Contradictions in the Old Testament (and why they are a good thing)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

It is commonly maintained that the Bible has one single unified voice, one "biblical" message. However this is simply not true. The Old Testament in fact contains a collection of competing narratives written from opposing perspectives.

Seeing the Old Testament from this perspective can be liberating. Rather than trying to make sense of and justify things that strike us as profoundly wrong (like genocide or slavery) we can instead see the Bible as a record of dispute, a witness to a struggle to understand who God is and who we are. Those contradictions we find are then not problems to argue away, but simply due to the fact that the Hebrew Bible allows for diversity, it allows for the voices of competing sides to an issue to stand side by side within the canon. Because there are these divergent views we are compelled to enter into that struggle too. The multiple conflicting views mean we must "pick and choose" as we read. The only question is, what do we pick and why?

This is a view that you almost never hear in church. Most of the time we Christians instead spend our time arguing that there are no contractions in the Bible, attempting to harmonize the texts. We have probably encountered the idea that there is a conflict between the Old and New Testaments--that one is a message of wrath and the other is a message of love, law vs. love. Or perhaps we've heard that the Old Testament when understood properly in fact shows a concern for social justice and compassion for the poor. What we have not heard is that in fact both are true at the same time. The Old Testament contains messages of compassion and inclusion, and it contains messages of hate and harm--each claiming to speak for God. The relationship of the New Testament to the Old then is that it embraces one particular narrative in the Old Testament while critiquing and rejecting another.

Now since the idea that the Old Testament contains multiple conflicting views is one that is unfamiliar to most church going folks, I wanted to give some examples of it. In a previous blog post I gave the example of how Job (and the Psalms) challenge and question the central promise of the law and the Mosaic covenant which clearly promises that if the Israelites are faithful then they will experience blessing, health and plenty, and if they sin they will experience suffering, sickness, and famine (see Deuteronomy 28). Job openly contests this, insisting that his sickness and suffering are not due to his sin. The Psalms likewise echo this complaint.

This became a common theme as Israel repeatedly found itself in exile, under foreign oppression, suffering famine and the ravages of war under Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome. During that time, while some continued to hold to the law and insist that their suffering was due to their sin, others began to develop the idea of the suffering righteous. This is of course a concept that the New Testament picks up and applies to Jesus.

This time I'd like to present a further example relating to how people from other nationalities and races were seen, in particular in the context of interracial marriage. What is the "biblical" view of interracial marriage? Is the answer:
a) you should kill them
b) you should cast the women and children out
c) you should praise and bless them and see them as under God's shelter
The answer, as we will see, is "all of the above." This will be a longer post, but I think it is worth the time it will take to fully paint the picture of two very different perspectives found within the Hebrew canon.

Ezra-Nehemiah and interracial marriage

Let's begin with the book of Ezra. Ezra takes place after the Babylonian exile. The book of Ezra accounts how the king of Persia allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Ezra, a "teacher of the law" comes on the scene to find that many of Israelites had intermarried with the surrounding nations. In response he tears is clothing, rips out his hair in shame. He declares that because of their sin they have "been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today" (Ezra 9:7). What is that sin exactly? Ezra prays out loud,
We have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: "The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time" ... What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt ... Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? (v. 10-15)
The people all weep, fearing that God will destroy Israel because of its sin. Then one man suggests a solution "Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children" (10:3). Ezra then rises and puts all of Israel under oath to do this. Anyone who did not comply was to forfeit all their property.

The story Ezra does not tell is the fate of these women and children. It does not tell the story of the children rejected by their fathers. It does not tell the fate of the women who were cast out of their homes, abandoned by their husbands, sent into the night to fend for themselves. Did they die? Did they find shelter? Think about how life was for women and children in that time. Place yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if you were told you were "polluted" and cast away? Ezra does not tell us.

The book of Nehemiah tells a similar story, "On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God." (Nehemiah 13:1). Seeing that some of the men had taken wives from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab, Nehemiah tells us that he "called curses down on them" and "beat some of the men and pulled out their hair" (v 25). He then declares,
“You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?” (v. 25-27)
On top of the clear central theme of racism in Ezra and Nehemiah and the need to be "purified" of foreigners, it is hard to not notice a corollary theme of sexism: Women are consistently identified as being a corrupting influence over the men, and are the one who need to be cast out. Both Ezra and Nehemiah in their attempt to "purify" Israel from the corruption of foreign peoples can be traced back to Moses who declares,
"When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations ... and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you" (Deuteronomy 7:1-4). 
In the case of Moses this decree resulted in repeated commands for the Israelites to "utterly destroy" the men, women, and children of these foreign nations, killing "everything that breathes." Did these acts of genocide actually take place? Based on archaeological evidence the vast majority of biblical scholars doubt that they did. What is however clear is that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah appeal to these same texts to justify their policy of divorce and deportation of wives and children from their homes.

