Problem Bible Texts (Response to Anthony Le Donne: Shared Nausea)

020fsOur ongoing discussion about problem Bible texts … goes on. Anthony Le Donne’s latest and most excellent response to my last post is here. Honestly, it grows tiresome to come up with imaginative and original ways to describe how much I like what Anthony is writing. If Anthony was the mensch he’s reputed to be, he’d write a crappy post every now and again, so I could take a day off from having to say nice things about him.

Anthony raised many compelling side issues. Can we conduct an effective Jewish-Christian dialog online? How is it that Anthony is “more invested” in the value of the Old Testament than in the New? But it’s going to take all the time I have to address Anthony’s two main points. The second point, Anthony’s evocative discussion of how problem Bible texts become his adversary and how he’s instructed to love his adversary … I want to join in that discussion, but at a later time. There’s an earlier point I need to address first.

As if we don’t have enough problem texts swirling around our discussion, Anthony has seen fit to raise yet another gem from Deuteronomy (21:10-14), where male soldiers are instructed how to take a beautiful female captive for a wife. In essence, the soldier must give the woman a month to mourn, and then either marry her or let her go free. Evidently, the woman has no choice in the matter. Anthony said that this text makes him feel sick to his stomach. Me too. I’m tempted to stress the positive, that the captive doesn’t have to be anyone’s slave, and she gets a month’s mourning, but the fact that I’m so tempted leaves me feeling sicker.

Anthony and I are discussing these problem Bible texts in a Jewish-Christian dialog, and in such a dialog it’s important to stress the things Jews and Christians share in common. Here, we can say that Anthony and I share nausea. Perhaps this is not a major advance in interfaith relations. But Anthony said, and I agree, that “we ought to be honest about the repugnance of such passages.” Commenter Kris pointed us here to Eric Seibert’s posts on Peter Enns’ blog, where Seibert says that “the Bible should never be used to harm others”, and “if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it.” Amen to all that, and an addendum: no matter what solutions we pose to the problem of problem Bible texts, the problem is not resolved until these texts lose their ability to hurt anyone.

This is why I won’t lose much sleep over Deuteronomy 21:10-14, no matter how sick the passage makes me, because this passage does not govern how soldiers fight today. I lose sleep over passages like Romans 1:26-27 and Leviticus 18:22 (and the problem text I chose for this discussion, Ephesians 5:22-24) that are used today to injure others. More on this in upcoming posts, particularly when I turn this discussion to the Biblical criticism employed by one of my (few) heroes, Krister Stendahl.

Anthony stated that when he’s assaulted by a text like Deuteronomy 21:10-14, he has the right to reach for any counter-text he can find, whether that text is in the Old Testament or the New. Anthony must feel strongly about this, because he chose to address me by name on this point. I’ll reply in like voice.

Anthony, I agree with you. Any port in a storm, so to speak, but I have to add a caveat. This is interfaith dialog, and we’ve got to pay special attention when we’re on sensitive ground. You’re on sensitive ground here. In an earlier post, I wrote about how Christian authors frequently deal with Old Testament problems by using a “canon within the canon” found in the New Testament, and how this leaves me feeling that (once again) Christians are schooling Jews about the true nature of God and scripture. I don’t speak for all Jews, but I doubt I’m alone in feeling this way.

The problem here is not one of kind, but of degree. I’m fine with occasional juxtaposition of New Testament against Old. So, I have no problem with your using Galatians 3:28 to take some of the sting out of Deuteronomy 21:10-14.

(An aside: Galatians 3:28 contains the hope that “there is no longer male or female” along with the hope that “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek”. I’m not crazy about the idea of there no longer being Jews, and I wonder if all women like the idea of there no longer being females. I’ll also point to this terrific piece by Paula Eisenbaum, where she points out that Galatians 3:28 “has been used throughout history with equal vehemence by both those who seek political liberation for all peoples and those who wish to maintain the status quo.” In any event, so long as God continues to make us male and female, I prefer passages like Genesis 1:27, and Proverbs 31:10-11).

