This semester I’ll be teaching a course on the Old Testament “historical books”—Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah. (I cover Chronicles as part of my Biblical Hermeneutics class under “midrash.”)
As I always do for my biblical canon courses, I read through that portion of the Bible during break. And as I’m revisiting these stories, I’ve found myself thinking, “Please, Lord, let these be greatly exaggerated if not largely manufactured stories.”
With hardly a break, I am struck (pun intended) by how casual and heartless the ancient Israelites were about violence and vengeance. The ancient Israelites, by and large, were plain old nasty, mean, and not the kind of people you’d want to cross—or even playfully tease.
. . . Or better:
the Israelites we meet in the Old Testament were that way.
Frankly, I have no idea what “ancient Israelites” were actually like—those tending the sheep, growing their grain, telling stories to their children, hiding from invaders. We don’t really know anything about them. We just know of a precious few, and we only know them through what anonymous writers said about them probably many centuries later.
How fair were these writers? Were they even trying? What ax were they grinding? What was their deal?
At any rate, regardless of how they got there, the people we meet in these stories have issues, and you can’t help but wonder what the point of all this is in a holy book. If I were writing the Bible, I’d throw in some more positive stuff—like not glorying in impaling or beheading your enemies or people who want to take your stuff.
Or at least have God step in now and then and say, “Hey, will you people cut. it. out?! Enough of this already! If you only knew the shelf life these stories will get and how people are going to use them. . . . ”
But God seems OK with it. At least that’s what the writers have written.
Yes, reading the stories from conquest to exile can be an eye-opening experience, not for the faint of heart, and probably not without someone to talk it through with. Sometimes I wish the Bible came with a toll-free customer service number. (And no, that’s not what prayer is. Sheesh.)
Even leaving aside the whole conquest of Canaan (aka extermination of Canaanites and any other living thing), people are dropping like flies. It seems like major death is the end result of nearly every story you read. People are just gonna die. Brace yourself. And often those killings are portrayed as good, just, honorable, and normal—like, “What’s your problem? This is just what happens, you know?”
I started going through these books and listing the violence and general vindictive nastiness, but then stopped. I have a busy schedule. Plus it’s getting discouraging.
All of this reminds me of a couple of things I tend to harp on, and I think for good reason.
- Knowing something of when and why these stories were written might help us understand something of what the writers are trying to say. Discerning all this isn’t straightforward by any means, but I think it’s worth the effort.
- And after you’re done with all that, we readers of the Bible still have to decide what WE are going to do with all of it, how we are going to process it for our life of faith here and now. And that’s not easy either.
In The Bible Tells Me So, I basically come down on these two things as follows:
- I think that these stories were written in a tribalistic context, and thus reflect that context—this is how stories of gods and nations were told. Further, the writers exaggerated and/or freely shaped the past for theological and/or propagandistic purposes.
- I do not think these stories should be read theologically uncritically, meaning simply accepted as prescribing what God is like. The Bible isn’t a rule book or owner’s manual, and we don’t get off the hook so easily. What God is like transcends the stories written about him.
I’ve said a mouthful here, I know. Agree or disagree, but my thinking comes from reading the Bible respectfully and carefully, not from an antagonistic or dismissive point of view.
The Bible—as it always has—raises plenty of questions on its own. And when we engage those questions, we are joining a long and honored conversation.
[The photo above depicts a scene in Judges 4, where Jael drives a tent peg through Sisera’s temple and out the other side into the ground while he was sleeping. The story concludes, as if the reader were puzzled at this point, “—and he died.” The following verses make it clear that this was God’s means of subduing the Canaanites.]
This blog was first posted in January 2016.
[Please be patient as your comment is in moderation. Comments are normally posted within 6 hours but may take as long as 24—longer if you’re annoying. If you’re a troll, I might just sneak up on you while you’re sleeping and drive a tent peg through your brain.]