Archive for September, 2017

Confronting the Texts of Terror

Posted: September 28, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Last Sunday we tackled the thorny issue of violence in the Old Testament. We had previously discussed the idea that we cannot simply reject the bits of the Bible we don’t like, and so we threw ourselves into grappling with three of the most troubling episodes in the canon of scripture.

We began by simply reading the passages and owning what it was about them that we found difficult and disturbing, then introduced some contextual details that had the potential to change how we saw these stories. As always, a blogpost cannot capture the fullness of our discussions, but here are some highlights.

 

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Joshua 6:1-25 – Fall of Jericho

This is the Sunday school favourite in which the Israelites march around the city of Jericho in silence for six days, then sound their trumpets on the seventh day, at which point the walls of the city fall down and all that is within it (with the honourable exceptions of Rahab and her family) is destroyed. It may be a good excuse to make some instruments out of rolled up newspaper, but it’s not exactly child friendly.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that Deuteronomic history (the designation sometimes applied to the books of Joshua/Judges/Samuel/Kings because they appear to share key themes with the book of Deuteronomy) reads like a national epic with a theological bent. For example, the Israelites circumcised themselves and celebrated Passover in the run up to the battle, suggesting that this may be an idealised picture of a holy war, and the conquests of Joshua are a crucial part of the founding myth of Israel, standing alongside the covenant with Abraham and the exodus under Moses and the kingdom established by David.

We can add to that the fact that while the archaeological picture is mixed, current evidence errs against the biblical account. Carbon dating indicates that the walls were destroyed centuries earlier, and it is unclear if the city was even inhabited at the time of Joshua. Israel clearly had a presence in the land at the time, but on the basis of archaeology and other historical sources, less dramatic methods of conquest have been suggested. For example, the first Israelites may have been escaped slaves and native Canaanites starting new settlements or taking over abandoned ones.

It can be deeply unsettling to think that what he have called the histories may not be terribly historical, but ancient and modern minds understand history very differently. Thucydides appears to have been the first person to attempt to write a ‘scientific history’, and that was not until the fifth century BC. Before him, the approach to historical writing was the one exemplified by his contemporary Herodotus, who said he simply recorded what we was told. If the Old Testament was written according to the principles of Herodotus, it was recording the stories everybody believed to have happened, stories that may well have been confused or elaborated or politicised in the telling.

That doesn’t make the Bible completely false or deny that the inspiration of the Spirit had any part in its writing, but it does remind us that it in a very practical sense it is the product of human hands as much as divine will. If we accept this position, we seem to be left with one big unanswerable question. What is true and what isn’t? But perhaps that is the wrong question, or at least the wrong understanding of truth. Perhaps it leaves us with other questions. What does this story tell me about what it is to be human? What does the way it is told tell me about how the author saw God? What does the way I respond tell me about how I see God? What stories would I tell or have told? Those questions may ultimately be more fruitful.

 

1 Samuel 15:1-23 – Destruction of Amalekites

In this passage, God commands Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites, and then rebukes him for sparing “everything that was good” and only destroying “everything that was weak and despised”. As with the passage from Joshua, it is the fact that this violence is commanded by God that is perhaps most troubling.

One possible response is to say that Joshua or Saul or the people who wrote all this down simply got it wrong. Whether they were wilfully using God to justify their own actions, or were genuinely mistaken in what they believed God wanted from them, God did not call them to carry out such atrocities. This may well be part of the answer (authorial bias in favour of this argument must be confessed here as it will colour everything else) but it doesn’t tell us why they thought it was appropriate to attribute violence to God and so we must continue to push these passages a little harder.

The introduction to the episode reminds us that the Amalekites had opposed the Israelites for centuries, beginning with an attempt to prevent their escape from Egypt, so perhaps it had reached a point where one or the other of them had to go. That may sound brutal, and we should resist any tendency to accept violence as inevitable, but at the same time we have to recognise that the ancient world was incredibly violent, and this is not an unusual story. Neither is it unusual to see violence attributed to the will or action of a deity. Our worship songs can still veer into a “my god is bigger than your god” mentality, and it is perhaps not surprising that a violent culture would interpret that as “my god is more violent than your god”.

