Telling God’s Story, Not the Old Testament’s

tgscoredropYou might recall that way back, at the beginning of this blog, I compared the Old Testament to an embarrassing family member for whom one must frequently apologize. While I don’t feel that’s the case anymore, there remains a problem: How to teach it to children.

My wife and I have gone around this issue a few times since we had our first daughter more than four years ago, and our struggles have led us to Peter Enns, a biblical scholar we both respect for his willingness to both love the Bible and present it as it was intended to be read – as opposed to how modern-day Christians might like it to be read.

The problem as I see it with presenting the Old Testament stories to children is three-fold:

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Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

innocentThere’s been something of a debate happening in at least one corner of the theoblogosphere over Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, the incident described in Matthew 2 as Herod’s attempt to kill the presumed usurper the Magi had called “King of the Jews.”

James McGrath started it with a post titled, “Why I’m Glad the Infancy Narrative Isn’t Literally True,” in which he argued God’s warning of Mary and Joseph to flee while letting all of the other baby boys be slaughtered was an act of heinous injustice that besmirches the character of God – were it true, which it isn’t. He argues it isn’t true because Luke – nor any other ancient source – does not corroborate it, and it seems to be set up so that Matthew can cite the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1.

Tony Jones responded with “Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents,” in which he rebukes McGrath’s seeming attempts to write off pieces of scripture with which he is uncomfortable and says he’s glad the Bible contains this narrative because it matches the horror and injustice of “real life.”

McGrath responded, correctly, that Jones didn’t actually address any of McGrath’s historical critiques of the passage but determined its authenticity based solely on theological considerations, which is not exactly the way you want to be determining the historicity of anything.

After all of that, Brian LePort stepped in with a couple of points. On the historicity of the passage, LePort argues:

Personally, I don’t find these points to be as devastating a critique as McGrath, especially since (1) the actions fit the Herod we know from other sources; (2) I think scholars often invert Matthew’s exegetical approach depicting him as having read Scripture in order to find events to narrate whereas the peculiarity of Matthew’s exegesis leads me to think he had existent traditions through which he read the text connecting events to Scripture. In other words, I think Matthew had a tradition that Herod killed the children while seeking Jesus and this [led] him to read Scripture to see if there was any “foretelling” of such an event.

He also doesn’t see anything terribly troubling about God stepping in to warn the most theologically important family in world history of impending demise: “If God intervened to stop all evil, it would be the eschaton!” He seems to be agreeing with Jones here; the passage is no more troubling than the Newtown, Conn., massacre – which is to say, no more troubling than the problem of evil existing in the first place.

I’ll leave the theology to these more able minds, though I tend to agree with LePort’s take on this – but I’m leery of simply dismissing McGrath’s theodicical (is that a word?) concerns, as well.

But I feel there’s a middle ground to be had on the historical elements, something neither McGrath nor LePort brings up.

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Violence for Jesus (or: How the Church Went Rogue), Part 4

If you had been there, your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. What shall I say? Neither women nor children were spared. — Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127

Perhaps the most alarming single fact that I’ve learned about the First Crusade is that after the Christians breached the walls of Jerusalem and slaughtered all who had sought refuge in the Dome of the Rock mosque (Fulcher actually called it the Temple of Solomon), the soldiers went immediately to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Constantine on the site believed to be where Jesus’ tomb had been, and gave thanks to God for the victory.

Has there ever been any series of events that were so strongly supported at the time of their occurrence only to be so thoroughly repudiated by later history? The crusaders believed so strongly in the divine support of their mission that they launched at least eight of them over the 180 years between 1096 and 1271.

As we’ve seen, the church began its life as an oppressed movement that forbade its members from even joining the army, in part because soldiers likely would be asked to arrest, torture or kill Christians. Power had changed much about the Christian comfort with soldiery and violence, especially violence in the name of God.

As recently as 1066, the famed Battle of Hastings that changed western civilization forever, the papal-backed soldiers of Normandy paid penance for the deaths they caused on the battlefield. Yet just 30 years later, Pope Urban II made a substantial shift in the relationship between killing and sin.

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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.

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The Ethics of War (or the Problem With the Prophets)

After a semester off, I’m leaping back into the Old Testament for a week, as I take a Maymester course called Amos and Ethics.

