Reading the Old Testament (RJS)

There was an interesting and often enlightening, occasionally frustrating, conversation on my post Tuesday Should Reading the Bible Make One an Atheist? A number of people agreed with Jillette, at least partially … especially with regard to the Old Testament. Jillette characterized it as tribal. One of the commenters noted that “it is tedious, tribal, occasionally uplifting, ludicrous, and so on” another mentioned the “the depictions of genocide, rape, etc.” I remember as a child being disturbed by the story of Achan (they killed his children because of his sin! – Joshua 7).

Is the Old Testament a problem to be solved?

The New Testament writers certainly didn’t think so. Paul encourages Timothy telling him that the Holy Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” In 1 Cor. 15 Paul notes that “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  In Luke 24 on the road to Emmaus Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.  And this is just a very small taste of the role the Hebrew scriptures play in the New Testament.

How are we to read the Old Testament? Is it tedious and tribal? Should the depictions of genocide in the conquest of Canaan gives us pause?  I’m not asking how a non-Christian would see the Old Testament out of context, but how a Christian should see the Old Testament in context.

I don’t have a solution to this problem (if it is a problem), but I do have some thoughts I would like to put up for consideration.

About ten years ago Scot wrote a book The Jesus Creed for which this blog is named. This is a spiritual formation book looking forward at how we should live as Christians, but the focus is on the great commandment – a commandment with two parts. In all of the synoptic gospels we find record of an incident where a teacher of the law comes to Jesus to test him and asks about the essence of the law.

In Matthew 22:35-40 Jesus supplies the answer:

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In Mark 12:28-34 Jesus supplies the answer and the teacher of the law agrees. In Luke 10:25-28 the response is turned around, there the teacher of the law asks a slightly different question and also when asked by Jesus supplies the answer.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

In Matthew we read that all the Law and the Prophets hang on these to commandments. In Mark the teacher agrees and Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” In Luke the response is “Do this and you will live.”

This should shape how we read the Old Testament. I have come to the opinion that there are three important things we should bear in mind as Christians as we read and teach the Old Testament.

(1) The Old Testament is a theological document and serves a theological purpose. The construction of the Old Testament as we have it is born out of the experience of exile and return from exile, sometime after 539 B. C. Some of the sources are most definitely older. I am certainly not claiming that the text was constructed out of thin air at this late date. But the Old Testament as we have it was shaped, edited, and compiled in response to the experience of Israel in exile. With this context many of the little bits and pieces can be brought into focus.  Pete Enns’s discussion in Genesis for Normal People or The Evolution of Adam is quite useful here (whatever you may think of his conclusions about Adam).

(2) The theological purpose of the Old Testament was fresh in the minds of first century Jews. It was into this mix that Jesus came when the time was right, as the fulfillment of the  Scriptures, as God’s Messiah. The first Christians were first century Jews.  When Paul or the author of Matthew or Luke refer to Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture, this was their context.

(3) When Matthew quoted Jesus as saying “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” he knew what he was talking about. This isn’t a throw away line. These two commandments permeate almost every aspect of the Old Testament. Either people are being called to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind and soul or they are failing to love God; either people are being called to love their neighbor or they are failing to do so. Some claim that there is no unifying theme in the Old Testament, but I think this is the unifying theme.

Many of the more troublesome passages are, in fact, deeply linked to the command to love God and the factors that caused people to fail. They were led astray, often by others in the land, to put up Asherah poles and worship the Ba’als, to cast golden calves. The sin of Jeroboam is a recurring theme.  I no longer worry about the harsh passages during the Exodus or in Joshua. I am not concerned about whether they “really happened” or not. I tend to think that the telling of the story is shaped and edited in response to the failings of Israel that led to the exile. They had failed to follow God. This had devastating consequences and it shapes the way they tell their story.

The theme of love of neighbor, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner among you, is a theme that also permeates the Old Testament, from Genesis through Malachi. It is prominent throughout the prophets. When the prophets are not charging the people with unfaithfulness to God, they are accusing them of greed and oppression.

I have found it enlightening to read the Old Testament with the great commandment in mind, and also to read in various orders. The Prophets (which in the Jewish system includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), then the Pentateuch, then the Writings. then the Prophets again.  To move from the Prophets to the Gospels to the Letters of Paul is likewise enlightening. Paul’s language often echoes that found in the Prophets. I had never realized this before, but it isn’t surprising for an educated first century Jew. And the great commandment permeates Paul as well.

