“The Bible You Thought You Knew,” with Professor Emeritus Frank Spina
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Dr. Frank Spina. He was a Professor of Old Testament at SPU for four and a half decades. Dr. Spina often heard from students that he had taught their parents or their grandparents. Considered tough and fair, he was named Professor of the Year by these very students. Dr. Spina is still an Episcopal priest serving as Associate Priest at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Bellevue, Washington. He speaks regularly in the Northwest and beyond, and currently hosts a podcast called “The Bible You Thought You Knew.” Dr. Spina, thank you so much for joining us today.
Frank Spina: It’s lovely to be here. Thank you. Just a couple of corrections.
Dr. Spina: 46 years, not 45, and I’m no longer at St. Margaret’s. But starting in May, I will be the interim priest at St. Aidan’s in Camano Island, because the present vicar is going to go on sabbatical. So I’m going to do that for the next four months and I’m going to really enjoy that.
Amanda: You’re keeping pretty busy during your retirement.
Dr. Spina: I am busy. I’ve completely failed retirement.
Amanda: Yes. Well, let’s talk about retirement before we go back into your career at SPU. You didn’t retire as planned.
Dr. Spina: I didn’t. I retired in 2019 because my wife had retired, and we moved to Idaho because the retirement dollar goes farther in Idaho than it does in this very, very high expensive area.
Dr. Spina: Unfortunately, COVID did a number on her and apparently I did a number on her because she decided she didn’t want to be my wife anymore after 26 or 27 years of marriage. So I came back. I now live in Everett near my daughter and my three grandchildren. I still have a son who lives on Queen Anne Hill, so I’m close to family. And even when I was in Idaho, I really was not retired. Within six months, I was an associate priest at St. Michael’s, the cathedral in Boise. The dean of the cathedral had just resigned. They needed help. They had only one priest. She had just had a baby, so she was a young mother and needed help and they were glad to have me. I was preaching, I was celebrating, and I was teaching there.
Then COVID hit. That’s how I learned to do things on Zoom, the famous Zoom, and eventually then, in 2021 in the winter, I came back to Everett and lived in the so-called mother-in-law apartment in my daughter’s home in Everett. I made it a father-in-law apartment. I’m really enjoying being with the family. I’m still in amicable relationships with my ex-wife. I still don’t quite understand it, but then that’s another story. I still do my church work. I do as much speaking as opportunity affords. I just finished a book. Wipf and Stock will publish this book. It’s called Multiplying Divisions: The Fractious Nature of Israel, God’s Elect People. In my last chapter in that, I deal with the fact that Israel is a figure for the church, and unfortunately the church has followed its figure very well in terms of being divisive and dividing, and it continues to multiply division as we speak. It’s a very sad thing. Jesus prayed for the unity of the church, and that prayer has not been answered.
Amanda: Sure, yes. Let’s back up a minute. You’re speaking and preaching and teaching all the time, but there was a moment right before your retirement where you thought maybe that would be taken away.
Dr. Spina: Yeah, that was from the stroke. In 2014, I had a massive stroke that left me paralyzed on the right side and zero speech. My wife got me to the hospital within an hour. They zapped me with TPA. The clot dissolved in 24 hours. The paralysis disappeared, and I did 10 weeks of speech therapy to rewire my brain. I took medical leave in Winter Quarter of 2015, talked my neurologist into letting me teach one class in the spring quarter, “Biblical Theology,” which is always my sort of go-to class. I really enjoyed that. And then in 2015 in the fall, I went back to full time.
“In 2014, I had a massive stroke that left me paralyzed on the right side and zero speech. My wife got me to the hospital within an hour. They zapped me with TPA. The clot dissolved in 24 hours. The paralysis disappeared, and I did 10 weeks of speech therapy to rewire my brain. I took medical leave in Winter Quarter of 2015, talked my neurologist into letting me teach one class in the spring quarter, “Biblical Theology,” which is always my sort of go-to class. I really enjoyed that. And then in 2015 in the fall, I went back to full time.”
