Questioning "Thus Saith the Lord"

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Over the last several posts I've been showing how the Old Testament does not speak with one unified voice, but in fact presents us with a catalog of opposing views. It is a record of dispute that models for us that it is good and healthy to question.

We began with the example of how Job and the Psalmists question the Law. Next we looked at the two opposing narratives in Ezra and Ruth: One which sought to strictly follow the commands of the Law by telling men to divorce and deport their foreign wives and children, and another that tells the story from the opposite perspective, letting us see through the eyes of one of those foreign women.

We thus have in the Hebrew Bible a record of a people questioning, arguing, struggling to understand God and life around them; struggling to understand what faithfulness and holiness and love and justice look like. Because the Bible presents us with multiple conflicting views of what this means, we are forced to enter into that struggle, too. We are forced to choose which of these conflicting narratives we will embrace, and allow to shape us. To instead attempt to harmonize the Hebrew Bible into a single cohesive narrative is to deny what it in reality is.

The previous examples I have given have been examples of people challenging the declarations of God in the law. Job challenges God. The Psalmist questions the law of Moses. Ezra challenges it, too. In each of these we find examples of faithful humans essentially saying, as Moses said, "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). The motivation is to plead for justice. It is a continuing theme of theodicy.

This time I'd like to share an example where we find the voice of God directly challenging and contradicting the voice of God, where we find one "thus saith the Lord" statement confronting and reversing another. One prophet boldly declaring God's will, speaking in God's name directly, and another prophets declaring in God's name that the first prophet is completely wrong.

The first prophet is Moses who declares, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers” (Ex 20:5; Dt 5:9). This is then taken up by the prophet Samuel as a consequence for king David’s sins. Samuel prophesies to David, “Because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord the son born to you will die.” (2 Sam 12:14). The text continues to describe a father’s anguish, “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground” (v. 16). But David’s prayers were not heard. We are told that “the Lord struck the child” (v. 15) with sickness, and he soon died.

In this account King David sins, and God kills his little boy. Despite his plea for mercy and his repentance, God directly strikes the child dead. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers!” Thus saith the Lord.

Seems pretty cut and dry until we come to the prophet Ezekiel who declares, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord: You will no longer quote this proverb in Israel” (Ezek 18:3). What is he referring to? His prophesy continues, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live … The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (v. 17, 19). The command of God, declared by Moses, is emphatically denied and rejected here by Ezekiel.

We find many examples of the prophets doing this, challenging and confronting past prophetic declarations. Isaiah challenges the temple sacrifices "The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats" (Isa 1:11-15). Jeremiah similarly challenges the religious commands of the past emphatically stating "I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing!” (Jer 32:35)

Each of these statements, both pro and con, are placed directly in the mouth of God. In one God is said to kill children for the sins of their parents. In the other God is said to emphatically deny this. If with the complaints of Job and the Psalmist we were tempted to say, "Well, I don't understand, but I have to trust that if God commands it it must be right." This option is no longer open to us here because we have two "thus saith the Lord" statements directly contradicting each other. We have a prophet declaring in God's name, "I never commanded that, and such a detestable thing never entered into my mind!"

That means that even when we have something stated as a direct absolute eternal declaration of God, according to the Bible itself, this is not beyond question. The Old Testament models for us how we can challenge and question such declarations. And what is the motivation for that questioning? Without exception it is always motivated by compassion, as a protest against violence and injustice.

Consider too that all of the examples we have been studying have been examples of scapegoating: Last time we heard the story of how women and children were singled out as the "dirty" and corrupting influence that needed to be purged. They were singled out as the "other", the enemy. This led them to turn on their own wives and children, who at the time in that patriarchal society were the most defenseless. They were the scapegoats. Here in the example of king David we have the most powerful man in all of Israel who has used his power as a king to rape Bathsheba (don't kid yourself, she had no say whatsoever) and then murder her husband. However, just as today where the powerful are "too big to fail" David does not pay for this. Instead his little boy does. Again a scapegoat -- all the blame is placed on a defenseless victim, and this "solves" the problem. Likewise, the complaints of Job and the Psalmists are the complaints of those who have been scapegoated, falsely accused and made to suffer.

When the prophets -- along with the Psalmists and other voices in Scripture like Ezra -- speak out against these divine commands they are speaking out against scapegoating. Why is it that, according to Isaiah, God rejects the people's prayers and offerings? "Your hands are full of blood!" Isaiah declares (Isa 1:15). He then goes on to define the kind of sacrifice that God really desires "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow." (v 17). Again, the motivation behind all of these protests is always compassion.

