The Challenging Problem of “How to Read the Bible”

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).

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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41 Responses to The Challenging Problem of “How to Read the Bible”

  1. PM says:

    Actually, Daivd, I don’t see much difference between the spiritual reading of the texts by the Fathers and ‘the modern biblical critical approach, which identifies an “evolution” in the religion of Israel, from such primitive texts to a more highly evolved ethical sensitivity’, which you seem to dismiss. There is an obvious development in the OT, not just in ethics but even in the understanding of God (e.g. as monolatrism – the Lord as the ‘Great King above all gods’ who alone is to be worshipped – gives way to strict monotheism).

    And then there is the question of how the NT and OT fit together – Jesus doesn’t repudiate the OT by any means (seee Kate’s cogent demolition of the eccentric views of a couple of ageing Cathnews hippies), but his teaching takes us to a new level. This is a complex topic, but Catholic tradition (cf. Augustine) has always tended to a ‘successionist’ reading of the church as the new Israel. Mainstream Christians, at any rate, don’t go around butchering women and children.

    • Schütz says:

      Well obvious to you and me perhaps, but the ancient interpreters saw no such evolution from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism – that’s a modern critical insight, true though it may be.

      • Kate says:

        Surely the concept that there were stages of revelation is nothing new!

        Start from the New Testament, where Christ explicitly holds his people to a higher standard than the Old law permitted in relation to marriage amongst other things.

        A similar evolution is evident in the Old Testament, as the Catechism sets out in para 54-64, drawing on both the Fathers and Scripture for its exposition.

        I think this is one of those cases where you need to read the ancient commentators in full (especially people such as St Augustine who treats of this topic quite extensively in various places) rather than just in excerpted form.

        • PM says:

          My point exactly! I have to admit I wasn’t all that clear – let’s put it down to an early start yesterday. But I think the Fahters and sensible modern ciritics would be basically at one in seeing the divine pedagogy in the OT as a gradually unfolding process. For Christians, it was all leading up to the full and definitive revelation in the incarnation of the Word.

          • Schütz says:

            PM, what I want to bring to everyone’s attention is that the “unfolding process” recognised by the Church Fathers is quite distinct from the “evolutionary” ideas of modern critics. The Fathers saw the development entirely in Christological terms, whereas the modern critics see it in socio-historical terms. Very, very different, even if one may see a congruence of thought in the two ideas.

        • Schütz says:

          But Kate, but Kate – you are arguing against yourself here! The Ancient Commentators would indeed have accepted a sort of “evolution” along the lines of the New Testament being a perfecting of the Old, but they would not have accepted the kind of “evolution” that the biblical critics are talking about, ie. the evolution from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism, or the evolution in the conception of Yahweh from a “small desert warrior god” to the God of (for eg.) Anselm’s conception (the only God, omniscient, omnipresent, etc.).

          We need to distinguish between these to kinds of “evolution”. Strictly speaking, the Patristic understand of “evolution” between the Old and New Testaments is a result of the new revelation in Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict (in Verbum Domini p.42 and in, for eg., his Eschatologie) seems to come down on the side of BOTH kinds of evolution – a gradual development in the sophistication of Israel’s religious perception (and there is something very 19th Century Germananic about that notion, btw) AND (something more authentically traditional) the radical “novum” that comes with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

          • Kate says:

            I don’t think you are right about this David, but I haven’t time to dig out the references to prove it! The terminology may not be idenitical but I do think the underlying concepts are not new inventions or insights, but rather build seemlessly on what has long been there.

            But in the broad, I’m thinking here of some of the catechetical summaries of the Old Testament for example, such as St Augustine’s six ages of the world in his Instructing Beginners in Faith, or the mor developed history in his City of God for example.

  2. Louise says:

    Just asking a question: what if the enemies of Israel were *really* horrid societies? Might it not be a mercy for God to see to it that they were eradicated in favour of His Chosen People? I mean, the Jews did not offer their own babies for religious sacrifice, for example and God made certain they did not, through the example of Abraham.

    • Schütz says:

      But would this be a reason for the armies of Israel to kill those self-same babies in warfare???

      • Louise says:

        fair question. I’m not really making arguments yet, just exploring the topic.

