Reflections on the SOTS Presidential address

This comment piece was written by our PhD student Robin Hamon.

Over the summer, Jo Henderson-Merrygold and I arranged a series of reading group sessions for postgraduates at SIIBS. Each member of this diverse group took a turn to set some reading, and then lead a discussion on it. The conversation was lively; whilst we agreed on many things, we each had different methods of reasoning and brought our own perspectives to the debate.

In our last meeting, we explored Professor Paul Joyce's presidential address to the Society of Old Testament Study (SOTS) on the occasion of its centenary meeting. The address reflects upon the last century of SOTS and discusses the future of the society. We thought that writing some reflections on this address would be a fitting start to the new academic year as we each look ahead and consider how our own work might contribute to the future of biblical scholarship.

I’ll start with some disclaimers. Firstly, I was not at this SOTS meeting, so I cannot claim to be aware of the wider context in which this address was given; how it fitted with the other papers featuring at the conference, and how it was received. So in the tradition of literary criticism, what I offer below is based purely on the transcript of this address in its final form. Secondly, these are my reflections on the main things that jumped out at me as I read the address; what follows is not intended to be a review of the address or a summary of its key points. Finally, my views do not necessarily reflect the views of the others participating in the postgraduate reading group, though I am grateful for the discussion we had as it no doubt helped to refine the words that follow.

Firstly, I was delighted to see that Joyce begins will an assessment of diversity and inclusion at SOTS. It strikes me from the information given that historically SOTS has not been a very diverse community at all, and this rightly needs to be acknowledged and changed. In biblical scholarship, multiple voices from a range of demographics and religious traditions are needed to bring fresh perspectives to the texts that we study and SOTS can only be a healthy organisation if it gives space for these voices to be heard. This issue of diversity and inclusion did leave me thinking about the role of universities and Bible colleges in promoting diversity in the study of theology, religious and biblical studies (a distinctive feature of SOTS is that a substantial section of membership are Christian parish clergy). To a certain extent, SOTS membership is fed by the next generation of postgraduate and early career scholars along with ordinands, and if this community is not sufficiently diverse to start with it reduces the potential for diversity within SOTS to improve. Perhaps universities and seminaries within the British Isles need to do more to encourage students from minority backgrounds to bring their unique perspectives to studying the Bible? Perhaps SOTS needs to be more proactive in giving voices to scholars from under-represented demographics in its conferences; inviting non-members from minority backgrounds to give papers could be a fruitful starting point?

Next, I was impressed by Joyce’s courage to acknowledge and discuss the distance between SOTS and wider contemporary culture. He recalls a paper presented at the SOTS summer conference of 1986 in Manchester, which was interrupted by the sound of the legendary rock band Queen performing elsewhere across the city. The windows at the conference were shut to dampen the sound, and symbolically this act demonstrated the cultural chasm between the thousands of rock music fans and the hundred or so biblical scholars meeting in the city that night. I think that Joyce is right that given the tradition of the society, for the foreseeable future the focus of SOTS will be on the examination of the Hebrew Bible from a historical perspective. But it is helpful that he draws attention to the growing area of reception history, which offers one route by which the society may engage with contemporary culture more closely. Perhaps one day a SOTS paper will explore the use of messianic imagery in Queen’s song Jesus?

Finally, as a biblical scholar whose university education began with a degree in environmental science, I was surprised to see no mention of environmental issues in the paper as it looked to the future of SOTS. It is true that within the membership of SOTS there are only a handful of scholars who actively publish in the field of ecotheology or ecological hermeneutics, so I understand that this is not a primary focus of the society. But still, we are living in an age of environmental crisis. The world’s human population will reach 10 billion by 2050. Global resources such as clean water and fossil fuels are becoming increasingly limited, but under higher demand than ever before. Sea levels are rising. Farmlands are being flooded. There are now more environmental refugees than at any other time in history. Scientists now estimate that 50% of all species will face extinction by the end of the century. It seems to me that if SOTS would like to do anything to engage more with contemporary culture, a helpful starting point would be to explore how the Hebrew Bible might speak into contemporary environmental issues, and help vulnerable communities to reach solutions to life-threatening problems…