It is also worth noting that another source from the Ancient Near East claims that the ban (the official term for the complete destruction of an enemy) was used against Israel, but we know that cannot have been the case because at least a remnant of the people of Israel has always survived. That suggests that this may have been a literary trope, not meant to be taken literally but to indicate a resounding victory, and to tie up a story without leaving any loose ends. We still like to tell tales like that. It’s why so many episodes of Doctor Who end with the apparent destruction of every Dalek, even though we know they’ll be back next series.

If this appears to be a common story told in a common way, we may perhaps ask what is distinctive about it, what made it worth telling. The climax of the story is not in fact the defeat of an ancient foe, but the rejection of Saul as king. It appears that God is angry because Saul did not kill every living thing with the Amalekites, which gives us a deeply disturbing picture of a bloodthirsty tyrant, but there may be something else going on. The attack on the Amalekites was meant to be about justice, but by sparing livestock because he thought it was good, Saul has judged the lives of cattle more valuable than the lives of babies, and attempted to turn violence to profit. So perhaps this story in some way functions as an attempt to regulate violence, in a context in which it seemed unavoidable, by keeping it focused on justice.

 

Esther 9:1-19 – Defeat of Haman

Haman has tricked Xerxes into writing an edict allowing him to destroy the Jews, and Esther has used her position in court to give Mordecai the chance to write a counter edict to allow the Jews to fight to defend themselves. In this passage, they slaughter their opponents and murder Haman’s ten sons, Haman already having been killed. It solves the problem, but it does seem a little like overkill.

In one sense, we have an easy get out clause with this one, as God is not mentioned at all in the book of Esther. Divine providence seems to be at work, as it is said that Esther has been placed at court “for such a time as this”, but it is Mordecai who instructs and is honoured by the violence of the narrative, and there is no clear indication that God desires or approves it.

If God is not responsible for the violence, we may ask why this story found its way into the canon. Perhaps is inclusion was deemed necessary as it is given as the background for the festival of Purim, although interestingly the festival seems to be marked primarily by the giving of gifts not a retelling of the story as is the case with Passover, and the verses that link the events of Esther to Purim say that it was the king who ordered the deaths of Haman and his sons, when in fact he ordered the death of Haman but only consented to the deaths of his sons. It is as though there has been attempt to move away from some of the violence, perhaps because the murder of Haman’s sons goes against Deuteronomic law, which in turn suggests this is an account of what happened not a model for what should happen.

It is also worth noting that Haman was not just a rival, but an anti-Semite who hated the very existence of the Jews. They were not a threat to him, as they lived peacefully in the land, but still he hated them to the point of seeking their destruction. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, Haman was a Nazi. The reaction of the Jews may have been extreme, but their survival was on the line just as it was in the middle of last century, and desperate people do desperate things.

At any rate, it’s all too easy for us to say that Mordecai should have found a more creative and peaceful way of resisting Haman, but our own recent history shows that we still struggle to resist violence (at least on the scale we are talking about here) without resorting to further violence. We spoke two weeks ago about confronting the violence in the text in order to confront the violence in the world, and that seem particularly pertinent here. If we wish to condemn the violence of the Jews, then we must also condemn our own violence, recognising that it is not right even when we do not know how to avoid it, and we must continue to seek creative and peaceful resolutions.

 

There are no clear answers to the violence in the Old Testament here, but there are some challenges to the way it has traditionally been understood, and some lessons to take away and mull over. That’s important, because as we said a fortnight ago, we cannot change the violence of the stories we have inherited, but we can decide how we respond to them. It is a sad truth that some still use these stories to justify violence, but we can choose a better path, learning from them in order to foster peace.

We ended Sunday night with a hopeful look towards some of the counter narratives in the Old Testament, the stories which help us find that better path. They deserve more than an epilogue, so watch out for more on them…

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The Goodness of the Lord

Posted: September 21, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

A couple of weeks ago we used the Evening Prayer of the Northumbria Community as part of our worship. I’ve used this liturgy many times before, but for the first time I almost choked up as I said the words “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”. Something in them struck me quite powerfully, and so I wanted to reflect on that.

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I think my initial reaction was that there is hope for the future in them, as they express a belief that there is goodness to be revealed, that death and darkness will not be the final word. But then I saw a determination about the present in them, a commitment to watch for goodness here, a desire to seek the Lord now.

This only becomes clearer when you see these words in their context. Like most of the lines from the canticle, they come from Psalm 27, in which the psalmist both seeks the temple of the Lord and declares that the Lord shall save him from his circumstances.