Now of course we can see these same concerns for compassion and the plight of the least, the outsider, the unclean, and the enemy expressed in the life of Jesus. We see Jesus challenge the law, saying repeatedly "you have heard it said... but I say to you." In doing this he overturns the law of an "eye for an eye" and the way of enemy hatred that is woven throughout books like Joshua and proclaimed and commanded by Moses.

It is common to thus see Jesus and the New Testament as representing a break from the Old Testament. It is true that we do see a major turning point in the New Testament, however to truly appreciate that we need to first understand that what we are witnessing is the continuation of something that began back in the Old Testament itself. The Old Testament is a record of dispute,  filled with examples of faithful protest. Jesus may have made that protest more articulate and focused with his shift to the way of enemy love, but he is continuing in the tradition of faithful Jewish questioning in the name of compassion that we see modeled throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. 

We need to learn to walk in that way of faithful questioning ourselves. Even when we find statements put directly in the mouth of God, we are invited to deliberate between these conflicting claims, rather than passively accept them unthinkingly. We must make a choice, and so the question is how to we deliberate between them? How do we choose?

We cannot choose based on authority because, as we have seen, we have two prophets each claiming the authority of God, who are making opposite claims. So if we cannot decide what is right based on "the Bible says so" or "God says so" or "the law says so" then how can we decide among conflicting claims which one is right?

The pattern of protest we have seen, modeled for us in Scripture itself, of which Jesus is a part, shows us that the key factor here is compassion. Compassion, love of enemies, seeing from the perspective of the least, the victim -- that is how we can deliberate what God's will really looks like. Love is the summation of the law. As we do the work of learning the way of empathy we will be able to discern what justice really means.

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At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Derek. I wrote something. What do you think?

Jesus said you're either for me or against me. There is a division between the spiritual truths of Christ and the truths of secular thought. Either/or reasoning is good in areas like math and sciences. But when it comes to Christ we must transcend the either/or into the both/and. The reason why is because He is a mysterious paradox. He cannot be figured out with logic. When we transcend the rational mind into faith, opposites hold together just as they do in Christ. This is why Christ is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. When you love good and hate evil you have light. This is the fear of the Lord and the beginning of wisdom. In the both/and we can love our enemies. It's no longer us and them. It's no longer all or nothing thinking or following a set of rules because one fears punishment. In here love casts out fear and obedience comes from the heart. The spiritual truths of Christ are experienced and understood with the mind but not the rational mind of either/or reasoning. It is here we find the peace beyond understanding and the fruits of the spirit - love, patience, joy, kindness etc.

At 12:07 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

Derek - one of the best posts so far! Not meaning to nitpick, but Jeremiah 32:35 appears to be referring to child sacrifice in the name of Molech - not reversing commands of old.

Not disagreeing with your overall thesis here, but just pointing out that there may be better examples of your thesis than that passage?

By the way, I was curious what you thought of Karl Allen Kuhn's thesis that the dialogical nature of Scripture implies that God could "change his mind"? Does this mean he could have really started out being genocidal, and then decided to change and become more loving as he received more input from humanity?

At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks glad you liked it!

The majority of biblical scholars believe that the ancient Israelites practiced human sacrifice. So this was not simply something that was being done as a "fluke" by those imitating Molech, but was embedded in Hebrew religious life just as idol worship was. There are many examples of this that can be found in the OT, although by the time the OT was edited together their beliefs had shifted away from this so most of it was likely redacted and we only find the "tip of the iceberg." Some examples that linger are the story of Abraham and Issac, commands to offer up the firstborn son as a "ransom" in the law, and stories like that of Jephthah's daughter.

Susan Nildich postulates that the Herem (the Hebrew word for "holy war" genocide policy in the OT) was actually a form of mass human sacrifice too. That's why the OT says they were "devoted to destruction" as a form of sacrifice to Yaweh.

So Jeremiah is referring to something that was a core part of Israelite religious life in the past, and presumably was prevalent enough at the time that Jeremiah felt the need to confront it. Thus I think that Jeremiah should be understood not simply as critiquing the practices of a foreign god (Molech) but as critiquing things that had been (and were) part of Israelite religious life and belief (including it being prescribed in the law). I can see your point that it would be important to understand that context since the text by itself denies that there ever was a different view ("it has never entered my mind to do such a thing")

I like Karl Allen Kuhn's work a lot. I do not read his thesis in the way you describe here as implying that God develops morally. Perhaps you can tell me where you think he says that?

