Difficult Conversations: A Dialogue with Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior
1 Because of the configuration of my Open Office software, whenever I type the word “God” the cursor automatically fills in the hyphenated expression “God-language.” I have no idea why, except, perhaps, it’s trying to tell me that Eric Seibert’s book is really about language. Let me explain what I mean.
Perhaps we need to employ a logic that transcends the either/or logic of the historical paradigm and think about the possibility that troubling texts may also offer us the option of saying “both” or “neither.”
When I began reading Disturbing Divine Behavior I thought, This book is telling my life story. These are the issues I’ve been wrestling with all my life! Why couldn’t I have had this book when I was nineteen and just beginning to encounter some of the questions addressed by the book? Then, some years later in graduate school, why couldn’t I have read this book instead of James Barr’s Fundamentalism? And then in October as I was reading through the book I thought, Thankfully I can still make changes to my Joshua commentary. 2 You see, this book touches a good number of the thorny issues I’ve been trying to address in the commentary.
But I have to confess that although I was initially thrilled by what Seibert has done here, I also became more and more puzzled and then eventually somewhat dismayed. Before I go down that path, however, let me say what I understand Seibert to have done in this book. The book presents a closely reasoned argument for why and how we ought to distinguish between the textual God and the actual God. Or, one might say, between the testimony about God in the biblical texts and the real God behind those texts. 3 Why is such a hermeneutical move necessary? Because troubling texts—texts that portray God speaking and acting in morally questionable ways—need to be reconciled with the God revealed by Jesus. Moreover, texts of terror—texts that portray God as a “deadly lawgiver,” an “instant executioner,” a “mass murderer,” a “divine warrior, a “genocidal general,” a “dangerous abuser,” an “unfair afflicter,” and “a divine deceiver”—make it virtually impossible to speak coherently about God. And by “coherently” we must mean a God who is peaceful, loving, gentle, consistent, and so on.
Not only that, but such troubling texts, if allowed their say, make it difficult, if not impossible, to speak about the Bible’s inspiration and authority without resorting to special pleading. In fact, in an appendix near the end of the book we read, “Adhering to an improper view of divine inspiration is perhaps the greatest single obstacle to finding a responsible way of dealing with disturbing divine behavior in the Old Testament” (275). Why is that? “Because it [an improper view] sets up false expectations about what the Bible was intended to ‘be and do.’ ” In addition, and this is the most important thing to note, an improper view of inspiration “conditions people to believe that the Bible always describes God accurately” (275, emphasis original).
DESCRIBING GOD ACCURATELY?
Note especially the three key words, “describes God accurately.” That’s probably the most often repeated phrase (occurring in one guise or another) in the whole book. Near the beginning of the book, Seibert states forthrightly: “A primary goal of this book is to help people know how to use Scripture to think as accurately as possible about God” (5). And what thinking accurately about God will involve is this: “to distinguish between the Bible’s portrayals of God and God’s true character.” These ideas form a running refrain throughout the book. In the Epilogue Seibert writes, tellingly, “Throughout this book I have tried to make my case both graciously and persuasively. I have done so because I believe a great deal is at stake. Since the way we think about God significantly affects how we relate to God and how we live our lives, it is crucial that we think about God as accurately as possible” (242). Because helping readers “to think rightly about God” (242) dominates the book’s agenda, it is not surprising that the book is interested in accuracy. It should be noted, however, that accuracy means both historical and theological accuracy.
Now, what made me resonate immediately with the book was another statement on page 5, this one a confessional statement written in the first person (a fine rhetorical feature of the book as a whole): the questions addressed in the book “grow out of my own struggle with these troublesome texts and are guided by my respect for Scripture and my desire to use Scripture to think accurately about God.” Please remember this: this book is driven by a passionate concern for theological integrity, for thoroughgoing orthodoxy, and for hermeneutical honesty.