When we read the Bible as moral stories hitting the high points and as passages in isolation we miss the forest for the trees. Often we go one step further and miss the trees for an in depth analysis of the patterns in the bark on the north side of some particular tree.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello RJS, I applaud you for your progressive Evangelical doctrine of inspiration which is much closer to facts than what we most often hear.

    Nevertheless I also believe that the (Evangelical) notion that every believer can
    understand the Bible through the Holy Ghost is pretty dangerous, we do need experts.

    And it is true that it is utterly silly to claim that the reading of
    any religious text could rationally turn someone into an atheist.

    But there are clearly Biblical stories which are morally very problematic, as you pointed out.

    I went into the problem of the genocidal texts here:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/moral-indignation-and-divine-genocides-moralische-entrustung-und-gottliche-genozide/

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, this agrees with the classic scene painted in St Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine: if our reading of the Bible leads us to love God and others, we have read it well.

  • Phil Miller

    Nevertheless I also believe that the (Evangelical) notion that every believer can understand the Bible through the Holy Ghost is pretty dangerous, we do need experts.

    I understand what you’re getting at, but do you really think “dangerous” is the right word? Sure, there is risk in the sense that people will come up with idiosyncratic readings and go off and do their own thing – I get that, and I get why it bothers people. But what’s the alternative? I don’t think listening to the experts is really a whole lot better if certainty is the goal. If you give me almost any theological subject, I can find probably half a dozen experts who have different opinions on the matter.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have have nothing against theologians and scholars. We absolutely need them. The vast majority people wouldn’t be able to even read Scripture today if not for their work. I’m just not sure if I’m ready to throw out the Evangelical idea you point to. I do think the Holy Spirit can lead people as they read Scripture. I guess I’d also say that I wouldn’t rule out that text can have a certain homiletic use that goes beyond even a reading that takes into account all the context, history, language, etc.

  • mark

    You twice make reference to the “theological purpose” of the “Old Testament,” but don’t explain what that theological purpose is. Nor do you distinguish the theological purpose of the OT as a construct of early Christianity from the purpose of those books of the Israelite scriptures that were assembled around certain common themes.

    It’s also interesting that you state that Christians “should” view the “Old Testament” differently than non-Christians do, without explanation or qualification. While I assume that I view the Israelite scriptures differently than any non-Christian, at the same time our common humanity dictates that we also have common concerns when we approach these writings.

  • RJS4DQ

    Lothar,

    I agree that this isn’t a typical evangelical approach, but I also wouldn’t classify it as progressive (which is a dirty word to some). I am not trying to be progressive, rather I am trying to be faithful. Faithful to the message and intent of the text. Some of the conclusions reached through a “typical” (if there is such a thing) evangelical approach are not, I would claim, actually faithful to the text.

  • RJS4DQ

    mark,

    After your comment on the other post this morning I rather expected you to say something like this. I think you have a view of the Hebrew Scriptures that is too disjointed, and a break between Christian and 1st century Jewish readings that is too sharp. This is why you find Wright’s approach lacking. I don’t think he is right about everything (and he commonly admits this himself, he just doesn’t know which bits are wrong) but I think much of his overlying theme is dead on and makes sense of so much that is simply piecemeal bits of bark to so many in the church.

    As a start I would say that the theological purpose of the OT is a reflection on what it means to be the elect people of God.

    I expect Christians view the OT differently from non-Christians because Christians see Christ as the culmination of God’s election. There is a context that is not there for others.

  • RJS4DQ

    I’ve read some of Augustine but not On Christian Doctrine. Perhaps I shall have to put this on the list.

  • mark

    “a view of the Hebrew Scriptures that is too disjointed”

    Disjointed? I would venture to say that my views are quite integrated and coherent, whether one agrees with them or not.

    “a break between Christian and 1st century Jewish readings that is too sharp.”

    The break between 1st century Jewish readings and Christian readings is rooted in Jesus himself and his rejection of ethnic election. Paul, of course, is totally on board with that, as with all other aspects of the good news. Paul, as he repeatedly claims, does indeed pass on faithfully what was handed down to him–albeit with his own theological musings added.

    I’ve been reading James Kugel this week and I like his distinctions among historical periods of “Biblical” interpretation. I thought his comments re Protestant interpretation were particularly insightful.

    “I would say that the theological purpose of the OT is a reflection on what it means to be the elect people of God.”

