The 2023 joint conference of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion gathered in the gorgeous San Antonio Riverwalk area, November 17 – 21, 2023, bringing together some 16,000 scholars in the fields of religion, theology and biblical studies. As an affiliate group of SBL, the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) runs a program for evangelical scholars in biblical studies, and I serve on the steering committee for the IBR interest group called “Scripture, Hermeneutics and the Middle East” https://www.ibr-bbr.org/annual-meeting/research-groups/scripture-hermeneutics-and-the-middle-east-3. Our 2-hour panel entitled “Israel and the Church: Complement, Fulfillment or Replacement?” was the culmination of year-long planning via monthly Zoom meetings. The goal of this group is to consider how our interpretations of Scripture affect realities on the ground in Israel/Palestine today with a heart for reconciliation, and our hope is to model Jesus-honoring conversations in which we differ theologically and even politically, but through which we respectfully listen to and learn from one another.
When we had originally planned our session title, we had no idea that a war would break out 40 days earlier. The month before our session, we prayerfully considered whether we should proceed. Would the session be viewed as insensitive or disrespectful of the visceral pain and grief of so many? Would we come across as irrelevant voices from the “Ivory Tower” dissecting theological minutia while people are dying? Despite our trepidation, we decided to go forward with the session, wondering what the turnout would be. Our room only held only 40 people, but 10 minutes before our session began, it was already filled to capacity with about 60 people, some of whom sat in front on the floor and or stood in the back, filling every square inch of the room. Our panelists and moderators gathered together up front, held hands, and prayed that even in our differences, we would be able to model the love of Jesus and maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, as ministers of reconciliation in the gospel.
I was privileged to serve as co-moderator, alongside my colleague and steering committee chair, Rob Dalrymple. Our four panelists were Gary Burge, Joel Willits, Richard Harvey, and Jason Staples. Perspective varied widely on identities, roles, and covenant privileges of Israel and the Church, as well as on how our theologies and readings of Scripture impact political realities, even at this very moment in Gaza. The panelists disagreed robustly, and yet demonstrated love and appreciation for one another, making note of areas appreciation and agreement. At the end of the session, the Academic Dean from Moody Bible Institute thanked us for having such a courageous and important conversation in times of such tension and turmoil. Overall, the response to the session was positive, and I believe the Spirit guided us. I was grateful to participate as co-moderator, and I thank the Lord for these brilliant colleagues who have also become friends.
Of the many sessions I attended, one paper stood out to me by Dr. Rick Wadholm, Old Testament professor at Evangel University, entitled, “Ezekiel: The Spirit (Dis)Abled Son of Man.” Rick emphasized the ways in which the Spirit (dis)abled Ezekiel, including odd occurrences like muteness, ecstatic speech, and lying on his sides alternately. Rick’s paper intersected with scholars working on disability theology, and he challenged his hearers to reconsider what Spirit-empowerment may look like, reminding us that the Spirit-empowered Son of God was also the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Rick made an important stride in the field of Pentecostal biblical studies, connecting Ezekielian studies with disability theology. In the discussion time following the paper, Rick offered this profound reflection on the beauty of interdependence: “Independence can become rebellion, which is an imaginary ‘enabling,’ rather than a Spirit-empowered (dis)abling.”
As I left the 2023 SBL conference, I felt challenged to consider ways in which the Spirit may be nudging me to yield more deeply, to listen more carefully, and to sit more sensitively with someone else’s pain, offering the gift of presence. Colleagues and friends inspired me, as I received their wealth of wisdom and insight, and I returned with a sense of renewed gratitude for the gift of research, teaching, and community life both at Vanguard and in the larger academic space of biblical studies. I am grateful to IFD for the opportunity to represent Vanguard, and to return from the conference feeling more equipped and motivated to dive into research and preparation for my upcoming papers, book projects and classes.