I am currently preparing for my one-day Anima Education seminar (following up the all to short “Opening the Old Testament”) “Kings and Prophets” (May 5th at Benedict House in Burwood).
I am doing this in two ways: first, I am listening to the entire corpus of the “historical books” of Joshua to 2 Chronicles on the “Spoken Word” app on my iphone. Every minute when I am not reading or writing is dedicated to this at the moment. The translation and tone of voice used by the app tends to put one to sleep, but listening to the bible being read is a very good way of getting into it in a fairly authentic manner. The thing that strikes one directly (especially in this translation which preserves a lot of the Hebraisms of the text) is how very, very alien these books are. Whoever their orignal “intended audience” may have been, they were not 21st Century Australians.
The other thing I am doing is finishing reading James Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible”. I have blogged on this work before, but it is simply one of the very best books I have read on the Old Testatment, as much because it is written from the perspective of an Orthodox Jew as anything else. Kugel’s fundamental intention in writing this book was, in his own words, to demonstrate that the “two agendas” – of the modern biblical scholar on the one hand and of the Bible’s role in bible-based religions on the other – have “no operational significance” for one another:
I believe that, after a period of confusion on this matter throughout much of the twentieth century, a growing body of scholars has now come to understand that these two agendas are indeed incompatible. In writing How to Read the Bible, all I attempted to add to the current discussion was a detailed demonstration that this is the case and the assertion that, moreover, the Bible was from the beginning understood to mean something quite different from the apparent meaning of its various parts. This fact, exemplified in hundreds of specific interpretations, might, it seems to me, serve as a model for modern readers, encouraging them (again, in varying degrees and through different explicative strategies) to seek in the words of Scripture a message beyond that seen by the modern critical eye.
That quotation comes from an online “appendix” to “How to Read the Bible”, “Apologetics and Biblical Criticism Lite”, and it is a very challenging article indeed to anyone who seeks to teach the Scriptures in the context of the believing community today. Basically Kugel’s point is “You can’t have your Bible and criticise it too.”
The anxiety in this case derives from the inescapable fact that, in the light of all that modern scholarship has discovered, the Bible necessarily looks very different from the way it looked only a century or so ago. Yet these commentators still want it to be the Bible in the old sense – divinely inspired (at least in some attenuated way), a guide to proper conduct and proper beliefs, a book of truth and not falsehood, as free of error and internal contradiction as possible, in short, despite everything they know, a book still worthy of being called the Word of God. Their repeatedly apologetic remarks give the lie, I think, to the claim that people schooled in modern scholarship, even those at the forefront of biblical research, have entirely made their peace with its implications. They may sometimes sound blasé, but the truth, it seems to me, is that most of them are simply doing the best they can to have it both ways, to have their Bible and criticize it too.
What makes his article particularly challenging is that, despite the fact that he puts his finger on the problem in a painfully accute way, all that this “finger-putting” achieves (for me at least) is a degree of pain and discomfort. There is no “cure” for the disease in Kugel’s writing, just the diagnosis.
Let me give an example. One of the questions I have already been asked by a student who has enrolled in the course is how we are to understand the various passages in the books of Joshua, 1 Samuel etc. where God instructs the Israelites to attack this or that city and to put every inhabitant, man, woman, child and beast, to the sword. I have read dozens of apologetic explanations for this. It is of course well know that these are the very passages the likes of Richard Dawkins like to point to as proof of the genocidal tendancies of religion.
There appear to me to be two options here. I could take the modern biblical critical approach, which identifies an “evolution” in the religion of Israel, from such primative texts to a more highly evolved ethical sensistivity. Or, an alternative modern approach would be to point out that the stories of the conquest as outlined in Joshua and the stories of the kingdoms of Saul and David probably have no historical basis and “never happened”. I must say that these do not seem to me to be very satisfactory, true that they may be. After all, these texts are in the Bible, and don’t we take the Bible to be in some sense directive for our life today?
But the latter is exactly what Kugel means by the agenda of reading the Bible AS “Bible” within the context of believing communities. To this agenda, he points out, the modern biblical critic has nothing to say. And since the problem that the student raises is precisely “How can I accept the Bible as God’s Word for me today when it has these nasty stories in it?”, the modern biblical critic isn’t going to help me.
So the second option is to ask myself, “How did the Ancient Christian interpreters – the Church Fathers – read these texts?” In order to help me on this, I have recently purchased the entire 29 volume set of the Ancient Biblical Commentary on CD-ROM (which uses the same platform as my Logos 4 bible software, so is available on the Android Tablet and the iPhone as well once installed – very neat). I looked up the comments of the Church Fathers on these passages, and was not very surprised at what I found. Basically, the passages are all interpreted spiritually to indicate than when rooting out sin from one’s life, one ought not allow even the very smallest sin to remain – all must be extinguished utterly. If that is the true meaning of the text, it certainly gets around the problem of genocide. But yet… the modern biblical critic at the back of my mind still says, “but weren’t these stories somehow originally based on the ancient Israelite understanding of who Yahweh was and what he was like?”
I am some point away from finding a comfortable solution within my own mind on these issues. I have some conception that the solution is to be found in the four senses of reading scripture expounded by the Catechism – the literal, the allegorical, the moral and the anagogical – and in an understanding that the Bible is what it is because of the authority of the Church in canonising the Scriptures in first place – but that is not a point easily arrived at, and, in practical terms, not one easily dealt with in the class room (or the pulpit for that matter – though that isn’t my concern).