        If the children are part of a horrid society, then arguably, exterminating that whole society is a severe mercy. (I ought to point out that I feel really bad about this stuff, but it has to be faced squarely b/c it is in scripture).

        What is the difference between the army of Israel killing the same babies (and indeed many more) and the parents of those babies sacrificing their own babies to their “gods”? The question seems not to be about baby-killing per se, but about the type of sacrifice required by the True God. The True God does not require human sacrifice, in fact He abhors it. It is only these wicked “gods” (i.e. demons) which require it and this only adds further wickedness to the ultimate wickedness of idolatory. If we see idolatory as the ultimate evil, then the episode makes more sense.

        • Schütz says:

          Okay, we don’t know if these people did practice child sacrifice – the text doesn’t give this as a reason for the total slaughter. It is more likely that they were just in the road of Israel “inheriting” the land. Were they idolators? Sure – I guess, but but then so was every other nation on earth at that time except Israel, and God didn’t expect Israel to wipe out all the rest of the human race!

    • Schütz says:

      And for that matter the book of judges records at least one Israelite who did sacrifice his daughter in fulfillment of a vow to the Lord. And the texts that deal with the “genocides” don’t mention the practice of child sacrifice…

      • Louise says:

        Surely that lamentable episode was recorded to make the point that such vows are, at best, stupid and at worst, evil? Surely the point of the story is that God’s people should not make such vows?

        • Schütz says:

          Yet still the vow was made and expected to be kept. Surely the israelite in question should have known that God did not desire the fulfillment of such a vow? My point is that these stories are pretty weird by today’s world standards.

      • Louise says:

        I thought it was generally accepted that most such peoples did practice human sacrifice, but even if not, they may have been abominable societies in other respects? I don’t know enough to say for certain.

        • Schütz says:

          And this is a reason to slaughter every man woman and child among them? By those standards God should send someone to obliterate us!

          • Joshua says:

            As Lincoln – or was it Jefferson?! – said in the context of the U.S.A.’s appalling allowance of slavery, “I tremble when I reflect that God is just”.

            I suppose it is very Augustinian (was about to say, very Lutheran) to realize that such are the enormities of our sins that we deserve every punishment: luckily for us, God’s mercy triumphs over justice. If He sent His own Son to save us, will he not do all things for us? (Cf. Romans.)

            • Louise says:

              Well no, David, I do not subscribe to the view that babies *should* be sacrificed to a god, though indeed some members of our society do. But child sacrifice is not required by a religion in which all members of our society participate. That said, I do find these stories very difficult to understand and I’m not very comfortable with them!

  3. Joshua says:

    Does not the whole book of Judges end with the sad editorial comment “In those days there was no king in Israel: but every one did that which seemed right to himself.” (Judges 21:24) In other words, the Israelites were as sheep going astray, doing all manner of outrageous things, being unruled by the very morality that had only in their recent past been given them on Mt Sinai – they were acting as moral relativists, to put it in modern dress; and is not “anything goes” how the members of our atomized society seem to live?

    As I bear the name of St Joshua the Patriarch, I have had to think on the issue of “the ban” – the condemnation of all under “the ban” to destruction – that appears in the Book of Joshua (and elsewhere). I suppose one can strive at first to reason in fear and amazement that there must have been some very grave reason for the Israelites to be commanded to slay all – presumably, the Canaanites were so evil through and through, what with their sinful idolatry and child murder (kinda like present-day Western society) that they were well-nigh irredeemable, all-contaminating founts of wickedness, and, lest Israel be entranced by them (as did happen to a great extent, owing to the survival of some of these pagans, as time passed), ’twere better that all be paid the just penalty of their crimes. Yet that monstrous Breivik in Norway no doubt thought in some such twisted fashion – of course, he was NOT commanded by the Lord to do so, God forbid! – so one still stands horrified at having to make sense of such scary words. As Christians we must ever denounce such appalling crimes.

    Since the literal interpretation is, shall we say, not entirely in accordance with the New Testament, we must turn therefore with some relief to the spiritualizing interpretation, as in Psalm 136 (Vulg., Ps 135) wherein we read “Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock” – and the Fathers read this seeming incitement to infanticide as to mean “dash evil thoughts against Christ, the Rock, that they be destroyed”. As you rightly say, David, we must war against all the vices within us, trusting that by the grace of God we can have the victory over them: these apparently frightful Old Testament passages must first of all be an exhortation to remove the beam from our own eye first, knowing our own faults as worst of all, and then only assisting our brethren to remove the mote from their own eyes…

  4. Felix the Cassowary says:

    I’m happy to say that I don’t fully understand what’s happening in the text, even if it teaches that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, so get rid of even the smallest trace.

