Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rationalizing Old Testament Texts of Terror

 or How We Paint Ourselves into a Difficult Corner

(the alternative would be to unbind ourselves from past misconceptions)

From William Blake's Book of Job
When I went to college, Religion was one of my majors (English Lit was my other major – English Lit actually redeemed my education by showing me how to see the importance of the stories we tell). My professors in the Religion Department at Samford University were the hallmark of scholarship and integrity. Some of my classmates were more conservative and were often quite troubled by the scholarship of our instructors. Many of their notions of biblical infallibility and inerrancy were challenged. For my part, I quickly determined that the Christian Fundamentalists who had no problem believing that every word in the Bible was absolutely and unquestionably true had obviously not read much of it. If the texts are actually read, even the most devout will have cause to wonder about why some passages are even included in the Holy Writ.

The most obvious problem passages in the Bible are those Old Testament passages instructing the people of Israel to slaughter every inhabitant of the villages they came upon in their conquest of Canaan. They were instructed to have no mercy, to wipe out every man, woman and child.

Many Interpretations

Roger Olson is a theologian who is a professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. If you are interested in theology, I can highly recommend his blog, My Evangelical Arminian Theological Musings. Dr. Olson is a very disciplined scholar with an authentic spiritual background. His topics often cover things of interest to the evangelical community, but he also offers many helpful discussions in theology and Christian history, all very accessible but always grounded in honest scholarship.

This week Dr. Olson did a blog post titled, “Every Known Theistic Approach to Old Testament ‘Texts of Terror’.” In his usual style, he listed all the classical approaches that various Christian scholars have taken to try to explain those Old Testament passages that describe a war god promoting genocidal tactics. He provides us with a helpful and succinct list of theological approaches and points out the problems with each.

Of the various approaches that Olson enumerates, I found myself most closely in line with the progressive revelation interpretation and the liberal interpretation:

Progressive revelation interpretation: “Inspiration” does not mean dictation or that every story in the Bible is to be taken at “face value.” God accommodated revelation to the people’s ability to understand him and people came to understand God’s revelation more clearly over time. As God incarnate, Jesus is the clearest revelation of God’s character and will. At times God’s people misunderstood his command and recorded their own beliefs about God and his commands as revelation from God. God’s revelation of his own character and will becomes clearer throughout Scripture with the later (clearer) parts relativizing the earlier (less clear) parts.
*Problems: Requires a very flexible view of divine inspiration of Scripture (and rejection of inerrancy if not infallibility). Is also subject to accusations of implicit Marcionism.
Liberal interpretation: Portions of the Old Testament (and perhaps also of the New) are culturally conditioned such that they cannot be believed by modern people. The touchstone of biblical interpretation is the modern worldview and modern ethical sensibilities. (In other words, yes, the people of God did slaughter men, women, and children, but God did not command it.)
*Problem: Sets up a temporal and conditioned cultural norm (“modern”) over Scripture itself and possibly even over Jesus himself. Leads to phenomena such as the “Jefferson Bible” (whether literally, physically or not).

As it turns out, of course, there are problems with any interpretation that has been given to these texts. Each problem generally has to do with the fact that a given interpretation either conflicts with our traditional view of God or challenges the authority of scripture.

The Problem is the Text

Mine was one of the many comments in response to Dr. Olson’s post. I stated that the primary “problem” with each interpretation of these texts of terror is that the texts exist. Perhaps none of us would be in danger of challenging the immutability of God or the infallibility of scripture if there were no such texts. As it is, we are faced with the realization that either we ourselves have more compassion and a higher ethic than the God who is portrayed here, or the guys writing things down just got it wrong.

Carl Jung wrote a fascinating book called Answer to Job. His contemporaries in the academic psychological field were embarrassed that Jung wrote such a book. One of the ideas he presents is that when Yahweh appeared to Job in the whirlwind with his “where were you when I formed the earth” speech, that Yahweh himself was startled with the realization that Job in his humanity was superior to him. Yahweh, as Jung “analyzes” it is not sure whether Job saw this, but at that point he realizes that he needs to become incarnate as a human if he is to be complete.

Unbinding Ourselves

Carl Jung writes not as a theologian, but rather brings his own psychological approach to questions of religion. One of the beauties of Carl Jung’s approach to theology and philosophy in Answer to Job is that he is not bound by the staid and dusty confines of the establishment. This is a justifiable approach, especially in dealing with Job. If you have read the book of Job, you may remember that the most unhelpful advice Job received was from his friends who uttered the staid traditional theology of the day.

If we are to be honest about our lives and about our faith, sometimes we must unbind ourselves from the religious package we have inherited. Tomorrow I will talk about how my life as an English major helped me to loose myself from some of the confines and inadequacies of a faith that was neatly packaged but not quite my own.


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