The Business Of Bible Lessons

How studying Old Testament narratives builds job skills

Deborah Green has been a janitor, a secretary, a marketing director and an executive. She has cleaned toilets and she has designed communication campaigns for large companies. She can edit a business publication or plumb actuarial databases for a consulting firm.

Which is to say, Green (pictured) knows what it takes to succeed in the real world. As the UO’s Greenberg Associate Professor in Hebrew Language and Literature, she drills this job readiness into her students.

Her tool is the Hebrew Bible. Green’s students learn to evaluate religious texts with a critical eye, interpret a complicated language, develop compelling arguments from various perspectives and work in a team.

“Students are totally unaware that these are the skills they will need later in life,” Green said. “When you’re reading a complex text in a different language and you have to translate it—it doesn’t matter that it’s the Hebrew Bible—you’re figuring out a problem. ‘How do I make the pieces fit together?’ That ability to think through a problem translates to any job.”

Q How does studying the Hebrew Bible translate to job skills?

A The “miracle” of the Bible is that two opinions that completely contradict each other can stand in the same text. Students learn that there are multiple ideas, multiple voices, and that these expressions don’t agree. There is always a prevailing opinion and a dissenting opinion. I ask my students to deal with both.

One reason that Congress doesn’t function anymore is the inability to com-promise: “I won’t even deal with your bill.” No company could work that way. My students argue both the prevailing and dissenting opinions in the Bible, so they understand that compromise means understanding the other side, coming together, talking, negotiating.

Q Can you provide an example that illustrates this?

A In the Bible, Ezra serves as the return from Babylonia and rebuild their temple. In one episode, Ezra learns that the Jewish men who returned ahead of his group married outside of the Jewish faith. Ezra believes these intermarriages will cause the downfall of the new community, and he insists that the men divorce their wives. Divorce, however, entails the disinheritance of the sons. Well, some of these returnees have been married for 20 years or more; in many cases their sons are grown, with families of their own. Ezra’s request means that these sons will inherit nothing.

But in the book of Malachi, which is written around the same time, the prophet says, “You don’t divorce the wife of your youth, you stay loyal to her, no matter who she is.” Those are two completely opposite views, and they both sit there in different texts, in the Bible.

Here we have the ethical message from the prophet and the interpretation of law by Ezra—demonstrating that in life, political issues and ethical issues often collide. How do you decide the proper course of action? My students have to argue one side or the other. Can you write a persuasive paper using evidence? There’s no wrong answer, but there are plenty of bad arguments that I’m going to grade you to the hilt on, if you don’t argue well, if you don’t give evidence.

Q You’ve got a similar example in “The Rape of Dinah.”

A Dinah is the daughter of Jacob. In this story, Jacob has bought land from the father of the king of Shechem and settled on it. In the ancient Near East, a virgin is not supposed to leave the compound of her family, and certainly not by herself. But Dinah “goes out to visit with the young women of the land.” While in Shechem, Dinah is raped by the king’s son. When Jacob first finds out about the rape, he says nothing.

Then the king comes to Jacob to ex-plain that his son is in love with Dinah. The king asks to make a covenant be-tween the two peoples allowing inter-marriage, and Jacob agrees—with a major condition. All the men in the city must circumcise themselves. The men of Shechem agree, but while they’re all recovering from this very painful procedure, two of Dinah’s brothers come and kill everyone, anyway.

I ask my students: Was that right or wrong? Were the brothers right to contradict the wishes of their father? It doesn’t matter whether the students agree with the brothers’ actions—what matters is whether they can write a persuasive piece.

Q How is interpreting a complicated language like solving a puzzle on the job?

A Hebrew is extremely mathematical—every sentence involves [the question], “How do I get these pieces to go together to make a sentence that makes sense?”

If you don’t learn the rules of Biblical Hebrew, you will lose the meaning. In reading “in the beginning, God created…”, if you took it word by word in translating from Biblical Hebrew, you would end up with “in the beginning, he created God.” But it doesn’t say that. It’s very formulaic; you have to know the rules of the game or you won’t know what the Bible is saying.

I teach my students how to break the words apart and put them back together. They learn what the problem is and how to solve it. It’s about categorizing information and testing solutions.

It takes patience, perseverance and focus. That’s something we desperately need in society—the ability to focus. Anyone who is excelling at making any-thing has this ability to focus, to block out everything else and really zero in.

Q What do you do to encourage team learning?

A My students do this group process of reading and translating a text they’ve never seen before. They’ll have one person look up words in the lexicon, another person figure out every-thing about the word down to its root, and somebody else looking at the whole of the verses and asking, “Is that really what that verse means?”

These are job skills: How do you work with somebody? How do you decide that person’s right, this person’s wrong, and still function as a group? I don’t care what your job is, you have to be able to work with other people.

Q What do you mean by the “ethical imperative” in the Bible?

A The prophetic message is “Take widow, take care of the orphan.” These are the people in your community—if somebody asks you for money, you don’t get to just walk by them on the street, you have to take care of them. That may not be so much of a job focus, but it’s a life lesson: to be cognizant of those who don’t have as much as you. You’re going to be-come this great computer programmer? You need to keep in mind that there are poor kids who desperately need computers in their schools that don’t have them.

Q What do you tell the student who doesn’t see how studying the Bible will get them a job?

A I think that’s why students may gravitate to business classes—they think, “That’s going to help me right out of school, so I won’t have all this debt.” But in the long run, people in the humanities end up in higher echelons because they have all these other skills they may not have realized when they graduated.

—Matt Cooper