    I’m not required to understand everything. The Trinity, for instance, seems bizarre: Why three? it’s the strangest number! Three! None of something I get, one of something I get, as many as you want of something I get. But for the necessary being to necessarily be three persons seems beyond any hope I have of understanding it.

    But, I don’t (often) lie awake at night trying to wonder why on earth there should be three persons. I have no expectation of reaching an understanding that, at least in this lifetime. Why should I hope to understanding what purpose God had in inspiring a book that fundamentally wasn’t written to or by me! Our society is so different—I don’t mean that morality changes, I mean the message we get from the text (and the messages we speculate the early audiences got from the text) can easily be so far different from the original one that it’s not helpful to speculate.

    I mean, perhaps presenting God as explicitly commanding one genocide (even though us literalists would say it’s false) means a military commander won’t command one unless he’s been given a divine command. Perhaps not.

    Plus, I only ever read the bible out loud. I’ve discovered that because it’s hard to understand the Ecclesiastical English it seems even the “dynamic translation” bibles are written in I can only guarantee I’ve done more than look at the words if I’ve read them aloud but with normal grammar. So if the text says “He did not do that for which exists a decree of execution” I read “He didn’t do anything a decree of execution exists for”. After practising, it’s no harder than understanding it in the first place when these grammatical structures are so foreign that it might as well be written in another language, but it means I know what Paul’s saying. Also I try to make my tone of voice reflect the appropriate tone of voice for this text: sarcastic when there’s sarcasm, happy when there’s joy etc. Again, this means I’m not just seeing a bunch of words, but I actually know what it says. There’s a magpie out here that’s probably heard a lot of the bible now, but it’s my only “audience” so ordinary people would probably call it odd, reading aloud to yourself, but like I care what anyone else thinks.

  5. Peregrinus says:

    . . . 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?

    “Texts of terror”, I think, is the term current in some circles to describe these challenging passages. How are we to acknowledge, honour and receive them as inspired and inerrant scripture, and at the same time to confront their, well, terrorism?

    The suggestion that they “never happened” I am inclined to dismiss immediately – not so much because I’m convinced they did happen as because, even if they didn’t, that doesn’t make the problem disappear. Even if the events go away, the texts of terror are still there – canonical, inspired, inerrant. We still have to grapple with what they teach us.

    What we can say, though, is that the texts don’t exist in a vacuum. The texts of terror are not the only inspired texts we have; they’re part of a much larger corpus, and I think it’s not only legitimate but essential to read them in the light of, and as a strand it, that body of work. If you take some of the texts of terror in isolation, on a simple reading they portay God as a genocidal terrorist. But before we accept that reading we must reflect that other texts portray God as merciful, loving and just.

    Secondly, we should bear in mind that we are not the first to confront this problem. Pretty much as long as the scriptures have been received by the believing community – first the Jews, and later ourselves – this problem has presented itself, and been addressed. We’re not starting with a blank page here.

    Thirdly, we should think about what we mean when we say that the scriptures are “inspired”. The scriptural texts – particularly the OT historical books, I suggest – were not written in a single sitting, immediately taking their final form. The Jewish people remembered their history and handed it down orally before it was ever written down. Then, when written versions did start to appear, they would have evolved – being rewritten, corrected, collated, edited, redacted, combined and recombined into new texts before finally taking the form of the texts that we know today. Not only does common sense suggest that this is how it happened, but the evidence is there in scripture. Large parts of the OT histories appear in identical form in different OT books, where an early text has been incorporated more than once into different later texts, and there are plenty of instances where two or even three versions of the same story appear one after another, the result of a decision taken by an editor who was unwilling to dismiss any of the versions handed down to him by tradition.

    The point is, “inspiration” is not something that got stamped onto the final product as some kind of guarantee of quality or authenticity. Inspiration describes the work of the Holy Spirit throughout this process, which would have lasted centuries.