    That would certainly be a (although certainly not the only) concern of Second Temple Judaism, but for much of the Israelite period the theological purpose is the exploration of who God is, his identity. Which is the central concern of most ancient thought: man’s relation to the divine. There is, in that sense, a universality to Israelite thought that you don’t seem to give it credit for. As always, Mark S. Smith.

  • Billy North

    Mark, you state:

    “I no longer worry about the harsh passages during the Exodus or in Joshua. I am not concerned about whether they “really happened” or not”

    This is a huge shift in how we view the OT and scripture as a whole.

    Is this the view of Jesus and the apostles regarding the OT? Or is that something we are unable to know?

    Huge implications here…

    Billy

  • RJS4DQ

    Ok, your view is not disjointed, but that isn’t what I meant to say. I meant to say that you view the Hebrew Scripture as disjointed in a way that I don’t think is correct.

  • Billy North

    Sorry Scot, I should state your name correctly if I’m going to post. Thx

  • mark

    Sorry, I don’t see the Israelite scriptures as “disjointed.” Certainly as more diverse in viewpoint than many seem to understand, but I would see that diversity of viewpoint as flowing from intra-cultural dialogue within ancient Israel. Nor do I see the Israelite scriptures as somehow “disjointed from” Christian faith, any more than Paul would. I do, however, see the Christian understanding of Israel as transformed by the self revelation of God in Jesus. The result is not disjunction but a seamless development of revelation that makes sense of man’s history from the universalist perspective of Christian faith (and which certainly was developing in Judaism). To my mind, this perspective also does greater justice to the Israelite thinkers who wrote what later became “the Bible,” by situating them firmly within a universal divine plan of revelation.

  • Casey Taylor

    Penn’s reaction reveals a fundamental problem with Protestant assumptions about the Bible (and I say this as a Protestant on Reformation Day). The Bible CANNOT be read without the aid of an interpretive community. Stanley Hauerwas has made this point in “Unleashing the Scripture.” Jillette’s conclusion is a straw man for it fails to engage any robust Christian framework by which to read the Bible. Unfortunately, his church of youth failed to provide this framework. Admonitions to simply “take up and read” can do more damage than good if guidance is lacking.

  • mark

    Hey, I like that, Casey, especially the tolle, lege, “take up and read”.

    Recently I was trying to make the same point. I pointed out that the 2008 Synod of Bishops in Rome, which was devoted to Scripture, came down all in favor of the idea that the laity should be encouraged to “take up and read”. However, when Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of Houston, made the proposal that the Church should come up with a Reader’s Guide for Scripture it went nowhere. I assume that this was an expression of the fact that the leaders of my “interpretive community” were concerned that such a project might dissolve into squabbling over basic issues of interpretation.

    Re “interpretive communities,” as I commented earlier today I’ve been reading James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible. His final chapter has some interesting things to say on that subject, and draws some interesting distinctions.

  • Thursday1
  • RJS4DQ

    Billy,

    Scot didn’t write this post, and I am not sure how much his views do or do not overlap with mine.

    I do think that parts of this represent a significant shift in the view of scripture and I don’t put it up as “the answer” but as a topic for conversation. I think we get hung up on the wrong things when reading scripture.

  • Casey Taylor

    Thanks for the feedback. Unfortunately, as a United Methodist, I doubt we could agree on a guide either!

  • Tim

    RJS,

    Why would you conflate these two? Why not how a Christian or a Non-Christian would read the Old Testament In-Context?

    “I’m not asking how a non-Christian would see the Old Testament out of context, but how a Christian should see the Old Testament in context.”

  • Phil Smith

    I’m sure there are plenty of modern Jews who read the OT and ask similar questions. In the absence of the “though the image of Jesus” argument, how do they consider YHWH to come across in these ancient stories?

    What is the stand-alone theme of the OT, if you don’t believe that it has something to do with Jesus.

  • RJS4DQ

    OK Tim. I think Christians, Jews, and those who are neither could look at Hebrew Scripture and see these themes of love of God and neighbor running through. I don’t think this is really a unique Christian theme.

    In my comment in the OP I was thinking more of the access to a context. Your average non-Christian on the street isn’t going to have thought much about the OT or have a context for such thought (any more than I’ve thought about, oh say Enuma Elish). Christians should have a context – if churches are actually doing any real teaching.

