Hermeneutics, Historicity, and Jesus—Responses to Disturbing Divine Behavior: A Rejoinder
I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to Vic Froese for devoting so much space to a discussion of Disturbing Divine Behavior in this issue of Direction. Perhaps an author’s greatest fear is that his or her work will go unnoticed, sitting alone and unread on a dusty bookshelf. The engaging responses to my book contained in this journal have assured me that is not the case—at least in this particular instance! A special word of thanks is also due to Wilma Ann Bailey, Gordon Matties, and Derek Suderman, both for their willingness to participate in a discussion of my book at the Mennonite Scholars and Friends Forum at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta (Fall 2010), and for their willingness to allow their responses to be published here. I am especially grateful to Derek Suderman for proposing the idea of devoting the Forum to a discussion of Disturbing Divine Behavior, something he said might make the Fall “a bit more exciting” for me. It certainly did! I appreciate all the work he did planning and organizing the event. Finally, I want to express my appreciation to both Ken Esau and Waldemar Janzen for their willingness to interact with the book, despite some substantial disagreements they have with it.
We must be intentional about reading the Old Testament nonviolently, in ways that are life-giving and liberating, since for far too long it has been read violently.
Although space constraints make it impossible to respond adequately to all the comments and critiques offered, I have tried to listen well and have responded to a number of issues that seemed especially significant. Rather than reply to each respondent individually, I have chosen to arrange my remarks thematically around a few key issues. My rejoinder is offered in the hope that it will contribute positively to an ongoing conversation around the issues addressed in—and raised by—this book.
Before the publication of Disturbing Divine Behavior, I predicted readers would react to it in radically different ways. I suspected it would receive some five star ratings (the highest) and some one star ratings (the lowest) on Amazon.com. Sure enough, as of this writing, there are two fives, two ones, and a four.
The five responses to the book in this journal also indicate rather divergent responses to the book. For example, Gordon Matties’ response is largely complementary. Though he raises some significant concerns, he says he mostly likes the book and believes it to be “driven by a passionate concern for theological integrity, for thoroughgoing orthodoxy, and for hermeneutical honesty.” Ken Esau’s review, on the other hand, is rather unfavorable. He is “not a fan” of my approach and believes my solution comes at too high a price. In his estimation, it “leaves an almost unsalvageable Old Testament.” Based on the title of his review and the colorful illustration he uses at the beginning, I think it is fair to say he sees my work as both dangerous and destructive.
This diversity of opinion suggests a couple things to me. First, people feel a lot is at stake here. The book raises issues that people feel are really important, issues like the nature of God and the nature of the Bible. Since many people have strong convictions about God and the Bible, their differing reactions to the book are not surprising. Second, the divergent responses this book has elicited says a lot about the assumptions people bring to the Bible, assumptions about what it is and how it should be read. For example, those who regard Old Testament narratives as more or less historically reliable, will have a much more difficult time accepting my argument and conclusions than those who believe otherwise. Likewise, readers who expect every Old Testament portrayal of God to be fully revelatory will not be enamored with the idea that some portrayals actually misrepresent God’s character. A reader’s assumptions about issues like these will certainly shape their response to the book to some degree.
In what follows, I offer a response to various comments made regarding the significance of asking the historical question, the value of using a Christocentric hermeneutic, the implications of this study as it relates to notions of inspiration and authority, and a few other miscellaneous items.
WHY HISTORICITY REALLY MATTERS
Both Gordon Matties and Derek Suderman think I put too much emphasis on the question of historicity, or at least that my emphasis on historicity is misplaced. Suderman believes it is not the right place to start, and Matties believes “I am asking the historical method to do more than it is competent to handle.”
As Suderman astutely notes, my emphasis on the “did it actually happen” question is related—at least in part—to my particular institutional context, and he helpfully highlights our different educational settings. Suderman teaches at a secular university where the Bible is regarded “as a fairy tale or cultural artifact,” while I teach at a Christian college where students routinely assume the Bible is a reliable record of what happened in the hoary past. My students, like many students at Christian colleges and universities across North America, often regard the Bible as a historically accurate account of God’s dealings with humanity from the beginning of time. This is due, in part, to their religious upbringing. The church often instills in them a deep reverence for the Bible as “God’s Word,” and they are taught to regard it as completely trustworthy (though these same churches typically provide them with no knowledge of how the Bible came to be or what the Bible actually is). Naturally, people who view the Bible this way are likely to regard its portrayals of God as fully reliable, no matter how troubling they may be.
