Teaching the Old Testament: The ‘Problem’ of the Old Testament Revisited
The calling of an Old Testament professor brings with it certain unique challenges. What if God often speaks and acts in the Old Testament in ways disturbing to students or other readers?! This problem was raised impressively by the radical attempt of the ancient church teacher Marcion (second century CE) to distinguish between the evil Creator God of the Old Testament and the Heavenly Father of Jesus. 1 The main body of the Church declared him a heretic and, partly in response to him, affirmed a biblical canon that retained the Old Testament as a positive component, and that eventually became the Christian Bible as we have it.
To try to “cleanse” the Old Testament of its “problematic” or “offensive” historicity . . . is to divest it of its powerful, if often troubling message.
Problems with disturbing Old Testament texts remained, however, and led to a variety of older and more recent attempts to reduce, if not reject altogether, the Old Testament’s canonical authority. What was considered to be problematic, however, and the measures proposed to contain or remove the perceived problem(s), varied most widely. A recent proposal for coping with troubling Old Testament texts, by Eric A. Seibert, has evoked discussion in the Mennonite community and forms the subject of earlier reviews in this journal issue. 2 Although I will interact with Seibert’s work at different points, often in footnotes, my aim is not to review it, but rather to look back on my forty-six years of undergraduate and graduate level teaching of the Old Testament and ask, in a largely autobiographical manner, how I dealt with texts problematic for my students, and often also for me.
Since Seibert’s work has led to the request for this article, however, and since he will in some sense be my interlocutor, a few introductory comments on his approach may be in order. Seibert focuses his attention on Old Testament texts that are “troubling,” “problematic,” or “disturbing” to readers, mainly because they portray God as acting violently or ordering acts of violence. 3 These texts, he claims, misrepresent the character of God—the “actual God” in whom we should believe—by presenting us with a “textual God” originating with the texts’ human authors. Such authorial misrepresentations should be recognized, writes Seibert, as inadequate pictures of God’s character.
To distinguish between these two kinds of texts, Seibert calls for a “Christocentric hermeneutic”: Any representation of God in the Old Testament that conflicts with God as proclaimed by Jesus—presented by Seibert in four points 4—must be recognized as projecting a “textual God” rather than the “actual God,” and must therefore be stripped of its apparent claim to reveal the character of God. 5 My preliminary response can be summarized in two points: (1) I welcome Seibert’s honest, well-informed, and in many ways circumspect attempt to deal with persistent problems in communicating the Old Testament. We need to acknowledge these and address them. (2) I do not believe that Seibert’s “Christocentric hermeneutic” is adequate to this task.
In what follows, I want to recount one Old Testament teacher’s struggle with the “disturbing” side of the Old Testament; perhaps to offer some helpful suggestions to others; and above all, to broaden the discussion stimulated afresh by Seibert’s proposal. 6
FROM CHILDHOOD TO COLLEGE TEACHING
My problems with the Bible did not begin with the Old Testament, but with the New. When I, a Mennonite refugee from the Soviet Union living in Germany during the post-World War II years, was baptized at the age of almost fifteen years, I had already become somewhat acquainted with the Mennonite pacifist history. In the atheist Soviet Union my mother and grandmother—my minister father was in a Stalinist concentration camp—had secretly taught me Bible stories and Christian prayers. Jesus, der liebe Heiland (“the dear Savior”), was central in these. Gradually I became conscious of my desire to follow this Jesus, whose love the people I had experienced as loving, helpful, and trustworthy had modeled for me, although others, whose faith or lack thereof I did not know, had also often been kind to me.
Both before and after my baptism, however, I struggled with two problems: miracles and pacifism; no, not war, but pacifism. Although my teachers in the high school (Oberschule) in Scheinfeld, Bavaria, were mostly sincere Christians, the curriculum was shaped by the Enlightenment (now often called “modernity”). The same held true in Canada, where I continued my studies in grade eleven after immigrating in 1948. This perspective had little room, other than on the fringes, for any events not conforming to the “laws of nature” that science could (or would soon be able to) demonstrate; laws that inexorably governed the universe. Where was there room for the biblical/Christian world that had impressed itself deeply on me, the world governed by a personal God directing history, leading his people through the parted Red Sea to a promised land, and eventually sending God’s Son to bring full salvation? Was this non-Newtonian world a figment of the imagination? I wanted to believe otherwise, if only the Bible—both Testaments—were not so full of miracles (understood as breaches of the laws of nature)! Science or Faith? Science and Faith? That was the question.
Second, there was the historical Mennonite position of nonresistance. Although of Mennonite background, I had not experienced the Mennonite Church (then virtually extinguished in the Soviet Union and infinitesimally small in Germany) until I came to Waterloo, Ontario, and attended the United Mennonite church. There my earlier awareness of Mennonite nonresistance became a burning issue. Should I join the Mennonite Church formally and embrace (Mennonite) pacifism? Jesus’ peaceful love had impressed itself on me forcefully against the backdrop of living through several years of the biggest war in history. Nevertheless, it was in that turmoil of war that I had also experienced some of the most unforgettable demonstrations of kindness and love, often by Christians, some of them soldiers.