Seeing the goodness of the Lord is not just a passive waiting but an active seeking. And it is not reserved for the heavenly courts but is worked out in earthly situations.

I also love the way the psalmist moves from acknowledging the trials of life to declaring “I still believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord”. This is an act of defiance against all the things that threaten that faith, a claiming of the truth that enables them to keep going through everything.

There’s almost something of a mantra about these words. I think I would do well to memorise them and repeat them on my most difficult days.

Even though I am scared to read the news because it only seems to go from bad to worse, still I remain confident that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Even when I feel overwhelmed by exhaustion and anxiety, still I believe that there is joy and peace to be found in all of this. Even if the darkness falls, still I will look for the light.

Even…still…

Even…still…

Even…still…

And so I will hold fast to hope and open my eyes to goodness. Because I know I shall see it in this land that I live in.

Why Old Testament?

Posted: September 14, 2017 by leighannegreenwood in Uncategorized

Some time in the spring, we started to ask some big questions of the Bible. We considered how it had come to be, what kind of literature it contained, and how we might come to read it, especially in the the light of Jesus. If you want to catch up with any of the material we covered, you can look back through the archive on this blog.

Before the summer, we said that one of the issues we would tackle in the autumn would be the violence in the Bible, particularly although not exclusively in the Old Testament. It’s something that has come up in a number of other discussions, and it got a significant response when we talked about which questions we most wanted to address.

It seemed a bit heavy to jump straight into the more brutal episodes of the Bible in our first teaching session of the term, so on Sunday we took a slightly sideways approach, by spending some time thinking about why we still read and need the Old Testament, or to put it another way, why we are bothering with this question at all.

For some Christians, there can be a temptation to say that the Old Testament has been superseded by the Gospel, and so if we don’t like it we can junk it. It’s not a new idea, but an ancient heresy, and one that only solves the problem by creating new ones, so that it’s not really a solution at all.

There are many good reasons why the early church decided to make the Hebrew scriptures part of the Christian canon, and many good reasons why we should still hold onto those texts now. On Sunday night, we considered three of them. I can’t hope to recapture the richness of our discussion, but here at least are the arguments I presented.

 

It is part of our history and our response to it matters

The Old Testament is part of our history as Christians, because it forms a significant chunk of the scriptures that we have gathered around for nearly two millennia, but it is also part of our history as humans, because it records the deeds and misdeeds of those with whom we share the image of God.

We have talked before about the historicity of the Bible, but whatever the factual accuracy of the Old Testament narratives, either they happened or things like them happened or things like them were wished to have happened, and all of those possibilities say something about humanity. The violent actions and hateful words and destructive impulses behind the darker stories won’t go away if we close our eyes to them. Ignoring them does not change the past, accepting them does not improve the present, and celebrating them certainly doesn’t give much hope for the future.

The challenge and importance of appropriately responding to the legacy of history has been seen in America recently, in the controversy over the fate of statues of confederate generals. One side claims they are simply part of history, while the other side fears that they are being used to bring that past into the present. As somebody on Twitter noted, Hitler is a pretty big part of European history, but you won’t find any statues of him in public parks. That doesn’t mean the German people are trying to bury their history, it means they have found better ways to respond to it.

Because our response does matter. In Texts of Terror, the feminist theologian Phyllis Trible examines four narratives of violence against women, and considers the responses in and to the text. You can sense her fury at what happens to these women, but she allows that “sad stories may yield new beginnings” if we read and respond to them well. As an example of this, she notes that the truly horrendous story that unfolds in Judges 19-21 is followed either by the story of Ruth or by the story of Hannah that opens 1 Samuel, depending on the version of the Hebrew Bible you are looking at. Unlike the unnamed concubine whose rape and murder lead to more rape and murder, these women are given the dignity of a name and a voice and a happy ending. Their stories don’t blot out the former, but they may offer what Trible calls “words of healing”.

We may offer similar words of healing if we respond to violence and hatred with a commitment to love and peace. We can’t change the narratives we have been handed down, but we can use them to change the narratives we are living out. Perhaps we need to be confronted with violence in the text in order to confront violence in the world.

 

We need to speak the whole language of the Bible

In The Old Testament is Dying, Brent Strawn argues that the Old Testament is like a language, and that just as languages die out when they are no longer spoken, so the Old Testament is dying out because it is no longer known. That may sound very dramatic, but he backs this up with some alarming statistics that show very poor biblical literacy even among Christians, and decreasing use of Old Testament Texts in worship and preaching.

The real impulse behind the book is a conviction that we need to speak the whole language of the Bible if it’s going to make sense, and that means learning to speak Old Testament, getting to grips with all of the idiosyncrasies and irregularities of an ancient language, becoming familiar with the myriad ways it talks about God and structures its thoughts. That will take time and effort, but our faith cannot be fluent without it.

Strawn talks quite a lot about the development of pidgins (simplified versions of languages used to communicate between people who do not otherwise have a common tongue) and creoles (expanded pidgins which become fully formed languages but with much simpler structures than the older languages they originally developed from). I appreciate that may be more about linguistics than you need to know on a Thursday, but bear with me because he uses all of this to make some interesting points.

He suggests that the Old Testament the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins use is something like a pidgin. They build their condemnation of religion on a handful of passages taken out of their context, like speaking a version of English comprised entirely of swear words and then calling it crude and ugly. There can be no beauty and no poetry in this form of the Old Testament because there aren’t enough words.

He also compares the gospel of ‘prosperity preachers’ such as Joel Osteen to a creole. They have taken the lexicon of blessing and curse and built an entire language from it, but it is a language that is missing the complexity and contradiction of the original. The prosperity gospel is completely undone by Job, but its grammar won’t allow for irregular verbs so he is simply ignored.

The pidgin of the New Atheists and the creole of the ‘happiologists’ (as Strawn calls the prosperity preachers) are poor substitutes for the full language of the Bible. They ignore the fact that the vocabulary of the Old Testament is wide, and the grammar is that of a conversation. They are clumsy and limited and they cannot allow for a full expression of faith.

To look at this another way, we need the full language of the Old Testament, because without it we can’t understand the New Testament. ‘Love your neighbour’ means one thing on its own, but it means something else as well when we know that it comes from the Torah, and it means something else again when we realise that Jesus decided to quote that over something else. It is in those layers of meaning that the richness of the gospel is found.

 

There is more to the Old Testament than the bad words

To continue from the previous point, the reason we need to speak the full language of the Bible is because there is so much more to it than the swear words Richard Dawkins decides to focus on. We might need it for the truth it reveals about humanity and the context it offers for the gospel, but we should also want it for its beauty and love it for its poetry.

Whether we believe the Old Testament is the word of God or words about God, it is one of the best insights we have into the nature of our Creator. We have said before that the fullest revelation of God is Christ, but even if Jesus is the oil painting, that doesn’t mean we have to discard the sketches that led up to it, because they are great treasures in themselves.

Strawn points out that the genocidal violence of the Old Testament is restricted to the period of conquest. God is not always leading the Israelites into battle. What is not restricted is the dialogue between creator and created. God is always speaking and engaging with those who will respond. The key motif of the Old Testament is not victory in battle but rescue from slavery. And the prophets and poets repeatedly declare that “the Lord is gracious and compassionate”. These softer sketches do not cancel out the harsher ones, but they are important, not least because they bear the closest resemblance to the final picture.

There is also great worth in the Old Testament language of lament. We do find lament in the New Testament, most powerfully in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is the Old Testament that really gives free reign to the need to cry out to and against God. Job, Psalms, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes…they all give us the language and the permission to speak from the depths of our hearts, as well as the assurance and the hope that we are heard and will be answered.

And to risk jumping on one of my own hobby horses, I think the Hebrew scriptures can be a valuable a corrective to certain tendencies. Christianity has always been influenced by the cultures around it, and often that is to the good, as we are reminded that we cannot possess the entire truth within the pages of a book or the walls of a church, but not always. The idea that God must be omni-everything owes far more to philosophy than to scripture, and I fear it has robbed our creator of character, but the Old Testament picture is rich and compelling, and I want to be drawn back to that and into God. The modern need to constantly produce and consume also means that we are losing any concept of rest, and I think we need to reclaim the principles (if not all the laws!) of the Sabbath tradition. But like I said, that’s one of my hobby horses.

 

There’s a bit to get your teeth into there, but I hope it has been interesting, and I hope it fires you up for our journey into the Old Testament. We’ll be intentionally tackling the bits we struggle with, so it may feel like hard work at times, but I pray that we will go into this with open hearts and open hands, prepared to be challenged and surprised by what we find.

 

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