The Christocentric Canon

There’s a little Marcion in each of us.

I was happy that my Amos and Ethics class last week spent a good deal of time hashing out the questions of theodicy inherent in Amos (I might have had something to do with that). As I mentioned before the class, as much as liberals love Amos for its emphasis on social justice, it is difficult to reconcile that emphasis with the ever-present specter of divinely sanctioned, if not divinely commissioned, slaughter and suffering.

I see two ways to reconcile this. My professor appeared to prefer one, and I prefer the other.

The first way is to talk about God’s role in the movements of history and chalk the language of Amos (“I will fix my eyes on them for harm and not good,” or, “I will never forgive them,” or, “I will oppress them,” or the rhetorical question in 3:6: “If a disaster falls on a city, is it [not] the Lord who has done it?”) up to a literalization of the mysterious and sometimes metaphorical role of God in the workings of nations and armies.

That’s not particularly satisfying because it leaves unresolved the key problem: If God is just by any recognizable definition of the word “justice,” then how can he further afflict the poor and oppressed – the innocent people whose suffering has led to this punishment in the first place – with the tactics of perhaps the most terrorizing army in the history of the world? Amos does not assume some rhetorical movement here; it is direct and forceful, and it gives God complete agency over the future, though still unnamed, armies that will destroy Israel 20 to 40 years later.

I think there has to be a better answer, and the key is to understand the failed prophecies of Amos.

Yes, Amos does indeed prophecy things that did not or likely did not happen. He is quoted by Amaziah in 7:11 as saying, “Jeroboam will die by the sword,” but Jeroboam appears to have died peacefully; rather, his son was assassinated, and this is reflected in 7:9, which appears to be a later addition designed to smooth the transition between the visions of the earlier part of the chapter and the shift to the narrative of Amos’ confrontation with the priest. Further, Amos’ own prophecy to Amaziah in 7:17 – that he will be exiled – is unlikely to have come true, given the time that elapsed between his ministry and the fall of Bethel (as many as four decades).

The Book of Amos has plenty of prophecies that did come true – but the most specific of them all seem to have been written after the fact. Why? Not because I doubt the ability of God to send a prophet to speak of the future, but because we know the only way Amos survived is that it was carried south to Judah to ultimately be preserved in the Hebrew canon, and the most specific prophecies seem to be tied to Judaic concerns, or they use language reflected elsewhere in the Old Testament by the authors of Samuel and Kings, which were likely put together during or after Judah’s exile to Babylon.

So, for example, in 6:14, God says, “I will raise up a nation against you,” which is one of the only times Amos describes the punishment this way (he usually refers to natural disasters, such as locusts, drought, an earthquake, etc.), but then he says, “They will oppress you from Lebo-hamath to the desert ravine.” That’s a geographic description of the entirety of Palestine, not the northern kingdom of Israel. Similarly, the turn in chapter 9 from destruction to hope also shifts in focus from Israel to Judah, again reflecting the likely presence of editors from Judah reinterpreting Amos to make it relevant in their day.

If we can agree (and perhaps you cannot, which is just fine) that the version of Amos we have is the product of decades, if not centuries, of editing, first by whoever preserved Amos’ words, followed by the scribes in Judah who saw Amos’ prophecies of doom fulfilled in the fall of Samaria to Assyria, then the scribes of the exile who were faced with the task of explaining why their God failed to protect them – if we can agree on that, then perhaps we can start seeing a way past the divinely sanctioned violence of Amos and the rest of the prophets.

My Old Testament professor argued frequently that we cannot understand the Hebrew Bible except through the prism of exile. The text as we have it today began coming together before then, but much of it was written – and all of it was finalized – by a nation whose God seemingly had abandoned it. Thus the Old Testament, though much of it is written as history, is actually theodicy, an attempt by an ancient people to determine why this disaster has happened to them. And their conclusion is: “We screwed up.”