Further, my mother and I had been rescued from Stalinist oppression by the German army. We had later fled from the Russian Zone (and certain “repatriation” to a Siberian concentration camp) to the relatively safe West under the occupation of the American Army. I knew that armies could bring the worst, but also delivery; and sometimes the same army could bring both. We had thanked God with all our heart for our several narrow escapes. Did God have nothing to do with this, as Seibert claims? How could I commit myself never to fight to stop evil, to protect people, to free the oppressed? I believed in peace as God’s ultimate will, but were we living in a world where this could be expected to prevail?
Through several college and seminary years I struggled with these questions. I debated them with fellow students. I made them the subjects of my term papers for (non-pacifist) Lutheran and (pacifist) Mennonite professors in Waterloo Lutheran Seminary and Mennonite Biblical Seminary (then Chicago, now Elkhart), respectively. From many struggles I eventually emerged as a believing Christian and a pacifist Mennonite, even though my intellectual wrestling continued. 7
And then, at the young age of twenty-four, only months after seminary graduation in Chicago, and only eight years after immigrating to Canada, I stood as teacher before my college classes at the Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg. My main task would be to teach Bible, eventually mostly Old Testament, and to lead the students through some of the same struggles that I had fought and was continuing to fight, although somewhat securer in my beliefs now and somewhat better equipped for the battle.
I believe this background to be essential for understanding my pedagogical moves in teaching the Old Testament. It is also essential for understanding many differences in viewpoint between me and Eric Seibert. As far as I can tell, he was born when I had already taught at CMBC for thirteen years; grew up in a context of long and relatively undisturbed pacifist church life; faced many students and congregations given to a literalistic reading of biblical texts; and received his higher education at a time when the long hegemony of the historical-critical methodology of Bible interpretation exploded into a plethora of new ways to access the biblical text. These factors alone, not to mention the individuality of each person, should lead one to expect major differences in our respective pedagogical approaches. This, however, is not meant to suggest that differences in background and personality make understanding and interpretation unavoidably irreconcilable. To the contrary, Seibert and I share extensive common ground in our approach to the Bible, leaving much scope for far-reaching consensus between us. 8
MY “OLD TESTAMENT PROPHETS” CLASS
My first Old Testament course at CMBC covered the literary prophets in historical order, beginning with Amos. Sunday School curricula had generally not provided much background for such study, so that my students usually found it interesting to hear the prophets’ stories and messages, set into their respective historical contexts. The prophetic calls for loyalty to God; justice for the poor and oppressed; warnings of God’s judgment on disobedience, but ultimately followed by announcements of grace; and glimpses of the Day of the Lord and the Messiah’s coming in the future were understandable, acceptable, and enriching for most of my students.
Some problems arose from prophecies not fulfilled literally. Do we still wait for their fulfillment? Does God change his mind? Discussion of prophecy as other than merely literal prediction of events ensued in class, and my efforts to widen the meaning of prophecy and to exegete specific texts generally satisfied my students, I think, and were gladly, even enthusiastically, accepted as enrichments of their faith. Until the early 1980’s, my senior year-long course in the prophets was, I have reason to believe, greatly appreciated by the majority of students. The era of the Vietnam War contributed to an openness to the ethical thrust of the prophets, as did the strong Mennonite emphasis on obedience, discipleship, and right living.
As far as I remember, no one ever questioned me on Seibert’s central problem: God’s presence in and direction of history and individual human affairs, not only in salvation, but also in judgment. Seibert claims that “Jesus Reveals a God Who Does Not Judge People by Causing Historical (or Natural) Disasters or Serious Physical Infirmities.” 9 Consequently, biblical claims such as the annihilation of most of humanity in the Flood Story, the death of all Egyptian first-born sons, the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, or Israel’s exile to Assyria and Babylonia, respectively, as judgments on disobedience and covenant breaking, not to mention many instances of death by war or judicial execution, must not, according to Seibert, be linked to the “actual God,” but should be seen as misrepresentations of God’s character by the respective authors’ “textual God.” This was not my students’ expectation.
Nor was it what I brought to my interpretation of the prophets. To the contrary, I affirmed, with almost every page of Old Testament prophecy, that precisely the opposite is the case. Furthermore, on the basis of my own wartime experience, I upheld that we, as individual believers and as Christian communities, can sometimes accept an event in history or in personal life as God’s leading, moving us to gratefulness or to repentance. This is what the prophets had done, on the basis of messages received from God in sign form (see below), and the believing communities of Israel and the Church had validated it as revelation. I made it very clear, however, that this must always remain a cautious assessment, and that neither history nor our own life story is an open book for us to read in order to determine God’s will.
MY “INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT” CLASS
In the 1960’s I began to teach “Introduction to the Old Testament,” a required course for all freshmen, generally with high enrolments. Throughout my subsequent teaching career on the undergraduate and graduate level, this course remained foundational for my approach to the Old Testament, including my handling of its “problems.”
While the course plan and many details changed over the years, my main goal remained the same: to show God at work by tracing a continuous, if not seamless and uncomplicated story. 10 I recognized early that a grasp of the Bible’s main themes, especially as expressed in major literary units (often “books,” but also larger or smaller groupings like the Abraham Cycle, the Pentateuch, or the Deuteronomistic History) are of greater importance in an introductory course—but also generally for a grasp of the Old Testament—than the technical minutiae that often determined the then dominant historical-critical approach. I did not, however, reject historical-critical study, and I tried to convey an introductory understanding of its tools and results, using sample passages as illustrations.
