Exegesis #7 - Reading through the eyes of Jesus

Monday, January 18, 2010

In the past I have dealt with violence in the Old Testament and the problem it poses for reading the Bible as God's word. How can we love and trust a God that would command genocide? How can be believe a book that claims he does? Does not the Old Testament present a sub-Christian and appalling vision of morality characterized by an ethic of violent domination and hatred of enemies?

Anyone who does not ask these questions has never really read the Old Testament. One Christian bishop who asked these kinds of questions early in the history of the church was Marcion. Marcion found that the God of the OT seemed immoral and brutal and had nothing to do with the the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Marcion has since gotten a bad rap, being often dismissed as a heretic, but he has a point. Unlike many people today who simply dismiss him, the church father Origen, who disagrees with Marcion' proposal of ditching the OT, nevertheless recognizes the validity of his point. Origen complins that both "heretics" like Marion as well as more "simple minded" Christians hold a view of God based on the OT which
"would not be entertained regarding the most unjust and cruel of men" (De Principiis 4.5). If we look today, find the same is true: both fundamentalists as well as atheists read the OT and see in it a monstrous picture of God.

So what is the alternative? How did Origen read the OT? More importantly, how did Jesus read the OT in which he saw his loving Abba Father who he says "loves his enemies" (Mt 5:34-48)? I'd like to propose a way for us to read the OT. It's very simple actually - we simply need to read the OT in the light of Jesus. Let me give an example of what that might look like:

Jesus applies the story of Passover to his own death, and from this we can gain a lot of insight into how he understood the cross. But the same time the cross is very different from the Exodus. The Exodus is about God's people being liberated out of bondage, but it comes about through violence and force, and is waged not against evil itself, but other human beings. So the way Jesus understands the Exodus means its reversal at the same time as it means its fulfillment. The same can be said for pretty much every story in the OT. Take David and Goliath where we have your basic "little guy overcomes the big bad bully" story. In the end it still promotes overcoming enemies through violent force though. Reading this in the light of the NT we might ask how the little guy David might have applied love of enemies and Paul's principle of "overcoming evil with good."

In other words, we cannot simply read the OT as Christians and assume that it gives us a true picture of God. In the OT we see at best a "dim Christ," but God's true nature is only fully revealed in Christ. To read the OT right, we need to read it through the interpretive lens of the NT, we need to lay every story at the foot of the cross and ask how it is transformed, redeemed, and reversed by the cross. This is precisely how we see Jesus reading the OT himself. He says he has come "fulfill the law" but in doing so he reverses it, turning the ethic of genocide and war of "hate your enemies" into "love your enemies". While in the OT we see the prophet Elijah call down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (2 Ki 1:10), Jesus rejects this outright. When his disciples ask him "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them, as Elijah did?" (Lk 9:54) Jesus rebukes them "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." (Lk 9:55-56 NASB). Let me underline what Jesus says here: what kind of spirit you are of. There are really only two options here. Either we read the OT with the spirit of Christ, or we read it with another spirit, and as a result see in the OT a God of violence and hate.

This is admittedly a radical way to read the OT, but I submit to you that this is exactly how Jesus read his Bible. It is also how Paul and the other Apostles read it, and how Origen and the early church read it. So it is a deeply orthodox New Testament way to read our Bibles faithfully. It is also a life-giving way of reading Scripture that does not turn a blind eye to the abuse of power and violence propegated in the name of religion, but exposes it and redeems it in Jesus name. I think it is time that we recovered this way of reading.

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on theodicy, suffering, and remembering

Friday, January 08, 2010

I can't read these two quotes without crying. I offer them both as a prayer.

These are the words of Elie Weisel, a survivor of the Holocaust, from his book Night,

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.


And from Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov,

Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: 'Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.' When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, 'Thou art just, O Lord!' then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can't accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures.

You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child's torturer, 'Thou art just, O Lord!' but I don't want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether.

It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'! It's not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell?

I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don't want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother's heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive?

I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it.

And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.

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