Exegesis #3 Reading the Old Testament through the New

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One thing I observe stretching from the OT to the NT is a progressive and developing understanding of God. In early Jewish writings, God is framed as one tribal God among many, by the time we get to the NT there is only one God, and false idols and demons.

In the old way of thinking something was either your fault ("Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did?" 1 Sam 6:6) or God's curse ("I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt" Exodus 7:3). So we have Isaiah telling the Israelites that their suffering - being pillaged, raped, taken as slaves - was basically because of something you did.

In the NT we have a more complex understanding which involves the demonic. In other words, with this perspective we now have three players: God, humanity, and evil. We are dealing not only with fallen people, but a fallen system where people can suffer, not because God willed it, and not because they deserved it, but because of evil itself. This adds the idea that something can be broken in the very system of the world that is (1) not God's will, and (2) not your fault. Along with it we also have the idea of sin, not just as transgression, but as bondage. An addict can't "just stop," as if it were simply a rational choice. They need help to break free. This is what we see Jesus helping people to do all through the Gospels - to break out of demonic bondage, to break out of cultural and religious exclusion, to break out of hurtful identities., to break out of the trap of sin. The idea of the demonic in the NT thus gives a way more complex understanding of how evil, hurt, and injustice function in our world.

I think that when Jesus read his Bible, he read it like that. He took the understanding he had - the understanding that had grown and developed into a more sophisticated picture of who God is, and read with that in mind as he read those OT stories that do not yet have these insights. The problem with our reading it strait as the story has it, while this may be "correct academic exegesis" is that if we believe that we are reading God's word (and I certainly do), this can lead folks to think that God is evil and unjust because we are seeing God through the dim vision of a primitive person. It really comes down to this: if we read the OT flat out, we will either la) lose our faith, (b) try to love a monster, or (c) decide that the Bible is not God's word UNLESS we can learn to read with the benefit of the progressive revelation of God which culminates in the person of Jesus (God's living perfect self-revelation), unless we learn to read the Bible like Jesus did.

So I really want to seriously question the whole concept of "correct exegesis" here, and suggest that we need to read the OT like Jesus (and the other Jews of his time) would have. Not only that, we need to read it with our own conscience intact, our own sense of what is right, which we have from God's Spirit in us. In fact, that's what Jesus says to do in Luke 12:57.

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Exegesis #2 - ethics guides exegesis

Sunday, September 13, 2009

There are many disturbing things in the Bible. One that shakes me the most are the accounts of genocide in the Old Testament. Just as suffering, tragedy, and injustice in our lives can cause us to doubt God's goodness, so can such passages. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard for dealing with questions of theodicy like these is the idea of suspending judgment, as Doug Easterday puts it "everything I understand about God is loving and good, and the things I don't understand... I just don't understand yet." This approach allows one to admit pain, ask questions, but to still hold on. It is about living in the tension, about trusting in God's character, rather than in our limited understanding.

There is however a danger in this. That danger is to accept evil, to stop seeking, to stop crying out. Here we say, "Well, I don't understand what is going on, but if God did it, it must be good. " The difference here is quite subtle on the surface, but the consequences are severe because it basically means we shut down our conscience and call evil good.

Take for instance the aforementioned example of the genocide accounts in the Old Testament: If you heard about this happening anywhere in the world today - in Germany, in Afghanistan, or Darfur you would clearly see it as an atrocity, as horrific, as profoundly evil. If anyone claimed that God told them to do it, we would without exception declare them to be mad. And yet it is common for us Christians to find passages like this in the Bible, and to make arguments as to why this was justified and God's will. This is not just true of average joe Christians - you will find this same type of cognitive dissonance arguments in Bible commentaries, and made by major theologians too.

What's going on here? Isn't it a no-brainer that mass killing babies is bad? So why do Christians (Christians who are appalled at abortion I might add) argue that this would be fine to violently slaughter babies? What would make smart people say such absurd things? What would make loving people justify such horrific practices? I believe it's in part because we somehow think that it is our job to defend God's actions and the Bible. So no matter what it says, we feel compelled to rationalize why God was right to do this. Whatever it says, we reason, must be good, no matter how ghastly. But does God really needs us to defend him? More likely, the real reason behind this is that we feel that if we allow for any critique of the Bible, that the whole thing may collapse under our feet, leaving us nothing to stand on.