Dr. Spina: The only condition I’m left with is aphasia, which affects my speech, especially when I get tired. Later in the afternoon, I’ll have trouble with a word or two or I will get myself into a syntactical cul-de-sac. But mostly, people don’t notice much deficit. I notice it. I’m just simply not as fluent as I once was. But I get by and I’m very, very thankful because speech is what I do. I could have dealt with the paralysis, but losing the speech was a big deal for me, and so that’s where I am. But, I mean, I saw many, many people who had the kind of strokes that I have and the aphasia was much more serious. It’s frustrating because cognitively, you know exactly what you want to say. In other words, you process information the same, but between the brain and the tongue there’s this synapsis that fails. When I was in training for being a priest, they had me do a CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, and I did it at the VA. I talked to stroke victims, and I would just see the frustration. They wanted to tell me something, and the words just were not there. Once in a while, they could write it down. But it’s a terrible thing when you know what you want to say and it just… It’s terrible. I feel very, very fortunate and I won’t say it too loudly, but it seems providential to me. But then there are people for whom that providence did not work, so I want to be very careful about that.
Amanda: Right, yes, absolutely. And we have a special guest in the studio with us today that helps you with that, and I found it fascinating that he was able to help you. You want to tell us about Lincoln?
Dr. Spina: Yeah, this is my dog, Lincoln. He’s a purebred standard poodle. He is a champion. He has been in the international ring. He has been Best in Show. My wife did agility with him. She did rally with him, which is obedience, and he actually was trained to smell different things and identify them. And then when I had the stroke, she talked me into having him come to class with me. I would never have believed it until I saw it, but when I was in class that very first quarter where I did Biblical Theology, I would struggle with a word or get myself into a syntactical jam, and I would look at him and it would distract my attention and the word would come or the syntax would unravel and I would go on. So he became a service dog. He’s 14 years old and he’s been marvelous. To me, he’s the only breed of dog I would ever have. I had his cousin, our first one, who was white, an 85-pound, magnificent dog. And right now, Jo Ellen and I are doing joint custody, and right now he’s with me.
Amanda: Does Lincoln come with you when you preach?
Dr. Spina: He will in St. Aidan’s because he’s going to be with me. Jo Ellen will get him in July. Yeah, so he’ll do that.
Amanda: That’s so fantastic that you found that, and such an adorable helper to come with you at the same time.
Dr. Spina: Yes.
Amanda: Well, let’s talk for a minute about your podcast, “The Bible You Thought You Knew.” Why did you pick that title?
Dr. Spina: Well, that was actually my wife, my ex-wife, who did that title, because we’re trying to struggle with just how do you, because when you go online, there’s a zillion Bible in the Year, The Bible Made Easy and all of these kind of things. We wanted to find our own niche. My whole thing has been that people pay no attention to the details, and the details is what biblical interpretation is about, those wonderful details that we miss when we abstract or we do a synopsis of a story. For example, if you ask people, “Do you know the story of David and Goliath?” They’ll say, “Oh, yeah, of course. There’s this big guy, this big Philistine guy, and there’s David and he takes out his slingshot and takes him down.”
Well, that’s very nice, and that is, in a sense, the story. But the story is so much richer. There’s so much more texture and so forth when you pay attention to details. For example, every Sunday School kid would say, “Oh, Goliath was a giant.” He’s never called a giant. He’s twice called a man of the betweens. No one knows what that means. It’s only used in that chapter, I Samuel 17, twice. It’s typically translated “champion.” We’re given five words to describe his height, three full verses to describe his armor. And no one pays any attention to that. Well, what’s the difference between size and armor? Size matters in athletics. No one is going to say that the Seahawks beat the Rams because they got better shoulder pads or better helmets. They got better athletes. But in the military, you give me a 116-pound woman and teach her how to fly an F-16 and I want her on my side. You see?
“[E]very Sunday School kid would say, “Oh, Goliath was a giant.” He’s never called a giant. He’s twice called a man of the betweens. No one knows what that means. It’s only used in that chapter, I Samuel 17, twice. It’s typically translated “champion.” We’re given five words to describe his height, three full verses to describe his armor. And no one pays any attention to that. Well, what’s the difference between size and armor? Size matters in athletics. No one is going to say that the Seahawks beat the Rams because they got better shoulder pads or better helmets. They got better athletes. But in the military, you give me a 116-pound woman and teach her how to fly an F-16 and I want her on my side. You see?”
