Author Archive

Reading the Bible with the Dead

June 8, 2009

John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead.  What you learn from the history of exegesis that you can’t learn from exegesis alone.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2007.  i-xi pp., 227 pps. Indices, bibliography and excurses: 229-334 pps.

The goal of this book is for interpreters of the Bible to consider not only their object of interpretation but its history.  The author contends that a study of the history of biblical interpretation will enlighten contemporary exegesis in a number of ways and guard it from going down false hermeneutical trails.  Thompson believes that the call by some in communities of faith to get back to the Bible may be one such false trail.  Often this call can lead to nothing more than a reflection of our contemporary concerns.  A study of the history of exegesis can remind us that biblical interpretation was not always about therapy and consumer comfort. Such an exercise can deliver interpreters from the tyranny of the present.  But secondly the author claims that this exercise can function “to stock the shelves” with the rich resources of the past so that ancient interpreters can “guide and challenge the present.”  Contemporary interpreters can consequently be delivered from the tyranny of the self, which often knows more about the last six minutes than the last six centuries.   There is no question that Thompson the historian is on solid ground here.  C.S. Lewis once remarked that “a man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”   If for nothing else than this type of immunization , we need more books like Thompson’s.

Thompson provides a clear roadmap for his book.  He deals with themes that are—ironically—rather  contemporary, themes that occur on the margins of the biblical story:  a) texts of violence and abuse b) texts of domestic relations (divorce)  c) texts dealing with women in leadership.  The book’s nine chapters each consist of three sections:  a summary which suggests why the texts are problematic today; a second section which shows how pre-critical commentators dealt with the texts (early church fathers, medieval, reformation); a third heuristic part which draws hermeneutical lessons from study.  The nine chapters are drawn to a conclusion with Thompson making a final case for the importance of studying the history of exegesis.

The texts that are chosen may level the charge that Thompson has a postmodernist feminist agenda in his writing.  At the same time such “hard texts” have their benefits—they are extremely relevant since they deal with issues of violence, power and gender relationships. Moreover, dealing with these issues can help interpreters avoid the pitfalls of simplistic answers, which can perpetuate biases and prejudices.   Biblical interpretation is thus much more than a matter of adhering to the slogan:  “The Bible says it. I believe it.  That settles it.”  For example, Thompson gives an example of a pastor who encouraged a wife to submit to her husband even if it went against her own conscience.  The biblical story of Sarah lying about her relationship with Abraham supplied the pastor with ample precedent.

Some of the texts that are considered are as follows:  the stories about Hagar and Jepthah’s daughter, the imprecations in the Psalter, the various foibles of the patriarchs, the use of the whore imagery in the prophecy of Hosea, Paul’s injunctions about women in the Corinthians and Timothy, and finally stories about sexual violence (Dinah, Bathsheba, Tamar).

 Probably one of the surprises for most readers of this book will be how sensitive pre-modern interpreters were to these texts.  Commentators who from a modern point of view would be considered as sexist and chauvinistic were not that way in their response to the characters in these stories.  For example, Luther wonders why Saul’s vow regarding Jonathan could be broken and why Jepthah’s could not.  Similarly in response to the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham, he says, “If someone wanted to rant against Abraham at this point, he could make him a murderer of his son and wife…Who would believe this if Moses had not recorded it” (25).   Augustine was happy to allegorize Psalm 137, interpreting the call to murder Babylonian babies as a call to kill evil desires which plague the soul.   At the same time it is clear that certain biases are not completely overcome ( e.g. John Calvin’s statement that God is more glorified in the birth of a boy than a girl).

One of the strengths of this book is that it forces the interpreter to think about the question of bias—including her own.  But at the same time it shows that interpretation is not a matter of solipsism, the text supplying the words and the reader the meaning.  People growing up in vastly different ages and culture have similar—dare I say in this postmodern age–universal concerns.  Questions of justice and equality, fairness and morality do not emerge with the enlightenment but are matters which transcend time and place.

