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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
As I said at the end of Part 1, I want to add a word of caution here. It is not life-giving to interpret new/old wine metaphor of the gospels as if Christianity is the new wine and Judaism is the old. That interpretation has led to Christians committing incalculable damage to our Jewish friends and neighbors. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His teachings were not anti-Semitic and weren’t pitting Christianity against Judaism, but rather offered alternative ways to interpret the Torah within Judaism. The voice of Jesus that we discern in the synoptic gospels was one of many in Judaism describing what it meant to be faithful to the Jewish God of the Torah.
This leads me to the second way we can understand Jesus and his ethical teachings when they challenge our favorite paradigms rooted in other Biblical texts.
Consider these passages, for example:
“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD . . . No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation . . . Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 23:1-6)
“Let no foreigners who have bound themselves to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I’m only a dry tree.’ For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigner who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3-7)
There is no way to harmonize these two passages using the continuity lens. Notice, too, that neither of these passages pit Jesus against Judaism. These are two Hebrew passages that seem to contradict before we even get to Jesus and the gospels. How can we read these sacred texts and others in the gospels when we run into a discontinuity like this?
We don’t have to ignore problematic texts. We can be honest about their existence. Some texts can be reclaimed through new reinterpretations. But a few others, I have found, cannot. There are texts that support injustice, misogyny, slavery, war, capital punishment, the conquest of Indigenous peoples’ lands, persecution of Jewish people, and dehumanizing of LGBTQ people. We must begin to be honest about these passages.
We must also hold in tension our goal to interpret all sacred texts in life-giving ways. Some passages are easier to interpret that way, and in the gospels, Jesus modeled using these passages to combat destructive passages and destructive interpretations (see Mark 12:24-16). He did not ignore destructive passages or interpretations but met the elites’ use of these passages and interpretations with others that contradicted them and turned them to life-giving ends.
When we can see our sacred text not as a flat book with all passages being equal, but as a narrative, a story over millennia with the end goal of liberation, survival, reparation, restoration, and healing, we can hold problematic texts in tension with the overall arc. We can be honest about problem texts and how they relate or are out of place with the text as a whole. Texts that oppress and exclude should be contrasted with texts that teach the themes of love, compassion, equity, inclusion, and justice.
In this approach, we push texts that teach oppression and exclusion to the margins, and texts that teach love, compassion, equity, inclusion, and justice become normative—central to the life of a person following Jesus.
When we take this approach, we open ourselves to a Jewish practice of embracing the reality that within our text, the voice of Love and Justice mixes with the voice of the writers’ own pain and own brokenness, and the writers’ voices can be mistaken as the voice of the Divine. The writers, though inspired, were also human. Sacred texts are a mixture of love and brokenness, love and high ideals incarnated in the writer’s own brokenness. Sometimes the writer cannot distinguish between their own brokenness and need for healing and their own perception of “the voice of God.”
We have to ask what caused texts to be written the way they were. We also must be honest about the distance between our own culture and the cultures of the Biblical authors, as well as the distance between the various cultures of the Bible. Even some more problematic texts can be more life-giving when we see them in their own cultural context.
How do we discern where a passage is the outgrowth of the author’s brokenness or rooted in life-giving love, justice, and healing?
We’ll consider that next.