In other words, what I like about the book is its unabashed confessional stance, its plea for honest engagement with the actual texts of Scripture, and its commitment to finding an intellectually satisfying explanation for these troubling texts as Scripture. That has also been my concern in writing a commentary on Joshua. In the introduction I write this: “The book of Joshua raises so many questions that readers might well be excused for neglecting the book in favor of other less troubling biblical texts. For some readers, Jesus’ command to love the enemy trumps Joshua and the older story is best left in the hoary and horrible past.” We do well to be honest; we often read with a Paul Simon hermeneutic (from his song “The Boxer): “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” But that’s not what Seibert is advocating. He wants us to become “discerning readers who are able to make judgments about which parts of the Bible guide the way we think and live” (279).
The key to that discernment is the God revealed by Jesus. For Seibert, Jesus does indeed trump Joshua. 4 I happen to agree with him when he says that a book like Joshua can all too easily misrepresent God’s true character. And I certainly don’t want my commentary to be commending falsehoods about God. The question is, How does one get access to what might constitute a falsehood about God? According to Seibert, historical veracity is the criterion for accuracy.
THE TEST OF HISTORICAL VERACITY
Here’s the most important statement in the book (repeated countless times in one way or another): “Acknowledging that there are some things in the Bible that did not happen, or did not happen as described, effectively exonerates God from certain kinds of morally questionable behavior” (112). In other words, to make it quite clear, Seibert argues that “if Jericho and Ai were not inhabited when the Israelites supposedly entered the land, this means the Israelites neither conquered those cities nor slaughtered their inhabitants. Therefore, it stands to reason that God never told Joshua, ‘See, I have handed Jericho over to you’ (Josh 6:2)” (112). Later in the book Seibert writes, “Portrayals of God commanding Israelites to kill Canaanites distort God’s true character and do not reflect what God, the actual God, ever said or desired” (272).
And how do we know that God never said those things? First, because archaeology has shown that Jericho wasn’t occupied at the time. And second, because King Mesha of Moab uses the same language, in his famous ninth-century BC inscription, as does the book of Joshua: “Chemosh said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo from Israel.’ And I went in the night and fought against it from the daybreak until midday, and I took it and I killed the whole population: seven thousand male subjects and aliens, and female subjects, aliens, and servant girls. For I had put it to the ban for Ashtar Kemosh.” The notion of utter destruction appears in Deuteronomy 7 and 20 as well as Joshua 6 and other biblical texts. And the idea that God not only commands, but is involved in warfare and gives conquered land to his people is exactly what Jephthah says to the Ammonites, “So now the Lord, the God of Israel, has conquered the Amorites for the benefit of his people Israel. . . . Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that the Lord our God has conquered for our benefit?” (Judg. 11:23–24 NRSV).
So can we dismiss biblical conquest accounts (even more, can we dismiss what the text says about God) because archaeology proves them non-historical, and because they share almost exactly all of the generic conventions of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts? Let me say at this point that I don’t entirely disagree with Seibert. I use the same argument about generic conventions in my Joshua commentary. Ancient Israelite writers drew on a common stock of literary conventions—they used the language and vocabulary they knew—to interpret their past. 5 In other words, as Seibert puts it, “the biblical text has simply assumed standard but erroneous Near Eastern ideas about the relationship between ethnicity, religion, and war” (272). I agree with Seibert’s assessment of the situation.
Now consider this: Seibert suggests that people who expect the Bible to present them with a “unified picture of God” (50) might be especially troubled by all of the bad things God says, does, or sanctions in the Bible. Seibert’s book suggests to such readers that they should discriminate among the many images of God in the Bible, and that they make that discrimination by bringing the troubling images and texts to be judged by Jesus. Leave aside for the moment whether it’s Matthew’s Jesus, or John’s Jesus, or Crossan’s Jesus. I’ll agree that Jesus is significant here in some way or other. According to Seibert, a Christocentric hermeneutic will help me with Joshua, in particular by helping me to identify ways in which the book of Joshua misrepresents God—the God Jesus reveals. Seibert writes: “the reason for rejecting certain portrayals of God is not because they do not suit our particular theological preferences. Instead, it is because they fail to measure up to the God Jesus reveals” (206). But Jesus doesn’t really help me much with writing a commentary on Joshua if that’s all Jesus is good for. In other words, what’s left of Joshua after Jesus has blocked out these unseemly parts of Joshua. What’s left to talk about? Seibert’s book makes provision for that.
