Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Bob and I are tackling scripture. Here is Bob's latest in Conversations with Bob!


Just so ya’ll know I sent an email to Jack Rogers this morning thanking him for all I learned from him. Much of what I write, particularly about the authority and interpretation of Scripture I learned from Jack.

I also gathered my courage and asked him for a picture from his days at Fuller to see just how much hair he had then!

This looks like a fun exegetical game. I'll play.

My response to your first two texts is rather easy. One of the basic rules of exegesis is that we interpret Scripture by Scripture. See Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture. I have I've provided a hyperlink so you can download the publication in PDF format. Also see Jack Roger's books, Reading the Bible and the Confessions: The Presbyterian Way and the section on Biblical interpretation in Jesus, the Bible, And Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. If you want to go whole hog and read about the history of interpretation see Rogers’ and McKim’s book: Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. All are available at Amazon.

What you have done by taking passages out of context is make the same mistake the Old Princeton Scholastics made. Because they believed Scripture was propositional truth they read each sentence as a propositional truth statement separate from the rest of the Bible. This is a mistaken understanding of how to interpret Scripture.And I know you are playing devil’s advocate so I’m sure you do not interpret Scripture in this manner.

As to the first text, what do we read about women being silent and subordinate in other places? Let’s see: the women at the tomb were told to tell the other disciples about the resurrection.No command to silence here. No subordination there. In the same letter Paul says that women pray and prophesy in worship are to cover their heads. (1 Cor. 11:1-16) So women are not to be silent but for some reason have to cover their heads because of the angels.
Very curious argument but clearly women can speak in worship, praying and prophesying. If you want to talk about this very strange passage in another post we can. So what shall we make of this passage? We begin with the reason Paul wrote his letters. Paul dealt with problems in particular churches. Some of the problems aren’t even explained. Look at Phil. 4:2-3. Paul tells Euodia and Synteche to agree in the Lord. We don’t know what they disagreed about. We know there was a problem but we don’t know what it was.

Many scholars to day see I Cor. 14:33-36 as a particular problem in the Corinthian church. It may have been that, since women in general were not educated then, (at least in Jewish homes), that women were asking their husbands to explain things to them in worship. So Paul suggests that they ask their questions at home. One scholar, (who I think is really reaching for it), says that in certain mystery cults it was the task of women to make a certain ululating noise as part of worship, that they carried this behavior over into Christian worship and Paul was telling them to cut it out. In any case we don’t know what was going on in worship that Paul told the women to be silent but since other Biblical texts suggest that women are not to be silent, including a text from Paul, we can put this one in the local problem category.

Finally, as to the subordination question, subordination was a result of sin, not creation.
(See Gen. 3:16). If Paul meant that women were to be subordinate in all things, (and I don’t think he did, given the grammatical construction of Ephesians 5:21-33) it must be interpreted in relation to the rest of Scripture, which says the subjection of women was a result of sin and male sin at that. But it is important that we see this particular bit of exegesis in relation to the history of exegesis. Changes in culture allow us to see things in Scripture that we would not see if cultural change didn’t happen. The rise of women out of subordinate roles allowed scholars to see what their cultural blinders did not allow them to see previously. There is a clear interaction between culture and the very questions we ask of Scripture. One of the real problems the church has to contend with is to evaluate how culture affects our reading and interpretation of Scripture and whether the culture pushes us toward false interpretation.

Slavery: Again, if we hear the text in relation to the whole Bible, the culture of the day and eschatological expectations we hear a different message. The Torah actually was an improvement over the surrounding cultures when it came to slavery. Jews who sold themselves into slavery could be redeemed by relatives and had to be released in the year of Jubilee. And while non-Jewish slaves were slaves for life, there were strict laws in the Torah concerning their treatment. There is an underlying theme in the Old Testament and particularly in the Torah reminding the people of Israel about their slavery in Egypt as a background for both their relationship with God and how they are to treat slaves.

The New Testament is more complicated. You chose a passage that while part of a list of commands to different groups of people in the Church, is not part of a household list, a tradition in the Greco/Roman world. In other texts you can see more balance. Ephesians 6:5-9 gives balance, commands to both slaves and masters. Philemon points out that slaves and masters are brothers in Christ. The trajectory of the New Testament is toward the destruction of the system of slavery except the eschatological expectations do not look towards release of slaves on earth. Since 1st Century Christians expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes they didn’t go out and try to end slavery in the Roman world.

So I would suggest that while the Bible allows for slavery the statements in the New Testament set up a move away from slavery. You see the logical conclusion that points to the end of slavery in Galatians 3:26-28: “You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The trial of Jesus before Pilate in Matthew: I’m going to begin this interpretation is a different manner but will return to the basic pattern I’ve used in the previous two questions. First let’s consider the scene. The Jewish leadership has brought Jesus to Pilate for trial, hoping Pilate will put Jesus to death. The first critical question is who is the crowd? In the past many have said that the crowd is the same crowd that accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Some recent scholars have disagreed with this. They have said that this is most probably a crowd of supporters of the Jewish leadership. Besides the word crowd can’t mean a whole lot of people because Pilate’s courtyard just wasn’t that big. This was a small crowd. So first question for interpretation: did the crowd speak for all Jews or only for themselves? The Church over the years concluded that the crowd spoke for all Jews and therefore persecuted Jews as Christ killers. Was this Matthew’s intention? I think not. If, as most scholars believe, Matthew spoke to a Jewish Christian community and maybe also to the wider Jewish community why would he say that all Jews were condemned by the words of the crowd. I suggest that, assuming this is an accurate transcription of what happened at the trial before Pilate that only those in the crowd who shouted out ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ could be considered claiming the blame for Jesus’ death for themselves.