But you can see how a problem is going to arise in Jewish-Christian dialog if Christians persistently address Old Testament problems with New Testament solutions. Even if this practice is not “anti-Judaism”, it still leaves your Jewish dialog partners out in the cold, as the solutions offered are outside of the Jewish canon. I might reverse the pattern, and offer to solve the problem of Ephesians 5:22-24 with the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Eruvin, 100b, “A man is forbidden to compel his wife to the [marital] obligation.” I know these rabbinic texts are interesting to you, but they’re not part of your Holy Scripture. How does it advance our discussion if I solve my problem and not yours?

I’m not proposing hard-and-fast rules. You can reach for your New Testament. I can reach for the Talmud. We’ll have to see where it leads us. Mi canon es tu canon? Or perhaps we’ll conclude that Jews and Christians approach Bible problems in different ways. My guess is that the area of problem texts is one where Jews and Christians share much in common. But if we’re going to work in common to find solutions, we have to look for solutions that work for both of us.

Remember, I’m the one who put forward Ephesians 5:22-24 as our problem text. Even though the letters of Paul fall outside of my personal canon, I consider this text a sadly representative example of what we can find (all too easily) in our respective canons, including in that considerable space where these canons overlap. This one time, I’m willing to take on Ephesians 5:22-24 as my problem. Darn nice of me, don’t you think?

Remember the shared nausea, Anthony. Or do you want to dry heave alone?

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Happy to hurl in tandem, Larry.

    Thank you for this fantastic exchange. What a pleasure.

    • lbehrendt

      Hope this is something more than misery loving company, but you’re welcome, and thanks back at you.

  • Boy, am I glad I found this discussion. I need to thank Fox News, which doesn’t trouble me as much as the Deuteronomy and Ephesians passages, but troubles me still. If they hadn’t conducted that silly interview a month ago, sending me on a crazy search for Zealot book reviews, I’m not sure when I would have found Jewish-Christian Intersections or The Jesus Blog.

    • lbehrendt

      Thank you. I think. If anyone asks, I’ll say I owe my success to basic cable.

  • Kris

    Ibehrendt, for the life of me I can’t get my browser to load the comments section of your previous post. I did for a second however and managed a screen shot of your reply! So I’ll just respond here, if that’s ok with you.

    Thank you for your sensitivity in recognizing what I do and do not endorse. 🙂 You’re correct: I’m just throwing ideas and sources out there that I’ve come across as I try to wrestle with some of these passages I find in the Bible.

    As for your “critical reaction” to my recalling of what Peter Gentry says: you raise some good points. How can God pretend to be a jerk in one scenario and expect to be confronted, while in another (with Isaac) expect compliance. The only way I can think to respond to such a well-framed question is that (as I’m sure you’ll agree) we mustn’t try to fit God in a box. Like the wind, it’s hard to say how He’s going to act or where He’s going to go—but the one thing we can bank on, is that HE IS GOOD. And I think that’s what Abraham fully realized, and is similarly, what evoked such a reaction from him (i.e. “You’re gonna do what?! Kill the righteous with one fell-swoop as you wipe out the wicked?? This isn’t like you! You’ll spare EVERYONE if I find 10 right?”).

    Thanks for filling me in on your thoughts about Seibert. I haven’t read his stuff yet. I just liked that he was being honest, at least with the OT (but as you point out: not so much with the NT, eh?).

    PS, I apologize if I’m not too good at “interfaith” dialogue. As I said, I’m from the Bible Belt and don’t get into too many conversations with Jews. But this is fun!—so thanks for playing along.

    • lbehrendt

      Kris, you’re doing just fine at interfaith dialog, and I hope you keep posting comments. I live in L.A., and you should not imagine that I engage in much face-to-face religious dialog with Christians here.

      Agreed, God doesn’t fit into a box. Not any box. The infinite, ineffable nature of God is always going to pose a challenge to us.