LINGERING ON THE TEXT
Once we’ve identified what misrepresents the actual God, we need to linger with the very same texts to see if there’s something else worth paying attention to. I like this: “The challenge is to develop a way of reading these passages that allows us to be honest about the problems they raise without dismissing the valuable insights they provide” (207). Seibert develops the idea by suggesting, “when reading a troubling text, the reader need not embrace it fully or reject it completely” (212). This approach he calls “a dual hermeneutic, one that allows us to accept what we can and reject what we cannot.” After all, “The Bible does not always ‘speak’ with one voice” (278). Therefore, the reader’s task is “to separate the wheat from the chaff” (213). In other words, “Even the most theologically troubling texts contain other insights, ideas, and perspectives that can, and should, be explored” (213).
I do a good deal of that in my commentary. I try to linger with all of the texts in Joshua. And in doing so I try to apply Seibert’s advice. Here is an example from the Introduction:
Even so, and in spite of our predisposition to hearing what we want to hear, we do well to foster an openness to the unexpected. Perhaps reading Joshua carefully will open windows into how and why we read Scripture at all. It will push us not to settle for easy answers or to give up too soon. This commentary is a plea to pay attention to a difficult text, a text Phyllis Trible might well call a “text of terror.” In a time of religious justification for terrorism and counter-terrorism, Joshua may be a book for our time.
This commentary is the result of a difficult conversation, even an argument, with the text. In any difficult conversation, we try to speak the truth as we understand it, and we do our best to listen attentively so as to understand the matter from the other person’s perspective. In the case of the book of Joshua, we may wish to include God in the conversation, assuming, like Abraham (Gen 18:25) and Job, that there is a moral standard to which we might hold God accountable.
If we imagine the Bible as a long conversation, it might be possible to let these troubling texts have a say just as Seibert suggests. He advocates, along with Ellen Davis and others, a kind of “interpretive charity” (214). 6 I apply a similar approach in my commentary, in which I draw on the practical wisdom of “difficult conversations,” 7 a practice that I call “hospitable hermeneutics”:
Hospitable hermeneutics suggests we become vulnerable by inviting the many voices in the book of Joshua to have their say. Although the book comes to us as a coherent narrative, it includes the voices of God, Rahab, Joshua, the narrator, the Gibeonites, the Transjordan tribes, the daughters of Zelophehad, Caleb, all Israel, and others. In fact, even the genres of the narrative add vocal depth to the chorus of the narrative as a whole. For example, the book of Joshua includes conquest accounts, but the book of Joshua is not itself a conquest account. An hospitable hermeneutic will, therefore, recognize a variety of voices and genres that make up the whole.
An hospitable hermeneutic will also allow the book to have its say within the larger chorus of voices we call the canon of Scripture. Although we cannot be certain about the compositional history of the book of Joshua, the book of Joshua is itself part of a conversation with texts that stand before and after it in the canonical ordering of the books. Moreover, other biblical texts take up themes from the book of Joshua and interpret them in different ways. The biblical canon as a whole, for example, does not speak in Joshua’s dialect on the topic of warfare. . . .
Hospitable hermeneutics also makes contemporary readers vulnerable by extending hospitality to readers who have gone before. Modern interpreters have been tempted to view biblical texts as a source from which to derive truths or principles that can be applied in new contexts. The text then becomes an object, a mine from which to extract precious gems, leaving the slag of the narrative behind. If, however, the text represents an Other with whom I am in a conversation, and if this Other calls a community into being, and if that becoming is the goal of the narrative, then reading the text is not simply about mining the gems or distilling the essence. In other words, the narrative of the book of Joshua is not an end in itself, but a partner in an ongoing telling of God’s story of healing and hopefulness. Take that trajectory out of the plot and the rest of the story no longer makes sense. In other words, Joshua cannot be read alone. 8
Therefore, on attending to difficult and troubling texts, I agree with Seibert. But his stark, and most important statement in the book, remains purposefully unsettling: “Acknowledging that there are some things in the Bible that did not happen, or did not happen as described, effectively exonerates God from certain kinds of morally questionable behavior” (112). I can go back and linger over what’s left of Joshua after determining what did not happen as described. But where does Seibert’s book take me? Not first of all to listening to the text, but to another historical question: what might have been the original intention of the author/text?