In this context, it is absolutely essential to examine the historical veracity of Old Testament narratives. Otherwise, readers stand helpless before the text and are forced to accept disturbing divine behavior “as is.” If the Bible claims God commanded genocide, then they must believe that is precisely what God did (1 Sam. 15:1–3). If the Bible claims that God gave one man’s wives to another (regardless of the wishes of these women), then again, they must accept this as God’s will (2 Sam. 12:7–12). If the Bible claims God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22:1–2), killed every firstborn in Egypt (Exod. 12:29–30), and afflicted Job “for no reason” (Job 2:3 NRSV) then once again, they must accept all this as reflective of God’s character. Those who believe God said and did everything the Bible claims have no choice but to accept all these disturbing images—and more—as reflective of who God really is. This is why it is so very important to address the issue of historicity. Otherwise, it becomes impossible to deal responsibly with the problem of disturbing divine behavior.
Additionally, I wondered if Suderman and Matties misunderstood what I was trying to say about the significance of asking the historical question when dealing with problematic portrayals of God. While those who believe God actually did what the text claims are obliged to accept this as revelatory in some way, this does not mean the opposite is true. In other words, determining God did not say and do what the text claims does not mean that all those portrayals of God are necessarily “false.” For example, even though I do not believe the story of Jonah happened as described, I do believe God is gracious and merciful as the story suggests. Fictional stories—like Jonah—can still reveal quite a lot about God’s character.
On the other hand, when the Old Testament describes an event that actually happened, like the exile, we should not immediately assume the way it talks about God’s involvement in that event is reliable. While I am quite confident the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E., I cannot accept the theological interpretation given to that event in the Old Testament. To be specific, I do not believe God was using the Babylonian army to punish Judah for the nation’s sins, despite what the text says. While such claims about divine judgment make perfect sense given Israel’s theological worldview, I do not share all of Israel’s worldview assumptions. For example, I do not believe God “judges” one group of people by commissioning another group to terrorize, kill, and deport them. That kind of theological reckoning of historical events is extremely problematic, a fact we know all too well from those who would proclaim 9/11 as divine judgment on America. As Wilma Ann Bailey helpfully reminds us, “Readers of biblical texts must always be aware that they are reading material that was first directed to an ancient society with worldviews and cultural assumptions very different from those of the contemporary world.” Israel’s theological assumptions influenced how they described God’s involvement in historical events, and this affects the way God is portrayed in the Old Testament. If we want to use the Bible to know what God is like, we must not only recognize this, we must make allowance for it.
JESUS NOT THE ANSWER?
A number of respondents questioned the value and/or appropriateness of utilizing a Christocentric hermeneutic to deal with problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament. Waldemar Janzen believes it is “not . . . adequate to this task,” and both he and Ken Esau remain unconvinced that the God Jesus revealed is really all that different from the God revealed in the Old Testament. Derek Suderman also disagrees with my assertion that Jesus viewed God as nonviolent and writes, “I am less convinced than he that Jesus believed God to be essentially nonviolent.” Suderman questions whether “historicity on one hand or a ‘nonviolent God’ on the other are the best places to start.” Since utilizing a Christocentric hermeneutic is a key part of my approach, these concerns require a response.
Esau does not believe there is enough evidence to support my contention that Jesus conceived of God nonviolently. While the nonviolence of God is certainly a debatable point, I felt Esau misconstrued my position as nothing more than an “argument from silence.” It is part of my argument—but only that. In chapter ten of Disturbing Divine Behavior, I provide considerable evidence to substantiate this claim and to demonstrate various ways Jesus challenges some of the more violent views of God in the Old Testament. Esau is not convinced. “If these Old Testament images of God were so profoundly opposite to the actual God,” he writes, “it is difficult to imagine that Jesus wouldn’t have spent more time clarifying this critical point: ‘You have heard it said that God is violent and kills sinners and causes disaster to those who reject him, but I tell you . . .’ ” Yet I would argue that is precisely what Jesus did! Jesus is very careful about which Old Testament images of God he uses and how he uses them. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus repeatedly speaks and acts in ways that challenge Old Testament portrayals of a God who rains down death and destruction upon people. The cumulative effect of Jesus’ words and deeds implies that he envisioned God quite differently than the way God is often portrayed in the Old Testament.
Like Esau, Janzen also finds my Christocentric hermeneutic wanting. Though Janzen does not say this directly, he clearly disagrees with the way I have represented Jesus’ thinking about God and also disputes my claim that Jesus conceived of God as being nonviolent. He finds it “utterly unthinkable” that Jesus regarded the portrayal of God in numerous Old Testament narratives—the Exodus, the Conquest, the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem when under siege, and the Babylonian exile and return—“as the mistaken notions of God’s character promulgated by Old Testament authors.” But why is this “utterly unthinkable” when Jesus says and does many things that present God in a very different light? Images of a violent God smiting sinners here and now play no part in Jesus’ teaching about God and directly contradict his primary message about the kingdom of God.
