By Bread Alone: The Bible through the Eyes of the Hungry (Fortress Press, 2014)

[1] It’s hard to imagine questions more important to Lutheran ethics than: “How can the Bible to be experienced as revelatory and transformative?” or “How should reading the scriptures in faith influence the believer’s behavior toward and regard for their neighbor in hunger?” This collection of essays, the fruit of the Catholic Biblical Association’s Feminist Hermeneutics task force, begins to attempt an answer such questions. As its editors state in their introductory essay, “The basic purpose of all the essays to help the contemporary, first-world reader develop a different field of vision for the biblical texts—one that sees and hears those who hunger” (6).

[2] Let the reader beware, however. While several contributors to this collection live under religious vows of poverty in holy orders, several work directly with the hungry, and a few are from the two-thirds world, all teach at or least have degrees from prestigious universities. None write as a person directly experiencing food insecurity or hunger. But since the hungry are neither the heard from nor spoken to directly here, “The Bible through the Eyes of the Hungry,” is not an accurate subtitle for the book. Rather, it is presented to help an educated first world audience “explore, understand, and articulate a feminist perspective that is biblically based and socially relevant” (3) Perhaps a better subtitle for this volume might then be, “The Bible through the eyes of first world scholars with a heart for the hungry,” or just “The Bible with eyes toward the hungry.”

[3] One expects that as feminist biblical scholars, the editors would appreciate the caution above as a fitting application of a hermeneutic of suspicion. Indeed, as they explain, suspicion is an important element of the hermeneutics of hunger proposed here. Kathleen O’Connor in her essay, “Let All the Peoples Praise You: Biblical Studies and a Hermeneutics of Hunger,” acknowledges that historical-critical methodology is the indispensable central task of academic biblical scholarship. However, she asserts, when exegetes fail to apply a hermeneutics of suspicion to their own work and situations they treat the Bible merely, “a book only of the past, by now incapable of speaking to our present. Under these conditions, biblical exegesis risks becoming no more than historiography and the history of literature” (18). Such “problematic exegesis,” they write, “perpetuates social injustice and silently legitimizes human atrocities” (5). By Bread Alone is produced in the conviction that “Biblical studies can better fulfill its promise to church and world if more among us were to expand our methods beyond historical-critical approaches toward a hermeneutics of hunger” (O’Connor, 19).

[4] In order to fulfill its promise, however, the hermeneutics of hunger as here proposed must go beyond merely reading with suspicion. O’Connor and the editors find inspiration here in Dorothy Sölle’s The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (trans. Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt, Minneapolis, Fortress, 2001). Sölle claims that exegesis must be motivated by the hope that the Bible “provides a theological locus where liberation and life are possible, and where people can recover the lived reality of a religious experience of God” (11, Sölle, 48). A hermeneutics of hunger must then incorporate from liberation theology ‘the hermeneutics of the poor [which] is one of hunger for bread and liberation” (11).

[5] But it is more complex yet. Feminist-liberationist hermeneutics of historical-criticism-with-suspicion-but-also-with-hope is but one of two “interpretive mediations” of a hermeneutics of hunger as here conceived. The other mediation, the editors explain, relates the theological dimension of Biblical texts to Sölle’s account of mysticism, which involves “the knowledge of God through and from experience” (8), mediated through a living religious tradition, rooted in the “affirmation that we are all creatures of God, and that God desires fullness of life for all” (9).

[6] In sum then, the hermeneutics of hunger presented here entails a three-way engagement between a) historical-critical methodology, b) guided by a concern for fullness of life for all people, c) as the means of the cognitio Dei experimentalis which is definitive of mysticism. This hermeneutics would break down conceptual barriers between purely historical-critical, feminist praxis-oriented, and mystical approaches to scripture which prevent first world readers understanding God’s fundamental and pervasive concern in scripture for the hungry.

[7] The editors divide the book into two parts: First are the five exegetical essays focusing on Old Testament passages: Kathleen O’Connor’s aforementioned essay treating the account of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, J. L. Manzo on feeding the poor in Isaiah; Carol J. Dempsey, OP on drought and starvation in Jeremiah; Laures Wilkins on War and Famine in Lamentations, and Bradley C. Gregory on Sirach’s approach to Hunger. Second are four essays on passages from the New Testament and one from an apocryphal Gospel: Mary Ann Beavis on Jesus feeding the multitude in Mark, Linda Maloney on Luke’s parable of the friend at midnight, Susan M. (Elli) Elliott on a passage from the Gospel of Thomas, Ma. Marilou S. Ibita on 1 Corinthians 11, and Shiela E. McGinn and Megan T. Wilson-Reitz on 2 Thessalonians 3. It would perhaps be better to divide the book into a first very powerful programmatic section, with the ten exegetical essays listed above forming a longer second part. The first section would then consist of the forward by Christine Vladimiroff, OSB, the introduction by the editors, and O’Connor’s essay. It would be no mistake to include O’Connor’s essay in both parts, since her presentation of it to the CBA in 2009 first proposed and began to develop the concept of a hermeneutics of hunger before that group, thus inspiring this volume, and because it provides perhaps the most striking example of exegesis using this hermeneutics. The influence of Sölle’s book is so strongly felt throughout these first pieces that readers would benefit from studying it before reading this first section.