    And it doesn’t stop there, because even when you have the text that we know today, it’s not scripture. It’s only scripture when it’s received by the believing community, accepted as authoritative, employed for study and worship. There, too (in fact, perhaps there especially) we see the Holy Spirit at work.

    If you think about it, this collective decision on the part of the people of God to receive a text as scriptural necessarily involves an engagement – a critical engagement – with the text. Did it come from an authoritative source? Was it congruent with tradition, already-received scripture and established faith? And so forth. This isn’t your full-blooded historical-critical approach, of course – that hadn’t been invented – but, still, the process must have involved some difficult questions. There would not only have been questions like “is God really genocidal?” – and we’ve no reason to think that earlier generations would have struggled with this any less than we do – but other issues as well. For example, the history narrated in 1 & 2 Chronicles is fairly clearly a retelling, from a new perspective and with some revising or corrective intent – of the history already told in earlier books, up to and including 2 Kings. And this is interesting, because we what we have is the believing community – inspired by the Holy Spirit – accepting as scriptural a work evidently written to revise/correct an earlier work, already received (again under the inspiration of the Spirit) as canonical.

    Right. The inevitable conclusion is that the biblical histories are not simply a factual narrative of events. If they were, only one would be necessary. The fact is that we have received as scriptural two versions of the same events, written from different perspectives and with different emphases, the later plainly produced to remedy what the author saw as some deficiency in the former.

    In other words, these works, although inspired scripture, are nonetheless personal, reflecting the viewpoint and understanding of a particular author and/or community. So the idea that a particular text is inspired scripture is not at all inconsistent with the idea that it represents a particular viewpoint, a particular understanding. And I think the significance of a work being “canonised” as scriptural is a collective recognition that we need to engage with that text, to be open to what it teaches us, to accept that it does have important things to teach us – when read in the light of scripture as a whole, and in the light of our faith.

    And, I would add, when read as a part of the believing community. As Catholics, our instinct would be to engage with scripture collectively in any event, because we do things as a community, as a body, rather than individually. But if we look at the account of inspiration I’ve just given, we see that it’s predominantly the community, rather than the individual, who is inspired, and for an inspired reading of scripture, we should read it together – that is to say, with the church.

    None of this requires that we accept the most obvious or most superficial reading. A particular text of terror may present God as ordering a genocide. Accepting this as inspired does not mean that God did in fact order a genocide; at most it means that the human author saw him as doing so. It means that the text which presents him as doing so commands our attention as having something important, and something truthful, to teach us about God. But just as the authors of Chronicles saw the history of Kings as wanting, so we may see a simplistic reading of the texts of terror as wanting.

    • Mary H says:

      ‘There would not only have been questions like “is God really genocidal?” – and we’ve no reason to think that earlier generations would have struggled with this any less than we do’

      Yes, indeed. I’m glad you put it that way, Pere. It seems we (including me!) find it hard to remember that previous generations struggled with the a lot of the same issues we do.

      I end up having to agree with Pere that the writer evidently believes that God ordered the killing, so in that sense, s/he is writing the truth, but that doesn’t mean that God actually did order it. On the other hand, God also killed everyone in the flood, and it is possible that he could order something like that. He ordered Abraham to kill his son, Isaac. And of course, ultimately, God is responsible for the death of every person.

      Just thinking through this now, but it seems to me that if all the Catholic interpreters of this text up to recent times have interpreted this text in a spiritual sense, and none of them has interpreted it as justifying genocide, then we should go with that interpretation. That does seem to be a consistent reading, although it doesn’t seem to answer all the questions.

      It still doesn’t give us much to go on when confronting atheists or non-Catholics, especially since some groups do appear to have used these texts as justification for genocide [or have they? I’m not sure]. I have no problem saying we have to understand the text in the context of Catholic Tradition, but it’s a bit much to expect non-Catholics to go with that. Isn’t it?

      • Peregrinus says:

        “It still doesn’t give us much to go on when confronting atheists or non-Catholics, especially since some groups do appear to have used these texts as justification for genocide [or have they? I’m not sure]. I have no problem saying we have to understand the text in the context of Catholic Tradition, but it’s a bit much to expect non-Catholics to go with that. Isn’t it?”

