I recently engaged in a lengthy, but civil and illuminating online discussion concerning how to interpret, and what to make, of God’s calling the ancient Jews to slaughter all foreigners in the Land, putting them under the ban.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations … you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons” (Deut. 7:1-3).
Harsh stuff. Especially for a deity who also asks us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love the stranger in your midst.” And a scriptural vision that affirms the dignity of all human beings and decries violence, war, and the taking of human life.
So, what’s going on?
Part of the issue has to do with how the scriptures were written, especially the Hebrew Scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament. These writings were pieced together over more than a thousand year period. There are multiple authors and groups of writers. There was lots of editing, rewriting, redacting, and additions along the way.
Today, many people pick up the texts and assume they are a seamless story, a united narrative, and penned by a group of authors who shared a unified vision. Not so.
There isn’t any one theme, point, or unified message in the Scriptures. The writings express the diverse values of various ages, times, regions, and faction. Overall they reflect genuine moral progress toward a more humane culture and religion than the surrounding peoples of the time and region. Since the Bible consists of many contradictory texts, our reading is always selective.
Many people today find this hard to accept. Even if they accept it, they are so immersed in bad, popular theology that they can’t bring this truth to bear on their spiritual thinking.
Let me call your attention to the last line of the paragraph before the one above, “our reading (of the texts) is always selective.”
Our reading is always selective – even when we scream and stamp our feet in conservative rants that it’s not – and this has repercussions on our entire theology.Not only is our reading selective – so is our theology, so is our thinking about God. In fact, I’d argue, that the vast majority of us choose the God we worship and determine the character of the Divine being we call “God”.
If one honestly surveys the Hebrew Scriptures, one can find all sorts of things – from radical love to genocide. That’s fitting given human nature. Yet one is required to engage in some rational filtering to make sense of the sacred writings. And the filters one opts for make all the difference.
If one’s personality is fussy, judgmental, wary of strangers, obsessed with moral purity, and bridled with perfectionism – well, there’s a God for that! One could easily favor the writings in scripture that depict Yahweh as Supreme Fuss bucket and moral avenger.
Maybe you prefer the soft, loving, gentle God of love and compassion – well, he’s in there, too.
How we read the scriptures influences our thinking on God and our thinking on God influences how we read the scriptures and the passages to which we ascribe great validity.
The truth likely is a hybrid of readings – a Divinity who is awesome, sometimes fierce, but also loving and anti-violent.
Or at least, that’s my take.
Sadly, it’s not the take of many, many others. And its damn tough to demonstrate that their wrong to embrace a God of slaughter, meanness, and hatred – a God that is going produce rivers of blood at the end times and roast sinners to a crisp. A God who wields the sword and cuts down the children of sinners to the thousandth generation.
We must remain ever-aware that we, to a greater degree that we care to admit, create our own image of God and read the scriptures accordingly, and vice versa.
Yes, our traditions mitigate this process. But then again, we often chose or decide to stay with our traditions, for our own reasons.
There’s a high degree of subjectivity in religion. We need to recognize this to avoid having our theology drift into the category of “bat-shit crazy bias.”
Thoughts? Disagreements? Expressions of disgust or frustration? Bring it on! Post a comment or email me.