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In his SBL presidential address last month, David Petersen showed the broad learning and dry wit that his colleagues and students know well. He also displayed a willingness to enter into the public dialogue about values that was so prominent in the past election year.

"I hope that those who heard or who will read the address will see that biblical scholars can participate in conversations about important contemporary issues," said Petersen, who is Professor of Old Testament at Emory University. "They may contribute new ideas to older conversations, and they can identify contemporary issues, such as domestic violence, that have oddly not been part of family values rhetoric."

The address, titled "Genesis and Family Values," was delivered on Saturday evening, November 20th, in the San Antonio Convention Center. In it, Petersen began with a subtle challenge to conservative groups that have made "family values" a catchphrase in national discourse over the past couple of decades. Petersen affirmed that Scripture holds an important place in the conversation of modern Western democracies, but he also noted that claims that such groups take moral positions "drawn from the Bible and the Judeo-Christian ethic" are disputable, since they make little explicit reference to biblical material.

Petersen pointed out that some of the practices portrayed in the prominent families of the Hebrew Bible would often not meet American conservatives' moral standards: polygamy, murder, and divorce, among others. He therefore asked: "Can it be that the family values attested in the Hebrew Bible are not as self-evident to contemporary readers as many have thought?" With that, he turned to Genesis, on which he is writing a new commentary for the Old Testament Library series.

Petersen made three arguments in his address: "First, Genesis is a book whose authors and editors were concerned about the family; second, Genesis is book that includes family literature; and third, Genesis is a book that offers some clear and significant family values."

Petersen affirms that the idea of family is central to Genesis even apart from the stories of the patriarchs. He finds this particularly in the way that Israelite authors transformed individualistic myths of origins (such as Atrahasis) into family stories in the primeval history (Gen 1-11). He also notices that God chooses Abraham's family to be a blessing to all the families of the earth in Gen 12:3. Finally, he adduces the Priestly toledot formulae ("these are the descendants of..."), which integrate the lineages of the book, pointing out that the toledot formula in the account of creation in Gen 2:4a suggests that "for the priestly writer, the human family is embedded in the very structure of the universe." Petersen continued with a lengthy discussion of the form of the family stories in Genesis 12-50 in comparison with Icelandic sagas and "family novels" (as the latter genre is described by Yi-Ling Ru).

In the final section of the address, Petersen made some observations about family values: First, "Genesis challenges readers to have an expansive view of the family. These stories and genealogies present family as something far larger than a couple or nuclear family." Second, "the patterns of marriage and sexual access in Genesis attest to the importance of the family continuing over time," so that God's promise of land could be fulfilled. The third value, and the one on which Petersen lingered longest, is "conflict resolution without physical violence." This is illustrated by Abraham and Lot when they parted, Jacob and Laban when the former leaves Haran, and even by Jacob's repeated use of trickery to avoid open conflict with Esau. Petersen concluded that domestic abuse should be a primary concern to anyone who is committed to thinking about the Bible and family values. He pointed to the Hebrew term shalom bayit ("peace at home"), used in current Jewish conversations about domestic violence, and suggested that it might point to the sort of family ethos that Genesis values. Said Petersen, "I have seen a number of satiric proposals (about family values in the Bible), namely, that in order to deploy biblical family values one must have several wives (Jacob) or one must be willing to kill one's child (Jepthah). Such satire has its place, but I wanted to move beyond it to offer a constructive position and one that grew out of specific biblical texts."

The address will be published with footnotes in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature. Petersen expects that this will help those outside the field "recognize that one must use the typical 'tools' of biblical scholarship such as literary, redaction critical, social scientific perspectives, in order to discover these values." Petersen served as senior Old Testament editor for The New Interpreter's Bible and recently published The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox: 2002).

Chris Hays,Emory University

Citation: Chris Hays, " Presidential Address," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2004]. Online:


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