At the same time there are some lingering questions that the book raises.  First, sometimes one is left with the impression that the authors of scripture should be held responsible for the unintended effects of their statements.  Thus the side effect of Gomer’s portrayal as a harlot may be verbal violence toward women.  Whatever the truth of this assertion and it is suspect—authors cannot ultimately be held responsible for unintended effects, otherwise the greatest offender would be God, in whose name countless atrocities have been committed.  Secondly, one wonders if some of the problems that western people have with some of the texts, especially the imprecatory psalms, have to do with their cultural situation.  Miroslav Volf believes that “it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of a thesis that human non-violence results in the refusal of God to judge.  In a sun-scorched land soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die with other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”   Finally, although the author notes many embarrassing silences in the Bible, silence does not mean condonement.  That is why a book like the Bible, whose margins are noted well in Thompson’s book, needs to be read from the biblical Centre (cf. Ex. 34:5-6).   Perhaps here is an important role for biblical theology which has experienced a renaissance in recent years.  Biblical theology is about trying to find the big picture, of what the Bible is really all about, about what God is up to.  It is this center which finally gives meaning and coherence to all the little stories that are often neglected.  For example, it is in the death of the Crucified One that the evil directed against Hagar, Jepthah’s daughter and the Levitical concubine finally is brought to the centre of the biblical story and there seen in all its horror as it has its way on God’s son.  And it is the resurrection that births a hope which births a new vision of everything; this new centre grows until it completely fills all the margins.

G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Reading the Bible with the Dead is such a plea for a more inclusive democracy for biblical interpreters.  This fascinating study is filled with numerous surprises along the way.  It is clear that giving the dead a vote is a significant hermeneutical move to help those who merely happen to be walking about.  Such a study should be required reading in courses on the interpretation of scripture. 

Review of Christopher Wright’s new book on tough questions

May 21, 2009

Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflection on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 224 pp.

This book is a very personal account by an Old Testament scholar struggling with some problems raised by reading the scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, in our modern culture. He realizes that these questions can easily become a genuine stumbling block for many and that even believers need to face them rather than suppress them, hoping they will go away. One of the real strengths of this book is that the author does not set himself up as an objective authority, but views himself as a pilgrim who struggles with these problems just as much as anyone else. When a book like this is written, sometimes one is left wondering whether it is too much of a concession to contemporary culture, but as Wright reminds the reader, these problems—the mystery of evil and suffering—did not arise with contemporary culture: they arose in the biblical period itself. From Abraham on there are many precedents for questioning God and his ways in the world. You will not learn how to lament in the contemporary western church with its therapeutic mindset and saccharine spirituality, but you will learn it in the Psalter where it is a dominant key. From the outset of this book, Wright puts believers at ease with their doubts and welcomes the questions of unbelievers—they are all in good biblical company! Wright himself uses a psalm which voices a radical doubt in God’s goodness to provide the lens through which he will consider his topic. Psalm 73 presents a deep-seated doubt of a believer that arose because of the injustices of life. This doubt was virtually impossible to dislodge and almost “carried the day” in the believer’s mind until there was a profound experience of transcendence in communal worship. The resulting new vision of life was won at a high cost, but for Wright the fact that the old ingrained doubts were not erased from the psalm is important. It gives them a legitimate voice which needs to be heard, even if now seen within a more comprehensive theological vision. Wright then begins to consider in order the following subjects: the mystery of suffering and evil, the conquest of the Canaanites, the cross, and the end of the world.

Wright begins by dealing with the problem of evil and suffering. An important point is made immediately, namely that this is only a problem if one has a theological vision which holds together simultaneously the goodness and godhood (omnipotence and sovereignty) of God. For polytheism evil is just a part of the fabric of reality, located in some of the gods as well as in the world. For the various forms of eastern monism, ultimate reality is beyond good and evil and the distinction is only apparent. For modern naturalism, reality is just the sum of materialistic forces. Can one really speak of evil or even good in the absence of any objective frame of reference? However, Wright points out that the Christian faith (and I would add, Judaism) believes in both the omnipotence and goodness of God and thus has a genuine problem in the face of evil and suffering.

