Shuck and Jive

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Biblical Interpretation

Bob responds in Conversations with Bob! Join in!


I think we just hit the point at which we have serious disagreement. And Crossan has seriously surprised me.

I think the prehistory of Genesis 1-11 tell us much more about life in Israel/Judah than they do about the Neolithic age. My underlying assumption about the proper way to interpret the Biblical text is to try and read it through the intent of the writers/editors speaking to their time. So I don’t think Genesis speaks about the Neolithic age. There may be edited memories in the Bible going back to the middle bronze age but not before. I think Crossan has overreached here.

The Cain/Abel story is about the cultural clash between the nomadic life of shepherds and the settled life of those who own land and work it. And yes there are certainly aspects of conflict between the nomads and the village people. But this reflects a time in the life of Israel, not the Neolithic age. And notice who is more acceptable to God: the nomad. Abel’s sacrifice gets accepted. Thus the aspects of the story about power support the people with less power.

You name only one dichotomy in the Bible: the powerful/empire over against the powerless/justice and peace. I believe there are a lot more dichotomies. There is the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy that stretches throughout the Bible. There is a redemptive theme. There is a sin/holiness dichotomy. There is the creation/fall redemption theme. And you can’t locate the dichotomies on the basis of where they are found. Leviticus should be a book about priestly power and control. But there are also themes about caring for the poor and the redistribution of land. You would think the Deuternomic editor would support the power of priest and king but all are judged by their service to YHWH. Yes a lot of the judgments about the rule of particular kings are about their supporting appropriate worship of YHWH in the temple, but there are also themes of justice. The Bible is a mixed bag, and it can’t be separated easily into this author is for empire and that author is for justice.

In your primary statement you say, “The Bible is not a book about everything even God. It is to me a story of what it means to be human.” I disagree. The Bible is primarily a book about God’s relationship with humans or more particularly God’s loving pursuit of humans who try to run away from God and God’s love and God’s costly pursuit to bring us back to what God intended for them in the first place. The Bible is about God’s revelation of God’s self to humans so that humans can be what God intended us to be. I will agree that part of what God intends for us is justice and peace. But the Bible also makes it clear that justice and peace and reconciliation between humans can only be found in reconciliation with God. Humans are unable to know what true justice and peace and reconciliation are without being reconciled to God. Our minds and lives are clouded by sin which makes us unable to find justice and peace without God.

Now, did the Church take a big step in the wrong direction when it accepted power from the Roman Empire? At the time it probably looked like a good step. The last round of persecutions was horrible and becoming the religion of the empire probably looked like a really good thing. But the Church failed to count the cost of alliance with empire. Power quickly corrupted the Church. We still struggle with seeking power from the government today. Notice the early monks saw the problem and retreated into the desert knowing that true reconciliation with God could not be found in the joining of Christianity and Empire.

Is there a lot of human injustice in the Bible? There sure is! And sometimes, because of the mores of the times, that injustice is ignored or sometimes even applauded. But the Bible is no respecter of persons. Even Moses and David get described as real humans with faults and sins. But the Bible’s overriding message about human evil is that things got that way because humans decided to be in charge, to take God’s place, to try and set the rules, to try and become gods.

I am very surprised to read that you believe that the Church does not talk about empire. Yes, too often in the past the Church has cooperated with empire. But there were voices down throughout history that spoke against the collusion between the Church and empire. Consider St. Francis, monks in Mexico who spoke against the treatment of natives, who even sent letters to the king of Spain! Think of the Anabaptists who spoke out against not only the Roman church but also the Swiss reformers. And there are such voices today. There have been voices throughout the history of the Church in America that spoke clearly against empire. I do so fairly regularly in sermons. If the text says it, I say it.

Crossan isn’t saying something new. What concerns me, from what you have said is that Crossan seems to have separated out one theme from all the themes of the Bible and declared that the only real theme. Remember there are a lot of people across the world who look to life after death as motivation for service to God and humanity, who step out with boldness to speak against empire because we know that if we die for the faith we will immediately stand in the presence of the risen Christ. That was the motivation of the early Christians that defeated the power of the Roman Empire. That is the motivation of Christians around the world today who refuse to abandon their faith even in the face of death from evil empires.

(BTW, speaking of empires, take a look at this! China – Tibet: The Party to approve Buddha reincarnations The Chinese government wants to decide who is an incarnation of Buddha!)

John, I wonder if you have limited the message of the Bible because some have used parts of the message for evil. I agree, too many people use the central themes of the Bible for evil. “You aren’t a Christian? Or you aren’t my kind of Christian? Then you aren’t really human! Off with your head!”

What you have not dealt with is where the evil behind the idea of empire came from. Are humans just naturally part bad? Did God make us that way? Or did God start with a model that God’s trying to improve, as the process theologians argue?

I think the Biblical story is much better than the secular and progressive attempts to explain the human condition.

In any case, I don’t think a justice/injustice grid is a proper one for deciding what in the Bible is from God and what is not. What’s wrong with creation/fall/redemption?

Finally, about Jack Rogers’ head. He had more hair back in the late ‘70’s but not much! I looked for a picture of Jack from those days and couldn’t find one.

Grace and Peace


1 comment:

  1. Interesting as always.

    I don't think anyone here would disagree that there are multiple themes in the Bible, overlapping and maybe even contradictory. It is an uneven book (at least 66, comprising histories, poems, allegories, letters, prophecies, and analyses), and it is human for us to look for the unifying elements.

    I can read any well-written piece of literature and find dozens if not hundreds of themes and concepts and allusions, and I don't doubt that both Bob and John do. However, it's different when one is reading a sacred text when one believes in the text and/or its subjects. That means that not all themes are equal, because the themes become consequential. For instance, in one of my favorites, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, there are several themes: the American dream (the white frame house in an orchard that Ma Joad dreams about), the tension between powerful and powerless, the shift from the patriarchy of Pa Joad's farm to Ma Joad holding the family together during their wanderings, the Jesus Christ imagery of the preacher Jim Casey, some pretty obvious Biblical imagery involving Rosasharn (Rose of Sharon) losing her baby but nursing a dying man to health. Regardless of how prevalent each of these themes are in the work, it doesn't really matter which is the one we use as our primary lens or frame (to borrow George Lakoff) to interpret the book because while it is an important novel, it is still just a novel.

    On the other hand, which recurring theme we pick to interpret the Bible has huge consequences. Arguably, there is a recurring theme of the subjugation of women (to pick an extreme example). Most modern PC(USA) Presbyterians would agree that it is not the primary (or even an appropriate) lens/frame to interpret the Bible. However, the frame that Jesus himself sets up (love God and neighbor) IS a proper way to interpret the Bible.

    That leaves us with the difficult (but intellectually stimulating) job of determining which themes are useful in interpreting the Bible today.