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For some Christians, there can be a temptation to say that the Old Testament has been superseded by the Gospel, and so if we don’t like it we can junk it.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.