Problem Texts (Introduction)

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Friend of this site Anthony Le Donne has suggested that he and I do an interfaith back-and-forth on the topic of how to read “troubling passages” in the Bible. He suggested that I post something here, then he’d respond on his blog, and we’d continue until we’ve achieved a resolution or (more likely) mutual exhaustion. Naturally, I agreed. Talking to Anthony is great fun, and besides, interfaith dialog is what this blog is all about.

I’d like to start the dialog by selecting a single “troubling text” to help focus our discussion. But which text to select?

I thought about using the war advice given by God to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 20:16-17:

[A]s for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded ….

THAT is disturbing stuff, coming from a God that I understand to be just, loving and full of grace.

I also thought about using a text like Matthew 12:31-32:

[A]ny sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

Does this text say that there are unpardonable sins, and that faith in Jesus is insufficient to justify someone who has committed one of these sins? The question of unforgivable sin is a difficult and challenging one, worthy of interfaith discussion.

But I chose to look for a different, more pressing kind of troubling text.

Earlier this month I heard Amy-Jill Levine give a talk on the Bible, women and violence. In this talk, Levine mentioned a number of troubling texts that, in her experience, are used to persuade women to remain in abusive relationships. One such text is the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 22-24:

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Everything? As in every thing?

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says that men who abuse women often use (in their view, misinterpret) Ephesians 5:22 to justify their behavior. A text that is used to justify violence against women is a problem, even if (and I would argue, particularly if) the use is a misinterpretation.

In case it might seem like I’m picking on the New Testament, let me make clear: when it comes to violence against women, the Old Testament has its own troubling texts. For examples see Genesis 3:16, Ezekiel 16:37-41, Judges 19:22-29 and 2 Samuel 13:1-22. I selected Ephesians 5:22-24 because this is a text that a lot of people have connected to domestic abuse. But as my dialog with Anthony Le Donne (hopefully) moves forward, we will certainly look at more than one text.

To get the discussion moving, I will next post my thoughts on some common methods people commonly employ to handle problem texts, and why I think they don’t work. At some point soon, I’ll post about the debate between two prominent Christian theologians: Ernst Käsemann and Krister Stendahl. I think this debate identifies the crux of the problem we have in reading troubling Bible texts.

Stay tuned.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Looking forward to it, Larry. Actually, I’m deeply troubled by it and dread having to talk about any of this.