My Story – In Brief
I grew up on a small farm in Victoria, Australia.
I broke with tradition and went to high school,
riding my bike 8 miles there and 8 miles back.
I went to Concordia Seminary after high school
began German, Latin, Hebrew and Greek
all in the same week.
I was ordained as ‘missionary-at-large’ to America
and began graduate study in St Louis,
concentrating on the Old Testament.
I then took a parish in Brooklyn, New York,
and learned to be a pastor the hard way
in a parish filled with murder, adultery, hatred
and all the sins St Paul cited in his letters.
While still in my twenties I became a lecturer
in Biblical Studies at Concordia Seminary, St Louis,
at a time when new methods of interpreting the Bible
were in the air.
I was heavily involved in youth ministry,
writing books, liturgies and musicals for young people.
I first became a controversial figure
when I gave a exploratory paper on Genesis 3
to the council of presidents of
The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
That paper became known as the Green Dragon.
The controversy about how to interpret the Bible escalated
until a Synod assembly declared that
the way a majority of our faculty was reading the Bible
was, in fact, an unknown heresy known as
The outcome of this decision was that 45 of the 50
members of the faculty of Concordia Seminary
were forced to leave.
Some of those who were evicted found new jobs.
I became the first head
of a department of Religion Studies in Australia.
In that role I promoted a serious unbiased study of
the religions of the world,
including the Indigenous religions of Australia.
Upon my return, the Lutheran Church of Australia
did not want to know me and for 14 years I was under the ban,
forbidden to preach or teach in the Lutheran Church.
For four years I was
Principal of Kodaikanal International School in India
where my passion for social justice intensified.
Before leaving India my wife and I, in 1987,
with several Jesuits,
initiated a Grihini program
for the Dalit and Tribal young women,
the poorest of the poor,
in the remote mountain villages around our school.
Now, many year later, that program is still operating
and empowering young women to change their villages.
After returning from India I was heavily involved in
Indigenous issues and was privileged to
be the scribe for a book called Rainbow Spirit Theology.
After some negotiation with classmates,
I was again able to preach and speak in Lutheran circles
after 14 years under the ban.
My experience and my biblical skills led me to
assist others who had experienced great loss
or spiritual abuse
by leading them on a journey with Job in a manual
called Job, Jennifer and Jesus.
One of my current passions is to read the Scriptures afresh
in the light of the current environmental crisis
by identifying with Earth and the Earth community in the text.
In this capacity I was privileged to edit The Earth Bible series
which follows a set of eco-justice principles
in reading the Bible.
This approach has led me to be bold enough
to distinguish between those Bible texts
which are green and those that are grey
in a volume entitled An Inconvenient Text.
I have traced the story of my great-grandfather
a Wend who left Silesia
to avoid conscription into the Prussian army.
He is an early environmentalist
who planted trees around a lake in Victoria
which the farmers kept pulling out.
His story has provoked me
to reflect afresh on our spiritual connections
and to write a historical novel based on his life
entitled: Tree Whisperer.
Norman Habel is an international Bible Scholar (and author of many books). In the context of the environmental crisis he introduced ecological hermeneutics, that is, reading the Bible from the perspective of Earth rather than that of humans. The five volume Earth Bible series reflects this approach. (Habel claims that, if there is to be justice for Earth, we need to hear the suppressed voice of Earth in our faith tradition).
Norman Habel also initiated The Season of Creation, a new season of the church year celebrated in September. (Habel maintains that if worshippers are to be guardians of planet Earth, they need to celebrate WITH creation and hear creation groaning under the weight of human crimes against creation. He insists that the 3rd mission of the church is to save the planet!)
At the joint annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion is San Diego, November 2007, there was a special focus on theological education and sustaining the planet. In that context a major forum was held on sustainable theological education for the future. The panel for this forum consisted of leading international representatives in the field of ecology and religion.
These fields included ecology and theology, ecology and ethics, ecology and feminism, among others. Norman Habel was the representative of the field of ecology and the Bible.