LOCKED INTO HISTORY
Now, I don’t have any significant disagreement with Seibert’s suggestions for what the answer to that question might be if it were to be addressed to the book of Joshua. That question, however, is only slightly more helpful than the question about whether or not a particular event happened, or whether or not God said this or that. To say that Joshua’s conquest account was written to justify Josiah’s territorial expansion may be a valid explanation, if we can agree that that’s when the book of Joshua was written (140–44). But we can’t prove that that’s the case. Moreover, once we’ve made that judgment, we’re constrained by it into providing answers to all kinds of other questions pertaining to Josiah’s time. The book of Joshua gets locked into place outside, or behind its own narrative world.
Still, it is helpful to posit that the narrative of Joshua was written from a particular point of view, and that it reflects a worldview that’s different, for the most part, from ours or from that of Jesus. The picture of God presented in Joshua needs to be interrogated. But I wonder if it’s helpful to suggest that, “What we learn about God from these narratives is often fortuitous and frequently secondary to other concerns” (144).
But what are those concerns? According to Seibert, these are the historical concerns of the writer’s own time and place. Now here’s my worry. It doesn’t seem to me that the Bible as a whole is terribly interested in those questions. When Seibert says that “the Old Testament’s diverse descriptions of God” are to be understood “not as divine self-portraits but as human portrayals of God, it is not necessary to assume that every Old Testament image of God reflects what God is really like” (170). Join that idea to the one that claims that if the event depicted didn’t actually happen, then God didn’t say or do that particular bad thing, and we’ve got a fairly complicated, and dare I say, impossible scenario, especially if we were to apply the same criteria to other texts that may or may not have happened as described.
Never mind the question of whether or not the portraits of Jesus, or any New Testament text for that matter, are also human portrayals of Jesus. What about events that describe good and, no doubt truthful descriptions of God, let’s say a textual God who is also the actual God? Like the story in Exodus 34 where God says to Moses on the mountain: “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, and slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . . yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children” (34:6–7). How will we perform the surgery on this text? Did it actually happen? Did God actually say that? And what if I like the first part of that text but not the second part? What about Jonah? Must we determine whether or not the book is fiction in order to affirm Jonah’s words about God being gracious and merciful (4:2)?
In other words, it seems to me that the historical paradigm, as Seibert applies it to troubling texts, gets this book into trouble because it cannot be applied consistently to texts that are deemed (by the historical method) to be similarly unhistorical, yet that resonate with our preferred theological center. Perhaps we need another hermeneutical strategy for dealing with these texts. I’m afraid the book is asking the historical method to do more than it is competent to handle. For one thing, in spite of the fact that Seibert takes seriously the question of the Bible’s authority (263–80), the book doesn’t adequately address the questions, What is Scripture for? What does Scripture do? and, in particular, What do the other texts in Scripture do with some of these disturbing portraits of God?
I think the biblical tradition as a whole, along with much interpretation in the life of the church, perceived the Scripture-impulse quite differently from the way Seibert poses the problem, and therefore Scripture and tradition offer quite different solutions to those problems. We may not like all of Origen’s solutions, for example, but he understood something about the trajectories of divine purpose revealed even through the language of Canaan. He didn’t practice an allegorical method “because people in the ancient world accepted it as a valid interpretive method” (64). Origen’s figural approach saw in Joshua hints of a larger trajectory of transformation that flows from the beginning to the end of Scripture. 9
A TEXT IN TRAVAIL
I wonder why it might not be possible simply to accept the fact that the Bible is, within itself, a “text in travail.” As René Girard puts it, the Bible is “a process underway, a text in travail; it is not a chronologically progressive process, but a struggle that advances and retreats.” 10 Perhaps we need to employ a different logic, one that transcends the either/or logic of the historical paradigm and think about the possibility that troubling texts may also offer us the option of saying “both” or “neither.” The kataphatic and the apophatic traditions of Christian spirituality may know a logic that allows us to say both yes and no to a text without ascribing it merely to “human portrayals of God” (170). Perhaps incarnation teaches us something about language. Maybe Scripture participates in a kind of kenosis such that God takes risks with language and trusts us with the capacity to recognize that dividing the textual God from the actual God may not yield the kind of assurances (“accuracy” for Seibert) that we might have wished for all along.