        It’s a bit much, I agree, to ask sceptics to accept that it is objective true that the text must be interpreted and understood in the way that mainstream believers generally do interpret/understand it.

        But I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect sceptics to accept that believers do, in fact, interpret and understand the text in a more than superficial way, and don’t generally read it as, e.g., a mandate for genocide. A good deal of the criticism from sceptical sources seems to proceed on the assumption that the simplistic, fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of these texts is in some sense normative, or authoritative, or correct. What matters about this text – what matters about any text – is not the marks on the page, but the reader’s engagement with, and response to, the text.

        If we look hard enough we will find religious believers who have used biblical texts as justifications for frightful crimes, and that raises serious questions about the nature of religious faith and religious practice that we have to be ready to address. But in return I think we are entitled to look for an acknowledgement that this use of scripture is not normative; it’s at the margins of religious faith and practice, and it cannot be a complete account of religion.

        • Schütz says:

          Understanding how a religious community reads its sacred texts is a crucial matter – the very fact that a community considers its text to be “sacred” is a starting point.

          For eg.: Orthodox Jews have a very, very specific tradition within which they read the Torah. Their way of reading the Torah can seem incredibly alien to modern Christians who share exactly the same text as their sacred Scripture (but, I hasten to say, the Ancient Fathers may not have found the Rabbinic interpretations so “alien” at all).

          So too, it is almost a commonplace to find Christians assuming that Muslims read and interpret the Koran with the same hermeneutic that they (the Christians) read the Bible. Wrong. Or “Fail”, as my daughter would say.

          So to, we need to ask ourselves again what “The Bible” is to us as Catholics precisely AS Catholics. Naturally it is something different to us than it is to the world at large (just as the Torah is something different for Jews than it is for us Catholics). This is precisely Kugel’s point, I think. The modern Academy wants to approach the Bible in a way which is acceptable to the world at large; but in the process, the Academy has reduced these ancient texts to something other than “THE Bible” of the believing community.

      • Schütz says:

        Today I listened to a text in which King David gave up seven men from the family of Saul to the Gibeonites because of Saul’s transgression against the vow of the Israelites to the Gibeonites in the time of Joshua. The seven men were hanged by the Gibeonites, and by this, the “guilt” of Saul’s family was atoned. Now, no one would argue that the seven men were personally responible for the sin of their father Saul, yet they died as a result of his transgression.

        In contrast to this is the passage in Ezekiel that deals exactly with the conundrum of collective (tribal, inherited) guilt and personal guilt – “the fathers ate wild grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. Ezekiel makes it quite clear that the person who sins will be punished, but if they repent of their sin, they will be forgiven. It is as if Ezekiel is wanting – at the time of the Exile – to draw a kind of “Truth Commission” ruling under the past: Yes, God punished Judah for all the sins of her rulers, but from now on, it will be that God will punish only those who personally sin, not counting the sins of the fathers against children etc. This is a “development” in ancient Judaism every bit as surprising as the later “development” in the belief in resurrection under the tyranny of the Greeks. Thus we find that “evolution” in the religion of Judah which is brought about by historical contingency…

        • Peregrinus says:

          . . . It is as if Ezekiel is wanting – at the time of the Exile – to draw a kind of “Truth Commission” ruling under the past: Yes, God punished Judah for all the sins of her rulers, but from now on, it will be that God will punish only those who personally sin, not counting the sins of the fathers against children etc. This is a “development” in ancient Judaism every bit as surprising as the later “development” in the belief in resurrection under the tyranny of the Greeks. . . .

          I think maybe the point we have to come to grips with is this; on a direct and simple reading, scripture presents this development as a development in God, not a development in Judaism. – i.e, in the Deuteronomistic period, God approved of ethnic cleansing, collective retribution, etc, whereas by the time of the Exile he no longer favours these things. And it’s a bit of a leap for us to say that, no, this isn’t a development in God, despite what the human authors of the texts thought and wrote; it’s a development in what God’s people understood about God

          As good Thomists, we Catholics have some support for this; God is perfect, therefore immutable, therefore he cannot develop. He cannot change his mind about what is “good”. Therefore we must reject the simple direct reading which would suggest that he does precisely that.

