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Asian Hermeneutics

In terms of some of the themes that might come up in an Asian-American hermeneutic, one can list a couple of things that are very, very important in the Bible but also very important to the experience of Asians, both here in the US, but also Asians in the continent of Asia.

So, for example, the idea of ancestors; now if you think about it, the Hebrew Bible really understands its religious identity through the concept of ancestry. The God of the Bible, the Lord, is named as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, right? So this is a god of ancestry, a god of lineage, a god of the ancestors. Well ancestral lineage is a huge idea within the Asian context. Really one understands one’s identity going back centuries often based on their lineage, based on who their ancestors were. The sense of group identity, the sense of an individual’s identity is based upon the family from which you come.

I think that’s an important reminder when we’re looking at the biblical text is that we have to understand that one of the primary ways that we understand the faith or the religion of the ancestors in the Bible is really through this lens of lineage and ancestry; that’s why we get these ”this is the generation of x, y, z.” It’s a very important concept in the Bible.

The second concept or theme that I think really has traction with both Asian and Asian-American communities would be the concept of wisdom. Of course, there is a rich tradition of wisdom literature in the Bible that includes the book of Proverbs, includes the book of Ecclesiastes, and includes the book of Job. We both have what you might call a kind of more proverbial kind of wisdom as is given in the Book of Proverbs—little short, pithy scenes that tell you how the world works—or you have speculative wisdom, you know, more philosophical understandings of how the world works and the problems that are inherent in it, the problem of good and evil, these kinds of things.

So the understanding of wisdom in the ancient Near East and in the Bible, in particular—it can be an embodied presence, it can be a literal idea—this idea of something that governs the way the universe works and the more proximity you have to this, the better your life will turn out. The more you follow its principles the better things work out for your life. This is very typical of certainly other kinds of forms of wisdom within Asia and other parts of the world but particularly in a lot of Asian cultures the idea of wisdom runs deep. And so, I think Asian wisdom or within an Asian hermeneutic, concepts like wisdom have a lot of traction, have a lot of meaning for these contexts.

One last theme is really the theme of liberation, and I think this carries different weights in different countries of Asia, but it has a particular meaning among Asian-American communities, particularly in the twentieth century. Asian-Americans were very active in the civil rights movement and notions of justice and liberation were very strong themes within Asian communities. And so, of course, you know, one of the core stories of the Bible is really located in the story of the Exodus. The idea of a people who were enslaved, the idea of a people who were treated unjustly, whom God delivered; these themes have been rich not only in Latin American liberation theology but have been very important for various Asian liberation theologies that have emerged in recent years; and they carry a lot of weight, as well, for Asian-American interpretations of the Bible.


  • Frank Yamada

    Frank M. Yamada is President of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. His expertise is in Hebrew Bible, with interests in feminist theory and culturally-contextual biblical interpretation. He is the author of Configurations of Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Peter Lang, 2008) and is the editor of The Peoples’ Bible (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008).