One of the great things I’ve discovered over the course of doing this seminary thing has been accepting and respecting the multivocality of the Bible. It does not speak with one voice, nor was it intended to. It’s the collected understandings of dozens of people over thousands of years as they’ve figured out and written down and passed along their own beliefs in who God is and what he’s doing in the world. And sometimes, certain texts speak more to certain cultures than others.

For example, Revelation speaks more to those undergoing persecution and suffering than to those of us Christians in 21st-century America. Rather, in our comfortable, easy lives, where the church more often than not finds itself supporting politicians who advocate tax cuts for the wealthy and service cuts for the needy, we need an Amos.

Amos doesn’t bar holds. He’s no better than middle class himself, a manager of land and flocks from Judah, and he travels up to Bethel, one of Israel’s two holy sites and begins popping off about their tendency to sell the poor into debt slavery over trifles such as a pair of sandals, about their general oppression of the needy and their use of the courts to stifle complaint from those without the means to grease the wheels of the system. Then he slams the women of Israel, calling them cows, condemning them for living lives of luxury, getting drunk while they cheat and oppress the lower classes.

Yet these same people say they cannot wait for the Lord to come back. “Why do you want the day of the Lord?” Amos asks. “Isn’t the day of the Lord darkness, not light” to those whom Amos addresses? God hates and rejects the worship they bring – their prayers and their offerings. He won’t even look at them or listen to their music. “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

There is much to like about Amos, especially if you feel the system needs reform, and that Christians should play a role in advocating for and implementing such reform to lift up the poor and increase the justice and righteousness our society shows to its most vulnerable.

But here’s the rub: Amos is also a violent book. And we can’t just pick and choose what we like and don’t like from a text. So while liberals love Amos because it focuses on social, legal and economic justice for the poor, it makes us a little squeamish because the God it portrays is “not a warm, comfortable God, but a dangerous and fearsome God who demands accountability.”

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What the Bible Gets Wrong … About God? Part 2

Last time we discussed the problem of the Old Testament’s genocide passages, particularly the ones found in Joshua and 1 Samuel. I summarized the dilemma these verses pose like this:

Either they are accurate, rendering meaningless our definitions of goodness, love and mercy, or they are in some important way false, in which case their “usefulness” has largely been found by those seeking to turn their fictional violence into reality. Further, the second option would also mean the Bible’s own description of God’s thoughts and actions is, in some places, wrong, which opens a whole new set of questions.

Our next step, then, should probably be to determine which of these contingencies we actually face. Are these stories true or not?

Archaeology should be able to confirm some key details for us because what the Bible describes are significant historical events, the type of which are usually recorded and leave tracks – the death of all the firstborn children of a major empire followed by most of its army and its king in the sea, the immigration of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of numerous Canaanite cities by a conquering people.

These all, one would think, would leave at least some trace in the historical record. But they largely do not.

In the case of the plagues and the exodus, there is simply an absence of information. It’s possible the Egyptians simply refused to write about it because there was no way to propagandize it, and it’s possible some sort of exodus occurred but in smaller numbers than the Bible indicates.

But in the case of Joshua and the conquest, there is contradictory evidence, both archaeologically and biblically.

Although there is a city of Jericho, and it did once have walls, the city was already in ruins around the time when Joshua would have been leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Likewise, several cities described as having been burned to the ground by the Israelites show no evidence of ever having been burned (this according to our professor; sorry I don’t have links).

Further, the Bible itself rejects some of the historical claims Joshua makes.

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What the Bible Gets Wrong … About God? Part 1

I was looking for a snappy lead for this post and thought about stringing together a series of verses in which God clearly condemns the taking of human life (Genesis 9, for example). So I Googled the phrase, “bible verses about killing.”

Oops.

Top webpage titles for this search include:

  • “Evil Bible Home Page”
  • “The 9 Most Badass Bible Verses”
  • “The Dark Bible: Atrocities”
  • “An Atheist’s Favourite Bible Verses”

None of these is a pro-Christian website, obviously. And at first blush they seem over the top – but then, after reading some of these verses, I’m not so sure.

Joshua 6: 20-21:

When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

Joshua 7: 24-26:

Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger.

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