Amanda: Right. Right, of course.
Dr. Spina: And so Goliath is armed and he’s only twice called Goliath by the narrator. In the narration he’s always called The Philistine. He even says that. “Am I not The Philistine?” Translators miss that all the time. They say, “Am I not a Philistine?” It’s not that. It’s The Philistine because he is demonstrating the conventional military power that is demonstrated by the Philistine army. Saul and the Israelite army can’t stand up to that, because conventionally, they’re not as big. They’re not as powerful. David had unconventional power. That’s why he says, “I’m going to come to you in the name of my God. All I need is this slingshot.”
And so it has much more to do than beating overwhelming odds. It has to do with the conventional power that comes from God and unconventional power that comes from politics and the military. Completely different take on that story because of the details.
Amanda: Right. And so as you’re talking about it that way and focusing on the armor, then the little section about Saul trying to put armor on David and David saying no, now that takes on a whole new connotation.
Dr. Spina: Yeah. It’s not only that that doesn’t help him, he can’t even walk. It impedes him. And famously, when he cuts off Goliath’s head, he uses Goliath’s own sword. Yeah, it’s just all over there. And so Jo Ellen says, “Well, let’s call it The Bible You Thought You Knew,” because people will say, “Well, I know that story. I know this story. I know that.” And they do, after a fashion.
But when you go into the details… For example, like when Jesus changes the water into wine. The way I always heard that, Jesus goes to this wedding. They run out of refreshments. Everyone is panicked. “What are we going to do?” Jesus turns water into wine. Everybody applauds. Party goes on. In that story, the only people who believe after Jesus does this are the disciples. Not one word about any of the other people. And also, Jesus’ mother plays a big role in that, and that’s interesting because in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ mother is never named. You only know her name from the other gospels. The mother of Jesus, not Mary, in the Gospel of John, has very, very interesting roles, because she’s the one that recognized they were out of wine. She said to Jesus, “Go do something.” He says, “It’s nothing to do with me, woman.”
Dr. Spina: Not a nice thing to say to your mama. And so when I deal with these details, it just gives it a whole ‘nother wrinkle. In fact, right after our podcast today, I’m going to go record podcast 122 and 123, so I’ve almost done two years’ worth and running, so far.
Amanda: Wow. So when you’re done listening to this podcast, go check out The Bible You Thought You Knew with Dr. Frank Spina. I spent several years as a children’s pastor, and it is so difficult to find children’s books that are both age appropriate and, like you said, don’t miss the point of the story.
Dr. Spina: Yeah.
Amanda: I don’t know about how you unpack Jonah and the whale, but it’s not happily ever after. That is not how that story ends, not by a long shot. And yet in all the children’s books, it’s like bad thing happens, he prays, happily ever after.
Dr. Spina: Yeah.
Amanda: I was like, “I can’t read that to the kids. It’s not right.” (laughs)
Dr. Spina: Well, plus there’s no Jonah and the whale. There’s no whale. It’s a big fish. The word “big” is “big” in Jonah. There’s a big storm, a big city, a big fish. The only thing the fish does is get him onto shore, except that he stays there three days and three nights and does this wonderful prayer. It’s a foxhole prayer or a belly of the fish prayer, but yeah, you’re right.
The two things that frustrate me are the children’s stories and whenever Hollywood deals with biblical stuff. I can’t stand it because they fill in all these gaps. It’s wonderful for their imagination, but it has nothing to do with the text. And so I think I’ll just… This is a niche, because no one, very few people do what I call close readings of the biblical texts, and it makes all the difference in the world.
Amanda: I agree, and I think every story is that, right?
Dr. Spina: Yes.
Amanda: Even in our own lives, the devil’s in the details. We can talk about something that happened to us. You’ve been very candid and open about the stroke and divorce and family issues, and when we hide those details or downplay those details in our own lives, we sort of teach each other as Christians to not be who we are.
Dr. Spina: Right.
Amanda: And when we’re satisfied with the marquee version of the story, we never really have the fellowship that we need as Christians, don’t you think?
