Mary Douglas (1921-2007) was an anthropologist of the first rank. The truth she told was enormous. She knew that ritual is about the management of identity; she also knew, since she was a field anthropologist, that you have to learn Hebrew if you want to plumb the depths of the system of signs1 we find in the Bible.
After learning (ancient and middle) Hebrew, I would add, one can and should go on to learn (ancient and middle) Aramaic and (ancient and middle [koine] Greek). If you are a complete glutton for knowledge, you will also want to learn Akkadian, Ugaritic, and/or Egyptian on the one side, and Latin, German, and modern Hebrew on the other.
The personal project of Mary Douglas required her to learn Hebrew. Her project, in her own words:
My personal project in the study of the Bible is to bring anthropology to bear on the sources of our own civilization. This is in itself enough of an explanation for having to learn Hebrew. But there is more. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, other religions were condemned as false, even as evil; the Enlightenment changed the condemnation to irrational superstition. Neither stance was conducive to understanding. The practice of anthropology has been to provide a critical, humane, and sensitive interpretation of other religions.
Mary Douglas, “Why I Have to Learn Hebrew: The Doctrine of Sanctification,” in The Comity and Grace of Method: Essays in Honor of Edmund F. Perry (eds. Thomas Ryba, George D. Bond, Herman Tull; Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2004) 147-165; 151.
I enjoy teaching the Bible in an Anthropology and Religious Studies department because it reminds me that my task is “to provide a critical, humane, and sensitive interpretation of other religions,” my own included.
I think much of what is written about the Bible in the blogosphere is not worth the electronic paper it is printed on because in place of understanding, it traffics in condemnation of biblical content as false, evil, or the height of irrational superstition. Maybe the “main character” of the Bible is as stupid, false, and evil as (a variety of ancient Gnostics and) Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins say he is. Perhaps the Bible and Shakespeare have “no intrinsic merit” (Hector Avalos; discussion here). Perhaps the rites described in Num 5 are to be thought of as a form of torture, on a par with waterboarding (Kurk Gayle; a discussion of Kurk’s approach here); perhaps Eph 5-6, where it talks about household roles and relationships, is in conflict with loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and worthy of rejection (Suzanne McCarthy; threads here and here). Perhaps Gen 2-3 is absurd because, if we read it in rationalistic terms (the common approach of fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalists), that is what it is (Scott Gray and Terri, so far as I can see, choose not to move beyond fundamentalist/ anti-fundamentalist reading; thread here).
Or perhaps the suspicions of the Grinch are ultimately correct: “"What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."
Anthropologists and cultural historians are interested in that “little bit more.” It shows when they interpret texts as various as Gen 2-3; Leviticus; Num 5; the book of Jonah; and Eph 5-6; not to mention Luke 2's feliz navidad, “Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
Sensitivity to the "little bit more" sets anthropologists apart from the debunkers of the Bible and the religions the Bible has birthed.
1 For a first introduction to semiotics, try Arthur Asa Berger here. Hebrew - like all languages - is a system of signs. The Bible - like literature in general - is a system of signs.