In my last post, I made the following statement:
I’ve been convinced for a long time now that most of the significant arguments (ostensibly) about what the Bible says are actually more about how the Bible is being read. It may be surprising to some, but there is not just one ‘correct’ way to read these sacred texts. I’m convinced that there are ‘better’ and ‘worse’ reading strategies, but I think it’s naive to suggest that there is only one ‘right’ approach.
In these next few posts, I’d like to offer some thoughts on an approach to reading the Bible that I’ve been kicking around for about a decade now. What I’m not offering here is the way that I think we should all read the biblical texts, but something that I think could be helpful to add into the mix — especially when it comes to some of the more ‘difficult’ things that we encounter in the Bible.
It’s an oversimplification, but the three main options when it comes to some of these passages are:
- to suggest that “the Bible says it, I believe it, that’s all there is to it”
- to attempt to explain the difficult stuff away
- to ignore those more difficult bits altogether
I’m not convinced that any of these options are sufficient.
The first is fundamentalism, and completely ignores the fact that real, finite human beings were involved in the process of writing the biblical texts. The second is, on the surface, a more attractive option, but often relies on ‘exegetical gymnastics’ to get around things that may seem unpalatable to modern sensibilities. The third option fails because it forgets that the biblical texts — all of them — are central to the Christian life. The Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian ‘Old Testament’) provide the context for the person and work of Jesus through the story of Israel, and the New Testament — those texts that are closest in time and space to Jesus — outline in fulness the culmination of God’s plan in Jesus of Nazareth.
What, then, shall we do?
My suggestion is that we look to the Bible itself, and I’ll try to explain what that looks like in the next few posts. Let’s get to it.
In my years of studying the Bible, I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with the following question: What if, due to the fact that (finite and broken) humans were involved in the writing of biblical texts, there are, at points, attitudes or perspectives encoded into the texts that are less than ideal?
Of course, this opens up a whole series of subsequent questions.
What would this mean for biblical ‘inerrancy’ or ‘infallibility’? What if certain biblical texts are not just mis-understood as being ethnocentric, or androcentric, or kyriocentric, etc. — what if some texts actually encode ethnocentric, androcentric, or kyriocentric perspectives?1
Now, some people are either going to be very upset with me for daring to pose such questions in the first place, or are going to be rocked to their very core because they’ve only ever thought of the Bible as divine dictation.
The truth is, however, that the biblical texts were written by real men (and possibly some women, but mostly men), in real situations, limited by their language, culture and other contextual factors. What is funny here is that ‘orthodox’ Christianity has always known this to be true, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Orthodox Christianity has always suggested that, while the biblical texts are believed to be the response to genuine interactions with God, they are nevertheless also the product of real human beings who are not omniscient, omnipotent, or omni-anthing else. This is what it means for the texts to be inspired by God.
Think about it for a second: there is both ‘good’ and ‘not-so-good’ Greek in the Greek New Testament texts. Either God got really confused at times, or there are human factors at work here.
The fact is, the biblical texts do record something of their own contextuality (even just in the languages they were written in), and so we always work towards good socio-historical analysis in order to get as clear an idea as possible of what the texts might have originally been understood to have said. The biblical message may have eternal applicability (this I certainly believe to be true!), but it must first be understood in all its contextuality.
But, in acknowledging this, it is also necessary to acknowledge that some of the contextuality or situation specific-ness of the biblical texts may have been less-than-ideal. Remember, history is most often written by the ‘winners’ — or at least those who spoke loudest — and sometimes these people aren’t necessarily nice (or, at least, were unable, like all of us, to see past their own finitude).
What all of this means is that there are quite possibly certain texts/passages in the Bible that actually preserve structures of oppression, exploitation, or something that is generally less-than-ideal. These are the little bits and pieces that, when weighed, are found wanting, and should definitely not be offered as God’s once-and-for-all-time view on a given topic.
