Problem Texts (Part 1: Techniques That Don’t Work)

cherry_picking_bible_versesIn my introduction to this series on problem Bible texts, I discussed a few such texts we might examine, and I settled on Ephesians 5:22-24, about how wives must “submit” to their husbands “in every thing”. As I discussed last time, this passage is often used as a weapon against women. How do we address these kinds of problem texts?

Let’s walk through five common techniques used with problem Bible texts. I want to deal with these five techniques together, because I don’t think any of them work. I admit that I’ve employed one or all of these techniques on occasion.

One note before I get started: my thoughts here have been influenced by a talk given last month by Amy-Jill Levine, so it would be well worth your while to listen to what she had to say.

1. Total Dismissal. The Bible is old and outdated. It is patriarchal. It is based on outmoded beliefs. Whatever it says about the past is merely myth.

I think this approach is fine for those who view the Bible purely as an historical artifact, about on par with the Hammurabi Code in terms of present-day relevance. But if that is how you view the Bible, then problematic Bible texts are not your personal problem. For those of us who feel the Bible tug at us in this or that direction, we need another approach.

2.  Partial Dismissal. Those not ready to dump the whole Bible are sometimes willing to dismiss pieces of it. Take our primary problem text, Ephesians 5:22-24. Is there a way to exile this text from our personal Bibles? Well … many scholars say that Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians was not written by Paul. So, perhaps we should focus solely on the seven letters that nearly everyone thinks were written by Paul, and toss out Ephesians. If we look just at those seven letters, then Paul seems considerably less misogynic. For example, Paul’s letter to the Galatians says that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That sounds pretty good, equality-wise. Better, Paul’s letter to the Romans greets two women by name, one of whom – Junia – is called an apostle, and another – Phoebe – may have been called a deacon or minister. Gender equality and women in positions of power – what’s not to like here? Granted, 1 Corinthians says that women should not speak in church … but many scholars view this particular passage as an interpolation. If we just focus on what Paul wrote, and ignore the deutero-Pauline stuff, have we solved our problem with Ephesians 5:22-24?

I think the problem remains. Some scholars think that Paul did write Ephesians. Besides, whoever it was that did or did not write Ephesians, this text is in the Bible. Christians regard Ephesians as divinely inspired, regardless of origin. Nothing guarantees that every troublesome text we may encounter will be found in something attributed to Paul that he may not have written.

Once we start dismissing texts that strike us as inauthentic, I’m not sure where we stop. Some argue that Peter did not write 1 Peter, or John did not write the Gospel of John, or Moses did not write Leviticus.  Famously, Martin Luther held a low view of the letter of James, the letter to the Hebrews, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation. But the Bible canon is the canon, and the canon is closed. If the book is in the Bible, then we have to deal with it.

3.  Total Obedience. There are folks out there who take a Will Rogers approach to the Bible: they’ve never met a Bible text they didn’t like. If God ordered the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites, then the Canaanites must have deserved to be slaughtered. Or maybe it doesn’t matter what the Canaanites deserved  – as John Piper put it, “[i]t’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.” This approach can be applied to Ephesians 5:22-24. If Paul said that wives must submit to husbands, then wives better get busy submitting, without trying “to dull the edge of submission”.

When it comes to Ephesians 5:22-24, the “Total Obedience” approach can become “a sort of abuse apologia”. Take, for example, Created to Be His Help Meet by Debi Pearl, a manual setting forth “God’s plan for obtaining a heavenly marriage.” Here is Pearl’s advice on what a wife should do when submission to her husband gets difficult:

There will be times in your marriage when it will take faith and wisdom to believe that God is good, kind, and just in his command for you to submit to your husband in everything. Note that what God commands a woman to do does not hinge on the man loving his wife as Christ loved the Church. If it did, there is not one single husband who ever lived and breathed who would be worthy of his wife’s submission or reverence. … What God says stands, regardless of the man’s goodness or the apparent lack thereof. You were given your blueprints with words like honor, submit, and reverence. This is God’s will and … it is up to us to believe and obey God.

