question is not some Israelite stronghold which would turn its accustomed deaf ear to the cry of a prophet, but the stronghold of the enemy. Nineveh, capital of Assyria, is a pretty unlikely place for a Jew to feel mercy, and that is the very point, of course. It’s easy to feel mercy for those we care about: but what about the Ninevites? We can see why Jonah was so resistant to their being saved, but we can also see that the story repudiates his narrowness and insists that God is God of all, even the Ninevites. Here, the idea of the border as fixed boundary between groups is repudiated in favor of a transcultural unity.

This universalism of lovingkindness is what the author of Ruth was showing us too, of course; part of what Jonah needs to learn is what Ruth the Moabite already knew, and what Joseph struggles to learn as he struggles to forgive his brothers. It’s also what the so-called friends of Job need to learn too: life resists our simple formulas, our passion for pigeonholed justice and concern that stops at the border. Like the stories of Joseph and Ruth, the story of Jonah suggests to us that we bring about the desired ending when we strive to overcome our understandably human limitations and imitate God’s lovingkindness. As a commentator on this story has said, “Jonah must learn that mercy is not merely a capricious and negative suspension of law and order, but is an affirmative act of love. The implication is that man, made in God’s image, should emulate God’s compassion” (Warshaw 194).

As the author of Jonah made the significant choice of Nineveh as the city singled out for God’s mercy, so it is important to note that Ruth is a Moabite, one of the neighboring but indelibly “foreign” peoples with whom the Jews had traffic. That this was an uneasy relationship is made clear by Deut. 23:3: “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever.”12

As the story opens, Naomi, her husband, and her two sons have fled to Moab, leaving their homeland because of the famine there. The sons marry Moabite women and then, in a series of inexplicable calamities like those in Job, the father and two sons die, so that we move from the general loss in the famine, to the loss in this family and finally center our attention on Naomi, the bereft individual. She tells her daughters in-law to leave her and seek new husbands, and Orpah, foil to Ruth, does so after an initial protest. Naomi sees herself as empty, and plays upon her name, suggesting it be changed from Naomi, “pleasant,” to Mara, “bitter” as the two women travel to Naomi’s homeland, Bethlehem, at harvest time. We know before the characters do — so we can enjoy watching them find out that the field to which Ruth has come to glean the harvesters’ leavings belongs to Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz. One may see coincidence, the hand of Providence, or a long-range plan of Naomi to provide for Ruth here; evidence for such a plan increases when she advises Ruth to go to Boaz at night on the threshing-floor and ask for his protection.13 Boaz, at first polite and kind, then admiring of Ruth’s goodness to Naomi, at last looks upon her as a potential wife, going to the city gate to give an unnamed closer kinsman the first opportunity, as was customary. Ruth and Boaz marry and their son is “given” to Naomi to replace her lost sons. So the story moves from emptiness to fullness, from Ruth’s being a stranger in Bethlehem to her becoming a member of a family group. Restoration is a key theme here, symbolized by the imagery of harvest and plenty at the end, in contrast to loss and famine at the beginning. Ruth and Boaz meet in a harvest field, and every conversation between them ends with Boaz giving Ruth food to take to Naomi; Boaz’ commitment to Ruth is made on a threshing floor next to a heap of grain. Ruth goes from the barrenness of widowhood to the fertility of marriage as the earth itself is restored to fruitfulness.

The hand of Providence is light here, and the lovingkindness (hesed) in the human scene corresponds to God’s. Boaz invokes God’s sheltering wings for Ruth, but he himself acts to protect her. We have here a correlation of divine and human activity in which human goodness doesn’t earn God’s favor (any more than Naomi and Ruth “deserved” their losses at the beginning), but parallels it.

We would have here “only” a beautifully-wrought and moving short story without the point of Ruth’s foreignness. But that is in fact emphasized, as the author insists on relating a genealogy at the end. Ruth and Boaz’ son, Obed, we learn, is the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David, great king of Israel. Our narrator here insists on going far beyond what could have been left as an entirely sufficient “kindness to strangers” theme to place the stranger Ruth in the direct line of ancestry to the greatest of Hebrew national heroes. As with Jonah, the point here is that the God described is the God of all, Ninevites and Moabites and Israelites alike, and that this is a vision of their God the human authors of the Bible developed over a long period of time.

This is in some crucial senses Naomi’s story — hers is the greatest loss and thus the greatest restoration — but if we shift our perspectives slightly and see it as Ruth’s story, emphasizing her role as stranger with a claim on two conflicting cultural traditions, she will be a suitable literary companion for The Woman Warrior, for the women of The Joy Luck Club, and for the immigrant protagonist of “The Cariboo Cafe” (Kingston; Tan; Viramontes).

* * * * * * * * * *

One of the dangers we as teachers face as we expand the range of the texts we teach is that we will be perceived as selecting readings on the basis of some sort of literary affirmative action, condemning our assignments to be undervalued and their authors to be seen as fulfilling a quota. By using the Bible in conjunction with the work of modern noncanonical writers, we can set that perception straight, exposing our students to the wealth of first-rate literature available both within and outside the traditional canon. A literary reading of the Bible “presupposes a deep continuity of human experience that makes the concerns of the ancient text directly accessible to [us]. These millenia-old expressions of fear, anguish, passion, perplexity, and exultation speak to us because they issue from human predicaments in some respects quite like our own and are cast in the molds of plot, character, dialogue, scene, imagery, wordplay, and sound play that are recognizable analogues to the modalities of literary texts more easily familiar to us, closer to us in time and space” (Alter, World 205).