But the pragmatic questions arise: how do we know which bits are which? And how do we go about overturning the ‘bad’ bits without overturning the whole basis of our faith and leaving ourselves with nothing?
Sometimes, the Bible makes this all very clear for us. Sometimes it doesn’t. But sometimes, as Elizabeth Johnson notes, there are prophetic overturnings of formerly held ideas that we can identify as ‘good’ in that they (the prophetic overturnings) lead to liberation, life, and full humanity. These are good things. And when the Bible offers us glimpses of liberation, life, and full humanity — especially when they are overturning formerly oppressive structures — we should jump on them. In this way, we do not somehow discard our sacred texts as being hopelessly oppressive and corrupt (as some, I think mistakenly, have done), but rather understand and accept their contextuality and look for the divine light of liberation and full humanity that shines through nonetheless.
Our job, then, is to search for it.
What I want to offer now is just one (I think particularly powerful) example of this by way of illustration, and thus we are brought to Part II of this post.
Isaiah 56:1-8 has become probably my favourite text in the whole Bible. I was captured by its beauty when I first started studying Biblical Hebrew many moons ago, and have spent countless hours contemplating its message and meditating on how powerful its implications truly are.
I think it would be helpful to quote the text here in full:
This is what the Lord says:
“Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
Blessed is the person who does this, the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hand from doing any evil.”
Let no foreigner who has bound themself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off!
And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The Sovereign Lord declares — he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
Although I would like to suggest that you simply meditate on this amazing text, a few words may be in order here.
Firstly, this text belongs to the last section of the book of Isaiah (commonly called ‘Trito Isaiah’) and was written in (or at least directed to) the Jewish people who had been in exile in Babylon and who were now coming back to their former homeland.
Isaiah offers in this section a truly amazing vision of the future. Coming on the back of the message of ‘Deutero Isaiah’ (Isaiah 40-55), where the exiled Israelites are offered a vision of hope where before there had been none, this section paints an extraordinary word picture of a time when the full glory of God will become manifest and the people of Israel will finally complete their task of being a light to the nations and drawing all of humanity into the worship of the one, true, Creator God.
The time in which Trito Isaiah is set (or directed) was a very interesting time indeed.
The Jewish people (mostly the elite) who had gone into captivity in Babylon were allowed, under the Persian king Cyrus, to return to their land of origin and to rebuild their temple. This brought with it many challenges.
What would they do once they were back in the land? Would it all be smooth sailing once they were ‘home,’ and what would happen if it wasn’t? If they had been ‘punished’ by God (with the exile) for breaking covenant, how were they meant to keep covenant now in a way that would mean that they would enjoy God’s favour? What were to be their distinct identity markers as a people, and how would they enforce this?
Obviously, a number of possible ways forward surfaced. One of those options was the approach of people like Ezra and Nehemiah.
For these people, part of the problem had been that the Israelites (pre-exile) had been ‘polluted’ by the other nations. The answer, then, post-exile, was to keep as distinct from all the other peoples as possible.
In Ezra 4:1-3, for example, the Israelites were beginning to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. When approached by some of the people who had remained in the land after the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, those who had returned from exile, under the direction of the governor Zerubbabel, refused the help offered because, apparently, ‘they had no part’ in the temple or its rebuilding (vs.3).
But it got worse.
Such was the intense desire to remain ‘unpolluted’ by surrounding cultures that, when it came to the attention of Ezra that some of the Israelites had married ‘foreigners’ and even had children with them, the Jewish men decided to separate themselves from their families and ‘send off’ their former wives and their children and to have no part in it all.
This, to me, does not sound like a course of action that liberates, or brings life and full humanity, but rather sounds all very ethnocentric, nationalistic, and cold-hearted (to say the least!).
The problem is, of course, that Ezra seemingly had ‘The Law’ on his side.
Although there are no specific commandments that refuse entry of ‘foreigners’ to the people of God (as proselytes), there are certainly enough references throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to build a case for the fact that the position of the non-ethnic Jew in Israel was often a precarious one. So many times, it seems, the Israelites had been ‘led astray’ by the practices of other nations, and thus it came to the point that foreigners were generally viewed somewhat suspiciously.