Second, we need to consider the text within the context of the time of the final editing. Contrary to some who have emailed me in the past week, I think Matthew was put in its final form in the ‘80’s AD. This would be a time in which Jews were on the outs with Rome because of the rebellion and Christians to avoid persecution wanted to separate themselves from the Jews. Matthew makes Pilate look like he’s not really responsible for Jesus’ death, even though he is wishy washy, which was not really Pilate’s character at all, and put the blame on the Jewish leadership. You can see a different use of the Roman card which did not blame Jews in Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship.

Now, as to interpreting Scripture by Scripture: Paul in Romans 9-11 says that the Church is engrafted into the people of God which is Israel. The long history of the bitterness between Jews and Christians and Christian persecution of Jews ignores this vital point. We claim that God has made us part of the people of God. Contrary to much theology over the centuries, we do not replace Israel as the people of God; we are added to the people of God.

Finally the passage from Joshua: Interesting choice of passages. Personally I would have chosen the Jericho story as it includes both action by God and God’s command to kill of all men, women and children except for Rahab and her family.

Anyway, the passage you chose: the theology behind Holy War in Joshua is that the people in had so sinned against God that the land was vomiting them out. God’s command had a two fold purpose: to destroy the Canaanite population and so punish them and to provide the Israelites with a land that would not be inhabited by the Canaanites and the other peoples in the land so that they would not be tempted to commit idolatry because of the influence of the people left in the land. Notice the Israelites were held to the same standard, indeed stricter standards and ultimately, according to the Deuternomic editor, both Israel and Judah were conquered as punishment. and Babylon were used as God’s instruments for punishment just as the Israelites were used as God’s instruments for punishment. The underlying assumption is that God acts in history in part by controlling international politics.

But the real underlying question is: did God actually command Holy War and the killing of all people? Did God participate in the killing of the people of to help the Israelites conquer the whole land? We modern people are horrified by such an image of God. And we are not the first. One of the arguments of the Gnostics was that the God of the Old Testament was evil because of his command to kill all the people of Canaan. (Yes I know Gnosticism is much more complicated but let’s stick to the topic) Early Christian exegetes used “spiritual” explanations of this and similar passages to argue that God was a God of love and that a literal interpretation was the wrong way to understand the meaning of the passage. See, for example, Origen.

In the historical context of early Israel and in the exilic time of the editing of such material the basic assumption of people was that when peoples fought their gods fought too. The stronger god won and the people of the stronger god won. This was a critical issue in the exilic period. How could God, the only real God, be defeated by the gods of the Assyrians and Babylonians? This forced a whole new theological theme that said that God controlled the Assyrians and Babylonians and that God was punishing Israel and Judah for their sins. You see this theology not only in the Deuteronomic materials but also in 1 and to Chronicles and in Isaiah. My point in all of this is that the early Israelites and the exilic editors had no problem with the idea that God fought alongside Israel and even killed the enemies. In fact there is a progression, I think, in Judges that says God used smaller and smaller groups of Israelites to defeat the enemies of Israel until we get down to one man, Samson. And then in 1 Samuel God defeats the Philistines and recovers the Ark of the Covenant with no human help at all. So the theology of the day said Holy War was God’s way and God fought on the side of Israel.

Once again we need to look at the trajectory of Scripture or progressive revelation.
Ultimately we find Jesus teaching pacifism and the love of enemies. God didn’t’ tell the whole story of what God wanted all at once. From one perspective we could say that God revealed more and more of God’s self over time until we see the full revelation of God in Jesus. From another perspective we could say that the ancient Israelites got it wrong.

The underlying question that I have not addressed is did God really want to provide a land for the Israelites and kick the kill the current occupants of the land. This certainly seems to be a central Old Testament theme that begins in Genesis and continues through Joshua. God promised Abraham descendants and land. The descendants multiplied in Egypt and then attacked Canaan. How could God give the land to the Israelites without displacing the Canaanites? And what was the message of the exilic editors in making this an important theme? I think it ties in with the theme of Israel being the chosen people of God. If Israel was chosen and if God made promises including land then the occupation of the land had to happen.

I am personally very uncomfortable with this theme. But it is a theme that leads us ultimately to Jesus. It does raise all kinds of questions like does God change? Does God use one method to get what God wants at one time and another at another time? Does God actually want to kill off whole nations of people? And what ethical position shall we take today? As you point out, does God still want us to kill off the people we see as enemies of God? I think the last question can and should be answered with progressive revelation: Jesus calls us to behave differently.

Honestly, I hate this section of the Bible but cannot see how to separate if from the theme of God’s choice of Israel and the purpose of Israel as a light to the nations. I have to say I don’t see how Holy War can be a light to the nations. But could Israel have been Israel without land? I wish I could just say it wasn’t God’s intention, that the people of Israel put their own wants in the mouth of God. And I might say that if it were not for the connection to the other important themes in the Old Testament. I think I answered the first three questions rather well. The last answer is a confusing mess. I don’t want that passage to be the Word of God but I don’t know how to separate it from passages that I believe are the Word of God.

So tell me what you think John!

Grace and Peace,


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  2. Pastor Bob,

    I appreciate your work here, though I've always disliked the "interpret scripture with scripture" party-line. It is circular and unreasonable. It is like saying "judge if one wall in a house is straight by comparing it against other walls in the same house".

    As for Joshua and violence in the Old Testament I have done some work on that on my blog, if you are interested in reading. The links are here:

    Joshua Part 1
    Joshua Part 2

    OT Violence