Dr. Spina: Well, yes, and I would add to the fact if you take the full measure of Scripture, I mean, everybody cherry-picks. Everybody says, “I like these texts, these stories. This is where I do my theology.” The Bible is full of point and counterpoint, and that should foster a tremendous debate. One of my frustrations — that was aphasia there – one of my frustrations is that we don’t sit down and talk about these points and counterpoints in Scripture. If you read the Bible and end up being a Presbyterian and I read the Bible and end up being a Methodist, don’t tell me you’re just being biblical. You’re rearranging things so that Calvin will be right, or I’m arranging it so that Wesley will be right. Both can’t be right. Maybe they’re both wrong, but one of them has to be. Or maybe we just say, “Maybe we’ve misconstrued how we do the Bible.”
“The Bible is full of point and counterpoint, and that should foster a tremendous debate. One of my frustrations is that we don’t sit down and talk about these points and counterpoints in Scripture. If you read the Bible and end up being a Presbyterian and I read the Bible and end up being a Methodist, don’t tell me you’re just being biblical. You’re rearranging things so that Calvin will be right, or I’m arranging it so that Wesley will be right. Both can’t be right. Maybe they’re both wrong, but one of them has to be. Or maybe we just say, ‘Maybe we’ve misconstrued how we do the Bible.'”
For example, if you read in the Torah, you have this famous statement that the sins of the fathers and the mothers will be visited on the children to the third and fourth generation. Well, Jeremiah and Ezekiel come and say, “No, no, no. If you eat sour grapes, your kids are not going to have their teeth on edge. Everyone’s going to have to deal with their own sweet or sour grapes.” Ezekiel says, “Only the soul that sins will die.” Now, that’s at least a conversation. That’s at least a conversation. Josiah, at the end of 2 Kings, does everything that he’s supposed to do to reform and ends up being dead. And Deuteronomy says, “If you do all of this, you’ll be blessed and you’ll live a long time.” Well, the chronicler is upset with that, and so it explains how it is that Josiah dies, gets killed in battle, after doing this thing. Both of those texts are important in terms of how we understand that.
I loved when you mentioned the devil is in the details. I’m thinking my next book, I’m going to call it The Angel is in the Details. It is the angel in the details, because the details make all the difference in the world.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah. I was thinking as you were talking about that how many people say, “The Bible’s full of contradictions. Therefore, I throw it out.” But as you aptly pointed out, life is full of contradictions. There are times where if you don’t jump immediately, then you will be lost. And there are times where if you wait too long, you will be lost, and life is that way, and we understand that. We understand that not all situations have the same wisdom and the same answers. But when we read the Bible, then we say, “Oh, there’s all the contradictions.” But that’s what life is.
Dr. Spina: Well, and what I’ve often told my students, contradictions in the Bible are one of the best things. That’s where the meaty stuff was. If you don’t pay attention to that, you’ll miss things. For example, Proverbs says, “Train up a child the way he or she will go, and when they are old, they’ll be just right.” Well, any parent and most children know that ain’t true. Now that’s mostly true and you do the best you can. Every parent does the best they can, and then they spend the rest of their life saying, “Oh, I should have done that better or this better or that better.”
Well, in the Wisdom tradition, Proverbs is basically the default position. But there are two books that say, “It doesn’t matter how wise you are. You can’t guarantee your life,” Job and Ecclesiastes. Both say that from a slightly different perspective. Job, you can’t be better than him. Even God says, “Did you check him out? As good as they come.” And then poor Job is afflicted and his friends say, “Well, you sinned, obviously.” “I didn’t sin.” Now, it’s interesting because Job actually adopts the same position that he’s been criticizing in his friends. He says, “I didn’t sin. I shouldn’t be doing this.” Well, exactly. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. But in Job’s complaints, he never complains about the friends or about the Satan. The Satan is kind of a prosecuting attorney in Job, rather than the famous devil with the pitchfork and that sort of thing. But he only complains about God, and at the end God says, “I’m sovereign and you can’t guarantee life. It doesn’t matter how wise you are, how rich you are, how famous you are, or even how moral you are.” Now, we all know this. The best guy in the world is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and some scoundrel is 98 years old and smoking cigars on Maui.
