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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At 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try as I might, I just don't understand what you are saying. Can you expand on it more? Do you accept the OT stories as factual accounts, including the interaction Jehovah had in commanding genocide? What does reading that with the Spirit of Christ mean? Not trying to be contrarian, I would like to better understand what you are saying.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

The basic principle is that Jesus provides us with a model of reading Scripture that allows for us to challenge, question, critique, and even change Scripture. Jesus did this in a way similar to the prophets. I mentioned for example his statement that calling down fire was not in line with the Spirit, and his reversal of the ethos of hatred of enemies.

So from this, I would say that what we see in the OT is not a perfect picture of who God is, it is as Paul says, God seen "through a veil" and that veil is "only removed in Christ"

So to connect the dots here for you, I would say that the OT accurately reflect how God was perceived through the eyes of the people at the time. Sometimes we find rare glimpses of insight (like with David) and sometimes they are just flat out wrong and present a false picture of who God is (like with David). The genocide accounts I would say - based on what I know of the character and heart of God based on the revelation of Christ - are one of those times where they got it wrong. Despite what they claim, they do not represent the will o God, but a picture of the ugliness of human sin and the danger that comes when that sin and abuse of power hides behind religion.

So I read those stories, but I read all f them with the assumption that they were written by sinful people like me who need Christ to shine on them as much as I do. I read them with a critical eye that comes at them with an a priori assumption that the way of Christ must trump everything I see. If Jesus is Lord, that means that when Samuel says "thus saith the Lord" I test the spirit of what he is saying and if it contradicts the way of Christ, I reject it in Jesus' name. In other words, I do not derive my ethics from the OT, I read back an ethics based on Jesus and the NT and re-interpret and re-read the OT in the light of that, even if it means arriving at radically different conclusions. This is also what I see Jesus doing as he reads.

I don't just do this with the really hard parts of the OT, I do it with all of the OT. Luther used the same principle when he read, asking whether a book or passage "promoted Christ" or not as his yardstick.

Does that help?

At 8:07 AM, Blogger kc bob said...

I so resonate with you on this. I wrote something similar that I have not really shared with anyone else. I would appreciate your feedback on it. Here is the link.

At 8:03 AM, Anonymous SteveW said...

Thank you for your clarification (I posted the first comment above). I also read the "violence in the OT" link and some of the comments. It's beyond coincidence that the article I read immediately before this on another website had as its primary emphasis that Jesus is the word of God, not the scriptures. It is a good but long read, btw (http://www.tentmaker.org/Biblematters/bestbibletranslation.htm)

Coming from a very strong evangelical background, some of which is admittedly being turned on its head, what you write is a bit scary. In that worldview, biblical inspiration is a tidy little strongbox you just aren't supposed to open. Everything hinges on it. I see by your other post that you are saying if opening that box is what it takes to be true to Jesus, then so be it. That Jesus is the Word of God, the measuring stick so to speak. I appreciate what you are saying.

I still wonder if there isn't another alternative though. I've only recently started down this road in earnest, but it seems to me that adopting a universalist view of salvation must have an impact on how those OT stories are viewed as well. That if those obliterated by the flood had the gospel preached to them by Jesus himself (as in 1 Pet 3), then genocide didn't equal eternal damnation. God loved them and ultimately saved or will save them. Wouldn't OT destruction be more palatable and concordant with a loving God if somehow it fit in with his redemptive, restorative purpose for those OT ethnic groups whose iniquity had reached its fullness?

I firmly believe that God's purpose is for me to spend eternity with him. That means that all that is in me that is not of him will be stripped away one way or another. That purpose overrides everything in my life. That purpose is more important than my comfort, lack of suffering, enjoyment, even my death. In fact, that purpose requires death of one kind or another. Is that because God is unloving? Does he not care if I suffer? I don't enjoy disciplining my children, it is an act of love and actually requires sacrifice on my part. If we take the larger view of those people who were annhialated, and put it in the larger context of a God who sees the end from the beginning, who is only and always working towards one end, can't it be seen as the severest form of discipline?

To us in the confines of our temporal physical bodies human death is awful. Jesus defeated death, now it is only a transition, a step in our journey.

Jesus, the perfect man, was tortured and crucified. Was that God's will? Was it his purpose? Isn't that more offensive than genocide? Isn't it possible to believe the OT stories as written and believe that God has always been working, even then, to reconcile? Could it have been his mercy at work?

I could go on but hopefully my point comes across. I think it is akin to viewing those stories through your Christus Victor paradigm and what you have written about God's justice and restorative purposes instead of through eyes of condemnation.