[8] Each of the book’s ten exegetical essays provides evidence that one understands scripture more faithfully and more fully when viewing it with eyes and a heart toward the hungry, especially those suffering physical hunger. But they corroborate the thesis in at least two ways. Important but less striking, some of the essays simply deepen the reader’s understanding of the plight of the poor in scriptural accounts and affirm God’s concern for the poor then and today. The essays by Dempsey and Wilkins, Gregory and Ibita are all examples.

[9] More interesting and perhaps even more important are those essays which open the reader’s eyes to see God’s concern for the hungry as a true hermeneutical key for the passages treated. The most striking example here is probably O’Connor’s essay. Contrary to the conventional understanding of this story as depicting an insecure God who must undermine the concord and achievement by human wit and skill, O’Connor endorses the notion that in the destruction the tower of Babylon, whose empire stood for oppression and conformity to the original audience, one sees the promise that God brings down the mighty and delights in diversity. O’Connor thus stands the narrative on its head, or rather shows that readers without an eye for the hungry have utterly misconstrued God’s intention. Similarly, McGinn and Wilson Reitz conclude in their essay on 2 Thessalonians that Paul’s admonition “if they will not work, let them not eat” is a reproach not of the supposedly lazy poor, but to the relatively wealthy striving to live conventionally under the system of Roman patronage rather than by the countercultural demands of a church in which all are to live by manual labor so that there can be no distinction between persons.

[10] This book succeeds in its primary intentions of at least beginning to conceive of a hermeneutics of hunger and showing it at work, and so it can be enthusiastically recommended to readers of this journal: Christian ethicists, preachers, and students of at least upper level undergraduate level. And as a mere beginning it is probably appropriate that this book leaves one longing for more, in several ways. Overall, the ten exegetical essays provide only small and initial steps toward meeting the challenge proposed in the first 35 pages of the book. But perhaps rather than constituting a weakness of this collection it points to the importance and magnitude of this project. Given the editors’ claim that readers’ contexts must and should influence their interpretation, the challenge of a hermeneutics of hunger must be open ended—in principle beyond completion—as long as there are new readers picking up the Bible with new or different contexts.

[12] Nor, as noted above, is it necessarily a fault that this book does little by way of giving voice directly to the hungry, if as the editors hope, this book is merely “a necessary first step to engaging the revelatory text as it speaks for, to, and with those who hunger” (6). Still, given this goal it does seem odd that none of the authors include reflections upon contemporary first-hand accounts of hunger.

[14] Whether it is fair or not, readers of this journal may be disappointed that no effort is made in this book to situate the fundaments of a hermeneutics of hunger with respect to normative ethics. To be sure, the editors show a familiar feminist interest in praxis when they assert that the love for neighbor commanded by God and exemplified by Jesus is “to be expressed in concrete actions to remedy the plight of the poor and foster the common good.” (3) But does this amount to an endorsement of act utilitarianism? If so how, especially in light of O’Connor’s essay, will this hermeneutics help us deal with the standard criticism that act utilitarianism sacrifices the good of the individual for the common good? And just what is meant here by “common good”? How is it to be judged, by whom, under what circumstances?

[13] A final concern has to do with the very concept of a hermeneutics of hunger: How important is literal hunger to it, and how is literal hunger important to it? Just six pages in the editors expand their conception to include “those who hunger and thirst for food, water, shelter, clothing, freedom, respect, meaning, integrity, and all the fundamental needs of human life” (6). Rather than continually pointing to the most fundamental need and thus those most desperately in need, “hunger” thus becomes or is exposed here as a synecdoche, more or less, for what Luther refers to in the Small Catechism as “daily bread.” If such a move is legitimate, is there after all anything particularly and powerfully revelatory in reading the Bible through the eyes of those literally near starvation or facing real food insecurity? On the other hand, will expanding the concept of hunger so water down this hermeneutics of hunger that it will lose its power to nourish souls?

Charles Peterson

Charles Peterson, Ph.D., is an ordained pastor with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and serving at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio.