January 23, 2021

Scripture Redeems Itself

One of the most provocative and helpful books I have found on the nature of the Bible and how Christians may receive it and read it is Kenton L. Sparks’ book, Sacred Word, Broken Word. I will have some future posts that reflect on his proposals, but today I want to share one wonderful passage that makes a point about how Scripture “redeems itself.”

One persistent problem we face when reading the Bible is figuring out what to do with passages in the Hebrew Bible (OT) that command the Israelites to exterminate entire nations like the Canaanites. Sparks posits that such texts reflect the fallen viewpoints that ancient peoples held about their gods and what they wanted them to do to their enemies. In such cases “the Old Testament law participates in the broken state of human affairs and is thereby a vivid portrait of our need of redemption.”

Though God “adopted” the words and viewpoints of these ancient authors, it does not mean that everything they wrote reflects God’s point of view. We accept the Bible as authoritative, not because it is a perfect book that always communicates God’s thoughts. Sometimes it communicates the “finite and fallen perspectives of human authors and, thereby…the limited and fallen horizons of human cultures and audiences.”

Sparks’ point of view is in line with what Michael Spencer wrote in his classic post that Jeff recommended yesterday, “A Conversation in God’s Kitchen”

Genesis isn’t twentieth century science. Leviticus is primitive, brutal and middle eastern. The Old Testament histories are not scholarly documentaries, but religious and tribal understandings of God and events. Proverbs comes from a mongrel wisdom tradition throughout the middle east. Song of Solomon is erotic poetry, and not much else. The prophets spoke to their own times, and not to our own. The scholars who help me understand these books as they are, are not enemies of truth, but friends. Call it criticism, paint it as hostile, but I want to know what the texts in front of me are saying!

The Old Testament and New Testament Canon are the selection of those parts of our spiritual literary heritage that make up the Great Conversation about the Judeo-Christian God. The Bible itself is a human book, created and complied by human choices. There may be other writings that contribute to the conversation, but those who know and experience the God of Jesus Christ hear the conversation most plainly in these writings. Canon is that human choice of what to listen to. Inspiration- the next section- is the validation and expounding of that choice.

The conversational model allows for a number of helpful ways of approaching scripture. For instance, it allows a variety of viewpoints on a single subject, such as the problem of evil. Job argues with Proverbs. It encourages us to hear all sides of the conversation as contributing something, and doesn’t say only one voice can be heard as right. Leviticus has something important to say that Psalms may not say. This approach sees the development of understanding as a natural part of the conversation, and isn’t disturbed when a subject appears to evolve and change over time. This model allows some parts of the conversation to be wrong, so that others can be right, and the Bible isn’t diminished as a result.

Most importantly, this model says the Bible presents a conversation that continues until God himself speaks a final Word. In other words, I do not expect this conversation to go on endlessly. It has a point. A conclusion. And in that belief, the great Biblical conversation differs from the Great Books conversation. There is not an endless spiral of philosophical and experiential speculation. There is, as Hebrews 1 says, a final Word: Jesus.

Sparks agrees and argues that in the course of this conversation later Scriptures, reflecting the progress of redemption and the brighter light of the Gospel, redeem the earlier stories by reversing “the law’s broken, violent, and dangerous elements” and pointing us to Christ and the inbreaking of God’s rule.

As an example of how Scripture redeems itself, Kenton Sparks points to the Gospel of Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the One Greater than Moses, who not only fulfilled the law, but in many cases specifically reversed rules and regulations and instructions contrary to the Gospel message. “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-45).

A more striking example of the redemption of Scripture is provided by the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. Like other early Christians, Matthew viewed Jesus as the “new Moses” prophesied in Deut 18:15: “Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” This is why the life of Matthew’s Jesus closely parallels the life of Israel’s ancient lawgiver.

  • Like Moses, Jesus was born as a savior. Like Moses, a foreign king tried to kill him.
  • Like Moses, Jesus was hidden from the threatening king in Egypt.
  • Like Moses, Jesus fasted in the desert wilderness for forty days and nights.
  • Like Moses, Jesus returned from that desert experience and taught God’s people on the mountain.
  • And in that Sermon on the Mount he presented his teaching as a new law that reversed and fulfilled the law of Moses.
  • Also, in Matthew as a whole, the teaching of Jesus is presented in five sections, each ending with the words “When Jesus had finished saying these things.”‘ This structure parallels the five books of Moses that stand at the beginning of the Old Testament.

Once we realize that this was Matthew’s intention – to present Jesus as the new Moses of prophecy – then we are in a better position to appreciate the conclusion of his Gospel in Matt 28:16-20, commonly known as the “Great Commission.”

Readers will probably recall that, because of his sin, Moses was not able to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.’ At the end of his life, he stood on a mountain overlooking the land and said to the Israelites, “I cannot go with you, but God will be with you…. Go, and kill all the nations.” This parallels very closely what we find at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus takes his disciples “to the mountain” and there speaks his own final words: “Go, make disciples of all the nations…and I will be with you.”

It is quite clear that Matthew wished to portray Jesus as a better Moses, who, because he was sinless, could address his followers from within the land and could extend the promise to be with them in their mission. Particularly striking, of course, is the profound contrast between the two missions: “kill all the nations” (Greek panta to ethne); “make disciples of all the nations” (again panta to ethne). Matthew apparently means to teach us that the true fulfillment of the command to kill the Canaanites is actually found in our efforts to convert the lost to faith in Christ. The Gospel is thus understood as a spiritual conquest in the name of Christ and for the good of the nations. So the Gospel of Matthew is a deliberate and sustained attempt to redeem the Old Testament law and make it serve the purposes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

– Kenton L. Sparks
Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture

Why do we read and love the Bible?

Not because it is a perfect book. But because it points to the perfect Word who redeems our sinful world and opens the door to a new creation.


  1. This is exciting reading

  2. But in Matthew, Christ curses the Jews (in the same verses which speak of the Torah being superseded).

    This is no dialogue, but a church-imposed script.

    • Sorry, Gerald, but you can’t get there from here. If you’d care to supply the missing premises, I’d be happy to listen. I know, a blog probably isn’t the best forum for such a discussion, but since you brought it up…

      • The article invokes the common Christian perception that the NT (and in particular Matthew) is more enlightened than the OT, which it corrects and improves. In fact both the OT and NT are mixed bags, as the “blood curses” of “the Jews” (also from Matthew) illustrate. (In the OT God can be evil, in the NT Jesus can be evil.) Note that the blood curses are part of the same general message that Judaism in wretched and has been superseded. (No, I do not suppose that Christ said this–rather, the passages in Matthew and elsewhere reflect later conflicts between Jews and early Christians.)

        The boxed quote (from Michael Spencer) speaks of a “conversational model” of interpreting scripture (i.e. interpreting the “evil” elements in the context of “good” ones which tend to negate them). Since the surrounding text (from Chaplain Mike) is obviously aiming at the traditional OT<NT view, this is not a dialogue so much as a superimposition of an already-held theological view.

        • You’re still making significant assumptions and logical leaps. Perhaps you could point me toward a book or other resource that argues this position?

  3. Thanks for a very Catholic (and catholic) look at scripture, where we are listening for the messages and not agonizing over minute details and trying to turn allegory into science. I totally agree with the progression of understanding over time noted in the books and their progression, with “Jesus” as the absolute and final answer to any questions regarding reality, perfection, and what God REALLY wants us to do today

    • One of the Catholicism’s strengths, it seems to me, has been its ability to posit some kind of development in human understanding of truth without giving up the notion of a Truth that matters. On a different but not unrelated point, it is possible to imagine one’s self as occupying a grey area between saved and unsaved–which jives with human experience.

  4. Other than the fact that this reading of the Bible completely overturns Jesus’ own testimony to Scripture (Matthew 5:17-20; John 10:35) and that of the apostles, it is spot on.

    • Aaron, rather than casting snarky remarks back and forth, I’d love to see us have a serious discussion about this.

      For example, how do you read Matt. 5:17-20 in the light of Ephesians 2:15 and Colossians 2:14? Jesus says he did not come to abolish the law. Paul says he abolished the law.

      It seems to me that Christ’s “fulfilling” of the law involved abolishing those parts of it that were imperfect.

      The OT itself reflects on some of the commandments God gave Israel and says, “I also gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live” (Ezek. 20:25).

      Jesus said some laws were given because of the hardness of peoples’ hearts, not because they represented God’s will (Matt 19), and Paul said the law was “added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3).

      Many early church fathers were so scandalized by such OT practices as sacrifice and the genocide of the Canaanites that they said the only way we can accept these things is to see them as allegorical.

      Sparks is trying to take the text as it is seriously.

      • The book of Hebrews testifies to Jesus being both King and Priest, which on the face of it contradicts OT law. Clearly He stands outside of the law as the final Word.

      • Hi Mike,

        Thanks for the interaction. If I come across snarky, it is because I see your view as extremely dangerous and justly deserving of criticism. But you are right to seek a fruitful dialogue rather than snarky comments. Good questions you pose, all of them.

        When Christ fulfilled the law, he brought it to its culmination. That is why the law has been set aside. It served its purpose, much like the temple and the sacrificial system. He did not, however, come to correct the law by abolishing the parts that were “imperfect”. He came to inaugurate the new covenant, to which the old had always pointed. Your view has affinities with Marcionism, which bifurcates the Old Testament God from the New. I recognize that you do believe God is revealed in the OT, but according to your view he is revealed in erroneous ways that we can now disregard. The OT conception of God is ethically inferior to the NT conception of God. This is really just soft Marcionism.

        So, to take some of your examples: Eph. 2:15 and Col. 2:14 speak of the abolishing of the law as a boundary that separates Jew from Gentile. This is not Paul’s way of saying, “Jesus has finally brought that silly old ethnocentric document to its well-deserved demise!” It is, rather, his way of saying that the boundaries of the old covenant era have now been abolished, not because they never belonged there in the first place, but because their purpose has been served. Messiah has come, and it is now time to gather the Gentiles in.

        The same is true with the laws that were accommodations to the sinful hearts of the Israelites (e.g., divorce). These laws are not eternal ideals, to be sure, but they are necessary accommodations to a period of redemptive history prior to the widespread work of the Holy Spirit’s regeneration in the hearts of the covenant people. They do not misrepresent God’s character. They represent his character appropriately as applied to a less-than-ideal situation. In any case, Jesus’ appeal in that story is to the very beginning of creation, which goes back even farther in the OT than Deuteronomy 24. He does not “correct” Deut. 24 so much as he shows how Genesis 2 and Deut. 24 each have their appropriate places in redemptive history, and Gen. 2 transcends Deut. 24 as the ideal pattern, in accord with God’s creation design.

        Yes, the Law was added because of transgressions, because where there is no sin, there is no need for a law. But that does not mean the law itself is imperfect (Romans 7:7ff.). It means, rather, that the people were. The law imprisoned them under sin by God’s design until Christ was revealed.

        Now, let me raise these questions and then I’ll close this too long comment: does God have a right to judge a sinful humanity? If so, then why should the slaughter of the Canaanites be a problem? Does that mean you have a problem with the flood of Gen. 6-9 as well? What about the final judgment pictured throughout the OT and vividly symbolized in the book of Revelation? What is the key you use to determine which text tells us what God is really like and which text is a distorted picture of God? Please don’t say, “Jesus,” because we have plenty of visions of Jesus in the NT dealing out retribution to his enemies as well.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      I think it may overturn your interpretation of those passages of Scripture. Like Chaplain Mike said, it seems worthy of some deeper discussion.

    • Nothing about Jesus’ testimony of Scripture requires us to see any text in away that is not intentionally used to discover its fulfillment in Christ. THat’s in fact the only way it’s ever used by anyone in the NT pretty much. Which is exactly what’s reflected in Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 (fulfilled- completed, summed up).

      There’s no requirement that we assume Joshua had the same theological acumen that someone like Peter did after Pentecost. In fact, a true belief in the human agency of inspiration requires that we DO assume the faultiness of the mouthpieces, and that the word “inspired” means that God said exactly what he wanted to say, no less and no more. Couple this with the Law and Prophets being summed up in Jesus Christ’s person and work, and we’re free from having to check our brains/hearts at the door so we can force our thinking into the low-level understanding of Joshua or Solomon instead of high capacity vessel of Christ. Wine and wineskins…

    • Aaron, do you have any reasoning to support your assertion? Here is the Matthew text you referenced:
      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
      Now, can you explain how the above interpretation of Scripture contradicts this text? I know this is a lot to put in a blog comment, but I am willing to listen.