Amanda: Right. We all know. We all know that one plus two doesn’t equal three in life, right?
Dr. Spina: Exactly, exactly.
Amanda: It can.
Dr. Spina: It can.
Amanda: But it doesn’t always.
Dr. Spina: Doesn’t always, exactly.
Amanda: Yeah. And I think psychologically, it’s so comforting for us to be able to say, “Here’s a reason why this bad thing happened to someone else, because then if I don’t do what they did, then it’s not going to happen to me.” Right? It’s self-protection.
Dr. Spina: Oh, yeah.
Amanda: It’s how we don’t walk through life scared all the time, and yet if we live in that, then we’re so judgmental of everyone else and then even of ourselves.
Dr. Spina: Yeah, yeah. I mean, my first wife died of cancer three weeks before her fifty-third birthday, and in my humble opinion, she was as good as they come. She was completely cheated. She never got to see any of her three grandchildren. She would have doted on them. She would have loved them. One of those things. And this was no punishment for anything she had done. It was just the way biology works, and who knows why? Who knows why? But yeah, you’re quite right. And somehow as religious people, we think we need to have an explanation for everything, and even the idea, “Well, it’s a fallen world.” Well, that explains some things, but that… Is a tornado because of a fallen world? When the people in the garden, was there no gravity? You couldn’t trip on a limb?
Dr. Spina: Come on, now. We get silly about these kinds of things.
Dr. Spina: Yeah.
Amanda: Yeah. Just going back to Jonah in the whale and the children’s books, when you said silly, what immediately popped in my head was a book that I saw where there was Jonah in the whale and he was kneeling.
Dr. Spina: (laughs)
Amanda: So not squished, but kneeling and with the hands praying in the middle of the whale, and he had a candle lit.
Dr. Spina: (laughs)
Amanda: And I just remember thinking, “I’m going to throw this book away.” (laughs) Because it turns Bible stories into Santa Claus.
Dr. Spina: Yeah, it does. It does, yeah. Yeah, nice little desk, little candle and a little prayer shawl and everything. Yeah.
Amanda: Right, and if you think that’s how your trials are going to be, you are in for some hurt, right?
Dr. Spina: Yeah, you are. Exactly, exactly.
Amanda: Which comes back to the all-importance of clergy, and honestly just church community being honest and real about the details, right? The details of their life.
Dr. Spina: Yeah.
Amanda: What’s next for you? Do you have another book? Oh, you just said you were going to do The Angel in the Details.
Dr. Spina: If my health holds on, I’ve got at least two more books in me, I think. I’m also doing some articles. I’m writing an article right now where I’m comparing Cain’s reactions to God’s actions to Esau’s reaction to God’s actions. Cain did not do well. Esau was blessed. I’m writing that article. I’m going to send it out to the journal First Things, which is a conservative journal, but they take argument very seriously. Now, it’s not just for biblical stuff. This will be for a general audience, and that’s basically what I’m writing for right now.
This most recent book, Multiplying Divisions, it’ll be a book that scholars will read, but I also have written it so that lay people will read it too. Very much on the pattern of the book that I wrote, The Faith of the Outsider. I still get a little bit of royalty from that. That’s been, 2005 I published that. I just, again, I’m enjoying life. I sort of struggled after the first aftermath of the divorce. It will now be two years in November since we’re completely separated. The divorce was signed last fall, the official part. But I not only survived it, but I’m on the way to thriving again. Again, I don’t wish any harm or any kind of downside to Jo Ellen, but I’m just trying to make as much as I can for how much time I’ve got left. And who knows? I always joke that if I have breakfast, there’s at least an outside chance I might be around for supper.
Dr. Spina: We’ll see.
Amanda: I’m going to take breakfast more seriously from now on.
Dr. Spina: That’s right. That’s right.
Amanda: I have to ask. For a man … The only term that comes to mind is a learned man, right? You are a learned man. You have spent your life in the text. I would come to you with just about any question, and I know you would be able to point me in the right direction. When you go through something huge and unexpected, stroke, divorce, where do you go in the text for yourself?