  • andrew Hubbard

    Lots of discussion here, most of which I haven’t read. I appreciate the Love command view of the OT very much. It is true that these are at the centre of the OT. Yet, I wonder if we can also see the Gospel in the OT as well. I should also add that being told to love others is not the Gospel, but the epitome of the Law. In other words, I appreciate your post quite a bit, but wonder where the deliverance is. However, your reference to 1 Cor 15 does move in this direction.

  • RJS4DQ

    I am not concerned about whether they “really happened” or not. I tend to think that the telling of the story is shaped and edited in response to the failings of Israel that led to the exile.

    I should explain this a bit as well. A lot depends on what we mean by “really happened.” I think that the historical books here are historical. They represent real events. I am not one who would say no exodus, no judges, no Solomon. But I do think the histories are told using ancient Near Eastern conventions, and I also think the edited text we have recounts and arranges this history for a theological purpose. For instance I don’t think we should take exact numbers too seriously. As one example 40 years clearly had a significance that went beyond the number between 39 and 41.

    So considering Achan or the conquest of Canaan – I think we need to think about the theological context of events from the perspective of those who recorded the history rather than worry about genocide or the stoning of Achan’s children.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Forget this comment, I made a mistake.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    “I do think the Holy Spirit can lead people as they read Scripture. ”

    Well, why is there 38000 Christian denominations out there?
    Why did Christian support slavery during so many years?

    The entire history of the Church disproves this affirmation.

  • Susan_G1

    What is the message of the OT without the NT? When I read it, I had already committed to the concept of a loving God. I don’t know how any of us can eject all the influences we have and read it as a stand alone work.

    Within that context, and without commentary, reading through it ‘quickly’, I was still able to see a persistent theme of love for a disobedient people (and at times foreigners) and a theme of God’s holiness. Throughout, the love is there, of Israel, neighbor, foreigner, the poor, the widow, the orphan, etc. Without ever having heard of various theologians, I knew this was a work for an ancient people under particular circumstances, not a creed for us. Yes, I was troubled by the brutality, but it was consistent with His holiness (if mildew had to be dealt with in such a severe way, how much more so unholy people?) Regardless, I was glad I was not born among them. The Law was hard.

    Before committing to a loving God, I heard stories of wrath and capriciousness. I did not want to know more about that God. But I hadn’t read it through. I didn’t even own a Bible then.

    For Christians, can we avoid reading it through Christ’s love, sacrifice, and fulfillment? That would be mighty hard, I think.

  • Susan_G1

    Since this country is 76% (self reported, 2008) Christian, with the majority of the rest having it as part of their holy writings, I don’t know that there are many out there (above a certain age) who have not heard of and had thoughts of the OT within a context of Christ. I don’t think our churches have failed in that way.

    I believe our churches have failed in presenting a loving Christ who has fulfilled the OT and presents us with one (or, two) new, greater commandment(s).

  • Phil Miller

    I guess I’d say that if I didn’t believe the Holy Spirit had any role in leading us if we read Scripture, than I wouldn’t put much weight on Scripture at all. If I believe that Scripture is somehow authoritative for the Church, I have to believe that is tied into the fact that God’s Spirit is somehow speaking through the text.

    As far as the diversity of interpretations and divisions, I guess that speaks more to the failure of human nature than the failure of Scripture or the Holy Spirit. One thing remarkable still, though, is that there does seem to remain a pretty solid core of truths that most Christians can agree on.

    As far as slavery, sure, it was definitely a horrible thing. I think even with that issue, there were pockets within the Church that opposed slavery. On one hand, I think the issue is sort of hard to blame the entire Church on. Most Christians were not slave owners themselves. On one hand we could say that of they were complicit in this societal sin, and that’s definitely true. But I imagine that there are things we are complicit in because of our silence… Please understand, I’m not trying to minimize anything. I’m just kind of thinking through these things aloud here.

  • Luke Breuer

    One way to think of the apparent evil in the OT (or even NT) is to ask: does this stuff introduce so much noise to the system such that no signal comes through? When we choose to accept only things that have nothing ‘wrong’ with them, or only a tiny bit ‘wrong’, we restrict what we can conclude from the available evidence. What if, instead, we merely try to find patterns, patterns which exist despite what we perceive as ‘noise’? For example, consider the term Junk DNA, and how arrogantly it was named. Then again, scientists were able to learn a lot by ignoring that DNA. What can we learn from this? We don’t have to understand everything in order to understand something, and after understanding something, we often gain the ability to understand more.

    Then again, it’s so much easier to point to something wrong with an idea and summarily dismiss it.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello, I would definitely not accusing you of whitewashing such crimes, God forbid :=)

    I would also believe in the systematic inspiration of the Holy Ghost if I could but for me this would mean giving up intellectual honesty.

    I give my view on the Bible here http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/
    and I would be glad to learn your thoughts on that, provided of course you are interested.

    Since it is a bit off-topic, you could either comment there or perhaps contact me privately at lotharlorraine@gmail.com

    I am searching for interesting and pleasant conversations with people from various perspectives.

    2013/11/1 Disqus

  • Norman

    RJS, you ask “what do you think ?”

    I think you are stacking up to becoming one of my favorite bloggers regarding understanding the bible coherently. There is a reason I like N. T. Wright eventhough I have a few asides regarding some points. But what the heck I have a lot of disagreement with some of my own conclusions when I go back and read
    things I wrote 5 or 10 years ago. I don’t think changing my views will ever stop. But I see you grasping the big picture like Wright does which is huge IMHO and allows one to keep an even keel as you aredemonstrating so well with this post today. Bravo all the way around.

    A few years ago I was asked to teach a class regarding the Great Commandment stated by Christ. I found it interesting that Jesus taught
    straight from the OT regarding these concepts. They were already there and the
    teacher of the Law knew that as seen from the OT scriptures below.

    Deu 10:12 “And
    now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD
    your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with
    all your heart and with all your soul,

    Deu 10:18-19 He
    executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner,
    giving him food and clothing. (19) Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were
    sojourners in the land of Egypt.

    Lev 19:17-18
    “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall
    reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. (18)
    You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your
    own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

    Lev 19:33-34
    “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do
    him wrong. (34) You shall treat the stranger who sojourns
    with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you
    were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

    Deu 6:5-6 You shall
    love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all
    your might. (6) And these words that I command you today
    shall be on your heart.

  • Tim

    RJS, well – a lot of non-Christians started out as Christians. Which I think goes to the point of the critique you’re responding to – of what an in-depth reading of the Bible could do to a person. Only makes sense if they started off Christian, else why would it matter? It’d just be another book.

    Also, I question tying “context” and “themes of love of God and neighbor” together as if they were synonymous. Notice I said, “as if.” I know you wouldn’t take that stance literally, but the practical effect of how you’ve laid out your argument does strike me as nearly equivalent.

    Couldn’t, for instance, covenant obedience be an overall theme? With love of God and neighbor subsumed under that? And couldn’t covenant obedience entail all sorts of unpalatable stuff? Like genocide out of covenant obedience. Subjugation of women out of covenant obedience. Inhumanity to one’s fellow man out of covenant obedience. And of course the love of God and neighbor out of covenant obedience. Why couldn’t this be taking the Bible in its context?

    To say the perspective Jesus took with respect to love of God and neighbor is the “right context” to frame the rest of the laws of the Old Testament is to beg the question at the start. That’s a conclusion someone has to get to. It has to seem tenable given everything else that’s going on. Not just whether that may be a persistent theme (it is) – but rather whether or not there’s more going on there that contradicts that theme. That’s incompatible with it and calls the integrity of that theme into question. Which is the sort of stuff that can of course lead to a loss of faith…and depending how things shake out, atheism.

    So I don’t know that what you’ve provided goes much further than an apologetic treatment. But I’m open to hearing more.

  • RJS4DQ

    Tim,

    I am not trying to provide an apologetic treatment.

    Perhaps the “right context” to frame the laws and events of the Old Testament was a large part of the conversation going on among first century Jews and in the pages of the New Testament. It is into this situation that Jesus came and this situation that gave birth to Christian faith.

    One approach to covenant faithfulness will involve war, potentially genocide, subjugation and inhumanity. It will involve outward purity and place less or no importance on inward focus.

    But this isn’t the approach all take and it is not the approach that Jesus or the early church took. It isn’t the zealot but the peacemaker who is right. It isn’t the outward trappings but the orientation of the heart pouring out into life. Love of God and for others is the overriding theme.

    Unfortunately many in the Christian church have fallen into the pit of subjugation, inhumanity, and outward purity far too often.