  • Chris Eyre

    I’d quite like to see you reaching for your Talmud when it comes to problems in the Hebrew Scriptures; it would be nice to see how the parallel tradition of Judaism has handled it since. I don’t think Talmud helps with NT, though, any more than I could use NT to interpret Talmud; they’re both past the point of divergence.

    Do you think that there’s an arc of development in moral considerations which is common to both traditions post-TaNaKh but expressed differently in the two?

    I’d particularly like to see you bring out some Talmud, as I don’t grasp the techniques of argument used there (despite acquiring “Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud” some time ago). I don’t know about how we approach the Bible now, but the technique of argument in the Talmud is a long way from anything I’m used to, so perhaps there *are* fundamental differences there?

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, I’m a poor excuse for a source on Talmud. I’ve done a little study in it, I have a vague knowledge of how it is traditionally approached — I’ll reach for some Talmud where I think it’s helpful, but I’m well aware of my severe limitations here. Yes, I think that there are Jewish-Christian differences in how we read the Bible, but I don’t think that the Talmud is the beginning or the end of these differences.

      I agree with you that Talmud does not provide us with reliable source material on the historical Jesus. But I don’t think it is correct to view the Talmud as having nothing to tell us about second Temple Judaism. Agreed, we should proceed with caution, but the Talmud is supposed to provide us with the written record of Oral Torah, which Jews traditionally think goes back to Sinai. So, I think there’s reason to believe that the rule requiring a wife’s consent to marital sex may well go back at least to the time of Paul. Of course, we cannot know this for certain.

      The business about the “arc of development” is something that has also come up in the comments on Anthony’s blog. It’s hard to resist thinking this way. One of the reasons we do history is to figure out how we came to be who we are, and it’s close to impossible not to view this process as “progress”. For example: we moderns (or if you prefer, we post-moderns) place a high value on freedom of expression, so we might celebrate that (probably) no one will be stoned to death or burned at the stake today for blasphemy against Judaism or Christianity. I don’t mean to sound snarky; this is real progress. But there’s a sense (hard for us to appreciate) that the things valued by people in antiquity were (and are) just as valuable as the things we value now — and the fact is, we’ve lost a sense for those values and for how the ancient rules of our respective faiths protected and nurtured those values.

      This is a question I’ve asked my teachers before. Let’s consider Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), arguably regarded by Jews today as having produced the most important and comprehensive commentary on the Old Testament and the Talmud. Wasn’t the Jewish world a little smarter, better tuned in, after Rashi than before? I can tell you that many of my teachers (particularly those who leaned towards the Orthodox) were reluctant to say “yes”.

      Consider this from a Christian standpoint. The earliest Church is portrayed in Acts as a remarkably harmonious place, ruled by apostles who knew Jesus and were lead by the Holy Spirit. Church heresies and schisms are all portrayed as having arrived later, as the memory of Jesus and the apostles began to fade. When Martin Luther led his rebellion against the Church, he was not rebelling against the early Church. Many of the modern movements in Christianity have been about trying to recover that early Church, as opposed to taking an “arc of development” to the next stage.

      The “arc of development” takes on a different hue if we consider this arc in terms of “salvation history”. We can view the history of civilization as a process of God making God’s self known to us, and to more and more of us, through a series of covenants, revelations, prophets and the like.

      So, maybe, we can see all this in terms of three competing myths (and by “myth”, I’m not saying that the myth might not be true): (1) we’re making progress, (2) we want to get back to the place where we started from, and (3) we’re moving along more or less according to God’s plan for history. I think that most of us believe (in varying extents) in all three myths.

      • Chris Eyre

        That’s much more than I’d expected; thanks.

        Yes, there are going to be other differences between Jewish and Christian interpretations than purely the difference between the Christian exegetical tradition and Rabbinic techniques; neither of us is likely, for instance, to find it possible entirely to eliminate a tendency to view material through the lens of later tradition. I try hard to do this by situating passage in their time and place, but probably fail a lot.

