Note: This post was written between Sunday January 29th and Wednesday February 1. It was delayed because it discusses the PC(USA) biblical exegesis ordination exam, and I signed an honor statement saying I wouldn’t discuss the exam during the exam. I am publishing this without editing it post-exam.
As I write my biblical exegesis ordination exam for the Presbyterian Church (USA) I keep asking myself, “Why are the Ords so hard? Why is this Ord so hard?” It seems like a silly question. After all, after two and a half years in seminary one would think I could put together a coherent essay on almost any spiritual/religious topic. And I have. I have a huge amount of papers saved on my computer where I have researched, torn apart, discussed, compared, contrasted, and reflected on Bible passages and theological themes. Yet as I stare at the blank Word document in front of me with a stack of commentaries and language aides next to me I am blanking.
The passage I am writing on is Genesis 11:1-9, the City of Babel. Thus far I have discovered the story is not really about the tower, the large Mesopotamian influence, where the story is situated in the wider book, and a lot of other stuff that probably will not help me. Except… the exam claims that it doesn’t just want me to parrot back what I’ve read. The exam wants me to personally interpret the passage and show my thought process through pointed questions. (One of which is writing a focused statement of your interpretation.) Then I am to present a Bible study lesson plan based on this passage for the context that has been given.
I have never written a lesson plan. I usually draft reflective questions around the reading we’ve done and allow the group to go where the group goes. I know from personal experience and from basic pedagogy that people remember something better if they learn it for themselves. Yes, background information is incredibly important; but I have no idea how to present the information I’m gathering and processing to a group of people in a church Bible study without boring them to tears. People have different learning styles, use language differently, process at different speeds, and care about different things. I don’t know if this Bible study needs to be designed to attract young professionals or empty nesters or multiple generations.
Then on Monday I was sitting in my first class of the new semester, and the professor was explaining the syllabus which includes writing a Bible study based on our interpretation of a certain passage. Then she said, “If you’ve never written a Bible study, I’ve posted a chapter from Richard Osmer’s Teaching for Faith that talks about how to write a Bible study.”
This is why the exegesis ord is so difficult for me. I’m an outward processor. The smallest thing a person can mention in conversation or in a book or online can send me into a whole new journey, and it’s often a much better place than I was going originally. I want to hear about ab0ut other people’s experiences. Plus, I’ve been conditioned to do something really weird. I ask for help when I need it. When I can’t talk to other people and feel like I have no direction with a project I go into hyper-drive mode. I sat down and referenced probably 20 commentaries handwriting and then typing notes and quotes from all of them, not knowing what I would need to talk about in my final essays.
Thankfully in my seminary’s library I found some books by Nahum Sarna, a famous Jewish Hebrew Bible scholar I had never heard of before. Awesome. Just awesome. My preconceived notions collapsed as I read his works, and I was able to see the text with new eyes. For one brief, shining moment everything pulled together in my head; and I was able to pound out the 50-word basic interpretation I was required to write. I will refrain from posting directly from my essay, just in case one of my future graders is reading this.
The basic difference between the interpretation I was taught in Sunday school and my new interpretation is that what I learned in Sunday school focused on humanity, but I really think this passage’s focus is God. Once that mental turn was made, it was easier to look through all the other information and understand it in light of the interpretation. Things have not gotten easier overall, though, because now I have to support that interpretation in multiple ways and apply it to a Bible study for a context.
I’m not sure why this is harder than other essays I’ve written and other projects I’ve done in the church. One reason might be that this essay is all-or-nothing. You either pass or you don’t. When you’re a real Bible study leader, even if you feel like you failed in some way, there are lessons to be learned and relationships to be grown. I understand this is a standardized exam; and everybody who grades the exams knows that, too. I’m trying not to give it more weight and time than it requires, but it’s hard because I do have an all-or-nothing feeling in the pit of my stomach.
All I can do is breathe, pray, and do my best. As Genesis 11:1-9 shows us, we are dependent upon God for our very existence and the nature of that existence. I had better get back to work.