          But this doesn’t start with Aquinas; Aquinas summarises and articulates the idea of God’s perfection, but other fathers and doctors and teachers had it before him, and they got it from scripture, where God’s perfection and absolute goodness is repeatedly proclaimed. And it’s reflection on on that revelation which leads inevitably to the conclusion that a reading which sees God as developing in any way must be rejected. A coherent and holistic reading of scripture will usually refute a simplistic reading of a passage of scripture.

          To take another example, Louise above throws out the idea that God’s apparent approval of genocidal ethnic cleansing can be seen as a punishment for systemic evil like the practice of child sacrifice. As you point out, scripture doesn’t actually say that these societies did practice child sacrifice, much less that this was the reason for their fate. But there is a second objection, which is that scripture – in the book of Job – rejects pretty strongly the notion that calamities befall us, basically, because we have sinned. If God doesn’t send hideous skin diseases or collapsing buildings on us or our children to punish us for our sins, how can we think that he sends a bunch of warlike Israelites to do so?

          None of this makes engagement with scripture easy, but it does teach us to be wary of the easy engagement; the simple, pat explanation which requires a passage of scripture to be considered in isolation from scripture as a whole, and from revelation as a whole.

    • Schütz says:

      I am becoming interested in the meaning of the phrase “the Lord said”. Said to whom? How was he heard? Sometimes through prophets, yes, like Samuel (who was, in a sense, the first of the prophets), but more often it was just assumed that Joshua or David heard the Lord speaking to them.

      It is important, I think, to understand that these texts are “histories” being told by someone long after the events they describe. The writer (or lets be honest, the editor) assumes the events they are relating are historical (probably because they appear in the collections they are using as their source), and then seeks to give an explanation for what happened in terms of God’s greater plan for Israel. So, if Israel conquered Canaan (and modern historians are rather skeptical as to whether they did) then God must have had a hand in it. If non-Israelite inhabitants of Canaan are a pain in the arse for the Israelites at the time the source material was written, then this must be because Israel failed to do what God originally intended – that is, to gain complete control over all the land. Etc etc. or something like that.

      And so we end up with these sayings “The Lord said unto” x, y or z, to do this or that.

      One of the assumptions traditionally made about our Sacred texts is that they exist in order to instruct us morally. With every text, this assumption needs to be tested against the outline I have just given. It may well be that the text exists in order to instruct us (like the Berenstein Bears Bike Lesson) “This is what you must never do”!

      • Peregrinus says:

        . . . I am becoming interested in the meaning of the phrase “the Lord said”. Said to whom? How was he heard? Sometimes through prophets, yes, like Samuel (who was, in a sense, the first of the prophets), but more often it was just assumed that Joshua or David heard the Lord speaking to them. . . .

        Well, you do get interesting turns of phrase, like “the word of the Lord came unto Jeremiah, saying . . .” This and similar phrases turn up a lot, and I think they are very telling; they suggest to me that this is not some kind of internal telephone line between God and the prophet concerned.

        When Abraham or Moses talk to God, they have quite explicit conversations, with to-and-fro, give-and-take, even a bit of argument, and these are often located in a specific time and place. And these are narrated with direct phrases like “the Lord said to Abraham”.

        With the prophets after Moses, we don’t have the “Lord” saying anything; we have “the word of the Lord”, and what the word of the Lord mainly does is “come” to people.

        Bear in mind that God is a king, and that the king’s word (a) is what the king wants, or commands, and (b) is law. The king’s word is law even if you don’t hear his word spoken directly, but here it proclaimed by heralds on his behalf, or see it written down in a decree posted up on a wall. So when scripture says that “the word of the Lord came unto Jeremiah”, what it basically means is that Jeremiah understood what God wanted for Israle, or what God commanded Israel to do. And when the prophets enjoin Israel to “hear the word of the Lord”, as they regularly do, they are not encouraging people to expect “voices in their head”; they are encouraging them to pay attention to what God has already revealed.

        So I think what this points to is not “voices in the head” of the kind that nowadays would be diagnosed as a symptom of schizophrenia. Rather, I think what it points to is clear insight into what God has revealed of his intentions and desires for Israel. And what characterises a prophet is not only that he has this clear insight (which need not be supernatural or miraculous in nature) but also that he is willing to proclaim it, and to act on it – sometimes, it has to be admitted, after some reluctance. (Yes, Jonah, I’m looking at you.)