My early emphasis on large literary (often narrative) biblical units in their final literary form, at a time when historical approaches dominated the field, was largely due to the fact that I had received graduate training in German literature (M.A., Manitoba, 1961) and initially taught more courses in German language and literature at CMBC than in Old Testament. Eventually my long-standing interest in the Old Testament prevailed, and I proceeded to a doctorate in that field (Harvard, 1969). Even then, however, and almost until my retirement, German remained for me a “minor” but personally very important teaching area.
Thus my approach in Old Testament interpretation generally, and especially in my Introduction course, was marked by a strong “literary” accent, 11 in addition to the then current historical approaches. I asked questions concerning plot, major and minor characters, imagery, theme, authorial viewpoint, implied reader, employment of literary devices, etc. In what follows, I can offer only a few examples of some of the ways in which my mainly “canonical-literary” approach helped me to address passages and themes often found to be disturbing. 12
1. Major and minor characters, properly contextualized. In a literary work, minor characters and events are not presented for their own sake, but serve to advance aspects of the plot centered in the major characters. 13 To illustrate: What message do the stories of the two most prominent minor characters in the Abraham-cycle (Gen. 12—25), Lot and Hagar, convey? Briefly: They relate to Abraham’s faith in God’s promise of land and descendants to him. Abraham’s willing consent to Lot’s choice of the better land (Gen. 13:1–13) shows Abraham’s full trust in God by letting go even what by God’s promise was to be his. This trust keeps him on God’s course, while Lot, by his self-promoting choice, comes to grief in Sodom and Gomorrah.
On the other hand, Abraham’s move to seek descendants through Hagar, in a bid to help along the fulfillment of God’s promise in view of Sarah’s childlessness, leads him to depart from the way of trusting faith. God, however, chooses the unlikely way of fulfilling the promise by giving “barren” Sarah a son, Isaac. In both of these sub-plots, God’s “unlikely choice/way” prevails.
And yet, minor characters are not just “part of the scenery.” Both Lot and Hagar are promised a future of their own, and that through direct divine intervention (cf. Gen. 16:7–14; 21:15–19). We are reminded, that the special election of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac is not to be understood as preferred treatment unfair to others, but as having the welfare of all of humanity in view (cf. Gen. 12:3), a theme of which the Old Testament meta-story keeps reminding us.
2. Troublesome details interpreted in their wider story contexts. Some aspects of Hagar’s story, for example, can be read as “domestic abuse.” Hagar, a poor foreigner and second wife is “dealt [with] harshly” by the first wife, Sarah; and her husband, Abraham, does not interfere with Sarah’s first-wife prerogatives in that society. When Hagar flees, the angel of the Lord meets her and tells her to return and submit to her mistress, thus apparently giving divine assent to such abuse. Yes, that is how it was in ancient (and later) situations of polygamy. But surely it is to miss the intent of the story in its fuller context if one considers it to support family abuse, as some do. To the contrary, it is this lowly foreign servant girl who is singled out by God for an angelically mediated special calling and promise, as she herself acknowledges with surprise and wonder: “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen. 16:13 NRSV). 14
3. Literary methodologies applied to war and violence. In addressing the questions of war and violence in the Old Testament, interpreting problematic or offensive texts in their wider literary contexts can also help to mitigate, although not remove, some of the offence. 15
Here is one sample: When Christians are scandalized by the supposedly warlike God of the Old Testament, their thoughts usually turn first to the God-commanded wars of Israel to occupy the land of Canaan by annihilating the Canaanites. This theme is found mainly in the book of Joshua, but also in some other texts associated with the “Conquest.” This literature received its final form in the time just before or during the Babylonian Exile, when Israel/Judah was about to lose its “Promised Land,” or had already lost it. In search of an answer to the troubling theological question, “Why has God done this to us?”, the final editors arranged extant older materials into a loosely coherent narrative work, the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), a work surveying Israel’s approximately 600 years in the land theologically. The first sub-question addressed was: “How did we get the land in the first place?” The answer was given in the book of Joshua, foreshadowed in some earlier Pentateuchal texts: Not through aboriginal ownership; not through our own military prowess; not because of our size and power; not because of our special merits! Dismissing all these self-aggrandizing claims to territory found commonly in nationalistic histories, the Deuteronomistic History emphasizes: It was solely God’s gracious gift to us! 16
To make this point, rather than to promote war and violence, the book of Joshua (especially in chapters 1–12) emphasizes the total and miraculously guided conquest of the whole land. Some passages in Joshua, and especially Judges 1, already modify this hyperbolic picture with an historically more nuanced account, allowing for the survival of many Canaanites for centuries to come. In brief, the aim of the book of Joshua (and the Deuteronomistic History as a whole) is not to advocate, glorify, and promote warfare and military violence. 17
4. The canonical context. Extending the interpretive context in order to cope with disturbing texts or themes ultimately leads to transcending even the wider literary contexts by turning to the canonical context. Neither the Old or the New Testaments separately, nor the canonical Scriptures as a whole, can be determined to be units by literary criteria, as can smaller textual units within them. But in the search for theological interpretation, these selections of writings—given special canonical status by the faith communities of Israel/Judaism and the Church—can provide legitimate theological interpretive contexts within which individual texts can be brought into “dialogue” with each other to ascertain Old Testament, New Testament, or biblical perspectives on topics such as war, sexuality, stewardship of land, and many more. This is an old approach, but one helpfully brought to new prominence under the name “Canonical Interpretation/Criticism” by scholars like Brevard Childs, James Sanders, Rolf Rendtorff, and many others. Ultimately this approach also addresses the relationship of the Testaments to each other and becomes the proper Christian interpretive context for inter-facing differences within and between the Testaments, including their perspectives on war. 18
I have illustrated with several examples how I tried in my Introduction courses to remove or diminish unnecessarily offensive aspects of Old Testament texts or themes by applying literary (and ultimately also canonical) methodology to them in order to understand them more fully. 19 In whatever measure I succeeded, however, I did not leave my students (and myself) with any methodology capable of “disarming” the Old Testament’s ubiquitous texts involving war and violence. Nor did I try. Instead, I believe, we must confront these troublesome and “offensive” aspects of the Old Testament (and the New Testament) on the basis of different considerations, to which I now turn.