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Steve,

I agree that God can take suffering, injustice, and brokenness and turn it into good. I also think there is value in trying as you are to "redeem" these stories by seeing them in the light of Christ. I'd like to point out 3 things though:

1) be aware that you are essentially reversing the intent here. If we take a genocide account, where we read the stated intent of God is to utterly destroy a people, and then make it a story about how those people will be saved by God, you have reversed the story's stated intent. Maybe you should. But you need to at least recognize that this means that some messages in the OT get the OPPOSITE meaning when interpreted through Jesus. That means a major paradigm shift in how we Evangelicals read the OT. It means that in the OT we see at best a "dim Christ" who is only fully revealed in the NT. It means we cannot take the statements of the OT at face value, and sometimes need to believe the opposite of what they say.

2) As much as God can use the evil men intended and turn it to good, that evil still remains evil. If a little kid is killed, that is evil. No matter how much God brings healing to that family, no matter how much good comes, that child's death is still evil and wrong. When Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross, that was unjust, barbaric, and evil. God used it for our salvation, but it was still evil. Peter says, "you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead" (Acts 2:23-24). It's really important that while working with Jesus towards redeeming pain and suffering and hurt that we do not seek to justify that hurt and evil.

3) I do realize that what I am saying is radical. However I want to stress that what I am proposing is that we read the Bible in the same way that Jesus and Paul did. I propose that the way I am outlining is how Jesus and Paul read their Bibles, and if that is different from how Evangelicals have been reading it, then we need to align ourselves with Jesus and the Apostles, and not with our own 20th century tradition. That principle is in itself deeply evangelical.

At 5:42 AM, Blogger Robin said...

I find SteveW's perspective more helpful on this question even though I am not a universal redemption believer. When you consider the suffering of the people that are enduring the weight of generations of idolatry and degeneration, it really is an act of mercy to end their time on earth. If, as a universal redemptionist, you see how their death without the gospel does not mean eternal separation from God, the best, most loving thing God could do is to break the cycle of degeneration. The other benefit is that they would not influence "God's people" to degenerate like they had.

I still don't understand the "seeing it like Jesus" line of thought, and it appears that you (Derek) are more or less saying that the accounts are inaccurate because the people interpreting and recording the accounts are sinful people without the proper perspective. I'm not quite ready to make that leap.

But as you can see, I'm still conflicted. Great questions and I like the spirit of the writer and the comments.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

If someone suggested that we should kill non-Christians today, (including their children), would you be in support of that? Please tell me you didn't mean that.

At 2:48 AM, Blogger Phil said...

Hi Derek,

How does a section like 2 Kings 1 work, when Elijah called fire from heaven? Because Jesus words directly forbade the fire-from-heaven solution to the disciples problems, and indicated what "kind of spirit" that came from, it seems the only way Jesus could have read that has to be either that ...
1. the account is inaccurate and fire business didn't happen like that, and that their interpretation of events got overlaid with their own view of the way God was.
2. God did deliver the fire as requested, as an interim route to fuller relevation in a more sophisticated age (actually although I don't like this, I can't get away from the fact that God holds responsibility for everything that happens, and He has decided in advance that it is all worth it ...)

Thanks again for your excellent site.


At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derek brother, awesome blog! People like you are real heroes today my friend. We need this type of information and I'm so grateful to see you working towards that end.

I've recently thought this about interpreting the Bible but assumed I was wrong because of course this is condemned as heresy by so many. Your article is a reassuring breath of fresh air for me. Please keep it up.


At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hey Erkki,

I checkout your blog too, and love the stuff you are doing there! You mention in your profile searching for a way to find beauty in this broken world of our despite all the darkness. I think this is exactly how we need to learn to see when reading the Old Testament too.

At 2:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for checking out my blog and for the encouragement. So true, what a great way to look at the OT.

You're really helping me out with your writing and I eagerly await future articles from you. As you can tell I'm a frequent flier here (you're in my Google reader) so I'm sure we'll be chatting again in the future.

Take care and blessings to you my brother!

At 12:27 AM, Anonymous Justin said...

So, I know this is a year old, but I have to say, Derek, your perspectives are giving me the freedom to believe again.

It is refreshing to see another person willing to judge the OT and reject what is not Christ, without going all the way to Marcionism.

I have been reading your site all day and late now, into the night. I am glad to have found it.


At 6:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek,

Can you please delete my comments here and elsewhere on your blog? This might seem ridiculous but there's a really good reason behind it.

Thank you!

At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

For private requests like that, just send me an email (link is in the sidebar)


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