Pearl sorely tempts me to lecture against blind obedience to anything, even to the purported word of God. Instead, I’ll guess that those who advocate such obedience should have no interest in this discussion. If “what God says stands”, then there are no problem Bible texts; there are only the problems that follow from our failure to obey. The “Total Obedience” approach can be classified along with the “Total Dismissal” approach I discussed above: the “totality” in each approach eliminates recognition of the problems we’re trying to discuss.

4.  Apologetics. Apologetics – systematic argumentation in defense of a position or system – has a fine and proud history within religion, from Philo to Franz Rosenzweig in Judaism, and from Justin Martyr to C. S. Lewis in Christianity.

I am reading Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan. There’s good stuff in Copan’s book, and a lot of apologetics that leave me uneasy. For example: are you troubled by the idea that God is described in the Bible as “jealous” or “proud”? Don’t be! Copan says that jealousy is a good thing, at least when it’s God’s jealousy, because it shows that God loves us and is concerned for our well-being, and God knows we’re better off not straying into worship of other gods. As for God’s pride … well, this is God, after all. According to Copan, “God doesn’t take more credit than he deserves.”

We can take an apologetic approach to Ephesians 5:22-24, to explain the text in ways to make it less troubling. For example, we might take “for granted” that the Bible could never empower a husband “to ask of his wife something which is morally wrong.” We might argue that, even if the Bible gives husbands authority over wives, God has authority over both husbands and wives, so a wife should not submit to a husband who is not following God. We can go further, and say that “submission is actually a voluntary action by the wife.” So using apologetics, we might say that Ephesians 5:22 requires a wife to submit, but only if she wants to, and only when she agrees that the husband is acting correctly. Wow! That’s quite a change. Using this approach, “submission” doesn’t seem all that submissive.

If an apologetic approach eliminates any ability to use the Bible to justify spousal abuse, that would be a very good thing. Perhaps I should stop here, endorse this technique, and move on to another topic.

But I can’t do this. I have a problem with the apologetic approach, one that’s similar to the problem I have with the “Total Obedience” approach: using either approach, everything in the Bible becomes OK. Granted, the “Total Obedience” approach assumes that everything in the Bible is OK as is, while the apologetic approach searches for the right approach to make everything in the Bible OK. But the bottom line assumption for both approaches is the same: the Bible is OK, it must be OK, because it is the Bible.

I cannot go along with this assumption. An honest exploration of problem texts requires us (in my opinion) to at least consider the possibility that some texts might be problems that cannot be made OK. Please don’t misunderstand: if we can make the problem go away, that’s fine by me! I’m not looking to create problems where they don’t exist, and I’m willing to solve them when I can. But I’m not willing to assume in advance that all Bible problems can be made to disappear.

5.  Canon Within The Canon. You’ve probably heard or read about the Bible “canon”. The “canon” is a fancy word we use to refer to the books that made it into the Bible. There are great books out there that discuss which books made it into the canon, and why.

You may also hear people speak about a “canon within the canon” of the Bible. The idea here is that some books of the Bible might be preferred over others. So for some, the canon within the canon consists of personal favorite Bible books: the Gospels perhaps, or Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the Psalms. Everyone who likes the Bible likes some Bible texts better than others; that seems only natural.

But some people use the phrase “canon within the canon” to refer to a particular concept, or book, or group of books, that they use to guide their interpretation of the entire Bible. This kind of canon within the canon is a sort of Biblical key, or lens, to use as a guide for interpretation. Such a key might be God’s grace to sinners, or the proclamation of Christ, or the Gospel message.

(Yes, the canons within canons I mentioned above are all Christian. For whatever reason, I don’t see Jews using canons within canons. For certain, Jews use Bible texts to understand other Bible texts, but I don’t see Jews giving priority to any particular Bible texts. It might be argued that Jewish interpretation imposes a sort of equality on Bible texts, so that any text can be used to explain any other.)

Using a canon within the canon might allow us to relegate a text like Deuteronomy 20:16-17 to the periphery of our personal Bibles, because how could a God of Love have ordered some his children to “annihilate” others of his children? It doesn’t seem possible.