At the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in 2012 a special session was held recognising the international contribution of Norman Habel, especially in the area of ecological hermeneutics. A Festschrift in his honour is due to be published in 2013.
My Old Testament Story
I began at Concordia Seminary in Jan 1951 and started German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew in the same week. Because the other students were ahead of me in all languages except Hebrew, that became my speciality!!!
I went to Concordia seminary in St Louis late 1955 and was obliged to do a semester to ‘prove myself’. Because we learned our languages well in Australia, I had no problem. I shined in Hebrew! I studied in St Louis and later at Union Seminary New York under Terrien and Muilenberg. While serving a parish in Brooklyn and attending Union Seminary with Walter Brueggemann I first joined the Society of Biblical Literature and have been an active member for over 50 years.
I began teaching Old Testament at Concordia Seminary in 1960 when I was only 27. I gained my PhD in 1962 and my thesis was published under the title of Yahweh Versus Baal. It was a comparison of Israelite and Canaanite cultures as reflected in Israel’s earliest writings.
I was involved in a major controversy with my colleagues in the early 1970s which resulted in 45 of the 50 professors being forced to leave. The issue was ultimately about how we interpret the Scriptures. From my early years, therefore, hermeneutics was a key interest of mine. During that period I published a number of minor works. Significant, perhaps was Literary Criticism of the Old Testament, which dealt in fact with source criticism. It was published in 1971 and is still in print as a text today.
Before leaving the USA in 1974, I had begun work on a volume of which I am quite proud, namely, The Book of Job, a commentary in the OT Library series. I developed the volume over several years and it was published in 1985. It represents a major step forward in the interpretation of Job, especially recognising the legal metaphor that runs through the book. Job seeks to take God to court! This commentary remains a text in many countries.
In 1974 I began the first Department of Religion Studies in Australia at Adelaide CAE which became the University of South Australia. This broadened by appreciation of the religious and cultural forces that influence interpretation.
My work with indigenous Australians led me to explore afresh biblical concepts of land. This resulted in a volume entitled The Land is Mine – Six Biblical Land Ideologies. I also facilitated the writing of Rainbow Spirit Theology in which Indigenous elders reflected on how they from within their culture, interpreted the text.
In November 1997, I initiated a consultation on Religion and Ecology in Adelaide. This led to the formation of the Earth Bible team, a cluster of biblical scholars in South Australia committed to exploring the role of Earth and the Earth community in the Bible. As the leader of this team, I was heavily involved in developing the six eco-justice principles that guided the interpretation of relevant biblical texts.
The five volumes of The Earth Bible, which I edited, were published in 2000-2002 and broke new ground in biblical interpretation. As a result, I was invited by the Society of Biblical Literature to lead a new consultation on Ecological Hermeneutics which is now a regular session.
I recently edited a collection of key papers for SBL from these consultations under the title Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics. My introduction to this volume spells out the essentials of ecological hermeneutics involving the process of suspicion, identification and retrieval. In 2010 I published a volume with ATF in Australia that introduces this approach at a more popular level. The title is An Inconvenient Text: Is a Green Reading of the Bible Possible?
An Earth Bible Commentary series is now being developed employed the critical approach of ecological hermeneutics enunciated in the SBL volume. The first volume in the series is my reading of Genesis 1-11, The Birth, the Curse and the Greening of Earth.
My contributions to biblical scholarship at an international level, I believe, were especially in the Book of Job, land ideology in the Bible and ecological hermeneutics.
On a more popular level, I was the impetus behind The Season of Creation, a new season of the church year usually in September and now spreading across the globe. See www.seasonofcreation.com
My recent publications include another volume in The Earth Bible Commentary series entitled: Finding Wisdom in Nature: An Eco-Wisdom Reading of the Book of Job. And in a more popular vein I have written two books, Tree Whisperer, the story of my Great Grandfather and Why on Earth are you Still a Lutheran: Memoirs of a Heretic. Both books available from Morning Star Publishing: morningstarpublishing.net.au/product-category/by/by-msp/habel-norm/ or firstname.lastname@example.org