Ruth and interracial marriage

That is one narrative found in the Old Testament. Let's turn to consider another narrative that tells the opposite story, found in the book of Ruth which, based on the genre and style, many scholars date as a post-exilic book (i.e. as a book from the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah). Ruth is the story of Moabite woman who was married to an Isrealite.

Recall above how Nehemiah quotes Moses as declaring "no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God" This likely is a reference to Deuteronomy 23 which states "No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation ... Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live." (vv. 3 & 6)

As the story begins, Ruth's husband has died, and her widowed Jewish mother-in-law Naomi is preparing to leave Moab and return to Judah. She urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers in the hopes of finding husbands. Ruth's sister-in-law agrees, but Ruth is hesitant. Naomi says to her "Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” (Ruth 1:15), but Ruth clings to Naomi and in one of the most intimate passages in Scripture says these moving words,
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
After this Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem where Ruth meets Boaz who shows her kindness. Ruth bows down before him and asks “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” (2:10) and Boaz replies to her,
“I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (vv 11-12)
The Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge. That is certainly strikingly different from how Ezra and Nehemiah, not to mention Moses, would have regarded a Moabite woman. But the story does not stop there. It goes on to tell of how Boaz and Ruth were married and had a son named  Obed who was the father of Jesse, the father of David. Thus the book of Ruth ends by declaring that this Moabite woman was the great-grandmother of king David.

So here we have a counter-witness, likely from the same time, that tells a very different story of inter-marriage. One that, even in its tender and intimate tone, directly confronts narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah. If Ruth was indeed written at the same time, this brings up some striking possibilities: Imagine the reaction of an Israelite man who was forced to send away his wife and children would have had reading the words of Ruth "Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay" and recalls the tears on his wife's face that day he sent her away or the terrified and heartbroken screams of his children. What might have been the reaction of the elders and rulers upon reading of Ruth the great grand-mother of king David whose "holy seed" they awaited in a coming Messiah to rule Israel? Would that coming messiah destroy the nations as Joshua did and as some of the prophets declare? Or would the new Joshua (which is the name of Jesus in Hebrew) instead be a "light to the nations" as other prophets declare in contrast?

The fact is, the Hebrew Bible does not present just one perspective, but instead presents us with differing perspectives, each claiming to represent God's own view. Returning to our multiple-choice question of what the "biblical" view of interracial marraige is, we have seen that Moses says the answer is (a) kill them, Ezra-Nehemiah declared the answer was (b) cast the women and children out, and finally Ruth makes the case against both that the answer is (c) praise and bless them and see them as under God's shelter. The fact that we find these competing perspectives side by side within the canon calls us to deliberate between these competing views. Rather than spoon-feeding us a single answer, the multi-vocal nature of the Hebrew Bible calls to enter into the struggle ourselves, to make choices between right and wrong as moral adults. Do we side with Ezra and Nehemiah or with Ruth? Which narrative will we embrace? Which understanding of holiness will we adopt as our own? Finally, as Christians we are inclined to ask: Which narrative most reflects the heart of Jesus? Which are the texts that shaped his own view towards the foreigner, towards those who were regarded as "unclean" or as enemy Gentiles?

There are of course many other examples of these conflicting perspectives in the Hebrew Bible. Next time we'll consider the example of the prophets disagreeing and contradicting one another.

(Note: I owe the insight of the contrast between Ezra-Nehemiah and Ruth to Karl Allen Kuhn in his Having Words with God. It's a great book, go check it out!)

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At 2:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. But one thought came to me which I want to share. All the "evil" foreign women and children in Ezra-Nehemia, Deuteronomy and the book of kings (Solomon) seem to share the one thing that they stayed true to their own gods, while Ruth chose YHWH. One could bring this up as the major difference.
Althought there was also Rachel, who stole the gods of her father's and thus can be considered polytheist, if we decide to read the bible literally (rather than that I'd guess the text is just older and from a time when this was not so much a problem, but I didn't check it, just came to my mind).

At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi De Benny,

In fact, because this was a patriarchal culture, the logical assumption for us to make would be that these women and children had all converted to the religion of their husbands. So the likely scenario is that these were all believers in Yahweh, just like Ruth was. But unlike Ruth they did not meet someone who blessed them and spoke of "taking refuge under Yahweh's wing" but instead called them “polluted” and warned of their corrupting influence, and appealed to texts used to justify a policy of genocide in the past in order to legitimize a policy of divorce and deportation then.