THE LIMITS OF METHODOLOGY
Many students—and especially the brightest of them—having tasted the fruitfulness of methodological solutions to problems, become exhilarated in their confidence to proceed further and “finish the job,” that is, to arrive at an interpretation of the Old Testament that we can happily approve of and hand on to others. There are certain considerations and cautions, however, that we also need to convey to our students, lest we seriously short-change them. The following seem most important to me:
1. God is transcendent and retains an irreducible mystery. It was my good fortune to come upon Rudolf Otto’s classic Das Heilige 20 early in my seminary studies. Otto characterizes human encounters with the Holy (or more precisely, the Numinous, i.e., the Holy apart from its use with reference to ethical goodness) as characteristically involving three aspects, for which he chooses Latin terms: mysterium (something inherently mysterious), tremendum (something that shakes one up, makes one tremble, fearful), and fascinans (something nevertheless fascinating, attractive, drawing one near). The characteristic human response to the Holy, according to Otto, is the Kreaturgefühl (German: “feeling of creatureliness” or “creature-feeling”): a sense of being overwhelmed, mystified, and shaken up, but also deeply and irresistibly attracted. 21
God, “the Holy One of Israel” (frequently so called in Isaiah) must be granted unfathomable mystery of character and action. As teachers and preachers we must not attempt to dispel this irreducible and often frightening mystery of the Holy One, even while we proclaim God’s ultimate graciousness and love.
2. God transcends our cognitive grasp of reality. As parts of the universe, humans can never make the universe as a whole the object of scientific research and understanding. Natural scientists who try this become philosophers (or theologians) instead. And since the theme of religious reflection is the whole universe and (at least in biblical perspective) its Creator and Sustainer, no scholarly methodologies can lead to a more than fragmented grasp of its origin and structure, not to mention its comprehensive meaning, which, in religious language, would be the character and will of God. Briefly put, God’s truth transcends what any scholarly method, or even the sum total of methods, can decode. 22 What we can know of God comes to us as revelation through signs (see below). Therefore, lacking a comprehensive grasp of the whole, we cannot construct a harmonious, i.e., un-contradictory, system of cosmic understanding. That leaves us with paradoxes, the most central and crucial of which is faith in a supreme and loving God in the face of the existence of evil, suffering, and death. (See below.)
3. Revelation of God is given to us in signs. 23 A sign, in biblical perspective, is not objectively there for all to be perceived as such; it is given in a person-specific, context-related way. We read characteristically: “This is/shall be a sign to you.” 24 In the recipient of a sign-experience, the sign calls forth an irresistible conviction of truth and leads to significant life changes. 25 Although signs convey insights to individuals that transcend the reach of scientific ways to knowing (epistemology), such insights can be validated through the sign’s power to convince other individuals as well as groups, and sometimes through historical events. 26 To such communally validated signs (revelation) we can then apply our intellect with the help of various methodologies, in order to amplify their meanings and implications (theology). As St. Anselm (drawing on St. Augustine) put it classically: Fides quaerens intellectum, “Faith seeking understanding.”