We might try a canon within the canon to interpret, and tame, Ephesians 5:22-24. For example: if our canon within the canon is the requirement from Ephesians to speak the truth in love, then “anything that happens within marriage that might nullify love as a way of life should be off the table.” Or we might try the path followed by some feminists, and appeal to Galatians 3:28 as our canon within the canon. If our Bible key is that “there is neither male nor female”, then that could put an end to the kind of “gender role distinction” that allows the abuse of texts like Ephesians 5:22-24.

Some say that everyone has a canon within the canon. Some even question whether we can understand the Bible without one. Others say that the entire Bible comes from God, and that we shouldn’t play favorites. There’s a concern that the canon within the canon gets in the way of our understanding of the Bible, that it leads to blind spots, that it allows the Bible “to teach anything whatever”, and that it is “cherry-picking plain and simple.”

I side with those who don’t like canons within canons. The whole business of basing Bible interpretation on our favorite Bible passages strikes me as narcissistic – if we read the Bible through our own personal lens, we may “begin to hear our own voices echoing back from our self-selected favorite verses.” (Another way to say the same thing: what’s to stop folks like this from making Ephesians 5:22 their canon within the canon?) Also, I’m concerned that there may be a subtle kind of anti-Judaism at work in this approach. I frequently encounter problem verses in the Old Testament being handled by using a canon within the canon derived from the New Testament. I know I shouldn’t equate the Old Testament with Jews and the New Testament with Christians, but I do so anyway, and there are uses of the canon within the canon that make me feel as if (once again) Christians are trying to school Jews about the true nature of God and scripture.

But my biggest issue with the canon within the canon is in the danger I see in relegating problem Bible texts to a sort of second-class citizenship. I understand the desire to deal with problem Bible texts by pushing them off to one side, and focusing solely on the stuff we’re comfortable with. But I think the better approach is to understand the Bible as it is: a big, sprawling, diverse collection of texts that sometimes should make us uncomfortable. If a text is in the canon, I think we have to deal with it. Moreover, there’s something to be said for Bible diversity, because it reflects our own diversity – when we tune out Bible verses we don’t like, we run the danger of tuning each other out. This argument is made by D. A. Carson, who argues against canons within canons by noting that “we badly need to listen to one another, especially when we least like what we hear”.

So … I’ve spent all this time telling you how I don’t want to handle problem Bible texts. You might wonder whether there’s any approach to these texts that I am willing to say something nice about. In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss a few techniques that I do find helpful in dealing with these texts.

A reminder: this series is intended as part of an interfaith exchange with Anthony Le Donne, so it will be interesting to see where Anthony disagrees with me.

  • Mark P

    How about the idea that the Biblical texts were written by human beings, with all their flaws, struggling to understand how to live in relationship in a complex world? Their view of God and of the role of each of us was evolving–the “God” who ordered the destruction of whole peoples in the invasion of Canaan was not the same “God” of Isaiah or that of Jesus. Our views continue to evolve and grow, as God continues to speak, as the UCC in the US now puts on banners outside their churches. Slavery, racial discrimination and now homophobia all are brought under new scrutiny as we learn to interpret the messages in the Bible in a constantly changing world.

    • lbehrendt

      Mark, the human quality of the Bible is an interesting and important topic, but I’m not sure it addresses the question of problem Bible texts.

      I think that, perhaps, I should have written something about what or why it is that certain Bible texts are problems. I used a shortcut with Ephesians 5:22-24, where I pointed out how this text is associated with domestic violence. I think this is an important point to make. But I’ve also talked about Deuteronomy 20:16-17, and I don’t think anyone is using this text to justify merciless brutality in combat. Probably the thread that runs through all problem Bible texts is that they reflect the character of God in a disturbing way.

      Following your comment, we might say that the Bible is a human creation that sometimes makes mistakes in the way it presents God’s character. If this is your position, I’d say that it has a lot going for it, but I think you’re still left with the question of what to do with the Bible. I think that one might adopt this position and adopt any one or more of the approaches to Bible texts I outlined above (though approach 3 might be off the table).