The texts of Ezra and Nehemiah never claim that the wives and children stayed true to their own gods. The only "sin" that is mentioned is simply that the men had married foreigners (Ausländer). They read the law of Mosses and saw that this is forbidden and decreed divorce and deportation as a way to atone for their "sin." The logic that Ezra puts forward is simply this: (1) This is what Mosses commands (2) Mosses says if we do not follow the law then God will destroy us (3) we were just conquered and in exile because Yahweh was angry (4) so we better get rid of all the foreigners or God will destroy us completely.

The only other thing that is mentioned at all is that some of the children did not speak Hebrew. There is no mention of worshiping other gods or participating in practices of other religions, eating unclean food, and so on. If there had been any evidence of this it surely would have been mentioned so they could have repented, but it is not. There is only one sin mentioned and that is simply that they were foreigners.

If their concern was that the women had remained loyal to their gods, then the decree should have been something like "all foreign women must swear an oath to follow Yahweh." But that is not what happened, nor was there any establishment of guilt for anything other than "if you are of foreign decent, then you must go." Ruth tells the story of an individual, so we can see the heart of this foreign woman. Ezra and Nehemiah do not. So the fact is, if Ruth had been there, the same thing would have happened to her. Why would this have happened to Ruth too? Because no individual cases were considered. All of the foreign women were simply kicked out. The decree was simply “send away * all * these women and their children.”

Now there is the statement from Nehemiah which uses fear and makes the claim that foreign women will corrupt the men just as they had Solomon. That's what these dirty foreigners do. In Nehemiah’s mind that would include Ruth.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Samurai said...


So that's the "faulty" part of Nehemiah and Ezra. Even though there are aspects of it that do not reflect the heart of God, is there still a treasure in the jar of clay - a core Biblical motif/value in this story that shines through and is showing itself in a development?

At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

(I've decided your name is Sam. Urai today, hope you don't mind Mr. Urai).

I don't think we should assume that every book necessarily has a "treasure" in it, just as not every human deed is good. Not every word I speak is life-giving. If I say something that is hurtful I need to face that, rather than try and see how it was good.

The reason this is important for me is that there is a deep tendency to want to see the Bible through rose colored glasses, and thus whitewash over religious abuse rather than facing it. This tendency applies equally to conservatives and liberals, both tend to do it. So I want to be very careful not to do that, but to have an honest reading of Scripture. That's hard for me to do. It would be much easier (and feel better) to read it so it said something I thought was appealing. But even though it's hard and uncomfortable to face, I've learned there is something deeply good about facing the dark parts (in ourselves and in our sacred texts).

So, while I'm open to seeing things from another perspective, I would say that there is nothing good in the messages of Nehemiah or Ezra to deport these women and children. It's ugly. it's abusive. It's scapegoating. It's sin. The good part is to see the bigger picture, to see that there are other books, written at the same time, like Ruth or Jonah, that make a Jesus-shaped counter-point, that teach love of enemies.

So what I think is critical to keep in mind here is that when we find things like Ezra we can't say "boy the Israelite religion sure was messed up then!" because in Ruth we see a snapshot of Israelite religion from that same time that is beautiful. We need to have the whole picture and Ezra together with Ruth gives is that counter-point.

Frankly I think it's quite remarkable that these two books were both included in the canon despite their opposing perspectives. That fact tells us something very important about the Hebrew mindset which allows for differing views, for debate, for questioning, for wrestling together.

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Samurai said...


Actually you may call me "Sammy" since that's my nickname in real life :) I have so many ways I could respond to you that I'm frankly a bit overwhelmed with not being able to say it all succinctly.

But let me focus a bit and address your statement that there's "nothing good" in the story of Ezra and Nehemiah. While I'd agree with you that Jesus exemplified questioning normative interpretations of Hebrew texts, he did not do so by calling for certain stories to be expunged or ignored. Nor did he focus his message on questioning whether certain books needed to be part of the Hebrew canon. Of course, we only have a limited snapshot of his treatment of the Scriptures, but the parts we do see is re-interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures by reversing expectations of how the kingdom was to come about (through weakness, not worldly power, restoring dignity to the vulnerable and broken, etc).

I think this is an important point to consider because, as God himself in the flesh, Jesus is not just another Paul or Isaiah. Jesus is the Word himself, so his way of dealing with the Scriptures should carry enormous weight with us.

