Bible study series adds female voices

Nearly 30 years after first volume was published, completion of commentary project is foreseen by 2020

Apr 6, 2015 by and

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Female writers have a voice for the first time in a decades-long project to publish commentaries on the entire Bible.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.54.55 AMMennoMedia on Feb. 9 released Lamentations, Song of Songs, the 27th volume of its Believers Church Bible Commentary and the first volume with female authorship.

Wilma Ann Bailey, a professor at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Ind., wrote the commentary on Lamentations. The Song of Songs portion is by Christina Bucher, a biblical studies professor at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.

Six denominations cooperate on the BCBC project: the Breth­ren in Christ Church, Brethren Church, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Brethren Church, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.

Amy Gingerich, MennoMedia’s editorial director, said the research, writing and review process for a volume can take many years. So while women have been assigned commentaries over the past 10 or more years, this is the first to be completed.

Gingerich said the editorial council, made up of one representative from each denomination, is committed to including the voice of women.

“I suspect that when the volumes were first assigned the denominations collectively had a different position on women in ministry and women in scholarship,” she said.

Mennonite Publishing House, now Herald Press, the publishing arm of MennoMedia, published Jeremiah, the first commentary volume, in 1986.

Gingerich, the council, the Old Testament editor and the New Testament editor meet once a year.

“We represent a wide theological breadth and deep theological tradition,” she said. “We have worked intentionally making sure that we continue to invite women to contribute to the series.”

Herald Press hopes to see the entire series completed in 2020. They published the 28th volume, Galatians, by George R. Brunk III, on March 23. And Deuteronomy will be released Oct. 1.

Five of the 15 volumes still to come will be written by women.

Complaining to God

BCBC Lamentations Song of Songs (color)Lamentations, Song of Songs follows the same structure as previous BCBC volumes. Bailey and Bucher follow five components of analysis and discussion: a preview, a brief summary, some explanatory notes, the text in its biblical context, and the text in the life of the church.

Bailey — the Minnie Vautrin professor of Christian witness and professor of Hebrew and Aramaic scripture at Christian Theological Seminary — said readers of the Lamentations commentary will learn it provides a model for grieving.

“It gives permission to express pain and suffering and complain to God about it,” she said. Those complaining in Lamentations are the elite, who have suffered loss and must suddenly do the things less advantaged people did every day, such as gather firewood and purchase water.

“Since engaging Lamentations, I have become much more aware of how communities and congregations struggle to know how to work through tragedies that affect entire communities,” she said. “Very little had been written about that in the past.”

She thinks community leaders and pastors could still use more direction, and the commentary can help.

She also did research comparing Lamentations to spirituals from the enslaved African community.

“A significant difference is that the spirituals never blamed God for the situation, whereas some of the poems in Lamentations do,” Bailey said. “Of course, there is the possibility that the spirituals were changed after emancipation and those deemed to not be theologically correct may have been dropped.”

Bailey hopes counselors as well as pastors read Lamentations, Song of Songs. Like each volume in the series, it is meant to be accessible to all church members, not just pastors.

“The intent has always been to make these very, very readable,” Gingerich said.

Affirmation of desire

Bucher said Song of Songs provides a strong affirmation of human sexual desire.

“Through imagery and metaphor it describes both sexuality and sexual desire, the affective experience of being in love,” she said. “The language and imagery of the Song of Songs have also influenced Christian spirituality, with the human love serving as a symbol or metaphor of the love of God and humanity for each other.”

She said the commentary also identifies Christian hymns and anthems that draw from Song of Songs, such as “In the Rift’d Rock I’m Resting” and “Fairest Lord Jesus.”

Gingerich thinks the “text in the life of the church” section is one of the more unique aspects of each commentary volume. It puts the chapter in context of how it’s been used historically.

Bucher said in the 16th century nobody read Song of Songs literally, and early Anabaptists related the book to their experience of God’s love and support for their struggles to be faithful.

“They especially liked Song 2:10-13 and the imagery of the end of winter and the appearance of spring, which they connected to renewal in the church,” she said.

Gingerich said while the series’ print sales have been declining for a while, digital sales have skyrocketed. MennoMedia sells electronic books and through Logos Bible Software — more than 10 times as many as in print.


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