      As for the evolution of our view of God … yes, I agree. I’m not 100% certain in every case that this evolution represents improvement. But I think a key part of the problem with problem texts is the struggle to understand old texts in new contexts. I’ll write more on this in future posts.

      Thanks for your comment, and please keep commenting.

      • Mark P

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I should have been more explicit in suggesting a sixth approach: to work within a community of people (in my case Presbyterian Christians) to wrestle with the texts, and to develop from them our own vision of how to work toward “the kingdom of God” in our lives. I don’t view the Biblical texts as inerrant, as I think they were written by people as fallible as we are today. I am looking within them for a way to live. I see within them a general theme of people working toward a view of a God who stands for the powerless against the powerful. It does mean I pick and choose, but even a simple word count analysis reveals that the Christian Gospels give us a picture of Jesus and his view of the kingdom that, while shaped in each case by the theological views of the author and their community, is consistent in the basics (and antithetical to many of the views of mainstream “Christian” leaders in our nation today.

        • lbehrendt

          Mark, thanks for bringing up what I think are three critical aspects of reading Bible texts well: (1) the importance of including in the mix the reading of texts in community, (2) that business about wrestling with texts (the focus of my next post) and (3) the idea that the Bible is a text calling for action. Good points, all worth addressing further.

  • Chris Eyre

    Following Anthony’s suggestion, I write as a Christian by base language of expression, at least. My wife is a Christian of a more orthodox stance, and nominally holds to a “husband should have primacy” position, pointing out that a committee of two cannot in principle make decisions unless both parties happen to agree on a course of action, and for practicality’s sake there has to be a casting vote. In practice, she submits in the same way as Sir Humphrey Applebly submits to James Hacker in “Yes Minister”, i.e. she presents to me only decisions where there is only one viable answer (if she thinks my answer might not be as she wishes, I normally find that sufficient steps have already been taken in that direction for “path dependency” to take over). In effect, therefore, she takes the Apologist’s view, and this works between us partly because of my own attitude and partly because she’d have made a good Civil Servant.

    In theory, I am a complete egalitarian as between men and women, taking the view expressed by (undisputed) Paul in Gal. 3:28. I think that Eph 5:22-24 was situational, but Gal. 3:28 was foundational (i.e. taking a bit of a “canon within the canon” view of Paul/pseudo-Paul). I sort of take her point, but do not feel that allowing a “casting vote” in the case of a real conflict in views is actually practical.
    I do prefer to stick with your principle that “this is the canon we have, like it or lump it”, but am prepared to go to personal experience and say “this is not inspired”, or better “this does not apply in the current circumstances because…” or sometimes “there is a conflict of scripture here and I am therefore without clear scriptural guidance” (which it seems to me is probably the case with the Ephesians and Galatians passages anyhow).
    Apropos “canon within the canon”, I do follow one, in the sense of “Jesus trumps Paul, Paul trumps pseudo-Paul” in the NT, and I assume a process of refinement of moral sensibility from Genesis to at least Jesus (i.e. they need not harmonise), so more recent probably wins. Having said that, I read later texts in the light of earlier texts, and try to find them not overriding earlier texts if possible.

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, interesting. I think you’ve accurately described a divide between theory and practice when it comes to “submission” in marriage. While your wife is right about the dynamics of a committee of two, I think married folks in practice manage to work things out so that most marital legislation receives a unanimous vote. That probably requires negotiation and compromise before matters come to a vote. The model you’re suggesting sounds like the husband as king and the wife as prime minister, where the wife wisely presents questions to the husband in such a way that the husband is guided to make the right decision. This sounds fine to me. I think in my marriage, I play the role of prime minister about as often as I’m allowed to be the king, though my wife might disagree.

      You draw an interesting distinction between “situational” and “foundational” texts. I’m not sure how to make this distinction myself, absent something like a canon within the canon. I’m more comfortable with another idea you mentioned, that of conflicting texts creating a Biblical stalemate, and perhaps this is MY personal experience talking, but I wish more people would see more such stalemates when they look at the Bible.