I'd make the case if you study how he handled the Scriptures carefully, he was doing the work of re-interpretation, not decanonization. More to the point, he was emphasizing passages that focused on mercy and doing right by others (especially the vulnerable), while taking passages from Isaiah (which in their original context spoke in the language of God taking vengeance on Israel's enemies for Israel's sake - by your criteria, perhaps worthy of being expunged too, like the story of Ezra and Nehemiah) and lifting them from their original context to point out how they meant something entirely different from their literal meaning.

In this sense, I think focusing on the authority of this or that text is the wrong framework to approach this. Perhaps a better framework would be how does Jesus help us re-interpret passages like Ezra and Nehemiah? In my mind, the re-interpretation is this: while rejecting the message of racism and oppression of the vulnerable, we *should* embrace the spirit of revival and renewal of relationship with God, which I think is the real core message of the story.

I'm not saying we should turn a blind eye to the dark parts, but nor do I think we should parochially focus on them either. Again, Jesus did not go around teaching what part of the Hebrew canon was good or bad - he went around teaching people how and what to see in the Hebrew canon.

At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


First let me clarify that I have no intention of excising anything from the canon. My whole point in this post is that it is good that there are differing views in Scripture, contained within the same canon because this calls us to deliberate as moral adults. Also note that I did not say that there was nothing good in Ezra-Nehemiah at all, but specifically that there is nothing good "in the messages of Nehemiah or Ezra to deport these women and children."

I would also like to affirm that the approach you take is a perfectly legitimate one and does more closely model what Jesus and Paul are doing where they deliberately read a text in a way that goes against the original author's intent.

This is a position I originally took as well, but have moved away from it. Let me explain why: In the time of Jesus, this approach (reading a text with a completely different meaning) was a common form of rabbinical exegesis. So what Jesus and Paul were doing was quite common. Today it is very uncommon, and if you did this today you would flunk a seminary exegesis course. In short, unlike in the past, it is a approach that many see as problematic because it goes against the primary rule of exegesis: authorial intent.

So instead my aim is to get behind the form and to the heart, uncovering what lead Jesus to see some texts as normative, and others as not. The core issue here is application. Ezra read in the law that you should not marry a foreigner and saw that as calling for an immediate application. Likewise the gospels tell us the Pharisees (to mention but one of many examples) read in the law that adultery required the death penalty and called for immediate application. Jesus instead opts to not follow this ordinance of the law, and instead forgives the woman. It's important to note that for this sin there is in the law zero possibility for forgiveness allowed. But Jesus forgives her. With many other things as well Jesus applies some narratives from the OT as normative and shaping of how he lived (for ex: caring for the poor), and does not apply others (for ex: the expected roll of the messiah to lead an army to kill the enemies of Israel).

To me how one does this (using a clever play of words as Jesus of does, or deliberately misreading a text as Paul repeatedly does) is not as important as it is to understand how we can make similar calls as to what way we should be normative for us today (what we apply), and what should not. I think this is what Paul means when he speaks of us having "the mind of Christ."

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

Derek -

Perhaps that is less their problem, and more ours? :) Not to say that modern exegetical methods don't have their critical place, but I'm surprised that few people highlight how vastly different apostolic hermeneutics is from modern methods. If more people knew that and made a bigger deal out of it, I have a hunch literalism with respect to the OT would be re-examined more seriously.

Of course, I agree that Jesus' methodology was not the end, but the means.

At 9:28 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Let's clarify that the principle of authorial intent is not simply something the academy uses. Rather, they do this because it is reflective of what we as a society have come to accept as normal and self-evident. It's how we interpret the meaning of every speech, book, conversation, email, etc. It reflects how you and I are communicating right now. When you say something, you expect me to understand your intended meaning. Otherwise you say "that's not what I meant." So to apply a different way of interpreting Scripture from how we would understand literally everything else in life is just is not tenable. It would amount to "special pleading".

What we need to recognize is that apostolic exegesis is a form of critique. If you doubt this, just look at how mad the religious leaders got when Jesus did it! The NT contains a major criticism of the OT, and as I've been showing here, that critique and disagreement begins within the OT itself. That is, questioning is a legitimate and faithful way of engaging the Bible that has deep Jewish roots. That's what we need to regain: critique, argument, questioning, ethical engagement.

What I want to stress is that we need to own that critique. For example, as you’ve said, we all “pick and choose” as we read. All of us. Most of us however pretend we don’t. I’m saying instead that we should admit what we are all doing, and learn to do it well.


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