4. All speech/language of God is metaphorical. Realizing this goes much further than to identify metaphors among the various literary genres and devices like poetry, saga, allegory, simile, parable, and other “non-literal” forms of artistic language, and then assuming tacitly that all the rest in the Bible is “literal,” that is, to be understood as if it were descriptive of a human situation. Rather, we can speak of God only in the language of analogy and extrapolation, i.e., in metaphorical language. We apply language derived from our own experienced world, like “shepherd,” “father,” or “judge,” in a looser and less specific sense to God, “our Father,” “our Shepherd,” “our Judge,” when we look for words for sign-experiences. When we (or the Scriptures) do so in particularly bold fashion, we call it “anthropomorphic” language. 27 But we really have no other language for God. All biblical texts about God are transmitted to us by human authors and bear their stamp, including the written words of Jesus preserved for us; there are none that are not mediated to us by human authors in non-literal speech. Therefore all characterization of God, in both Testaments, must be assessed for its degree of anthropomorphism, which will determine the degree to which it can be compared or applied to human scenarios directly. Its anthropomorphic character does not rob such language of the capacity to express revealed truth, but we cannot apply it with the immediate referentiality we have come to expect of “objective,” “scientific” prose. 28 This becomes particularly important in understanding biblical speech of God-directed historical and eschatological battles, but space does not permit me to pursue this. 29
RECOURSE TO JESUS
Christians rightly expect to find help from Jesus in understanding the Old Testament’s meaning and mandate for the Church and themselves. Several considerations are crucial, however, when we do so:
1. Jesus’ self-understanding and his interpretation by the New Testament writers and the early Church are rooted firmly in the Old Testament story. 30 Crucial here are, among other texts, his New Testament titles (Messiah, Son of Man, Son of [the Old Testament] God, Son of David, Good Shepherd, and more), all of them derived from major Old Testament themes. Positing a “context-less,” innovative Jesus, interpreted “against the grain” of much of the Old Testament, can only result in a serious misunderstanding of Jesus through a consciously or subconsciously provided non-biblical interpretive context. 31 This does not mean that each Old Testament story should guide the Church in ethical matters. 32 Jesus came into the world at a particular point in history as a living sign of the incipient messianic era, representing a unique realization of the Kingdom/Rule of God. The Church, by following Jesus, will in turn live out signs of the Kingdom, among them a fuller expression of God’s peace than was already promoted in the Old Testament. 33
2. The calling of the Church is to extend the message of God’s love and salvation for the world beyond historical Israel, where it was prepared over the centuries, to all nations. The Old Testament is not “superseded by Jesus,” 34 but fulfilled, i.e., acted out in its intended fullness, its telos, through the full obedience of Jesus to the Father. Jesus’ life, teachings, and death do not constitute a different calling from that of Israel, but a full incarnation or earthly demonstration of what this calling means, and have therefore in themselves sign-character, pointing ahead to a yet greater fulfillment in God’s anticipated (eschatological) Rule/Kingdom. 35
3. Israel failed in many ways to live up to its mission. This led to God’s judgments, but not to Israel’s final rejection as God’s people. Instead, the story of Israel demonstrates, through God’s patient work of salvation with one “chosen” people, God’s hesed (steadfast love; loyalty that does not give up) to humanity as a whole. God’s option to destroy humanity is rejected by God, as the Flood-story, the covenant with Noah, and the election of Abraham teach us. Why, we may ask, has God chosen this long and drawn out way we call “salvation history”? But would not the sudden termination of evil also have been the simultaneous termination of everything good? After all, we humans cannot even think of good without a contrasting alternative. How could there be friendship if there were no enmity? Healing, if there were no sickness? Etc.
4. God’s choice of a long historical road can in a preliminary way be understood as God’s gracious and patient forbearance with Israel’s and humankind’s misuse of “free will,” but ultimately it belongs to the unfathomable mystery of creation as such. This mystery, and not individual stories of “violence” by God, is the real “offence” of the Old Testament (and the New Testament). To try to “cleanse” the Old Testament of its “problematic” or “offensive” historicity (its “earthiness”), where good and evil, life and death are inextricably intertwined, by disempowering the message of certain “offensive” texts by means of a literary methodology that lays all “offensive” characterizations of God at the feet of the human Old Testament authors, is to divest the Old Testament of its powerful, if often troubling message.
5. Further, such a literary “purification” of God’s character through recourse to Jesus cannot stop with the Old Testament. Methodologies developed in the interpretation of the Old Testament have inevitably also been applied to the New Testament, including the words of Jesus. Marcion knew this, and Seibert—despite his valiant attempts—cannot escape this logic. 36 If we can be freed from troublesome characterizations of God in the Old Testament by relegating them to a “textual God” of the respective authors, it would only be fair to do the same with the many troubling New Testament texts, including many frightening words of Jesus, such as we find in Matthew 25 and other words of Jesus concerning the final judgment. 37 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! 38
THE PROBLEM OF MONOTHEISM
In my view, the “disturbing” or “offensive” aspects of both Testaments lie at a deeper level than that of texts which, if used on the human plane (non-metaphorically), would offend us. 39 That deeper level is the level of God’s mystery and our human inherent inability to understand the existence of evil (violence, suffering, sickness, etc., and ultimately mortality) in the Bible’s monotheistic affirmation of God’s complete control of creation together with God’s character as ultimate love. Polytheism does not have that problem; there are good gods and evil gods, and sometimes the one side wins, sometimes the other. Marcion knew that and sacrificed monotheism, positing an evil Creator God and a loving Redeemer, the Father of Jesus Christ. The widely read Rabbi Harold Kushner knew it, too, but resorted instead to belief in an always understandably benevolent but limited God; a God who does not want suffering, but cannot help it in the face of autonomous laws of nature, human freedom of choice, and possibly an evolutionary dimension in God himself. 40 Such attempts to resolve this “overwhelming and daring paradox,” 41 although appealing at first glance, remain superficial and inadequate.
