Lessons in the Lacunae: The Omitted Scripture

Lessons in the Lacunae: The Omitted Scripture June 14, 2010

While looking up the readings for this week’s Mass in the Catholic liturgical calendar, I noticed that the Old Testament readings skipped around in the chosen chapters. I’ve looked up these omissions before, and usually the gap is just an irrelevant sidenote (a timestamp for the event, some geographical digression, etc). However, this week the meaning of the passage is distorted by the edit. (passage below, cut sections in bold)

7 Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king of Israel. I rescued you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own. I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more. 9 Why have you spurned the LORD and done evil in his sight? You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you took his wife as your own, and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’ [11 Thus says the LORD: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.'”] 13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan answered David: “The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. [14 But since you have utterly spurned the LORD by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.”]

The Catholic edit is deceptive. As amended, the story of David and Bathsheba is a model of repentance followed by Christian forgiveness, perfectly matched to the Gospel reading of Luke 7:36-50. The unexpurgated version of 2 Samuel tells a story of vengeance visited by god on the innocent in the form of rape and murder. It’s not for nothing that atheist evangels like Richard Dawkins and The Devil’s Highlighter seize on this story as an example of the immorality of the Bible’s teachings.

Since it was my first week visiting the Catholic church near my work in DC (and I haven’t outed myself as an atheist there yet), I didn’t want to ask the local priest about the omission. Luckily, my boyfriend was willing to take it up with the priests in his home parish.

According to his priests, Christians shouldn’t accept this as a true story about God. Plenty of the Old Testament, the priests said, is allegorical, confused, or flat out false. It was refreshing to hear religious leaders speak frankly about the scriptures, but I wish they’s done it from the pulpit.

The fact that the Bible is a flawed document is not a disproof of Christianity. Although some sola scriptura Protestants may be felled by stories like 2 Samuel 12, Catholics claim Sacred Tradition as a way of winnowing out the chaff. If Christianity is true, it should be sufficiently robust to withstand this kind of discussion and emerge the stronger.

However, avoiding the question by skipping over the challenging parts doesn’t give me a great deal of confidence in the validity of Christianity. It seems to demonstrate a desire to protect the laity from doubt to the point of swaddling them. Makes you wonder how seriously you need to take a faith that must hide to survive.

So, this week’s Call to Arms is for primarily for Christians:

  • Should the Catholic Church include ALL of 2 Samuel 12 in the liturgy?
  • How should spiritual leaders handle falsehoods in Scripture?
  • How essential is biblical scholarship and historical inquiry to your religious beliefs?

I welcome your thoughts either as comments on this post or in posts on your blog that you post links to in the comment trail. If you are ever interested in writing a guest post for Unevenly Yoked in response to a Monday Morning challenge, email me at leah (dot) libresco (at) gmail (dot) com.

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  • I actually take unexpected umbrage with the characterization of Scripture passages as "not true stories about God."Scripture is much more complicated than a series of platitudes and parables whose truth claims can be either verified or rejected. The Old Testament IS highly allegorical and confused; it's a historical text which has had innumerable editors over the ages, and thus should be interpreted critically. I don't think that there's anything in Scripture we can say is factually untrue; instead, if Christians take the Bible seriously (which I think they should), we should never, ever say that a part of the Bible is "false" or "irrelevant"; instead, we should try to understand it in the context of the entirety of the work. [I think it's important to read and understand Leviticus for what it was, and then realize that the New Testament is a response to it.]As to whether or not the Catholic Church should include all of that passage in the liturgy… though I don't want to caricature Catholicism as stifling all free thought, an essential part of that faith tradition (i.e. the "catholic" part) claims that there are universal religious truths and that the Church is their bastion on earth. That means that the Church's interpretation of Scripture is correct. Period. And if they interpret parts of it as being false, I don't have the authority to tell them that they're wrong because they have the fucking Vicar of Christ on fucking Earth on their side.[In case you can't tell, I am becoming disillusioned with Catholicism.]

  • I greatly dislike the practice of editing Scriptures for public reading purposes. The edits very often conceal "hard sayings" of various kinds, NT as well as OT.That said, I'm also permanently unimpressed by "immorality of God" arguments. I'm certainly not a "voluntarist" (those who think acts are only right or wrong b/c God says they are). My take, rather, is that if God does something that looks "immoral" coram nobis, that's only one more reason why we don't have jurisdiction over Him, as He explained in the closing chapters of Job. We can't always see why His ways are right — and why should we think we can, if we think He is God?Ultimately, I think a Catholic has to believe that wrath and love, justice and mercy, are reconciled in God, and only in God. But if we can't see how He will do it — well, why exactly did we think we could?So, lectionary-editing authorities: knock off the bowdlerizing. "He's not a tame lion." Bring it on. Those who can't stand it will go get themselves a nice, polite Unitarian god made in their own image, or no god at all. Those who will let God be God will suck it up. If that means a smaller Church for a while, well, Pope Benedict has explicitly said that may just be the path to renewal.