Dr. Spina: That’s a wonderful question, because I… You’re right. I just live, I mean, my most favorite thing, back in the day, before my stroke, before the doctors impressed on me how important eight hours of sleep was, I was an early riser. I would get up four o’clock in the morning. My favorite thing, I’d fire up the coffee, take a cup of coffee to my home office, and I would do a close reading of the Hebrew or the Greek text, depending on what it was. To me, that was the most pleasurable thing. I was doing it not necessarily writing an article or research. I’m just sort of absorbing it.
And so I don’t have “favorite” places, but I have been saturated with biblical lore throughout my professional career, and it has affected me personally as well. In terms of “where do I go,” I’m a person who likes to process things with friends. I have a handful of dear, close friends, male and female, that I have been able to be counseled with, so not professionally but personally, people who know me, love me with all my flaws and so on and so forth. They have helped me just by listening, hearing me out, having an insight or so. It’s very, very alarming when you think, “Oh my goodness, what did I do?” I was delusional. I thought I was husband of the year material. I didn’t even make honorable mention. So, I mean, who knows that? I mean, this is a woman I had lived with for over 25 years, and I just was not, I did not end up being the husband that she wanted or needed or thought she should have, that sort of thing. It’s hard not to deal with some guilt on that. What in the world should I have done better? Did I take my scholarship too seriously? Did I take the church too seriously? Did I neglect in other ways and so forth?
I guess my biggest source of strength is Eucharistic worship. That’s one of the reasons I’m an Episcopalian. I love the liturgy. The liturgy washes over me. The profundity of engaging it, not to mention celebrating it, to me is not explicable. I don’t even understand what’s going on, but that’s part of what a sacramental approach is, that God uses ordinary things, ordinary bread, ordinary wine, ordinary people, ordinary words, and transforms it into this deeply spiritual, just to use that word, deeply spiritual mysterious understanding of what it means to be in relationship to God and with God. I mean, there’s so much about that relationship that even at this advanced age, that I would say I’m not so sure where I am or where I’m going or how this is all going to work out.
But the liturgy, the language of it. I’m big on language. Language is important. I mean, the Bible requires literacy. The Bible is about words. It’s about sentences and syntax and paragraphs and exquisite narratives. We don’t even think about them because the Bible was produced at a time when most people could not read. They would hear it. So language is enormously important to me, so I think right now I would say the way I come to God is a sacramental way, a liturgical way. I’ve never considered myself a “very spiritual” person. I’m not a contemplative type. In fact, I’ve been accused of being too cerebral. Okay, fair enough. I think it works for me somehow.
Amanda: Well, and we’re all different. We can’t be someone else. We can do our best to stretch what we’ve been given and view more and be more to others, but we still are who we are.
Dr. Spina: Yeah, and I’ve tried a few things. I’ve tried to do some of the Ignatian stuff or the silent retreats, and I mean, I just can’t deal with it.
Amanda: (laughs) I need my words.
Dr. Spina: I need my words, yeah.
Amanda: Hi, Lincoln. Lincoln came to say hi to me on my side. Okay, I’m so interested in your answer to our famous final question that we ask all of our guests.
Dr. Spina: Okay.
Amanda: If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently that’s going to make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Dr. Spina: Well, I don’t think I can improve on Jesus on that, and so I would just say do to everyone else what you would want to be done to you. I think The Golden Rule that Jesus talked about would solve everything, absolutely everything. You don’t have to believe anything. You don’t have to go to church. You don’t have to give alms. Just treat everyone, and of course if you did that, then you would do all these other things.
Dr. Spina: It’s so simple. It’s so simple, and we, as human beings, have made it so complicated, so complex.
Amanda: Yep. Lincoln has basically tried to crawl in my lap as we finish, and so I would say, Dr. Spina, that you are acting out your advice right now, as you brought me the sweetest gift during our conversation today, both our conversation and getting to play with Lincoln. Thank you so much. I’m so excited for your next book and all that you do. Please keep in touch. We want to know where you go next, and when you publish Angel in the Details, come back and talk to us about it.
Dr. Spina: I’ll be glad to do that. Good to be with you, Amanda. God bless.