  6. Kate says:

    I’ve commented above on the idea of the evolution of morality and standards in the OT, but let me say I agree with Peregrinus that we aren’t starting from a blank page here. The spiritual meaning of the text, not the detailed history, is surely the real reason why it was preserved and became part of inspired Scripture for our edification.

    That said, I don’t think we can back away from the idea that it did really happen.

    One of the reasons I think we struggle with the Old Testament today is that we’ve become used to a rather secularised version of God who never punishes. Yet the Old Testament serves as a reminder that our actions have consequences, both individually and collectively.

    Just as the consequences of Adam’s sin was handed down to us all, so to the sins of some socieities were and are visited on their children. And similarly, the reason why Jews were circumcised as babies and we follow suit with infant baptism to counter the effects of that inheritance.

    And its really no different in concept to the way parental genes and maternal health/events during the pregnancy shape a child through no fault or virtue of their own. It may not seem ‘fair’ to us, but presumably does occur for a reason to with God’s providential paln, and perhaps when and if we enjoy the beatific vision it will all make sense!

    • Schütz says:

      I agree with you, Kate, that it was the “spiritual meaning of the text, not the detailed history, [which] is surely the real reason why it was preserved and beame part of inspired Scripture for our edification”.

      Kugel – Jew though he is – is quite insightful on the reason why the Christians rejected Marcion’s attempt to scotch the Old Testament (very interesting to note that Marcion is the first major heretic in the Christian tradition): namely, because the OT was a major support for the new Christian faith when read as prophecy of Christ. The OT will always be valued by Christians for this very reason.

      That, and not the historical veracity of the stories contained in it, remains the primary significance of the OT for Christians today. All parts of the OT – whether history, poetry, wisdom, oracle, legal code, genealogy, story, fable, song, legend, or myth – are able to function as prophecy, and thus, precisely as prophecy, relate to Christ and the New Covenant.

      The OT is certainly historical, painfully so in many ways, but that doesn’t mean that all it contains is “history” in the way that a modern historian would understand that genre.

  7. Pingback: Interpreting the ‘texts of terror’ « Joyful Papist

  8. Fraser Pearce says:

    Thanks for these posts, David. I’m waiting for my copy of Kugel to arrive in the post.

  9. Peregrinus says:

    Quite by coincidence, in my browsing I’ve just come across a post on another blog which offers a different take on the “shortcomings of historical criticism”):

    Brad East, a theology student at Yale, reflects on the parable of the unforgiving servant in Mt 18: 23-25. The business end of his post, for our purpose, is the second half, where he looks at a historical-critical analysis of the parable which is “textually perceptive, historically informed, and cognizant of scholarship, yet at the same time interpretatively stiff, unimaginative, and one-note”. The problem, he concludes, is that the historical critics rightly point out that the text has a history which must be examined, but they make that “the sole focus of their labours . . thereby excluding all other concerns”.

    It’s a longish post, but I think it’s worth a read.

  10. Peregrinus says:

    Almost certainly too late to be of any help in preparing for your seminar on Saturday, David, but I did come across one more perspective on “how to read the bible” that might have some interest for you and those around the table.

    Doug Chaplin’s day job is as an Anglican priest in the English midlands, but he’s a prolific blogger on scripture, liturgy, theology and pastoral issues. And by happy coincidence he has a post today which is relevant to our discussion:

    He starts off by rejecting the idea that scripture has a single “objective historical meaning the author intended which is clearly accessible to the skilled interpreter”, because he feels that “the interpreter has a more active role”. But he also rejects the opposing idea that “any interpretation of the text is equally valid”.

    He then identifies the challenge – “how can we hold historical realism and theological vision together in a way that gives ‘verbum dei’ more than an optimistically imaginative and fideist reality?”

    And – you can see why this would appeal to Catholics – the solution he proposes is a “sacramental model” of reading scripture:

    “In celebrating the sacraments, the church . . . meets around certain actions identifying the contemporary presence of the same deity as the historic texts name. The performance of the sacraments include narrative, invocation and attentiveness, in bringing the temporal and physical world into conjunction with the eternal and spiritual world . . .