The author then considers three aspects of the problem of evil: mystery, offence and defeat. He points out that the Bible never speculates about the origin of evil; it describes its entrance into the world. This fact of evil is largely attributed to the fall of the human race and the consequence disaster for the planet. Wright proceeds to make connections between the serpent in the Garden, Satan and the angels, but does so cautiously and states that his conclusions are still shrouded in mystery. His main point is that evil defies rationality: it is not to be understood but to be resisted and ultimately expelled. Wright further argues that the Bible gives the resources for human beings to lament, grieve and protest the horrific offence of evil. Finally the Bible clearly shows that evil will one day be ultimately defeated. The message of the Apocalypse is seen to be supremely relevant here with its final vision of the end.

Wright makes some valuable observations in this section but I thought he might have considered the creation of free agency as a helpful, partial explanation for the mystery of evil. In other words, the freedom for human beings to make their own decisions and to chart their own destiny, whether to embrace God or reject him, could at least partly explain the presence of evil—evil being then defined as the rejection of God. Otherwise God would have created creatures who would be automatons which would be incompatible with genuine love. Genuine free choice at the beginning, then, creates the potential for evil.

The next major topic is the putative genocide of the Canaanites during the conquest. Wright shows that there are three popular ways that Christians try to deal with this problem but they are in fact “dead ends.” First, this is decidedly not an Old Testament problem that the New Testament puts right because there is much about the love of God in the former and plenty of divine wrath in the latter. Secondly, the Israelites were not wrong about God’s command to kill the Canaanites. Rather the conquest is integral to God’s unfolding plan in the Bible. To argue against this would distort fundamentally the meaning of the biblical text. Finally, the conquest is not simply a matter of allegory either. Wright makes the valid point that “it was not allegorical Israelites who attacked or allegorical Canaanites who died.” As for a proposed solution, Wright counters the three dead ends with three roads that can help navigate the way through this problem. First there is the road of historical context which sheds light on aspects of the violence. For example, Israel may well have been using ancient near eastern conventions for the rhetoric of war, which often exaggerated violence and was not to be intended literally. Moreover God may well have accommodated his revelation to the cultural conventions of the time (e.g. herem was practiced by a number of cultures). He certainly did this for practices like divorce, so in theory he could have used violence in war for the same purpose. The conquest is also portrayed within the Bible as a unique and limited event.

The second roadway is that of God’s sovereign justice. It is clear that Canaanite culture was not neutral and innocent but had deteriorated to the point where it was morally depraved and therefore deserved just punishment. In fact the Israelites experienced the same judgement when they sunk to the same level. The third road through this problem is that of God’s ultimate plan to save the world. The temporal and limited action of God to judge the Canaanites takes place within God’s great plan to save the entire world including Canaanites. If the Canaanites bore the violence of judgement for their sin, God himself in Jesus Christ bore the violence of judgement on the cross for the sin of the world.

In these chapters Wright may be accused of “wanting to have it both ways.” For example, if the violent destruction was not as bad as depicted that would seem to diminish the importance of God’s justice in history and on the cross. However, I think Wright is genuinely presenting evidence that he has found in his research as an Old Testament scholar in order to try and bring to bear all possible evidence on this difficult issue. I think that his consideration of the larger biblical theological issue of God’s ultimate desire to bless the nations is absolutely vital to understanding this problem. The Canaanites in the second millennium BCE presented a roadblock to this blessing which had to be dealt with.

The third major theme is that of the Cross and it is considered with three questions: Why, What and How? The question as to the why of the cross is simply found in the Love of God. It is a certain fact of Scripture but totally inexplicable, given the fact that humanity in general, and especially Israel, is so recalcitrant. The question as to what happened at the Cross is found in the word atonement which has so many ramifications: coming home, mercy, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation with God and one another, justification, cleansing and new life. It can all be summed up laconically: “[The cross] was an act of God in which God in Christ put himself in our place in an act of substitution for our benefit…”(p. 125). The question as to how the cross achieved salvation is developed in contrast to modern and postmodern views which do not accept the idea of penal substitution. Wright argues convincingly that only this concept of substitution explains the Cross of Christ. He points out that often contemporary scholarship tries to understand the Cross with other stories while “ignoring the one story in which it is actually set –the biblical story of God’s dealings with Israel and of God’s mission to bring blessing and salvation to the world” (p. 145).