Janzen also expresses considerable surprise that I do not distinguish between the textual and actual Jesus in the New Testament in the same way I distinguish between the textual and actual God in the Old Testament. He writes, “One would expect Seibert to raise the question whether we might have here the words of the evangelists’ ‘textual Jesus,’ rather than those of the ‘actual Jesus.’ Seibert raises that question indeed, but rejects it out of hand!” I believe Janzen has misread me here. I do not reject this possibility “out of hand.” On the contrary, I explore it at some length with regard to Jesus’ sayings about eschatological judgment (249–251), and I conclude by acknowledging that “some of these sayings . . . may be secondary (251). Additionally, I devote attention to some New Testament passages which seem to suggest that Jesus envisioned God bringing lethal judgment on people here and now. I argue that these passages do not originate with Jesus but reflect the thoughts of later writers (257–261). Thus, while I do not engage in an extensive discussion of the historical Jesus per se, I certainly do not rule out the possibility that distinctions need to be made between the textual and actual Jesus.
As the objections raised by Esau and Janzen illustrate, not everyone agrees that a Christocentric hermeneutic represents the best way to differentiate between the textual and actual God. For that matter, not everyone agrees it is even necessary to make these kinds of distinctions in the first place. But unless you are prepared to accept all portrayals of God in the Old Testament as accurate reflections of the moral character of God, you need to have some way of determining which images are revelatory and which are not. I would challenge those who question the usefulness of a Christocentric hermeneutic to propose other ways of making these kinds of distinctions. Gordon Matties, for example, calls for “a more nuanced literary-theological approach.” (Interested readers should consider his forthcoming commentary on the book of Joshua in the Believer’s Church Bible Commentary series.) Wilma Ann Bailey suggests that “the same measuring stick” I am suggesting in the God Jesus reveals might be found in certain Old Testament portrayals of God that envision God as “good, just, merciful and forgiving.” Hopefully, future conversations can further refine a Christocentric hermeneutic and/or explore alternative ways to determine the extent to which certain Old Testament portrayals of God are revelatory.
Before leaving this point, I must confess I find it disheartening to see Anabaptists saying Jesus is not the answer for dealing with disturbing divine behavior. While I fully expected this kind of response from Christians in other traditions, I had hoped those within the Anabaptist community would see the value of utilizing a Christocentric hermeneutic to evaluate various Old Testament images of God. At the very least, it seems Anabaptists ought to be able to say along with Matties, “I’ll agree that Jesus is significant here in some way or other.” Jesus is central to Anabaptist theology and ethics. If Jesus has nothing to contribute to our conversation about disturbing divine behavior, if his words and deeds, his life and ministry, cannot serve as the basis for some kind of critique and evaluation of Old Testament portrayals of God, then our Christology seriously needs to be reexamined. It is difficult to see how someone can listen to what Jesus says about God and can look at the way Jesus—God incarnate—lived his life, and not conclude that Jesus took exception to some of the most violent, nationalistic, and parochial views of God in the Old Testament. Jesus shows us what God looks like, and the picture Jesus gives us does not square with many Old Testament portrayals of God.
THE INSPIRATION AND AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
Several times in his review, Ken Esau raises concerns about the implications of my proposal as it relates to the nature of Scripture. For example, he claims my approach amounts to “a virtual rejection of what most Christians believe in terms of biblical inspiration and authority.” Given the seriousness of this charge, it would have been helpful for Esau to clarify what he thinks “most Christians” believe in this regard beyond simply noting that he thinks most Christians believe in plenary or conceptual inspiration. From what I could deduce, Esau seems to believe that affirming the inspiration and authority of Scripture involves such things as assuming the historicity of Old Testament narratives, believing God said and did what the Old Testament claims, and accepting whatever explanations are given for God’s behavior in the Bible. For a number of reasons, I find the assumptions Esau makes and his indictment of my approach very troubling.
First, his accusation implies there is a particular view of biblical inspiration and authority held by “most Christians.” That simply is not the case. Christians around the world hold a wide range of different opinions about what it means to speak of the Bible as “inspired” or “authoritative.” This makes it extremely difficult to make pronouncements about “what most Christians believe” in this regard. I suspect what Esau has in mind here is a particular view of biblical inspiration and authority held by a number of conservative Christians. Yet even among conservative Christians, there is enormous diversity about what these ideas mean.