Thus the student who comes to the writings of, for example, Malcolm X, having studied (however briefly) the prophetic tradition of Amos and Hosea, will see the modern writer as embodying the concern for social justice that motivated the biblical figures, and will understand a prophet not as one who foretells the future in some mystical way but as one who projects the present trajectory into the future: if we keep on behaving in such and such a manner, certain consequences will result.14 That student’s understanding of the body of literature as a coherent whole, and regard for its individual parts as belonging within and being related to that whole, will surely be considerably advanced by such a project. Likewise, the student who reads Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony having seen how Amos and Hosea work at adapting and retaining an older ethical and spiritual system (that of egalitarian nomadic tribes) to altered circumstances in an urban, monarchical environment will see the dilemma in Silko’s novel — whether the Native American can accommodate her need for, and sense of, ritual in a contemporary pluralistic society — as part of a continuing human dialogue on the topic.

In the end, perhaps, many of us still find much of our curriculum-building motivation in the opportunity to read first-rate literature with our students. Silko’s novel succeeds as a novel not because it discusses significant ideas — though it does — but because, among other reasons, she creates enduring characters of depth and individuality about whom we come to care. In like manner, the authors of biblical narratives have created characters whose development over time and whose (illusion of) growth and change make us see them, as we do the characters of Shakespeare, not as exemplars of philosophic positions, but as figures with lives we can care about and understand. As Herbert Schneidau says, “Jacob and David truly age, wax and wane, and become unforgettably vivid in the process” (143).

Although its potential for enriching and extending the multicultural curriculum is clear, and although its presence in the literature classroom is one way between the Scylla of a rigid traditional canon and a Charybdis-like plunge into a canonless whirlpool, perhaps one of the most important benefits of integrating the Bible into the literature curriculum is the opportunity to introduce our students to these masterfully-wrought narratives.


1. I am happily conscious of an enormous debt to my colleagues in the Los Angeles workshop of the 1992–93 ACLS Elementary and Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum Development Project; from them I have learned much about teaching, literature, the humanities, and collegiality. In particular I would like to thank the keen editorial eye and generous spirit of Ed Rocklin, who has given lavishly of his time and expertise this year. He, and Susan Anderson, Marie Collins, Lynne Culp, Terry Henderson, Michael Jackson, Sandra Okura, Karen Rowe, Beverly Tate, and Howard Wilf, have contributed a great deal to both my education and my enjoyment. [return to text]

2. Eliot’s essay, first published in 1919, is often reprinted. I am using The Heath Anthology of American Literature. [return to text]

3. The words in quotation marks are from Frye, The Great Code (xii). The Morrison example is my addition to Frye’s point; we may consider, for example, whether the final scenes of Song of Solomon are not indebted to biblical stories of bodily assumption into heaven as well as, more obviously, to African folktales such as “The People Could Fly.” [return to text]

4. Using the word “canonical” in the context of biblical studies can produce unintended and sometimes hilarious results. Since this is not a textual study, the reader can assume that any reference to the “canon” indicates contemporary rather than biblical works. [return to text]

5. See, on Negro spirituals, Thurman, Walker, and Levine. [return to text]

6. About this speech, Frederick L. Downing says “King framed that speech, as he had so many others, with the biblical imagery of the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. That night he talked of a long journey: out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, through the desolate wilderness, and then the hopeful march toward the promised land. The metaphors were personal and collective” (xii). Downing notes also the pervasiveness of the Exodus imagery in the writing of James Baldwin, such as Go Tell It On the Mountain. [return to text]

7. Gilbert Highet’s rhetorical analysis of The Gettysburg Address is often reprinted; I am using The Little, Brown Reader, 5th ed. [return to text]

8. See the masterful rhetorical analyses of the “Letter” by Corbett and Fulkerson in Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. For biblical patterns, see Alter, Art of Biblical Poetry and Licht. [return to text]

9. The two most influential authors on archetypes are the literary critic Northrop Frye and the psychologist C.G. Jung. See Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and Jung’s Man and His Symbols. [return to text]

10. I will not explore here the concept of the “otherness” of God as developed by Martin Buber among others, though that is certainly a pervasive theme as well and is captured in part by Harold Bloom’s use of the word “uncanny” for the God of Genesis in his Book of J. [return to text]

11. I use here as elsewhere the King James translation, not because it is the most accurate by contemporary standards (among others, the Jerusalem Bible is superior in that regard), but because if the issue is influence, we need to teach from the text that will enable our students to hear the verbal as well as the narrative echoes. [return to text]

12. The passage is cited as evidence of the tradition against which the author of Ruth may be working by Northrop Frye (“Bride” 4). [return to text]

13. Frye notes and dismisses the latter possibility: “When Boaz lies down to sleep on the harvest field, somewhat drunk, and Ruth comes to him and asks him to spread his cloak over his ‘handmaid,’ it is clear that with a very slight change of tone we should have a rather cynical seduction story in which Boaz is, as we say, being set up. Needless to say, that is not the tone of the Book of Ruth, nor what happens in it” (“Bride” 3–4).

For Naomi’s understanding of the plan involved, whether it be God’s or hers, see Rauber (170). [return to text]

14. See Ackerman (xiv–xv) for an analogous unit on the prophetic tradition, ancient and modern. [return to text]