    I wonder if that offers a model for scripture. Meaning cannot be collapsed into historical or authorial intent. Neither can it be about the explicatory virtuosity of the interpreter. God is heard in the communal practices of the group that meets in order to hear God. The word of God is discovered in those who prayerfully receive the story of how God has spoken to previous would-be listeners and followers.”

    There’s more, and it’s worth reading. But, basically, if I understand him rightly, he says that the way to read scripture is to read it as a church. And I think that means not just as a believer, but as a body of believers, not only open to the historical and theological dimensions of the text, but participating in the reception of, and reaction to, that text by the believing community.

  11. Mary H says:

    I have a problem with some of the things people are saying about scripture depending for its meaning on how the Church reads or interprets it. I can see that that might be technically true, depending on how precisely you mean it, but to me it puts too much stress on the process of interpretation. If you go too far in that direction, the text can end up meaning almost anything you want it to. The Church doesn’t *create* the meaning of the Biblical texts – she *recognizes* the meanings that God has put there.

    And it does seem self-evident to me that of course the Biblical texts will have many layers of meanings. The obvious straight-forward meanings have to be understood and recognized, of course, but stopping there just seems either lazy or like someone with an agenda. If even a simple poem can have different levels of meaning, how much more should you expect that of a religious text? Even if you *don’t* believe it to be the inspired word of God, the literary category “religious text” certainly implies different levels of meaning, just as the literal category of “poem” (or detective novel) does.

    I also think it is over-simplification to say that the Bible, especially the OT, has primarily a spiritual purpose, or at least, that the OT does not have non-trivial other purposes. To me, the sacramental nature of the world means that spiritual realities, for us, are based also in physical realities. The spiritual is “grounded” in the material world and we ignore or trivialize the material world to our peril.

    Let me use an example from the physical sciences. One of the problems astronomers had with adopting the Copernican heliocentric view was that it did not, in fact, simplify the description of how the planets moved. That was because astronomers, including Galileo, had an intuition that the orbits of the planets had to be circles, because that was more “perfect.” However appealing that intuition was, it didn’t match the actual observed locations of the planets over time. Theories in the physical sciences must take into account what we can observe in the real world. In the end, the idea of orbits being “perfect” circles had to give way to the fact that the orbits were actually elliptical.

    I would say that a Christian can view one function of the Bible as providing a “physical, material” quantity that acts as a check against going too far off in our spiritual interpretations. It helps us identify when one of our theories is an incorrect intuition, a “perfect circle” so to speak, and not consistent with spiritual truth.

    A simple example: some Christians believe that it is never right for anyone to drink alcohol. To that end, they read the Bible as saying that Jesus turned water into grape juice, not wine. But that is contrary to the “non-spiritual” meanings of that passage: according to word usage, the customs of the time, the available methods for storing grape juice and facts about the fermentation processes that turn grape juice into wine. So the facts about the story of the wedding at Cana imply a certain approach to alcohol, and by inference to other things that are not bad in themselves but can be used wrongly. The “material facts of the Bible” act as a check to a false spiritual intuition – a “perfect circle”.

    So too with other parts of the Bible. The fact that a historical passage has a spiritual lesson for us does not make the fact that God chose a historical setting to give us that lesson unimportant or trivial. Nor does it make the historical aspect of the passage less reliable. We can no more separate the spiritual meaning of a Biblical passage from the material setting of the passage than we can separate the soul from the body of a human being and retain a full human being.

    As for the “texts of terror”, I think Christians are justified in agreeing with the allegorical meanings of the text that the Church fathers came up with. However, that doesn’t solve the whole problem with the texts. We should attribute to this text whatever accuracy that historical scholarship allows. So if we judge that this actually happened pretty much as described, we still have a lot of uncomfortable questions.

    The one thing we can be sure of, in the Christian reading, is that whatever else the passage does, it does NOT justify genocide. But we still grapple with questions about the death of innocents, presumably in the name of God.

    • Schütz says:

      As for finding “meanings” in Scripture, the Rabbis provide a good example. In the story of Cain killing Abel, the English translation is that “his blood cries out from the earth”. In the Hebrew, a good Jewish friend points out, “blood” is actually plural, hence “bloods”. They take this to mean not only Abel’s blood, but his complete blood line – if you take the story literally, well on half of humanity was murdered that day. This is quite an insight. Did the Rabbis make it up, or did God put it there? I wouldn’t want to answer that question!

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