  • N.B. The Catholic Church has no authority, and claims none, to teach that anything in Scripture is "false." The power to interpret authoritatively (a power that bazillions of Protestants claim either for themselves or for their pastors, btw, which imo makes far less sense than claiming it for an ecclesial community with direct, Scripture-attested links to Christ) does not extend anywhere near that far.

  • I actually read that text before a congregation on Sunday, at a Mass commemorating the retirement of two beloved grammar-school teachers of mine. Believe you me, I thought it was severe enough without the excised bits.But Prof. Wagner's right: it's absolutely not OK for a Catholic priest to call the Scriptures false. Of course it isn't necessary to read every Bible verse publicly (like the geographical or timestamp verses you mention), but I get pretty annoyed when they eliminate politically incorrect or otherwise unsavory verses.If these texts are actually holy scripture–writings with divine authority behind them–the church has no business explaining them away. I think it's completely kosher for theologians to argue that many passages are allegorical (like all of the apocalypse of john). Allegory, after all, was a well-attested literary genre during the periods when most of the scriptures were written. But Samuel is a historical book, and while the church often argues that the history narrated in the bible is _also_ allegorically meaningful, it remains history.But why is it surprising that David's descendants should be punished for David's sins? It's not uncommon for the families of adulterers to suffer–but on a deeper theological level, the Christian understanding of original sin means precisely that we can suffer the effects of sins we did not commit.This tends to sound very harsh to skeptics, but there's another side to it: Christianity also teaches that we can be saved by the merits of actions we did not perform. I imagine it's all supposed to balance out in the end.

  • NFQ

    This blows my mind. I'm glad that they've gotten to the point where they recognize that some portions of scripture are probably false or at least unreliable. But how can you have that realization, and still think you can tell which parts are true and which are false? Who is to say that those bold lines are the ones that should be excised? Why aren't they the good ones, the only ones that should be kept?

  • Mer

    Re: Not a Tame GodBook of Job FTW!But seriously, now…Christians are tempted to be God's PR people, rather than Christ's ambassadors. This urge to re-write the deity stems (as DW pointed out) from a doubt of God's deity. Instead of asking, seeking, knocking on heaven's door with questions like "Who is the Almighty?" and "What's Your will, Lord?", people shape an idol/ideology based on "Who do I think god should be?" and "What will that god do for me?" I sometimes think my beloved evangelicals fall prey to this temptation, turning the limitless love and grace of God into a sort of "Clean up your life" message that promises salvation from social anxiety in exchange for conformity.But back to the topic at hand: biblical exegesis in 2 Samuel. I take the previous discussion of "should all of it be included" as a "yes". If we want the truth, we should want the whole thing and nothing but, and that means wrestling with tough sayings as Israel wrestled with God. Don't let go until they bless you! As you can tell, I'm one of those who takes the Bible as legit holy scripture, and while I recognize that not everyone does, might I suggest that doing so opens a world of possibility for understanding? Whether you're disillusioned with religion, a newcomer to the God question, or just visiting from another faith, taking the Bible as the Word of God, divinely inspired, etc. opens up more than a reading of it as hodgepodge of human thought. This sort of open attitude is key if you want to get at all the Bible has to offer. Reason and conscience are useful for both ethics and exegesis, but it's crucial to recognize that the supreme being is in a different category from regular moral agents. This isn't to say that anything is good or bad just 'cause God says so (voluntarism, eh?), but before we cry "foul!" at anything God says and does in OT or NT, we ought to look at the context.

  • Mer

    What is that context? I'd say at least all of scripture and even all of human experience, my point of reference being my own. The Bible is a big book with plenty more to look at, so to attack God's word in soundbytes like a tacky TV reporter is no way to find truth, if that's what you're looking for. In my reading – admittedly not as extensive as it should be – scriptures point to a God who is blameless (not just holy, but "Holy, holy, holy!"), a God who is sovereign, and yet a world plagued by suffering, in which God permits evil and here decrees punishment. How could this be? I'm still conflicted about the idea of original sin, but in my experience, the grace of God mentioned by Kevin is not just a cheap balancing act but the ultimate purpose of this universe. I come back to Genesis 50:20 when Joseph tells his brothers (who plotted his murder and ultimately sold him into slavery) "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be saved." The brothers meant to do evil; God permitted, allowed, meant them to do that evil (though they're held entirely responsible for it), so that something good and I'd say even better might result. I see this framework for divine sovereignty and human responsibility extending to the 2 Samuel as well; God brought the evil out of David's own house. In other words, sinful people did the evil, but God allowed it to work out his divine plan, as when God used the Babylonians to punish Israel post-Habbakuk. So, I posit that the wrongdoing in this passage was purely human but used for divine ends.What ends could be worth the death of a child? This brings us to the question of whether God commits injustice or harms innocents. Again, I'm not satisfied with the original sin camp if they say that the baby wasn't innocent and so had it coming, but at the same time, I firmly believe that God is both just and merciful. Why is it, then, that the child "must" die? Most people would probably say punishing David wasn't worth it, and I'm inclined to agree. I'm also reminded here of the NT passage (John 9) when Jesus comes across a man born blind. The disciples ask: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." Of course, in 2 Samuel the sins of the father are clear, but given Christ's teaching, death and suffering are less punishments doled out for bad behavior and more the natural state of a world in which created things too often try to live without their creator, the source of life. This natural state of things often sees harm come to "good" or "innocent" people while evil seems to prosper, a fact recognized in scripture (as in Matthew 5:45 when Jesus says that God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous").