The Church throughout the centuries, instead, has—correctly, I believe—held fast to what can only be formulated as a true paradox, namely that the Holy One is both supremely powerful and supremely loving. 42 The biblical meta-story (both Testaments) shows this God, through revealed glimpses (signs), as working within a cosmos where—to our necessarily limited mental grasp—good and evil are inextricably intertwined. Only through sign-events, climaxing in Jesus as the supreme sign, can we become convinced that God’s ultimate goal is our and the world’s redemption and eternal life, as proleptically revealed to us in the resurrection of Jesus.
In view of this deeper level of apparent “offence” confronting us in the world in which we live, what help would we gain by dissociating the character of God from war and violence in certain Old Testament texts if that world is full of them? Would we then not be forced to regard the biblical God as irrelevant to the real world? If, on the other hand, we can see the life-giving and sustaining work of God shine through the darkness in the ancient biblical world—only then can we gain hope for ourselves and others in the world surrounding us. To help our students toward that realization is, in my view, an Old Testament (and New Testament) teacher’s and preacher’s central calling.
Let me come full circle. In my childhood in the Soviet Union and the subsequent war and refugee years, an “awareness of the holy”—as I call it in retrospect—grew in me, was given shape by the biblical story, and was confirmed by (often veiled) sign experiences as the reality that transcended everyday life. It was not an easy and unproblematic reality, but one to struggle with, like Jacob at the Jabbok, sometimes leaving me injured, but in the end also blessed (Gen. 32:22–32). As Old Testament teachers we should help our students sustain the struggle with a story that—we sometimes wish—were easier to communicate. We should not smooth the way for them unduly, however, for it is a training and preparation for the road of Jesus to the cross and to resurrection, and it is the road for our own lives.
- The Old Testament God was for Marcion the vindictive tribal God of the Jews, bound to the physical world he had created, who punished humans for their transgressions with suffering and death. Against this God, the purely spiritual Heavenly Father of Jesus sent his son—Jesus, who only apparently assumed human appearance—to redeem humanity. Marcion established a Christian canon consisting of the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul, both parts cleansed of elements linking Jesus to the Old Testament and Judaism. The persistent pre-occupation with Marcion’s position up to the present is demonstrated anew by Sebastian Moll’s recent book, The Arch-Heretic Marcion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), which, among other points, challenges Adolf von Harnack’s influential interpretation of Marcion as a forerunner of Luther’s emphasis on a Pauline theology of love and grace.
- Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).
- While “disturbing,” “problematic,” and “troubling” describe readers’ feelings rather than judgments on God as presented, Seibert also employs a variety of judgmental rather than descriptive terms, which imply that readers using them do so on the basis of presupposed ethical norms derived from some independent source that warrant judging God’s character, as presented in various Old Testament texts, as “abusive,” “cruel,” “violent,” “unjust,” “genocidal,” etc. Seibert himself bases his use of such terms on his proposed “Christocentric hermeneutic” (see below).
- Seibert, 190–205. The four points are: Jesus reveals a God who is kind to the wicked; nonviolent; does not judge people by causing historical (or natural) disasters or serious physical infirmities; and is a God of love.
- That does not mean, for Seibert, that such texts have nothing to teach us; they may well have a message, but should not shape our understanding of God’s character.
- The autobiographical character of this article may justify my frequent recourse to my own writings from various times of my teaching career. These illustrate and document what I tried to teach (in class and elsewhere); they do not claim special prominence among the vast literature on the topics treated.
- For a fuller account of my first twenty-four years, including my faith development, the interested reader is invited to turn to my story Growing Up in Turbulent Times: Memoirs of Soviet Oppression, Refugee Life in Germany, and Immigrant Adjustment to Canada (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2007).
- For example, Seibert repeatedly points to the diversity within Scripture, requiring of us “principled judgments” (his emphasis; 279) in assessing the authority of texts. I agree fully and consider this to be at the heart of “canonical criticism” (see below), even if I find his version of a “Christocentric hermeneutic” insufficient.
- The self-explanatory sub-chapter heading in Seibert, 200. Strangely, Seibert does not seem to be equally disturbed with God’s final judgment, so often and frighteningly presented in the New Testament.
- Today the term “meta-story” is often applied. The need for this is impressively confirmed by Alan and Eleanor Kreider, Worship & Mission After Christendom (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2011), 67: “Precisely because of its [God’s story’s] oddity it needs to be told and retold; if it is not frequently rehearsed, easier stories—conventional stories—will overwhelm it.”
- From here on, “literary” will not be used for source criticism, as was the custom earlier.
- “Canonical-literary” is the designation I eventually chose to characterize my Old Testament publications. The two components share a “synchronic” reading of the final biblical text, but they can be differently motivated. “Canonical” points to a primarily theological interest, and for that reason I place it first. “Literary” describes the mode of proceeding, for all study of the biblical canon begins with encountering a consciously composed set of written texts, i.e., literature.
- I am aware, of course, of the complexity of delimiting literary units in the Old Testament. For a fuller discussion and illustration of my “canonical-literary” approach, see Waldemar Janzen, Exodus (BCBC; Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2000), especially pp. 15–20 and 448–52, but applied throughout.
