Over at The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne has responded to my prior post on problem Bible texts. His response is a must-read, and makes me question why I’d enter into public discussions with someone who is a PhD, published author and pastor. Two possible answers: these discussions are good for my developmental efforts at humility (still on the drawing board), plus maybe I’ll provoke a piece of writing from Anthony as good as the one we just got.
My favorite part of Anthony’s response is when he talks about how his Christianity is “fused” to him in a way he cannot shed, how he wrestles with texts, and how sometimes “I limp away from Scripture and wonder what sort of God I’m dealing with.” Anthony quotes Ursula Le Guin, who here gives about as good a short description of how to read text as you’re likely to find anywhere:
In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle.
Wow. That’s great stuff.
Anthony’s post makes me regret the introduction I wrote here, which is not adequate to our task. To discuss problem Bible texts, we have to discuss why they are problem texts. It’s not enough to do as I did, to briefly discuss a few Bible passages, and then choose Ephesians 5:22-24 because of its well-documented connection with violence against women. Yes, obviously, violence against women is a huge problem. But we have problems with many other Bible texts that have no such direct connection with violence against women, and if we’re going to discuss the problem with problem Bible texts, we have to understand the problem in general terms as well as the specifics.
Why do we have a problem with problem Bible texts? Anthony began his discussion with the premise that the Bible is true, then admitted that the truth of many Bible passages is not clear to him. Is this where the problem arises, in our inability to discern Biblical truth? I think I understand what Anthony is saying, but for me the problem lies elsewhere. I suppose, if pushed, that I’d describe the Bible as “true”. I hedge here, and put “true” in quotation marks, because I don’t know exactly what I mean when I say that the Bible is true.
When I pray in synagogue, my prayers include the statement that Torah is true. Moses Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith include that the words of the prophets are true, and that Torah is God-given. Yet I do not believe that Adam and Eve were historical people, nor do I believe that the world was once destroyed save for Noah and the others in his ark. The “truth” of the Exodus is historically suspect. There may never have been a King David, or a King Solomon, corresponding to their Biblical descriptions. These potential gaps in the truth of the Bible trouble me very little. I don’t expect the Bible to be true in this way.
If I were to reason from first premises, I might start with the idea that the Jewish Bible is my family’s history. I should mention that Anthony has chided me privately about my Old Testament chauvinism, suggesting that this attitude is not conducive to interfaith dialog. So, let me say that I’m not claiming exclusive rights, either personally or from a faith perspective, to the Old Testament as a family chronicle. This chronicle is available to anyone who wants it, regardless of faith. But this is my starting point. When one of my distant relatives does something cool, I kvell. When not, not. When the family chronicle reports that a member of the family has done wrong, I do what any family member would do under the circumstances: I deny, or I make excuses, or I feel guilt by association, or I argue that the wrongdoer was not really a member of the family.
But we all have family members we’re not always proud of. So if Moses hit a rock when he wasn’t supposed to, or if David violated the Sixth Commandment so that he could violate the Tenth Commandment, I’m capable of getting over that. One reason I’m proud of my family’s chronicle – er, I mean the Old Testament – is that it’s not afraid to show the human flaws in even the greatest figures of Israel’s history.
Where my Bible problems arise is when we’re dealing with texts that show the character of God. (Thanks to commenter Mark P for helping me see this.)
Let’s consider the problem text of Deuteronomy 20-16-17, where God commands the Israelites to conquer certain cities in a way that does not “leave alive anything that breathes.” If I adopt an historical perspective, I can easily dismiss this text – it’s not historically likely that the Israelites conquered Canaan in the way the Bible describes. But if this conquest never happened, why does the Old Testament remember God’s war instructions in this way? And worse, what kind of God would order the wholesale murder of conquered men, women and children? What happened to the God who was willing to spare Sodom if there were ten righteous people living there? Were there not ten righteous people among all of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites?
(The text is more troubling if we remember that when it came to Sodom, Abraham pleaded with God not to “sweep away the righteous with the wicked”. Why did no one plead with God for the sake of the residents of Canaan?)
When it comes to a text like Deuteronomy 20-16-17, I don’t have a clue how it could be true. As I noted above, the text may have no basis in history. The text also violates every rule I’ve ever encountered for how to conduct war in an “acceptable” way.
So, for the moment at least, the premise that the Bible is true is not helping me understand problem texts. I need to start with something different. Anthony’s premise is about the Bible itself, which makes sense, since this is the text we’re reading. But I prefer instead a premise about God, since it’s the Bible’s portrayal of God that creates my Bible problems. So as an experiment, I’d like to approach my problem Bible texts with the premise that God is good. Not great. Not immanent, or omnipotent, or omniscient, or transcendent, or anything complicated or fancy like that, though God may be all of these things and more. I want a simple premise. God is good. If the text portrays God as not good, I’m going to assume that something has gone awry somewhere.
In my last post I said that I don’t like canons within canons, and in case anyone is wondering, I don’t see the premise that God is good as a canon within the canon. I’m not trying to interpret Deuteronomy through the lens that God is good. I’m saying that when I see God ordering the murder of adults and children, I have a problem, because I don’t think a good God would do that. Ditto for Ephesians 5:22-24: I don’t understand how a good God allows a text into the Holy Bible that’s frequently used to justify wife abuse, and that’s relied upon by supposedly well-meaning clergy to advise battered wives to return to their violent husbands.
So … Anthony and I have traded opening premises. But I want to return for a moment to Anthony’s premise that the Bible is true. Anthony followed this premise with the terrific stuff I noted above, about being fused to the Bible and wrestling with Bible texts. I think that Bible truth and text wrestling go together. If the Bible is true, it’s not true sitting unread on a shelf, or in a nightstand, or even on a web page (where I’ll invariably link to it!). Unread text is dead letter. The truth of a text can only emerge when it is read.
Does this mean that Anthony and I disagree? Anthony said that the Bible is true, and by this I understand him to mean that the Bible is true even before he reads it (and more than this, that it’s precisely his reading of the text that creates a gap between the Bible’s truth and his understanding of this truth). But at the moment, I don’t perceive any disagreement between us. I understand Bible “truth” and our willingness to wrestle with Bible text as being nearly the same thing. The Bible is true for those who regard it, as Anthony does, as “fused” to us. This fusion is, properly understood, an amalgam of both our acceptance of the Bible as a part of us, and also our struggle against the Bible as an “other” with which we must wrestle.
One last thought: in his recent post, Anthony promised to take me to task on my previous post. Knowing this, I made an effort to be particularly nice to Anthony in this post. Keep an eye on Anthony’s blog over the next few days to see if my effort pays off.