  • Mer

    So what are we to do when bad things happen not just to "bad" people but to us or to good people we know, or even to an innocent child? I'd suggest that rationalizing or ignoring spiritual pain, mourning, and a general sense of injustice in the world is not the best response (sort of like rationalizing or ignoring the physical pain of leaning on a hot stove). Moreover, from my experience, prayer and religious practice are excellent but not in the form of trying to change, explain away, or blame God. It's just unproductive (or unfruitful – if you're into the whole "fruit of the Spirit" thing).Rather, Christ tells his followers to love: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." There's more where that came from on how we're to show kindness to the needy, care for widows and orphans, and love the helpless and even to those who hate us. How? This sort of selfless love isn't how the world works, so we have to get it from the source, avoiding moralism or the dead faith without works. It's not easy to follow Chist's exhortation, but if we try to grasp it we're promised a helping hand. So that's what I do.I look to the God who promises that all things work for the good of those who love Him and who gave his Son for that promise. I strive to follow that God in his work of redemption, changing the fundamental nature of this wicked world through a love that goes beyond it. Why? Not so my life is easier – sometimes it's harder, since it's downright offensive to people to suggest that we need God. Instead, I follow Jesus because I believe that this love, this hope, is greater than life itself and is the source of true and eternal life. I try to love as Christ loves, as God loves, that I might be a daughter of my heavenly Father.This may just come across as a bunch of mystic nonsense, but I assure you it's sincere. In my experience, there is no other source of peace, of life, of joy like the God in the Bible (I've had a short life, yes, but Ecclesiastes can ring true even for 20-somethings). So is this just some big plug for being religious? No, but it's a definite testimony to the power of asking God/Jesus into your life. That love is worth everything, and of that love I would say:"There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

  • fascinating reads — post and comments. i will have to return. thanxAs for me, I like anything that dilutes the strength of authority and thus allows questioning. But if Catholics take authority out of the Bible only to transplant it into the hierarchy, I see no movement toward honest questioning at all.

  • Owlmirror

    So; Christians have to either carve out magical exceptions to God having the characteristics they claim for him, or carve out problematic text.

    Another point worth making is that the texts, while claimed to be historical, are proven false or deeply problematic in terms of consistency with historical evidence, throughout most of the OT up until about the end of 2 Kings.


    There’s certainly no evidence for there having been a King David who did any of the things claimed for him in the OT. There’s barely any evidence that there was a King David at all.

    Why does this conflict with historicity not cause you to update your Bayesian priors regarding the truth of Catholicism, which is at least partially based on some part of the OT being true?

    • As an unrepentant frequentist I might be less than perfectly conversant with Bayesian mores, but I’m still quite confident even Bayesians are supposed to update only once per piece of evidence. Otherwise their beliefs would become quite path-dependant… So that would be one good reason not now to update on news that ancient. Another reason might be that the update doesn’t have much of an effect if you use Catholic conditional properties rather than, say, fundamentalist Evangelical ones.

      • Owlmirror

        I have no idea what you mean about “once per piece of evidence”. Why wouldn’t you change your mind about old evidence given new evindence showing that the old evidence is false; bogus; made up?

        The news that the bible is largely bogus is hardly “ancient”.

          “Another reason might be that the update doesn’t have much of an effect if you use Catholic conditional properties ”

        What exactly are those?

        • OK, the semi-subtle version didn’t work, so I’ll try explicit:
          The points I was making directly were:
          1. Everyone already knows what you were pointing out here, so the most obvious explanation for why Leah wouldn’t update on it now is because she already did when, like everyone else, she heard about it years ago.
          2. And that would have been a lot less decisive than you seem to think it would have been, because Catholicism simply doesn’t hinge on Old Testament battle reports all being literally true.
          Both points imply a further one that
          3. The information advantage you seem to think you possess is an illusion.

          • Owlmirror

            Let us indeed be completely explicit.

            1. Who is “everyone” in your claim that “everyone already knows”? I don’t know that Leah knows about what I asked, which is why I asked. I have no reason to think that she knows it, since none of her postings that I have seen on the bible have mentioned archaeology or the history of the ANE. Even in the post above, she discusses how the lines of the bible were declared false by priestly fiat, presumably because of the moral abhorrence of the passage. There’s no mention about the problematic historicity of King David based on archaeology.
            2.1. The problems with biblical historicity are most certainly not limited to “Old Testament battle reports”.
            2.2. What does Catholicism hinge on?
            3. That’s for Leah to demonstrate, I think.