For what it's worth, while I don't think KAK would say this, it IS something Brueggemann has proposed. He speaks of God being a "recovering violence addict." Perhaps it is meant to be humorous/provocative, I'm not sure. At any rate I disagree with that view of God, and would argue that it is in fact incompatible with a dialogical view of the OT, instead casting the OT as a single cohesive narrative which I think is simply untenable.

In short: you cannot logically embrace a dialogical view and hold at the same time the idea of God morally developing (i.e. going from being immoral to moral, from immature to mature). Instead the (I think much more likely) explanation would be that we humans have grown in our views from a primitive barbaric view to a more civilized and advanced view gradually over millennia.

We can witness that development reflected in the OT, a prominent example being the shift from pantheism to henotheism (belief in many gods but loyalty to one) then to monotheism. It's not that the gods a changed (first there were lots, then there were none) it's that our view changed. It's not that the world used to be flat and then got all round, but that we learned and grew :)

At 7:22 AM, Blogger Samurai said...


Would you elaborate how it is logically untenable for a dialogical view of Scripture to say that God himself could change his character based on input from humanity?

I like Kuhn also, and I don't believe that's his major thesis actually IS that God changes from violent to loving as he learns over time. I was aware Brueggemann did say that, and I just wondered if Kuhn, as a colleague of his, was influenced by that to some extent. Really, I guess I'm being a bit of a devil's advocate here :)

At the beginning of his book, Kuhn introduces the idea that God is relational and dialogical, and therefore open to changing his response based on input from humanity. A challenging idea to chew on, in and of itself! To illustrate, he raises the example of the golden calf story, where he was initially going to destroy the Israelites for their disobedient idolatry... only to change his mind when Moses remonstrates with him.

He makes a sound argument, but there is one problem. I get it that Kuhn then goes on to develop his thesis in the book overall that assumes that the "dialogue" God wants is really about his wanting humans to come to their own understanding about his true nature all along (love) via conversation with him and one another. But though he makes his point well about the dialogical nature of God, he doesn't seem to realize (or at least address directly) the fact that he just dropped a major bombshell by using the golden calf example.

After all, if we are going to use that example, the elephant in the room is the question of whether that story accurately portrays the mechanism by which God changes his mind, or whether we're supposed to take only the most general motif from it that God is "open to input." A critical question indeed, and I don't think such a question should be left to assumption. It should be explained and addressed clearly, lest the reader should make a mistake in interpreting the dialogical nature of God.

About human sacrifices - I actually didn't know all that context so thank you for sharing! I'm interested in knowing where to look that stuff up. Unless there was direct extrabiblical evidence that the Israelites sacrificed humans, the examples from the Hebrew canon that you noted sound fairly inferential and circumstantial. And even if there is direct evidence, one might argue (especially a conservative scholar) that such practices were influenced (as the Jeremiah text itself implies) by surrounding pagan practices, not on what they understood to be commands from Yahweh. And since your thesis is that the INTERNAL WITNESS of the Scriptural text itself involves self-critique, I still feel like the Jeremiah example is not the best illustration unless it is accompanied by some pretty convincing data from scholarship.

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I can see your point with Jeremiah, but to be fair it was just a side point along with Isaiah (where one could counter that Isaiah is not criticizing sacrifice but an improper application of it). The primary example is Ezekiel contradicting Moses and Samuel. I think that's pretty clear cut. The other examples are more subtle because the style is often to disagree but act as if there is no disagreement ("It never entered my mind" and "I have no need for sacrifice").

The reason I say that it's logically untenable for a dialogical view of Scripture to say that God himself could change his character based on input from humanity is because the view that God develops relies on reading the text as a single developing narrative where we see the God character in that unfolding story acting in different ways. Since we are reading the Bible as a big "novel" we see this as character development. The dialogical approach in contrast posits that what we in fact have is not one big long narrative, but a collection of books written by different people from different times who do not hold the same views and who are often presenting opposing views on things and opposing views of who God is. So the Bible is not the example of God acting in ways that appear rather schizophrenic to us morally, rather it is record of dispute, a collection of different portraits, documenting how people's view of God changed broadly over 1000s of years.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Thanks. Will you be talking about the dialogical nature of Scripture in your book?

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I don't use the term "dialogical," but yes I talk about the idea quite a bit in the book. I refer to it as "faithful questioning" and it's probably fair to say that it is the central thesis of the book--showing how the OT canon is made up if this, how Jesus and Paul adopt it, and finally how we can adopt it ourselves and apply it to the issues of our day and situation.

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Frederick Froth said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:50 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Frederick Froth,
I have deleted your post because it was simply a link and not an actual comment. This is considered spamming. You are welcome to post a comment engaging in a conversation here, but this is not the place to do self-advertising.


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