Second, I think it is misguided to tether notions of biblical inspiration and authority to particular views of the Old Testament’s historical accuracy and theological reliability. It is quite possible to have a robust view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture and question whether certain events actually happened, whether particular views of God are reliable, and whether the theological explanations given for some historical events are trustworthy. To put it more directly, a commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture does not require believing that God commanded the Israelites to kill Canaanites or that God caused the walls of Jericho to fall down.
Third, I felt Esau imputed less than sincere motives to my decision to discuss the inspiration and authority of Scripture at the end of the book. I found this disappointing. (Parenthetically, let me say I was also disappointed by Esau’s rather cavalier caricature of what it would mean to adopt my approach when preaching a sermon. For readers who wish to see how I actually do handle a problematic portrayal of God in a sermon, see pp. 218–220 of Disturbing Divine Behavior). At one point Esau writes, “It does seem a little disingenuous for Seibert not to admit much earlier in the book that his approach will require a rejection of the most commonly held views on biblical inspiration and biblical authority.” Such a statement makes it seem as though I am intentionally duping my readers. This feels unfair. In the Introduction I clearly say that “some readers will undoubtedly need to rethink their view of Scripture in order to embrace the interpretive approach offered in this book” (12). Those who felt it was important to know how they might need to rethink their view of Scripture could have easily found their way to the relevant appendix and read it first if they so desired. The reason I chose to situate my discussion of the inspiration and authority of Scripture at the end of the book was because I felt that was where it made the most sense, not because I was trying to hide something from my readers.
When discussing biblical inspiration and authority, we need to be very careful not to place the Bible above God. If our view of Scripture makes it impossible to raise questions about the way God is portrayed in its pages, if it requires us to believe in a God who commands the slaughter of innocent children, condones the rape of women, and sanctions genocide, then our view of Scripture is ultimately unhelpful and problematic, however grand it may seem. To read the Bible and conclude that God really said and did these kinds of things is not to affirm the authority of Scripture—it is to misunderstand it. While Scripture can—and should—inform our view of God, it should never be allowed to distort it. Any view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture that does so stands in need of immediate correction.
I appreciate Wilma Ann Bailey’s emphasis on including more diverse voices from the global community. Her comments opened my eyes to how male dominated and Eurocentric my sources were. It would have been helpful to include more voices from the margins in this conversation, especially since many of these voices represent those most adversely affected by problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament.
One of the really important questions Suderman asks in his response is, “Do apparently incompatible depictions of God necessarily mean that one must be inaccurate?” Suderman thinks not, though I would beg to differ. To simultaneously affirm that God is both merciful and merciless, both kind to the wicked and mean to the wicked, both violent and nonviolent, leaves us with a God who is inconsistent and untrustworthy. If these depictions are truly incompatible, as I believe they are, we have choices to make about which one best reflects God’s character. Even though Suderman and I differ on this point, I am grateful that he raises this question and a number of other “pedagogical and pragmatic questions” related to the book. These kinds of questions are worth our careful consideration. How do you address problematic portrayals of God in the college classroom or at church? What are some of the implications for Christian living and discipleship?
Matties also raises some very significant questions like, “What is Scripture for?” and “What does Scripture do?” These are questions he believes “the book [Disturbing Divine Behavior] doesn’t adequately address.” Suderman similarly asks, “What is the Bible, and how should it be read?” These are extremely important questions, and I pay more attention to them in my forthcoming book, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012). In this book, I argue that we must be intentional about reading the Old Testament nonviolently, in ways that are life-giving and liberating, since for far too long it has been read violently, in ways that have caused considerable harm to countless individuals.
A CONTINUING CONVERSATION
I am very glad Disturbing Divine Behavior has generated some significant conversation among Anabaptists around hermeneutical issues related to problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament. As I suggest in the book, “What we think about God really matters!” (6). Our perception of God has all sorts of theological and ethical ramifications. Historically, Anabaptists have not wrestled seriously enough with disturbing divine behavior in the Old Testament. Many Anabaptists are functionally Marcionites, ignoring images they dislike. Others attempt to defend God’s behavior in the Old Testament, but they do so in ways that strike me as hermeneutical malpractice. Neither is desirable. I have proposed a more constructive way of addressing these issues, one that takes seriously the historical and cultural context from which these images of God emerged, and one that privileges Jesus in evaluating the degree of correspondence between the textual and actual God. If we wish to use the Bible responsibly to think about God, we must become discerning readers willing to critique Old Testament portrayals that distort God’s character in some way.
In closing, let me again express my gratitude to each of the individuals who took the time to respond to Disturbing Divine Behavior in this issue of Direction. I am hopeful that their responses and my rejoinder will promote further discussion as we consider how best to talk about these troubling images of God in the Old Testament.