So we turn off our moral conscience as we read the Bible, calling evil good, and darkness light Some theologians even go so far as to teach that we should not trust our "worldly" understandings of right and wrong (apparently being opposed to mass slaughter of infants is worldly) and instead let the Bible define for us what is right (meaning that if the Bible tells us to kill babies we should accept this as good). I would like to assert that such an approach is profoundly damaging and irresponsible. God gave us a conscience, and to go against it is one of the most damaging things a person can do to their soul. It is flat out abusive - and I do not use this word lightly. In fact, this is precisely what abuse is about: a person is made to do something that they feel is wrong, and is told that their perceptions are in fact wrong. What is happening to them is not bad, they are bad. This can have devastating results on how a person perceives themselves, their world, and on their relationships - including their relationship with God. No matter what the authority is - your pastor, a parent, a theologian, or a holy book - you should never ever do something, or believe something, that goes against your conscience.

Biblically, the result of this kind of blind adherence to the Bible, regardless of how hurtful it is, is exemplified by the Pharisees (who are not exactly put forward as a model of correct exegesis!). In fact, the #1 rule of theology is that if our understanding of God makes him appear to be evil or unjust, then our theology is wrong somewhere down the line. If we understand something to imply that God is a monster then the answer is not to declare that "monsters are good", but to say "I just don't understand," and live in that tension and weakness until we do understand what is going on.

Going a step further, our understanding of Scripture must always, always, always be done through the eyes of Jesus, and with the heart of Jesus. We need to make sure that our interpretation of the Bible is in line with what we know firsthand from God in a living relationship to be good, loving, and just. Simply put: ethics must guide exegesis. These ethics are not formed from our flawed interpretation of rules in a book, but learned through our firsthand experience of knowing what love is in a personal transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. Then our conscience will "not be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of my mind" so that we will "know the good and perfect will of God". When we then approach the Bible with the mind and heart of Jesus, we will be able, like him, to question false interpretations, having his heart move our own, learning through the Spirit to see people as he does, learning to think as he does.

If we take Jesus as our model for how to properly interpret Scripture, we see that he constantly challenges interpretations of Scripture that block people from grace. His direct knowledge of his father's will and character was his guide for interpreting, redefining, and critiquing, how the Bible was understood. He let his ethics guide his exegesis - his understanding of what love was and who God was was his guide to how he read and understood the Bible. Ethics proceeds exegesis. Or to put it differently: relationship with God is the lens through which we need to interpret Scripture. We love the Bible because in it we find Jesus, but we do not have a relationship with a book, but with the living Word, Jesus Christ. Scripture is not an end in itself, but points us to that relationship, and in turn, that living relationship helps us to understand and interpret Scripture.

This does not mean that our interpretation is infallible just because we know God's heart through relationship. We need to always be aware of our limited perceptions and blinders, and to approach the Bible (and life and faith too) with humility. But one thing we must never do is close our hearts and turn off our conscience when we read.

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Exegesis #1 Why you can't take Jesus literally

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

I thought I'd do a series on biblical exegesis. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. For the first installment we begin with the rather provocative statement: you can't take Jesus literally. To do so leads to horrific interpretations! In fact, if you take a look at anti-Christian propaganda like the Skeptics Annotated Bible, 9 times out of 10 this is exactly the mistake they make, and the results are some of the most horrible interpretations of Scripture you can imagine. So this is a really important exegetical principle, that is not often communicated.

Now let me say strait away that I do not mean we should not take Jesus seriously. But I am saying it is almost always wrong to interpret him literally. Let me begin with a rather obvious example: In Mt 5:30 Jesus says "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off" I think we would all agree that Jesus did not mean for us to take that literally. Anyone who disagrees please raise your hand... oh that's right, you can't! Jesus is not advocating amputation as a method of character development, he is using hyperbole, exaggeration, to make a statement that says "hey, wake up man! Listen!"

Jesus does that all the time, over and over. I'm sure you can think of a lot of examples. For instance, how about Lk 14:26
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."
Does Jesus really want us to hate our parents or our own children as a part of loving him? Does following Jesus mean self-hatred, and being a bad parent? If this is taken literally, the results would be horrible advice.

