Monday, February 27, 2012

Facebook and the Blossoming Rod of Aaron: A Researcher's Tale

I am currently pursuing a graduate degree in Theology at a Catholic institution (the same one I work at as a librarian), and find myself in a required course called Old Testament (OT) Exegesis. Now, being an Orthodox Christian, I'll be honest and say that my only real exposure to the OT has been liturgical, and even then my liturgical exposure has been limited mostly to Holy Week (i.e., the week before Pascha/Easter). The main exception to this limited exposure is the Psalms--we hear and pray through the Psalms at almost every service throughout the year. Perhaps there are other exceptions as well that I haven't caught.

[To the Orthodox liturgical folk who may be reading: Did I miss any other instances of the OT in our weekly liturgical cycle?]

All of this being said, I went into this OT Exegesis course not knowing all that much about the OT, except the very basic structure, some of the more popular stories, and the simple fact that we in the Church read and understand the OT first and foremost through Christ, continuing the tradition passed down from the Early Church. On a basic level, I am excited to be in the course because it is giving me a lot of knowledge about the OT Scriptures themselves, which is never a bad thing. We're reading a lot of Jewish commentaries, which is really neat and fascinating as the books of the OT are shared by our two faiths.

For our term paper there is a very narrow focus within which we can choose our topic of choice. The narrow focus is: the OT book of Numbers, Chapters 11-36. We're to write an exegetical paper on our passage of choice from this book. ... For me, this was like someone saying: "Pick your favorite Baroque piece of music. Ready, set, go!" (I am not an expert nor even an amateur at recognizing Baroque music.) Needless to say, choosing a passage was going to wind up being more arbitrary than I'm used to when it comes to choosing a research topic, but such was the nature of the thing--if grad school is anything, it's humbling!--so away I went.

My husband suggested helpfully that the first place I look be the Ancient Christian Commentaries volume on Numbers to see what the Church Fathers had to say (in digest-format at least) about the various passages in that book. After a cursory skim of the various headings, I landed on an image I recognized from the hymnography in church: the blossoming rod of Aaron (Numbers 17:1-11). Based on the volume I was reading it was clear the Church Fathers had enough to say on this passage, and it struck a deep enough chord in me from having encountered it liturgically, that I decided it would be my passage of choice for the paper. But even though I knew I had encountered the image before, for the life of me I couldn't remember what it meant.

And this is where things start to get interesting: I decided to take the question to Facebook. Among my numerous Facebook Friends are many fellow Orthodox Christians, with a noteworthy number of Orthodox priests among them. I figured, if anyone out there could remind me what the image usually means when it comes up in our hymnography, someone in my Facebook network could.

I posted the question as a Status Update: "To my scholarly Orthodox friends, quick question: What are some of the interpretations of the rod of Aaron in our tradition? I know I've heard it come up time and time again in hymnography (particularly the blossoming of the rod of Aaron, which is what I'm especially interested in), but I'm drawing a blank as to precisely the ways in which it's used as a symbol/type. Thanks in advance!"

[It's worth noting that I landed on the idea to pursue the blossoming rod of Aaron while at work, and my husband was otherwise occupied at work himself, so he was not on hand to ask. He would have known the answer to my question, having been raised in the Church and being a seminary graduate who often serves in the altar. But my research impulse was too strong to wait until I got home, so I took it to Facebook.]

Lo and behold, within a few hours I had a total of three different Facebook Friends leave useful responses: a priest, a deacon, and a reader in the Church. I learned and/or was reminded that the blossoming rod of Aaron is tied symbolically to: Mary the Virgin Mother of God (she bore Christ without seed just as the rod blossomed miraculously without seed), the grace-filled priesthood (the blossoming of Aaron's rod over the others indicated his election to the priesthood through grace), and the cross of Christ (which bore Christ in the same way the rod bore blossoms). These images rang true to my understanding, and I felt even better about my choice of passage than I had before, all thanks to my resourceful Facebook Friends.

But I still had the difficulty of eventually tracking down scholarly sources about this particular passage, to be used in the paper itself. The line between primary and secondary sources in theological studies (particularly in interpretation of Scripture) is very...fuzzy. In general, you'd assume primary sources are better, right? Normally you'd be correct, but that assumes the researcher has developed the toolbox, skills and mindset required to rightly understand those primary sources. Usually this is where secondary sources come in...but what if your secondary source of choice is a Church Father writing over a thousand years ago? Doesn't this in turn become a primary source in its own right? (Answer: It does.) You can see how it can get complex, with the layers of meaning and interpretation involved in this kind of work.

So, what to do? For me, once again the answer was to be found on Facebook, only this time I would direct my question to a narrower community of Orthodox scholars who study this stuff on a regular basis, versus the wider group of the Orthodox faithful I directed the first query to (and intentionally so, as the first piece of information that mattered to me was the understanding of the image in the context of liturgy and worship--this is always where my theological investigations begin and end).

The community in question is a closed Group on Facebook containing Orthodox scholars. The group is made up of: working or independent scholars who study Orthodox theological topics for their research, graduate students in Theology with a focus on Orthodox/Eastern Christian studies, or faculty in other research areas who happen to be Orthodox. I am a member of the group by virtue of the second and third categories. The existence of this Facebook Group is an exciting endeavor in the land of Orthodox-scholars-who-Facebook, and I am honored to be included in it. (The group currently has 183 members.)

So, I posed my research question to this group, knowing I was now addressing my colleagues, fellow scholars and in most cases those with far more expertise than I in this area. I won't copy my posed question here, as it was quite long, but in sum I asked for suggestions of works and scholars who interpret the OT, the book of Numbers, and this passage in particular through an Orthodox scholarly lens.

The result? A comment thread 28 comments long containing loads of recommended resources, as well as the names of several Orthodox scholars whose focus is OT interpretation and who have written on the topic. And being a librarian, I found myself, over the course of an afternoon/evening at the Reference Desk, tracking down each recommended resource in "real time" as the comments came in. It was a very fruitful evening at the desk, to say the least!

Now of course I haven't had a chance to consult the resources in detail yet, and many are not yet in my possession but have been ordered/requested and are on their way to me. The term paper isn't due until the end of the semester, so I have some time. And I have a lot more to learn from my professor about his expectations for us with the paper. But at least I know I have a reliable body of work to delve into when it comes time to dig in and exegete, interpret and understand this OT passage containing the blossoming rod of Aaron.

Not bad for Facebook, if you ask me.


And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds. (KJV, Numbers 17:8)

Almond Flowers
Almond Flowers image courtesy of Flickr user Avital Pinnick via a CC license

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a lot of fun! I know the commentary set you are speaking of... My Orthoman has many volumes of it!