Especially after the exile, this became quite pointed. As we have seen, if being led astray in the past led to exile, then Israel surely needed to keep its national boundaries more firmly in place than ever before, and any softening of such restrictions could not be tolerated.
But then, along comes Trito Isaiah.
Written in, or at least directed to, the same period of time as Ezra and Nehemiah, Trito Isaiah comes along and messes everything up. In fact, he prophetically overturns the very Law!
Deuteronomy 23:1 and Leviticus 21:20 had expressly forbidden entry of the eunuch into the people of God,2 but here comes Trito Isaiah suggesting that God’s own declaration is that they will have a legacy better than children of their own (which, of course, they could not have), and that they would certainly not be ‘cut off’ from God’s people! (Think about how well-chosen those particular words are when speaking to a eunuch…)
For Trito Isaiah, the doors are wide open to anyone and everyone who seeks to attach themselves to God. As John D.W. Watts notes in his Word Biblical Commentary on Isaiah 34-66, Trito Isaiah here chooses groups of people who are “no doubt symbolic of all persons excluded from the worshiping community by the Torah.”3
The only requirement here is that they ‘bind themselves to the Lord,’ by ‘holding fast’ to the same general requirements as anyone else (symbolised here well by Sabbath-keeping).
Acceptance by God, then, as Trito Isaiah suggests, is not due to the right genetic make-up (or any physical attribute), but rather the choice to bind oneself to YHWH. It was the heart motive and the actions that followed, rather than any other factor that counted one as being in covenant relationship with the Creator God.
As Watts goes on to say:
The universal openness apparent in the great invitation of 55:1–8 is real. It is applied in 56:1–8 to the stranger who joins God’s people and to eunuchs. Undoubtedly these are intended as examples of all classes of people who had been kept at a distance. In time women and all disabled persons would be included. The requirements for entrance into the Temple are still strict and high: commitment to doing God’s will, to doing right and justice, to keeping covenant and sabbath. But all who love Yahweh and want to do these are welcome and accepted.
The Temple (and the church) must remain an open house of prayer for all peoples if it is to house the presence of the living, loving God with integrity.4
These are powerful words. And with them (and a quick summary) I want to finish.
As I noted above, the biblical texts are contextual and situation-specific. Sometimes, this means that they (accidentally?) encode attitudes and record actions that are less-than-ideal, because humans were very much involved in the whole process (and we are definitely not perfect).
However, the liberating, life-giving work of the Spirit of God is not caged by the limits of human beings. This Spirit of God is at work throughout the biblical texts, sometimes overturning even what has been proclaimed to have been ‘from God’ in the past.
Let it be clearly noted: Trito Isaiah overturns Torah! His prophetic declaration of God’s intention outranks even the great Moses. It’s not just that I don’t like what Ezra has to say, the biblical text itself wrestles with the issues and offers another, better way.
And of this we should take note.
For this liberating, life-giving Spirit is not just at work in the Scriptures, opening up new possibilities and bringing correction to structures that oppress, exploit, or exclude. This life-giving, liberating Spirit is also at work amongst us, and on these things I wish to speak more.
I do hope that you will continue on to the next post, where I shall take a closer look at the New Testament, to see if we can see this same principle at work.
1 I should note especially the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza here in helping to confront me with such questions.
2 Some argue here that the prohibition is only in regards to the leadership structures of Israel, rather than the people as a whole. Even if this was the original intent, it seems that the Jewish people themselves came to view the restriction as more broadly enforceable. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 (which we’ll discuss more in the next post) seems to be offered as a direct fulfilment of Isaiah 56, and is certainly focused on membership in the ‘family of God’ (rather than leadership structures).
3 John D.W. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary 25: Isaiah 34-66, p. 248.
4 Ibid., p. 250.