        I would be delighted to see Talmud casting more light on the state of thinking during the late Second Temple period, but so far have been somewhat frustrated. The reason is that it’s extremely difficult (for me, at least) to pick out of Talmudic passages those which can be reasonably assumed to reflect a tradition that old. For instance in the Eruvin 100b passage, reference is made to Reb. Assi; I find he was third century, so I can’t really work out to what extent he was quoting what would then be 200 year old tradition. Maybe I’m too influenced by Alan Segal’s view that the best source of material for working out the state of thinking in the late Second Temple period is actually Paul? (That surprised me on first reading, but Segal makes a very good argument in “Paul, the Convert”). At the moment I’m not aware of any decent Jewish scholarship which unpicks the chronology, but perhaps you or one of your readers can assist?

        I can relate to you about the difficulties with doing this from a Jewish perspective. So far, every time I’ve tried to engage this issue, I’ve come up against the “Oral Torah given by Moses” feeling. Even where it’s abundantly clear that an argument dates from (say) the third century, it was still in some way “always the case”. I’ve tried to draw a parallel with English legal decisions where judges always say that what they are doing is elucidating the law as it is (and has always been), not making new law. It’s a fiction…

        I’m by no means immune to the desire to go back to the roots myself. Christianity is (in theory at least) based on Jesus, and therefore what Jesus taught personally should be “the last word”, shouldn’t it? I used to argue that Paul rather seriously adjusted that message (which I suppose made me more fundamentalist than the fundamentalists), but that was 20+ years ago and I now have a more nuanced approach, though one which is still inclined to privilege anything Jesus said over anything anyone else said.

        I note at this point that Dr. LeDonne is involved in this exchange, and he would probably point out that I can’t reconstruct reliably anything Jesus said, as all we can have are the memories of followers. I reluctantly have to agree, but would point to a distinction between what Jesus said and what Jesus’ followers thought his importance was (some of which has become “what Jesus said” admittedly). I’m inclined myself to go with the idea that the shorter, pithier statements and those which were surprising in some way did probably get remembered pretty accurately.

        I look at this not purely as “let’s get back to basics”, but as “unless we understand clearly how it started, we are in no position to criticise later developments or propose alternatives”. I come from the semi-protestant Anglican tradition, and that is in part based on the idea that the Catholic church took some wrong turnings along the way (I don’t know of any real parallel in Judaism with the Reformation). I therefore want to be in a position to see whether that is justifiable.

        That said, I am looking at recent developments in Catholicism and seeing that it is coming to a position far closer to where many Protestant Churches are moving toward; there is, perhaps, an arc of development which has diverged but is now converging.

        I like your competing myths (and I have no problems with the “true myth” concept). Picking up your initial comments, I think it possible that Christians will head for Jesus as the place we started from and Jews will head for Moses, which may well be a point of separation. We aren’t, for instance, very into “Exodus-return” concepts. That may be a mistake!

        • lbehrendt

          Chris, sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

          We’re never going to find a systematic way to tie Talmud sayings back to late Second Temple times. It’s probably not even possible to say that the Talmud sayings attributed to Reb Assi were actually said by Reb Assi. But the Talmud is steeped in the assumption that all learning was derived by the Rabbis as a tradition from their teachers, in a chain of teaching stretching back to Moses and Sinai. Yes, there’s a mythic element to all this, and you’ve drawn an apt analogy to the conservative rhetoric in landmark legal decisions like Brown v. Board of Education. But I think that accompanying the conservative rhetoric of the Talmud is an underlying attitude about knowledge that we should take seriously. So, for example, when the Gospels report that Jesus’ contemporaries were amazed that Jesus taught as one having authority, this is not necessarily a compliment! A society that valued “old” knowledge and distrusted innovation may well have preserved both the form and the substance of matters taught in earlier generations. But we’ll never know for certain.