Ancient people saw the divine in every occurrence. Every good day or bad day was directly orchestrated by the gods, and certainly the movements of nations – their successes and failures – were seen alternately as blessings or curses. As the people of Israel slowly recognized the primacy of Yahweh over the other gods they worshipped, then ultimately recognized him as the only God, they did not simply cast aside their whole cultural mindset. Rather, they applied to him all of the attributes they would normally have allocated to various deities. So when Israel fell to Assyria, and later Jerusalem to Babylon, these came to be seen as judgment for the actions of the vanquished. Gods were seen as violent in the Ancient Near East, and the ancient Israelites perception of Yahweh was no different.

Of course, now we know better, principally because God himself came down and revealed himself much more completely in the person of Jesus. That would be the Jesus who spurned violence and overturned the Jewish cultural assumptions that bad things happened to people because of their sin (John 9:2-3). In other words, the Old Testament writers described the God they knew – imperfectly, incompletely, even inaccurately.

This view is called “progressive revelation,” the idea that God has increasingly revealed his true nature, and that we can see the evolution of that revelation over the course of the Bible. Naturally, this culminates in the life of Jesus and its interpretation by Paul, Peter, John, James and others.

I subscribe to this view because it’s the only way to make sense of the mindset of books like Joshua and Amos, which espouse the notion that a God we view as loving and just would not merely passively allow but actively command genocide and enslavement of the innocent. We have no doubt today that God hated the actions of the Nazis, yet there is little practical difference between the Nazi slaughter of the Jews in the 1930s and ’40s C.E. and the Assyrian slaughter and deportation of Israel in the 720s B.C.E. The only difference is that in the ancient culture, there was no such thing as random chance or “these things just happen.”

My professor in Amos and Ethics does not appear to agree with me, as when I mentioned the idea that perhaps the Old Testament writers were describing who they thought God was, but that we should view such texts through the lens of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection (I might not have made the point so eloquently in class), he shut me down.

“That’s a good way to slice and dice pieces of the canon,” he said (I’m paraphrasing a bit, as it’s been a week), “or to have a canon within a canon.”

The “canon within a canon” retort is superficially effective because it recalls the specter of the heretic Marcion, who was the first person to propose an official Christian canon, around 140 C.E. or so. But he stripped it down so much, it freaked everyone out and led to his excommunication. He believed the deity described in the Old Testament was different than the one described in the New Testament, and so his canon simply left the Old Testament out completely. Meanwhile, his New Testament was essentially two authors: Luke and Paul. His lasting contribution is scaring the church leaders so badly they began the process of officially figuring out what books they wanted in the Christian canon.

But developing a theory of dualism and eviscerating the canon is a far different thing than viewing the entirety of the canon through the lens of Jesus. If the concern is that this creates a “canon within a canon” in which the Gospels are paramount, well, there are worse things to do. I suspect everyone in some way or another does this. After all, I don’t hear many sermons being preached from Nahum, nor do many Christians cite Paul’s letter to Philemon with as much fondness as they do his letter to the Romans, and don’t even get me started about 2 Peter and Jude.

But I was struck in reading Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible this week that he explicitly advocates for a canon within the canon.

The fact is inescapable (nor should we wish to escape it) that “certain parts of scripture which are [believed] to be central tend to condition their reading of the rest.”

It is inevitable to have a “canon within a canon.” But our canon-defining canon must only and always be Jesus Christ. Anything else abuses the Bible for purposes other than that for which God gave scripture to us through Israel and the church. This is true even for the Old Testament: “Christ is the goal of the Old Testament story, meaning that he is the ultimate focus of Christian interpretation. Not every verse or passage is about him in a superficial sense. Rather, Christ is the deeper sense of the Old Testament – at times more obvious than others – in which the Old Testament drama finds its ultimate goal or telos.”

The first quote is from John Barton’s People of the Book?, and the second is from Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation, which I’ve recommended before.

I hope my wandering through this issue has been helpful. I think one of the most damaging aspects of the way the Bible has traditionally been taught to children, especially youth old enough to handle the violence of the Old Testament, is the implicit theology of violent judgment they receive. It’s difficult to truly believe in a loving God when he commands the slaughter of innocents and visits upon those he loves the worst kind of terroristic depredation.

But Jesus has revealed a God much different than those authors assumed he was – and that is indeed good news.

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