I particularly thought that this chapter was timely, given the recent spate of literature which depicts the substitution concept as divine child abuse: God the Father abusing his son Jesus on the cross. It is certain that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, which shows that the Trinity had a cross purpose but was not at cross purposes! At the same time the biblical evidence is absolutely unequivocal that Christ was a sin-bearer, and became a curse for us, the just suffering in place of the unjust. Contemporary theories often start with different frames of reference than the Bible, and thus it is not unheard of today even to hear about the cross being God’s apology for all the suffering he has caused for the human race. We are told then that we need to forgive God.

The last theme is that of the end of the world. Wright discusses all the many “cranks and controversies” that surround this topic. The sheer speculation spawned by critical events, the concepts in the popular evangelical sub-culture like the millennium, the rapture and the land of Israel, all get sane consideration. There is a noteworthy sobering conclusion to this chapter: “But it is tragic if Christians take their beliefs more from fictional novels and even comics and Hollywood movies than from a careful study of the Bible itself and of the solid tradition of Christian faith through the ages of the church” (p. 170). When pondering the climax of history Wright describes three pivotal events: the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgement. Finally, it is observed that the Bible does not end with an end but with a new beginning: a newly transformed earth with a garden-city at the centre.

This is an important book. Wright writes personally, pastorally and apologetically. He writes with a great knowledge of biblical theology, the biblical text, and also a great deal of life experience. Although this is not a scholarly book, I never had the feeling that the answers proffered are “pat.” At times I felt I was overhearing a sermon or two with the many personal illustrations and the use of many verses of hymns. Subsection titles like “The Lamb with a Plan,” and “A Room with a View” contributed to this impression. Yet there was a refreshing honesty to the book and a pastoral sensitivity, which made for easy reading. I think that a good target for the book would be the believer struggling with these important questions. That means all believers!

I appreciated Wright’s grasp of biblical theology and ancient near eastern history in dealing with many of the issues, particularly that of the Conquest. If one were to judge the rhetoric of the Reformers by modern standards, one would be hard pressed to judge them in a positive light. However when the language is viewed within the context of its time, it becomes more understandable. Similarly, when students of the biblical text have no knowledge of ancient history and culture, they can fail to understand the biblical text. It is so easy to read back into the text contemporary meaning and so completely distort the ancient meaning.

The book shows the power and promise for biblical theology to deal with difficult questions. First of all, as Wright indicates, many of the questions come from the Bible itself. The Bible not only welcomes our questions, it legitimizes them and probably puts them in far rawer form than we would ever dare. I am reminded of Karl Barth’s observation that all modern atheists and agnostics seem like such innocuous, genteel folk beside Job! Secondly, biblical theology frames the book with its focus on Genesis at the beginning and Revelation at the end. Thirdly, biblical theology “centers” the book on the Cross, which is seen as absolutely crucial to not only the whole plan of salvation but also as an answer to the problem of evil. I believe a book like this is far more satisfying than reading a book which deals with these questions at a more abstract and systematic level.

Yet I am left wondering why an important section of the Bible which specifically deals with many of the problems raised in the book has been left out of the discussion. I am thinking of the Wisdom Literature of Job and Ecclesiastes. It seems to me that these books plumb the depths of suffering and mystery. I think they could have shed some light on both. But probably there were practical reasons for this omission.

Finally, a book like this is desperately needed. Many people in the church do not want to face these types of issues. They would rather sing their praise songs, drink their coffee and have their ears tickled. This book meets a massive need. Within the last twenty-four hours, I have met three individuals who demonstrate this fact. First, a mother whose Christian daughter at the age of 21 is suffering with chronic, incurable pain, and for whom this is “a gigantic spiritual challenge.” Secondly, a Christian medical student who had just witnessed an abortion and was deeply troubled about what to do. Thirdly, a person reading Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, a disturbing account of the Rwandan genocide perpetrated in a largely Christian nation. The God I don’t Understand can help believers face up to reality.