Language gets us into trouble when we try to make it do too much, when we try to make words speak accurately about God so as to distinguish the textual God from the actual God. And so my Open Office program was prescient. God-language cannot be managed well when the primary tool is the knife of historical criticism. Seibert’s goal is laudable. For the most part I like the book. But we need a more nuanced literary-theological approach. Perhaps we need to recognize how biblical writers themselves wrestled with troubling texts. As Kittredge puts it, “rather than censor, silence, or reject inherited traditions perceived to be outmoded or unedifying,” scribal caretakers of the biblical tradition “preserved, reworked, and juxtaposed them with their own revised theological judgments and perspectives.” 11
The great variety of texts and thematic expressions in Scripture reflect, therefore, “a dialogue or debate rather than one static pronouncement that demands acceptance or provokes rejection” 12 It is not necessary, therefore, to make Jesus alone the trump card in the interpretive game. Attending to how the biblical texts in all their diversity “do theology” will help us to recognize that texts are not autonomous entities. The Bible, including the book of Joshua itself, bears witness not to a duplicitous God, but to two paradigms, one that reflects the rivalry implicit in ethnic nationalism, and the other a critique and even renunciation of violence and sacrifice. These two paradigms, among others, become interpretive options that debate one another within the Bible, a debate that is ultimately transformed in various ways throughout Scripture by a vision of the peaceful reign of God in the Old Testament and the mystery of God’s kingdom in the theological reflection of the New Testament writers.
Everything depends, to offer a grammatically infelicitous construction, on what the Bible is to be read as. And that has to do with how we construe the language of the Bible. What is the Bible for? Is it a resource, as Seibert implies, in the historical quest for the true character of God? Is it our task as interpreters “to differentiate between literary representations and the living reality, between the characterization of God in the Bible and God’s true character” (173)? Perhaps Seibert is right about many things. His book makes a compelling argument. It reflects a thoroughly confessional approach to Scripture. It pushes us to be honest with the Bible’s ambiguities. I wish only that historical accuracy and Jesus had not been the only trump cards played in the interpretive game.
- This essay presents a slightly expanded version of an oral presentation made on November 20, 2010 at the Mennonites and Friends symposium on this book at the Society of Biblical Literature convention in Atlanta, GA. The essay retains the somewhat informal character of the oral presentation.
- Forthcoming in the Believers Church Bible Commentary (Herald Press).
- Seibert summarizes the arguments of his book at the beginning of this issue. Another fine summary can be found in the review by John E. Anderson in Review of Biblical Literature 03/2011, available online: http://bookreviews.org/pdf/7354_8359.pdf.
- The metaphor is used on p. 207: “the view of God that Jesus reveals trumps all other views of God.”
- The argument has been well documented. Almost every ancient Near Eastern conquest account uses exactly the same generic conventions describing divine involvement in warfare as does the book of Joshua. As Seibert argues, Israelite authors share the worldview of its neighbors on matters of divine involvement in warfare (156–60). For a thorough analysis of ancient conquest accounts, see Lawson K. Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 98; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990).
- Ellen F. Davis, “Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic,” Anglican Theological Review 82 (2000): 733–51.
- Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin, 1999).
- For a fuller exploration of hospitable hermeneutics, see my article, “The Word Made Bitter: At the Table with Joshua, Buber and Bakhtin.” In The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People: Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens, edited by Jon Isaak, 307–32 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009).
- On Origen’s “figural,” as opposed to “allegorical,” approach to Scripture, see John David Dawson, Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) and R.R. Reno, “Origen and Spiritual Interpretation,” Pro Ecclesia XV/1 (2006): 108–26.
- Violent Origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, edited by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 141. This is not the same as “progressive revelation,” which Seibert criticizes in his Appendix on Inspiration and Authority.
- Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, “Diverse Voices Reclaim Tradition,” Anglican Theological Review 82 (2000): 753.
- Ibid., 755.