Whether we have really thought about it or not, I'd say that most- if not all of us -do not take Jesus literally in any of these above examples. So what I would like to propose, here is that once you are aware that this is a major way that Jesus communicates - through dramatic over-exaggeration intended to jar you into seeing things from a different perspective - that suddenly you can see Jesus doing this all over the place. Think of the way Jesus talks: He uses hyperbole as we have discussed above, he also uses paradoxes like "the greatest are the least" and "lose your life to find it," which at face value sound crazy. He uses symbolism like "you must be born again," to which Nicodemus himself is confused when he tries to think about how one could literally re-enter their mother's womb,
Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (Jn 3:4)
Here's some news for you Nick: it's not literal, it's symbolic. Or how about taking the eucaristic symolism literally when Jesus says "drink my blood, and eat my flesh"? Is Jesus wanting us to be vampires or cannibals? Nope, it's symbolism. He's taking a spiritual reality and making it visceral, putting "flesh on it" so to speak.

Think too about how Jesus teaches in parables. These are stories that all have a twist at the end. They are not intended to be taken as verbatim accounts. If you do, the whole point is lost. Take for example the story of the landowner (Mt 21:33-45) who sends his servant to collect his money from the tenants. The tenants kill his servant, so he sends another. Same thing happens. Finally he sends his son whom they also kill. Now the point of this is that it is supposed to illustrate the injustice of how the prophets have been treated, how people miss God when he comes to them. But if we were to take this literally we would have to think that this landowner must be pretty irresponsible and foolish to send his son after he saw what happened to the servants. Taken in a literalistic way this becomes the parable of the stupid father who is more concerned about getting paid then he is about his child. Horrible lesson. And you can misread all of the parables like that, taking them in a wooden literalistic way and completely missing the real point.

So based on this, here's where our application comes in: Now that we know to look for this, suddenly we have a clue as to how to interpret difficult passages from Jesus. Take for example his statement in Mark 3:28-29
"I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin."
This passage has haunted lots of believers, myself included. Have I accidentally done this? The autobiography of John Bunyan accounts how he is tormented by this fear over and over. And it seems to go contrary to everything we know about grace. 'Mess up once, and it's all over' it seems to say. But what if this is hyperbole? What if Jesus is emphatically saying that the worst thing you can do is miss out on recognizing God's work in people's lives, that this is the thing that is really really bad. Then it's not about a legalistic statement of 'one strike and you're out,' but about the opposite. He's saying: Be open to the moving of the Spirit! Don't miss it! Don't be so religious that you miss what God is doing, because that's the worst sin you could possibly commit!

Or to take another rather subtle example, think about what Jesus says in the next chapter of Mark. After telling the parable of the sower to the crowd he says in private to his disciples,

"The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, " 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'" (Mk 4:11-12)
Now if we take this literally, it sounds like the Gospel is meant for elite insiders, and hidden from outsiders, whom Jesus apparently does not want to repent. That can't be right! Now, what if Jesus is being provocative and sarcastic here? What if we read this with a New York Jewish accent like it's being said by Woody Allen: "Well it sure is a good thing no one is getting this, because otherwise they might repent and be healed! Now we sure wouldn't want that , would we?!" What if Jesus said that with a wry smile, and not in the somber stately tones actors always give him in those Jesus movies. What if Jesus was shocking, provocative...and funny?

Now let me stress that Jesus, even when he's funny, is still as serious as a heart attack. We shouldn't think that Jesus is "just kidding" when he says we must be born again, or that we should love our enemies. It is not meant to be ignored as "exaggerated hyperbole" as if Jesus is just ranting. But at the same time if we do want to take what he says seriously, and put his words into practice then we need to also not interpret him like we would the directions for a cookie recipe (take a cup of forgiveness, and 2 teaspoons prayer, mix vigorously until it forms fluffy peaks, and bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes). We need to get that most of the time Jesus is saying things in a non step-by-step instruction book way. He's being dramatic, colorful, provocative, and creative in order to help is read between the lines of life, and see God's way that is so easy to miss if we just look at things in a flat, wooden, recipe-following kind of way.


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