Thank you Christopher Wright for taking some time from your scholarly projects to shed some needed light on these very personal and yet universal questions (Prov. 15:23b).

Sinai and Zion: II

October 29, 2008

A few days ago I heard a stimulating lecture by Craig Evans, renowned NT scholar, from Acadia Divinity College. He was addressing NT connections with the community at Qumran. He made the point that the Essene community there never amounted to probably more than 100 at one time, but that there were probably thousands more living in various communities throughout Judea. So the question was asked, Why is there never any mention of them in the NT, and why did Jesus not encounter them in his travels? Evans argued that it was probably because the Essenes, living strictly by the Torah, would have been totally scandalized by Jesus and his violation of taboos. His neglect of washing before eating, his fraternization with sinners and tax collectors, his profanation of the Sabbath–all these would have clearly put Jesus beyond the pale of even being considered a holy man. If the Pharisees were scandalized by Jesus’ behaviour, what would the Essenes have thought! They did not even operate on the same assumptions. For example, when Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, he justifies his action by saying that even his accusatory audience would help get an animal out of a ditch on the Sabbath. This argument wouldn’t have worked with the Essenes, as they specifically address this matter and argue that the animal must remain in the ditch since to help it out would be to violate the Sabbath (CD 11:13014).

My point is simply this: Jesus operated with a more inclusive concept of Torah, a more liberating one, which seemed to move out into the world while the Essenes operated with a more exclusive concept of Torah, which separated them from the world. One moved over barriers while the other erected barriers. They both probably used the same Bible. I wonder if the reason for the different views had to do with the different perception of the significance of the present moment. Although they were both sensitive to the eschatological thrust of the scriptures, one focussed on Sinai, the other on Zion. I wonder if this same feature is true when we look at the various movements within Christianity: some are more isolationist and separatist, the other is more expansive and mission-oriented. A student of mine recently wondered about holiness and said that a true conception of holiness was to enlarge the place of God’s presence while a false conception was to narrow the place of human presence.

Sinai Torah versus Zion Torah

October 29, 2008

I have been just reading and thinking about the whole relation between Sinai and Zion. Hartmut Gese’s chapter on The Law in his book Essays in Biblical Theology is extremely stimulating. Charles Scobie’s book on biblical theology has some interesting thoughts on this subject as well (The Ways of our God , pp. 517-550, 760-772). Gese makes the point that the Torah given at Sinai was given to one nation and there was an exclusive emphasis on it– a wall of separation was erected between the Holy and the Unholy. When the covenant was made and the atonement was made, representatives of Israel were allowed to ascend the mountain and eat and drink with God. The text clearly says that they saw God and were not harmed (24). They had unbroken fellowship with their Creator. Incidentally if you want to read an excellent book on Exodus 19-24 from a biblical theological perspective, I commend the Australian John Davies’. recent monograph, A Royal Priesthood: Literary and Intertextual Perspectives on an Image of Israel in Exodus 19:6 (JSOTSup, 395). It views this communion as a return to the Garden paradise in Eden. At any rate, to return to Gese, he sees the great banquet on Mount Zion at which all the nations have been gathered in Isaiah (25) as the eschatological projection of Sinai. But now there is a stress on inclusion rather than exclusion as holiness has permeated everything–it has knocked down all barriers. Thus death–the epitome of the unclean and unholy –has been eliminated forever. Here is the context for the inclusive Zion Torah, which seeks to embrace all (cf. Is. 2:1-5, 42:1-6). Gese develops the idea further in the NT on the Sermon on the Mount, where there is the fulfillment of this Zion Torah in the teaching of Jesus of Nazereth. But it is in Jesus’ life in particular, where this movement of holiness smashing down all barriers is effectively seen. He dares to touch the leper, he is touched by the contaminated woman, he touches the dead and raises them. His death brings about the radical cleansing for all on the day of atonement. And He sends his disciples into all the world, for he is its Lord. Great thoughts.