          Dr. Le Donne is a believer in the “reliability” of memory, though what Anthony means by “reliable” is sometimes hard for me to pin down. Anthony has nice things to say about the work of Dale Allison, and Allison believes that the Gospels probably preserve the “gist” of Jesus’ sayings and doings. So that’s something.

          I value your participation here. I’m shifting focus to how I read problem texts – see my most recent post – and maybe you’ll have more to say to clarify my efforts and my thinking.

          I value your participation here. I’m shifting focus to how I read problem texts – see my most recent post – and maybe you’ll have more to say to clarify my efforts and my thinking.

          • Chris Eyre

            I’ll look at your next post imminently (which might mean “tomorrow”).

            I think I grasp your point about “as one having authority”. As, inter alia, I can testify to a number of peak mystical experiences which have conveyed some limited degree of what looks from the inside like knowledge, I have some feeling for the problems of communicating this without appearing to claim authority. It might appear that Jesus didn’t always go through the arduous search for some justification in previous sayings or writing.

  • blsDisqus

    I lose sleep over passages like Romans 1:26-27 and Leviticus 18:22 (and the problem text I chose for this discussion, Ephesians 5:22-24) that are used today to injure others.

    How about Exodus 31:14: “Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people.”? Interesting how nobody ever proof-texts from that passage. Or perhaps see one of the numerous condemnations of lending money at interest – which is, as C.S. Lewis noted, a practice our entire present-day economic system is built upon.

    There’s definitely lots of “picking and choosing” going on out there – which tells me that the problem is probably not in the passages but in the people proof-texting from the passages.

    P.S. Turn to Romans 2 to read the shocking plot twist denouement to Romans 1….

    • lbehrendt

      bls, no Sabbath desecrator has been put to death for WEEKS now. OK, I’ll be serious for a moment. Doubtless there have been disputes over the centuries, continuing to this day, over what is and is not proper to do on the Sabbath. Doubtless some people have been hurt as a result. Some have been judged harshly, and even excluded from their former religious communities, because they’ve done things on the Sabbath that they shouldn’t have done (in the opinion of others). We might wish for a world where religions had no borders, where we could roam freely and without consequences from faith to faith (and from faith community to faith community), but as I’ve written here previously, we need religious borders, particularly when we’re a member of a tiny and oft-persecuted faith like Judaism where we’ve suffered invasion after invasion. The ideal is not a borderless world, but a world where borders are drawn humanely, and where borders are left relatively open.

      Regarding Romans 2: it would be a different world if the Bible in its entirety was interpreted through the lens of Romans 2:1-4. What if we all read Bible texts with the idea that we could not pass judgment on anyone else, regardless of how judgmental the texts might otherwise appear to us? But I doubt that even Paul meant to say anything like this.

      I suspect that the point you want to make is not one I’ve addressed. It’s fine with me if you want to leave that point unaddressed, but if you want me to address it, you need to make it more explicitly (albeit as respectfully as you can).

      • blsDisqus

        Well, my only real point is that after listening to anti-gay arguments based in Leviticus 18 and Romans 1 over the course of the past 30 years, I’ve come to realize that most people are incredibly selective about which parts of the Bible they’re going to take “literally” and to apply. (I’m speaking mostly about Christians, because I’ve mostly been discussing these things with Christians.) I’m not alone, I don’t think, in finding much of it incredibly hypocritical, and I’ve stopped taking it seriously in any way at this point.

        I guess I’m just encouraging you to go ahead and get a good night’s sleep at last.


        It is true, of course, that gay people are still very badly treated in many parts of the world. Slowly but surely, though, that will change; more and more people will realize it’s ridiculous if not shameful to torment people for being gay, and things will improve. The passages in question will be understood in other ways – as they already are being understood differently in many places – and we’ll all move on.

        • lbehrendt

          Yes, yes, yes. The day will come (I hope) when the Leviticus 18 and Romans 1 texts that cost me sleep will be seen roughly like Paul’s advice concerning slaves and masters is seen today.