    I don’t know how much or often you’ve read the Bible as a whole. Depending on your background you may have done so often. My focus over the last 18 months or so has been to listen to it in its entirety, and to do so repeatedly. These reflections come from this experience. There are still “problem passages” and it would be interesting to be able to get into more detailed discussions. Unfortunately discussion partners are rather hard to come by.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “Yes, I was troubled by the brutality, but it was consistent with His
    holiness (if mildew had to be dealt with in such a severe way, how much
    more so unholy people?) Regardless, I was glad I was not born among them. The Law was hard.”

    Susan, do you really believe this? Or is this a summation of how you viewed parts of the OT “prior”?

  • Marshall

    We’ve just been doing a book study on Andy Stanley; he points out that in the troublesome passages, a remnant that acknowledges the God of Israel is always saved; eg, Rahab from Jericho with her family. She actually appears in the lineage of David and Jesus. So this is not unconditional “genocide” in the modern sense, not an attempt to wipe out a gens.

    There does remain a problem for those Universalists who are unhappy with the idea of God as judgmental (or “vengeful”).

    … as a Bebbington Evangelical, I’m not satisfied with taking the Bible only “in context” … historical context is a good aid to understanding, but taking it as Scripture means taking it as written, and as written directly to us, “namely me”.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    I hear you on discussion partners. But hey, it’s great having you here and I always enjoy our discussions ;) I wish I could have these with my family.

    As far as study of the Biblical text, yeah – I’ve put a lot into that and have been trying to see the larger picture. But the Bible is pretty multifaceted and diverse. And you have reinterpretations upon reinterpretations that can make for a very complicated read. Early writings, to take an example, were polytheistic. With Yahweh/El seen as a tribal deity among many. Then he became the chief deity. Then the only deity. Each step of the way you find scriptural texts reinterpreting earlier texts. Is it then the “proper context” to see the earliest polytheistic texts in light of the subsequent monotheistic revisions? Or is this running roughshod over earlier texts to favor later ideologies? So perhaps Jesus creatively reinterpreted earlier Scripture in the same vein? Which, you have to admit, is a pretty common Midrashic practice in 2nd Temple Judaism. Does this mean that the later interpretation should therefore represent the “true” meaning of earlier Scripture? Or does it mean that it takes that meaning and creatively redirects it? Makes it new again for later generations?

  • Susan_G1

    Andrew, yes, it really is what I believed (and still believe) after I finally got around to reading the Bible not as a number of discrete books but as a whole to be read through, chronologically, from start to finish. And I feel, these days, that I must apologize for that. It’s not a picture of a pretty God; it’s a picture of a Holy God who loves Israel and demands something from them in return for His protection. If this was all I knew of God, I wouldn’t like this God. I would think he was selfish, to make people who might suffer eternal damnation just because He didn’t want to be in relationship with little robots. A God who strikes someone down who instinctively reaches out to keep the ark of the covenant from falling. A God who would ask a father to sacrifice his own son. A God who would have a family stoned for the sins of the father (if you want to experience the horror of stoning, I highly recommend The Stoning of Soroya M. It’s on Netflix. I highly recommend it anyway, to anyone. How can a loving God not despise stoning?) I had heard the stories, and for a number of years, was glad to reject Him, or any other god.

    But you need to hear that this is not how I approached the Bible anymore when I read through it. By then, I had already had experience with a God outside of the Bible, a God of unmistakable (and unconditional) love. A God who loved an angry atheist who wasn’t giving Him anything but a disapproving passing thought and some bad mouthing from time to time. So that is how I frame my answer: by then, I was already committed to a loving God I’d met outside of the OT (and the NT for that matter). Then I started to read the NT.

    When I first read Peter Enns and Eric Seibert, I was just starting my journey out of fundamentalism. I had finally allowed myself to explore inerrancy and discovered it was not true. Haha! When they challenged the genocides, I actually sent both of them frantic emails asking just how much of the Bible was I going to have to throw out, it was such a frightening challenge to my training/thinking. Godly men that they are, they responded. Dr. Seibert was especially kind in communicating with me at length during a time I now know was difficult for him.

    That’s why I can see a loving OT God, even before I saw challenges to His wrath. Even without changing this aspect, I see it. But I do because God changed my heart and I knew Jesus, not because I was able to discern it among all that carnage.

    Sorry the answer is so long. Feel free to challenge.

  • Dianne P

    RJS, I too greatly appreciate your posts. While I found your discussions on Genesis, creation, etc to be helpful and interesting, creationism vs evolution is not an issue for me, so I eventually started skipping these. I am so happy to see you moving out to more OT themes. Many thanks.


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