Disarming Scripture: Reader Questions, part1

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I've gotten lots of great questions from readers about my book Disarming Scripture, and I thought I'd address these in a series of posts here. I'll try and answer them in a way that makes sense to folks who have not read the book yet (what?! Go read it right now!) but obviously I can only skim the surface in a blog post. In the book I'm able to lay out the details for things that I will simply refer to in my blog. 

For example, one of the key observations I explore in Disarming Scripture is that the Old Testament is multi-vocal. That is, it does not contain one single correct position, but a multitude of conflicting visions of what justice and goodness mean. In some places we find really disturbing things like slavery and genocide presented as God's will, and in other places we find a counter-argument proclaiming grace, mercy, and love as God's way. In short, we find both wonderful things and horrible things in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is a record of dispute, a catalog of opposing arguments. Each side is presented as being the correct position, presented as speaking for God, but with opposite and contradictory views of what God's will is. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls this "witness and counter-witness," evoking the image of two opposing sides in a courtroom, each making their case.

Now that is probably very different from what you learned in church. What most of us have been taught is that Bible has one consistent message. However, when we actually look at the Old Testament we find that this simply is not true.

Now, once we recognize that the Old Testament contains things like slavery, genocide, gang rape -- things that we need to reject as profoundly immoral -- a question that naturally arises is this,

"Why would God allow for immoral things like genocide or slavery to be portrayed in the Bible as God's will if they are not? Why are these books part of our canon?"

To answer that, it is important to begin with what the Bible is, and what it is not. We might wish that the Bible was a book that would tell us the right answer to moral questions, so we could open it up and find out what God's will is. I wish it was. But as reasonable and noble as that desire may be, the Bible -- and especially the Old Testament -- is simply not that kind of book.

Instead, the Old Testament in particular is a record of dispute containing conflicting visions of what God's will looks like. In Disarming Scripture, I identify these two opposing ways as the way of unquestioning obedience and the way of faithful questioning. What is remarkable about the Hebrew canon is that it contains both, allowing the voice of faithful questioning to speak out in protest against the dominant voice of unquestioning obedience.

This record of dispute pulls us into the argument where we must engage with the text morally. The picture here that is evoked is that of Israel whose name literally means "wrestles with God," and there is a long history of Jewish interpretation that is characterized by a healthy and faithful questioning.

So with all that in mind, let's returning to the above question: Why does the Bible contain immoral things like slavery and genocide? 

I want to suggest that the question actually inadvertently assumes the way of unquestioning obedience, and that the key to answering it is to instead adopt the way of faithful questioning

That is, the question still assumes that the Bible ought to tell us the right answer, and that if something is wrong it should be removed from the canon. That way we can just read unquestioningly and know that our sacred text will give us the right answer. If it says slavery is God's will, then it must be. If it is not God's will, then it should not say it.

However the reality is that the Old Testament is multi-vocal, containing both messages of compassion and hate, both things we can embrace and things we must reject -- similar to how the news contains pundits on both sides of any issue, each claiming to be right.

Here it is important to stress that we do not find the "right side" and the "wrong side" presented side-by-side in the Old Testament in the way a multiple-choice question purposely lists wrong answers along-side of the right one -- as if God was giving us a test. Rather, each side believed that their position was right. Those who called for people to commit genocide in God's name in the Old Testament believed it was good and right, just as many Christians today believe that it is right for our government to use torture. Other Christians of course believe that it is deeply immoral to torture. This illustrates the same phenomenon we find in the Old Testament -- we find in its pages opposing visions of how to bring about peace and justice, both presenting themselves as the "right" and "good" way.

In the end, what we need is a paradigm shift: We need to get away from the expectation of unquestioning obedience that we can outsource our morality to a book or a law, and instead learn to think morally in a Jesus-shaped way. This is a matter of moral maturity. When we were children we learned to follow the rules, but as adults we need to go deeper than that, we need to learn how to think morally. We must learn to do the difficult and messy work of separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. 

This is what we see Jesus doing as he read Scripture, and we as his disciples need to learn to do the same. That takes work, and more to the point it takes discipleship. It takes having our minds and our lives being morally formed into Christ-likeness so, as Paul says, we can "test and approve what the will of God is" (Rom 12:2).

Next time I'll address the question,
"If Jesus is the key to identifying what moral vision to embrace in the Old Testament, why not simply read the New Testament and discard the Old?"
Go to question #2

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At 8:56 AM, Blogger Helen Ann said...

Thank you for this fine book and excellent scholarship regarding these matters... You are a blessing!


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