I am providing here yet another article on the OT violence observed in the Bible. The opening article offers a "backwards" NT reading of the OT in the tradition of Anabaptism. The second article provides a list of approaches to resolving the dilemma faced by Christians ethically when reading the OT in light of mankind's historical development. For myself, I like combinations of points 7-10 but am not at ease with any of these suggestions as I've reported before in past articles on this topic.
Overall, Roger's articles will help introduce to the novice thinker a fundamental starting point from which to progress. I offer these articles then not as an ending point but as additional introductory commentary to all that we have previously reported upon within this topic (listed under the sidebar "Violence in the OT").
July 16, 2013
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The Old Testament and Contemporary Christian Ethics
by Roger Olson
July 7, 2013
The background issue here, of this post, is the problem I see of appealing to the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch and historical books, to establish Christian ethics.
One does not have to deny the divine inspiration of the entire Old Testament to argue that it cannot serve as a basis for contemporary Christian ethics. Jesus himself offered corrections to Old Testament ethics (e.g., divorce).
Early Christians, after the apostolic age (and some would argue during it—in some of Paul’s epistles), handled the tensions between Christian ethics (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) and the Old Testament by means of allegorical hermeneutics. They based their ethics primarily on Jesus and the apostles and sometimes on Greek philosophy.
Today, for the most part, that avenue (allegorical interpretation) is closed off to us. We have to find new ways of handling the tensions and most Christians do. Those of us in the Anabaptist tradition (which includes many Baptists who were known as Anabaptists during their earliest years) do it by “reading the Bible backwards”—the Old Testament in the light of the New. We freely and joyfully admit that much of the Old Testament, especially in the realm of ethics, must be relativized in light of the New.
Very few Christians take literally, as straightforwardly applicable to today, the entire body of God’s commandments to Israel in the Pentateuch and historical books.
This is true even of some of Jesus’ sayings which Christians have always interpreted non-literally (e.g., Matthew 5:29).
For most Christians, both conservative and liberal, biblical principles override biblical rules when they conflict.
The demand to provide clear, straightforward, explicit proof texts of Scripture to justify all ethical norms is simply wrong headed. There are many behaviors virtually all Christians regard as unethical, even evil, for which no clear, straightforward, explicit ethical prohibitions can be found in Scripture (e.g., abortion as a means of birth control, torturing a person’s spouse to extract information from him or her, birthing humans with the sole purpose of harvesting organs, selling organs for profit, etc.).
There can be little doubt that the Old Testament represents God as commanding Israel to practice ethnic cleansing—including the slaughter of non-combatant women and children. (And it won’t do to argue that it wasn’t true “ethnic cleansing” because it was limited to a certain time and place. The same could be said of much contemporary ethnic cleansing such as took place in the Balkans in the 1980s and into the 1990s.) And yet, the vast majority of contemporary Christians would consider ethnic cleansing absolutely wrong and Christian support for it and participation in it heresy.
Here’s the rub for those who wish to jump to the Old Testament and things God commanded there to establish or support contemporary Christian ethics. That makes it impossible to say that every particular contemporary instance of holy war or ethnic cleansing is unequivocally evil. How could a person know that God did not command it? The belief that holy war with ethnic cleansing (to be very specific with this case study) is always unequivocally evil must be based on a hermeneutic that bypasses and supercedes the Old Testament Pentateuch and historical books. The same could be said of many behaviors virtually all contemporary Christians condemn as evil: enforced racial segregation/apartheid, polygamy, slavery (one person owning another), totalitarian monarchy, etc.
(Side Bar: In at least one example I can think of we contemporary Christians almost all condemn as unequivocally evil, wrong, bad, condemnable, heretical something that at least some Christians (“King James Only”) think is commanded in Scripture and that nobody could argue is explicitly condemned in Scripture: snake handling as part of Christian worship.)
Just war theory, developed primarily by Christians (such as Augustine) borrowing elements from Greek and Roman sources, stands in direct conflict with holy war/ethnic cleansing as practiced according to divine commands by the Hebrews as recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament. It stands as an example of the evolution of Christian ethics beyond anything explicitly taught in Scripture. And “Christians” who practice holy war with ethnic cleansing can claim that their behavior is more consistent with Old Testament ethics, even divine commands recorded in the historical books, than is just war theory. Just war theory is a clear example of Christians developing ethics away from commands and rules found in Scripture on the basis of principles found in Scripture. (However, even those principles upon which just war theory is based have shaky biblical support. Just war theory was clearly developed for a totally new situation not found in Scripture—Christian involvement in creating public policy.)
