Monday, October 6, 2014

Something Older

Alice C. Linsley

A central task of biblical anthropology is to uncover antecedents; something coming before what is described in the text. Biblical anthropology seeks to understand the cultural context of the Bible at the oldest foundations. It is concerned with ancestors and received traditions. What events preceded the events recounted? From what earlier context did certain practices develop? What traces of ancient memory can be uncovered?

The biblical text always speaks of something older, some prior action that solicits a response from later generations. What Jacques Derrida called the "trace" is always there, and unless one moves toward that presence, the nature of it remains unknown. Even where later sources attempt to efface an earlier account, as happens in Genesis, the trace has a voice. The prior remains evident. There is always this "minority opinion" and those who care about the bigger picture read minorities opinions.

Derrida wrote, "The call of the other, having always already preceded the speech to which it has never been present a first time, announces itself as a recall. Such a reference to the other will always have taken place." (Psyche: Inventions of the Other)

Derrida also wrote, “It would be possible to show that all the terms related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence, ... essence, existence, substance, subject, ... transcendentality, consciousness or conscience, god, man, and so forth.” (The Sign, Structure and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences)

Derrida never denies the existence of “the center” which for him is a function, not a person. This function is immutable and inescapable. It is always prior, always before human discourse. The biblical authors would say that the something older is Someone, the Atik Yomin or Ancient of Days. The biblical text and our discourse on the text self-efface before this Someone.

I am often asked, "What is the difference between biblical anthropology and Near Eastern studies?" The question reveals a general bias in academic circles. The trace is ignored and the red herring is pursued. The red herring is the assumption that Abraham's earliest ancestors lived in Mesopotamia. Were this true, there would be no need for Biblical Anthropology.  However, Abraham's earliest known ancestors, the rulers listed in Genesis 4 and 5, were Nilo-Saharans. Their story does not pertain to the ancient Near East, but to Africa, the blind spot in biblical studies.

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