The Nowhere Bible: the Biblical passage Numbers 13 as a case study of Utopian and Dystopian readings by diachronic audiences
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AbstractApplying utopian theory to the Bible reveals a number of issues surrounding the biblical text within academic disciplines such as biblical studies, which study the Bible as an ancient cultural artefact, and among religious readers of the Bible. The biblical passage Numbers 13 was chosen as a case study of a utopian reading of the image of the Promised Land to demonstrate the Bible’s multifaceted potential by externalising the presupposition brought to the text. The underlying method is derived from an ideal type procedure, appropriated from Weber. Instead of comparing phenomena to each other, one compares a phenomenon to a constructed ideal type. This method enables one to compare phenomena independently of exclusive definitions and direct linear influences. It has been suggested by biblical scholars that utopian readings of the Bible can yield insights into socio-political circumstances in the society which produced biblical texts. Using observations by Holquist about utopias’ relationships to reality it is asked if applying the concept of utopia to a biblical passage allows drawing conclusions about the originating society of the Hebrew Bible. The answer is negative. Theory about literary utopias is applied to the case study passage. Numbers 13 is similar to literary utopias in juxtaposing a significantly improved society with a home society, the motif of travellers in an unfamiliar environment, and the feature of a map which is graphically not representable. Noth’s reading of the biblical passage’s toponyms reveals that its map is a utopian map. Numbers 13 is best understood as a literary utopia describing an unrealistic environment and using common utopian techniques and motifs. Despite describing an unrealistic environment, the passage was understood as directly relevant to reality by readers throughout time, for example by Bradford. Following two Puritan readings, it is observed that biblical utopian texts have the potential of being applied in reality by those who see them as a call to action. If a literary utopia is attempted to be brought into reality, it becomes apparent that it marginalises those who are not utopian protagonists; in the case study passage, the non-Israelite tribes, in Bradford’s reading, the Native Nations in New England. The interplay of utopia and dystopia is explored and it is concluded that a definitive trait of literary utopias is their potential to turn into an experienced dystopia if enforced literally. This argument is supported by demonstrating that the utopian traits of the case study passage contain dystopian downsides if read from a different perspective. A contemporary utopian reading of the case study passage is proposed. Today utopian speculation most often appears in works of science fiction (SF). Motifs appearing in the case study passage are read as tropes familiar to a contemporary Bible reader from SF. Following D. Suvin’s SF theory, it is concluded that the Bible in the contemporary world can be understood as a piece of SF. It contains the juxtaposition of an estranged world with a reader’s experienced world as well as a potential utopian and dystopian message.
CitationPromised Land into Real-Life Utopia? Utopian Theory, Numbers 13 and Of Plymouth Plantation, eSharp 18, Winter 2012, 26-34.
Reconstructing Realities from Biblical Utopias: Alien Readers and Dystopian Potentials, Biblical Interpretation, Forthcoming
Numbers 13 - by Gene Roddenberry, in "Methods, Theories and Imaginations: Social Scientific Approaches in Biblical Studies" (ed. Chalcraft, Uhlenbruch, Watson), Sheffield Phoenix Press, forthcoming.