I would even go so far as to suggest (these are my musings) that contemporary Christians need to take seriously philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (one version of it) that “One ought always to treat other persons as ends in themselves and never as means to an end” without embracing all of Kant’s philosophy. Early Christians found much in Greek philosophy that was consistent with and even helpful for Christian ethics. Capital punishment clearly violates that principle, that imperative (to say nothing of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). The abolition of capital punishment is, I believe, an imperative now partly because it is never necessary. There may have been a time when it was necessary (e.g., to protect other life), but it is now never necessary.
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Every Known Theistic Approach to
Old Testament “Texts of Terror”
by Roger Olson
July 15, 2013
The phrase “texts of terror” usually refers to stories in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible that describe God as commanding his people to slaughter groups of men, women and children and “show them no mercy” (to quote on such command).
Here I will lay out all the theistic approaches to interpreting these texts I am aware of. Every “other” approach I know about seems to me to fall under one of these—as a version of it. You may be aware of others. Feel free to post them here.
As you can see, in my opinion, all have serious problems. This is almost certainly a question that will have to wait for answer until paradise or the eschaton.
1. Marcionism: Rejection of the Old Testament as uninspired. (Partial Marcionism would reject parts of the Old Testament as uninspired including texts of terror.)
*Problem: Jesus revered the Hebrew Bible as inspired by God as did the apostles. Christian tradition almost unanimously declares this heresy.
2. Allegorical interpretation: The texts of terror are inspired but ought not to be interpreted literally; they communicate something other than what they seem “on the surface” to communicate (e.g., put every sin in yourself to death).
*Problem: Opens a can of worms (or Pandora’s box) of unwelcome possibilities of interpretation.
3. Literal interpretation: Yahweh God really did command his people in these cases literally to slaughter without mercy men, women and children.
*Problems: Does not deal with the issue of Jesus’ seemingly wholly different approach to God’s character and will concerning violence (without resorting to one of the approaches below). Also makes it impossible to say with absolute confidence that contemporary “holy wars” (including genocide) are not God’s will.
4. Literal interpretation but: God did literally command the people of God to slaughter men, women and children in the past, but later changed his mind. God changes throughout salvation history; he changed from being a “warrior God” to being a peace-loving God.
*Problem: Requires discarding doctrine of divine immutability even with regard to God’s moral and ethical will.
5. Non-literal interpretation: God did command his people to wage war against certain groups but used hyperbole (or the writers used hyperbole); “men, women, children, cattle, sheep” (etc.) is a figure of speech for completely eliminating the society and culture.
*Problems: Comes close to allegorical interpretation and there is no record of God’s people sparing (e.g., adopting) the children.
7. Progressive revelation interpretation: “Inspiration” does not mean dictation or that every story in the Bible is to be taken at “face value.” God accommodated revelation to the people’s ability to understand him and people came to understand God’s revelation more clearly over time. As God incarnate, Jesus is the clearest revelation of God’s character and will. At times God’s people misunderstood his command and recorded their own beliefs about God and his commands as revelation from God. God’s revelation of his own character and will becomes clearer throughout Scripture with the later (clearer) parts relativizing the earlier (less clear) parts.
*Problems: Requires a very flexible view of divine inspiration of Scripture (and rejection of inerrancy if not infallibility). Is also subject to accusations of implicit Marcionism.
8. Liberal interpretation: Portions of the Old Testament (and perhaps also of the New) are culturally conditioned such that they cannot be believed by modern people. The touchstone of biblical interpretation is the modern worldview and modern ethical sensibilities. (In other words, yes, the people of God did slaughter men, women, and children, but God did not command it.)
*Problem: Sets up a temporal and conditioned cultural norm (“modern”) over Scripture itself and possibly even over Jesus himself. Leads to phenomena such as the “Jefferson Bible” (whether literally, physically or not).
9. A narrative interpretation (not necessarily all narrative approaches agree with this): God included these texts of terror in the canon as a warning to his people about how far it is possible to misunderstand God’s will. To what extent they describe actual, historical events is undecideable at this temporal remove and is unimportant.
*Problem: Implicitly, logically, falls back on either “7” or “8” above.
10. Paradoxical interpretation: No attempt at harmonization should be exercised; we ought simply to accept at face value the texts of terror and Jesus’ teachings about God’s love and will (e.g., for peace) and not attempt to diminish either of them or reconcile them. (This is a version of “3” above but attempts to explain it hermeneutically and theologically.)
*Problem: For inquiring minds leads inevitably to belief in a “hidden God” (Luther) behind Jesus who willed (and possibly still wills) extreme violence such as genocidal holy war.