- When Seibert isolates the angel’s order to return to Sarah and says, “This is like telling a battered wife to leave the women’s shelter and return home to her abusive husband,” I can only see this application to our time as a surprising short-circuiting of the interpretive process (Seibert, 26). It is not only historically anachronistic, but fails to see the text’s meaning in its literary context.
- The reference to “offence” here pertains to unnecessary offence created for the modern reader by incorrect or inadequate interpretation. It does not mean the unavoidable “shaking up” caused by an encounter with the Holy One (see my discussion of mysterium tremendum, below).
- Of the roughly forty-five occurrences of forms of the verb “to give” in the book of Joshua, the great majority refers to the land (or parts of it) as having been given by God to Israel.
- Twentieth-century scholars have proposed two other models of Israel’s entry into Canaan on the basis of historical reconstruction hypotheses: (1) Israel’s gradual infiltration of Canaan (Martin Noth) by Israelite tribes, and (2) Israel’s emergence as a revolt of disadvantaged population elements that overcame and possessed the Canaanite city states (George Mendenhall, Norman Gottwald).Whatever their merit, my interest here, is to apply a literary approach, viz., the reading of the war accounts in Joshua within the wider interpretive context of the Deuteronomistic History.
- For my understanding and brief explanation of canonical interpretation, see Waldemar Janzen, “Canon and Canonical Scripture Interpretation,” in Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology 6 (Spring 2005): 22–31.
- My emphasis on literary methodology is at least in part motivated by my affirmation of Seibert’s turn to it in search for ways of coping with “problem texts,” even though I cannot agree with his “actual God/textual God” distinction by way of his “Christocentric hermeneutic,” as I will explain further below.
- Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, tr. John W. Harvey (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1959). The first German edition appeared in 1917.
- Ibid., 19–55. As examples of encounters with the Numinous in the Old Testament, Otto points to Moses’ encounter at the burning bush (Exod. 3:6); Isaiah’s call (Isa. 6), and paradigmatically, God’s confrontation of Job (Job 38ff.) (89–96).
- Readers may (appropriately) recall Hans-Georg Gadamer’s classic treatment of this issue in Wahrheit und Methode (first published 1960; English trans. Truth and Method).
- The biblical use of “sign” (Heb. ’oth; Greek: semeion) has long been central in my understanding of “revelation”; see Waldemar Janzen, “Sign and Belief,” in Still in the Image: Essays in Biblical Theology and Anthropology, Institute of Mennonite Studies Number 6 (Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1982), 15–28. (Essay first published 1972.) Although the article requires updating, it still conveys my basic position regarding its main claims.
- Italics added. E.g., Exod. 3:12; Isa. 7:14; 37:30. Eloise Hiebert Meneses has recently reminded Christian scholars of the need for resorting to a Christian epistemology (“Faithful Witness: Postcritical Epistemology for Christians,” Direction 36 [Fall 2007]: 129–43). She recalls the work of Hungarian/British scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi on “personal knowledge.” See especially his Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Harper Torchbooks; New York: Harper & Row, 1964; first published 1958). I find myself attracted to his insistence on an unavoidable personal element found in all knowledge, including “scientific” knowledge; an element of personal engagement and faith. See especially his chapter 8, “The Logic of Affirmation,” 249–68. I sense much affinity between aspects of Polanyi’s “personal knowledge” and my understanding of biblical signs, although I see the recipient of signs in a less active and more “overwhelmed” role than Polanyi’s seeker for truth.
- This convincing power is the result of perceiving the divine presence through them; it is not the result of “proof through miracles.” Although signs cause “wonder “—marveling at the rationally incomprehensible—and are therefore often called “wonders” (as in “signs and wonders”), they are not necessarily “miracles” (understood today as “phenomena breaching the laws of nature”); they can be ordinary events, like the birth of a child.
- The messages of the Old Testament prophets, for example, were given canonical status largely because the believing communities experienced subsequent historical events as validating them; e.g., the preservation of Jerusalem in the siege by the Assyrians in 701 B.C.E. On the other hand, many persons throughout history have been convinced that particular experiences in their own lives were signs from God, too, and they may have been right, but in the absence of communal validation these experiences should not be used to lay the claim on others to see them in the same light.
- Cf. Gen. 3:8: “They [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”
- As long as we remember this, we can feel free to use anthropomorphic language without apology, as in speaking of God’s reign, of Jesus ascending to heaven, etc. If we try to resort to choice abstract vocabulary, as theologians often do—as in referring to God as the Wholly Other, the Ground of Being, etc.—we must realize that these are no less anthropomorphic than the traditional “Bible Story” vocabulary we learned as children. The early church’s use of allegory (in contrast to Marcion’s bland literalism) to interpret problematic Old Testament texts, although not sufficient to that task, was nevertheless a profound recognition of the need to do justice to the distinction between speaking about God and ordinary human discourse.
- One example must suffice: When the Old Testament speaks of God’s “strong arm,” we do not draw the conclusion that God has limbs like humans. But if we read that God is a “warrior,” we may be ready to freight that with all the associations it evokes in the human context, like hostility, aggressiveness, violence, etc., and find this scandalous. But “warrior” with reference to God is just as metaphorical a statement as God’s “arm.” The metaphor “warrior,” when applied to God, signifies power and authority. To derive from it a mandate for human warfare, though historically done again and again, is based on misinterpretation of the nature of such biblical language.