      I want to think more about the idea that the most recent conflicting text probably wins. I wonder if this is a difference between Jewish and Christian readings of scripture. I sense that if Jews are to give priority to texts based on age, then the older texts would win.

      Thanks for a great comment.

      • Chris Eyre

        That was rather dashed off, as I was a bit short of time. I’ve now reflected a bit more…

        I was a little surprised to find you not liking the idea of “canon within the canon”, as there is (nominally, at least) distinct precedence between Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim. I’ve tended in the past to view the NT as having distinct strata of authority. Authentic Jesus has major authority, early Jesus-tradition statements secondary, Paul operating as Christ-mystic secondary, Paul operating as early speculative theologian tertiary, Paul expressing Paul’s personal opinion in a particular situation (which, incidentally, is what I think we have in Eph. 5:22-24) well behind even tertiary, pseudo-Paul as hovering between tertiary and “persuasive but not binding” and others as somewhere between tertiary and “I have no idea what this means and I’m sceptical that anyone else does” (i.e. Revelation).

        I’d assume that Judaism gives Torah the most authority, whatever anything later says. However, having looked through a certain amount of Talmudic argument, I’m inclined to think that, given enough time, the Rabbis could arrive at any outcome they wanted from Talmud, and sometimes managed to depart a very long way from anything I’d regard as “strict construction” (it reminds me of “equity -v- law” arguments a lot). In particular, it does appear to me that the major prophets probably take effective precedence over Torah in certain respects. (I point out that I’m a complete novice at Talmud, so I could easily be wrong, though I’m not a novice at legal argument…). Ezekiel 18 seems to me a case in point.

        I’m finding this an excellent exercise – thanks!

        • lbehrendt

          Chris, this gets tricky.

          I’ll start with an easy point (for me, anyway): I’ve never seen or heard of a Jew who expressly said that they used a “canon within the canon” to make an interpretation of Jewish scripture. Maybe it’s been said or done, but not within my earshot.

          You are right that for Jews, Torah (in this comment meaning only the first five books of the Bible, and not the larger meaning that Torah often takes on in the Jewish world) has a certain kind of precedence over the rest of scripture. It has a precedence in the prayer service, as well as in the way Jews have imagined its creation, just as Moses has a precedence over the other prophets.

          The tricky question is whether this Torah precedence works itself out in practice in a way we could describe as a canon within the canon. I’m not an expert on this subject by any means, so please take this as being my opinion based on my experience and learning. But consider the question why bad things happen to people. One might describe the Torah answer that bad things happen in response to a person’s sin. One might describe the view of the Book of Job that we don’t know why bad things happen, but that bad things can happen to good people. (I owe SOMEONE an apology for these terrible descriptions!) I don’t think you’ll run into any serious Jew who thinks that Torah trumps Job on this question. Or vice-versa.

          I think that Jews are more or less OK with the idea that the Bible is going to contain conflicting ideas, even that it represents diverse points of view. It could hardly be otherwise, given the time it took to create these materials and (most likely) the numbers of hands it took to compile and edit them. Jews have the idea that “this and this are the words of the living God”, meaning that even if God does represent a single reality, that reality might sometimes best be expressed in terms of both sides of a dispute “for the sake of heaven”. So (and forgive the gross overgeneralization), it may be that Jews have less need for a canon within the canon.

          At some point I might decide to tackle Talmudic interpretation … but for the moment I’ll stick to how I try to approach the Bible.

          Thanks back!

          • Chris Eyre

            Thanks for that. Yes, I was aware that Talmud is capable of saying that two diametrically opposed views (at the same time, even) are both “the word of God”. Equally, I’ve another correspondent who is comfortable to say the Oral Torah was given by Moses while acknowledging that all the actual known sources are not earlier than 2nd century BCE. I might have some difficulty putting these ideas over to a Bible Study in my home church…

            I had had in mind the change in emphasis from henotheism to monotheism and from collective to individual responsibility and restoration. The Prophets definitely have concepts there different from most of the written Torah.

            At that point, I should probably sit back and await the next installment!

  • Chris Eyre

    Rachel Held Evans has just started a blog series which is relevant: