Tips from a Scripture scholar on how to read the Bible

(Jaime Waters/Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

Jaime L. Waters serves as associate professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University and as “The Word” columnist at America since the first Sunday of Advent in 2019. A biblical studies professor, Dr. Waters holds a Ph.D in Near Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. in religion from Yale University and a B.A. in philosophy and theology from Boston College. Professor Waters is author of “Threshing Floors in Ancient Israel: Their Ritual and Symbolic Significance” (Fortress Press, 2015), a book based on her dissertation that explores the concept of sacred and liminal space in the agrarian societies of the Hebrew Old Testament.

On Dec. 18, I interviewed Dr. Waters by telephone about her background and approach to writing “The Word” column for America. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.

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How did you become a biblical studies professor?

When I was an undergraduate at Boston College, I really loved my Bible courses. I didn’t expect to be a biblical studies professor, as I was a political science major, but in my first year I took Perspectives on Western Culture, a yearlong course blending philosophy and theology. I really fell in love with philosophy and theology. I loved that there was so much to learn about the Bible and so many questions I hadn’t considered before college about the historical circumstances and cultures in which the Bible developed.

What led you to focus on the Hebrew Old Testament?

The stories really got my attention. I was just drawn to the content. When I read that Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, I laughed and just wanted to keep on reading. I found it hilarious and surprising that he was so famished he didn’t even care to keep his birthright—he was just hungry! I was surprised that this story was even in the Bible; it’s so funny!

You list “Catholic Biblical Exegesis” as one of your specialties. How does your Catholic faith influence your approach to the text?

I approach the text in a way that’s mindful of the historical background, but also mindful of the text’s sacredness and relevance today. As a Catholic, I try to blend those two things together, so I’m not just a biblical historian but someone who recognizes the importance of scriptural exegesis today.

How has studying sacred Scripture influenced your faith?

Sacred Scripture gives me a more informed perspective on my faith. It helps me understand some of the background that influences my beliefs. For example, praying the Hail Mary and then reading the biblical texts of the prayer really enhances my beliefs. It also helps me to see the complexity of my faith and how multifaceted its origins have been.

Sacred Scripture gives me a more informed perspective on my faith.

What role did your Jesuit education at Boston College play in the journey that led you to America Media?

At B.C., I had a lot of lay faculty support and courses that sparked my interest but also nurtured my study. Professors like Kerry Cronin and David Vanderhooft were very supportive. They helped me not only at B.C., but beyond. My journey to America Media feels in some ways like I’m coming full circle, returning to reflect on a weekly basis on what Scripture means today, not merely reflecting on it critically. That was part of what intrigued me as an undergraduate: not just the historical context of the Bible, but the relevance today.

As the newest author of our weekly “The Word” column in America, you break open the Sunday lectionary readings each week. How would you describe your approach to this role?

I try to educate the readers on some complexities of the text, but also inspire them to apply it to their lives. First, I look at the three lectionary readings. Then I look for connections in each reading to each other, helping the reader see how the readings were put together intentionally. In some ways, they can be in conversation with each other. Another thing I do is look for any passage that has the potential to be misunderstood or misused. If I notice that, I try to help people better understand the text.

In some ways, the lectionary readings can be in conversation with each other.

What can you tell us about the concept of liminal space in your work?

It’s not a big part of my current research, but my book looked at threshing floors, locations of agricultural activities. I looked at references to them in the Hebrew Bible, thinking about why that space was used for ritual activities. Sacrifice and learning happen on a threshing floor, for instance. There aren’t many references to them, but they are sacred when they do appear.

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

It depends on what I’m looking for and how I’m feeling. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research on Jeremiah and reading a lot of him. So at the moment, I’ll say Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” One of the reasons I love it so much is that it describes Jeremiah’s calling as coming before his birth, a prenatal calling to speak to the nations. It inspires me to think about God’s role not only in Jeremiah’s life, but in everyone’s life, connecting to our work and calling. I’m hopeful I was also called to something in the womb; the passage helps me think about my life.

I’m hopeful I was also called to something in the womb

As a liturgical column, “The Word” falls more into a spiritual than academic genre. What role does Scripture play in your own prayer life?

Because I read Scripture so much in an academic setting, the academic and the spiritual have blended together in my life. I guess I could say that I find my work to be spiritually fulfilling. Because I’m so engrossed in reading Scripture on a regular basis, the two overlap, but sometimes I do read for my own spiritual fulfillment rather than for a book or article. I do lectio divina (divine reading).

Who is your favorite saint and why?

St. Jerome inspired my biblical interest, but also St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. I love working at DePaul because their commitment to justice as founders of the Vincentians and Daughters of Charity inspires me.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?

I would say that women are called to be leaders in the church, and I think we can do it beyond the roles women currently have in the church, recognizing the great value they bring.

What do you hope people take away from your work in “The Word” column?

I hope people see that Scripture can and should inspire how they live, think and pray. I hope they realize the importance of carefully reading Scripture. Hopefully it inspires them to read Scripture beyond just Sundays and my column.

Any final thoughts?

I’d also want to say that even though my biblical studies took off at B.C., my family has been instrumental in my faith, values and nurturing. My mom and my grandma in particular have been very faithful. Their lives and work inspire me. The things I write about, my interest in justice and the poor, were instilled in me from a very young age.

Correction, Feb. 4: Professor David Vanderhooft's name was originally misspelled in this article. In the article summary, Jaime Water's first name was also misspelled.

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