- Seibert also affirms that “Jesus’ understanding of God’s character was clearly influenced by certain Old Testament portrayals of God” and that “much of what he [Jesus] says is compatible with certain Old Testament images of God” (190f.). The language of these quotations and other statements makes it appear, however, that Jesus starts with an innovative portrayal of God, some of which happens not to be discontinuous with the Old Testament, while much of it is. Did Jesus really dismiss—as the mistaken notions of God’s character promulgated by Old Testament authors—such Old Testament accounts as God’s defeat of Pharaoh and his army, God’s gift of the Promised Land to Israel, God’s deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian siege of 701 B.C.E., God’s judgment of his people through exile in Babylon followed by a new exodus to their own land, and numerous other events making up the backbone of the Old Testament’s meta-story, because they all would fail the test of Seibert’s “Christocentric hermeneutic”? I consider this utterly unthinkable.
- The “Germanic Jesus” of the “German Christians,” promoted by the anti-Semitism of the Hitler era, is just one example. Another is the Jesus promoted by some “historical Jesus” scholars as a cynic Mediterranean philosopher/sage. But a Jesus who would simply teach an Old Testament God freed of everything offensive to our sensibilities would also, and contrary to the New Testament, estrange us from the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the Prophets, the Psalmists, etc.
- I have presented my proposal for discerning the Old Testament’s ethical relevance for Christians via a continuity of (more or less transformed) ethical “paradigms” between the Testaments, in Waldemar Janzen, Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1994).
- See Waldemar Janzen, “War in the Old Testament.”
- See my critique of the early (and later) Anabaptists’ claim that “the Old Testament has been superseded by the New,” in Waldemar Janzen, “A Canonical Rethinking of the Anabaptist-Mennonite New Testament Orientation,” in Gordon Zerbe, ed., Reclaiming the Old Testament: Essays in Honour of Waldemar Janzen (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 2001), 3–21.
- This call to live out signs of the Kingdom in discipleship to Jesus is the basis of my commitment to Christian pacifism. See my “War in the Old Testament,” 181–83; and my article “God as Warrior and Lord,” Still in the Image, 187–92.
- This should not be taken as imputing Marcionism to Seibert. He strongly dissociates himself from Marcion, and I accept this disclaimer. I have the impression, however, that he sometimes does not want to recognize how radical and sweeping his “Christocentric hermeneutic” actually is. In his rejection of Marcionism, for example, he writes: “Since some [his emphasis] Old Testament portrayals of God do not accurately reflect God’s character, these particular portrayals should not be used to determine our beliefs about what God is really like” (211). One gets the impression that here and there in the Old Testament there is a passage that we cannot allow to determine our image of God. One such example would surely be 1 Sam. 15 (the Amalekite text frequently cited by Seibert). I could not agree more, and a canonical interfacing of biblical texts (both Testaments) would lead me to the same conclusion. But if one begins to apply Seibert’s four characteristics of the God that Jesus taught (Seibert, pages 190–203, see above, note 4) as yardsticks to the Old Testament, the enormity of Old Testament texts not meeting the test is overwhelming. One just needs to ask: Where in the Old Testament does God not act through judgment and salvation in history? And salvation always involves judgment on an oppressor. (See further below.)
- Such texts trouble Seibert, and he resorts to various source-critical and other ways to soften their impact. However, for some reason baffling to me, he seems to be less troubled by pronouncements of final judgment than of historical judgment. (See especially p. 253.)
- Seibert writes: “[W]hile it is true that the Gospel writers attribute things to Jesus he never said and did, the degree of distortion between the actual Jesus and the textual Jesus is typically far less severe than that which sometimes exists between the textual God and the actual God in the Old Testament” (187). Seibert’s all too ready abandonment here, for the New Testament, of a methodology central to his treatment of the Old Testament, is insufficiently supported by the relatively short time gap between Jesus’ pronouncements and their written transmission by the Gospel writers. What if they correctly recorded disturbing words of Jesus? Seibert struggles hard, but to me unconvincingly, with this issue.
- What sense does it make, for example, to refer to God as a “Mass Murderer” worse than some in Hollywood doomsday scenarios because of God’s decree that the adults of the Exodus-generation should die in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land (Num. 14:26–35), or that a plague should kill the followers of disobedient Korah (Num. 16:46, 49) (thus Seibert, 20f.), if God has—as we know—defined all human and non-human life by mortality? Can one speak of the Creator of all life as Mass Murderer for creating all life as mortal? Is not the inappropriateness of transferring such language from the human level to God patently obvious?
- Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981). I fundamentally disagree with Kushner on two of his presuppositions: 1. That “the data are in” to reach his conclusions regarding God’s supposed limitations. 2. That the human mind has the capacity to process these data adequately.
- Otto, 100; see also 98–101.
- To try to dissociate God from evil in the world by reference to Satan or to God’s permissive will is of little help here, for one can ask immediately: Why does an all-powerful God tolerate a cosmic power of evil, Satan? Or why does a good God permit evil (of whatever source or kind) to happen? Using such language serves a certain positive purpose, however: It expresses our (appropriate) reticence to attribute evil too boldly to God, and thereby it helps to safeguard the paradox mentioned above.