  5. Great post CM. Just a few comments: The view of Scripture that I have been taught and adopted is not that the Law was broken or imperfect but as David, Paul, and Jesus testify the Law is perfect. Yet as Paul and other NT writers explain the Law is rendered powerless to do anything but condemn because of our sinfulness. And so the OT shows us what life is like under the law (genocide of sinful nations, stoning your own sinful children, sinful spouse, etc.) and it is a horrible, horrible place. But the law is perfect and they all deserved the death they received. But as Paul says in Romans, we all deserve death just as much. And so the Law is our tutor to bring us to this realization. Thus comes the NT and the Law of Liberty, Life, and Love. The better way that God intended and revealed in Jesus.

    I know we are saying much the same thing but when I hear things like “Though God ‘adopted’ the words and viewpoints of these ancient authors, it does not mean that everything they wrote reflects God’s point of view.” And “the law’s broken, violent, and dangerous elements” I think there is a difference between what you are saying and the case laid out by Paul. The Law does reflect God’s point of view (though in an incomplete fashion) and it isn’t broken (we are broken). Jesus completes the picture and saves us from our brokenness.

    But I wholeheartedly agree that to interpret and apply any part of the Bible without taking into account the ministry and work of Jesus is to totally misunderstand it.

    • TPD, I think we are saying some different things. I am not prepared to agree that slaughtering children in the conquest of Canaan, for example, was “good” or “perfect” or deserved in any way.

      • No it isn’t good. But it certainly is the ultimate or perfect application of justice without grace if you believe in original sin. It is brutal and terrible and demonstrates the desperate need for the message of God’s mercy and grace that supersedes the blanket condemnation that is implicit in the Law.

        • I seriously differ. Nothing in Scripture or tradition that I know of sees it as “perfect justice” to have an army of people slaughter children. Not only is the act heinous but it uses human beings to accomplish it. This is more of a moral dilemma than many Christians are willing to face.

          • Check out a post we did awhile back on John Polkinghorne’s similar view: https://internetmonk.com/archive/a-developing-understanding-of-the-divine-will-and-nature

          • “A primitive society could conceive no better insight than the use of force against unbelievers as the expression of its faithful following of Yahweh, the God of Israel.” <—great quote. Unfortunately, not just primitive societies in the OT have used this method.

            The last few posts have shed some clear light on the OT for me. I never understood how the God of 1 Cor 13 could be the same God that demanded death and destruction of innocent people (among other things). I've stayed away from reading large portions of the OT because I couldn't reconcile the two.

            Thank you, Mike and Jeff :0)

          • Basic logic. IF the doctrine of original sin is true and IF as Paul says those who sin deserve death THEN it was just for those children to die. You can argue about the truth of the IF statements but if you agree with them then you can’t argue the conclusion without departing from logic. As I said, justice without mercy and grace is a horrible thing.

            As far as God using people to carry out His judgment, that is common. The Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians among others are all represented as instruments of God at one place or another in the Bible. That doesn’t mean that the instrument is any better than the judged. In fact every human instrument of God’s judgment ultimately met the same fate as those they carried out judgment against (they are now ALL dead). According to the Bible, this also is proof of universal guilt.

            Paul already explained all this. We are all guilt. We all deserve death and therefore all die one way or another. Jesus came to save us from that. I’m not sure why you have to go to any great lengths to explain the conquest of Canaan as anything other than what it is; The horror of judgment without grace in a fallen world. The cure is Jesus’ gracious love and the eternal life He purchased.

            • However, nowhere in Scripture does God say kill the Canaanites because they are guilty of original sin. Israel was to eliminate them because of the threat their idol-worship posed to the Hebrews (Deut. 20:17-18).

              Of what danger was little six-month old Corey Canaanite to Joshua and his people?

              Why not instead take the little ones and raise them in the faith?

              You can use logic all you like, but we have to deal with the text, not our logical analysis.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            TPD, I think we are saying some different things. I am not prepared to agree that slaughtering children in the conquest of Canaan, for example, was “good” or “perfect” or deserved in any way. -_ Chaplain Mike

            No it isn’t good. But it certainly is the ultimate or perfect application of justice without grace if you believe in original sin. It is brutal and terrible and demonstrates the desperate need for the message of God’s mercy and grace that supersedes the blanket condemnation that is implicit in the Law. — TPD

            As far as God using people to carry out His judgment, that is common. — TPD

            — yelling radio preacher from the 1970s, when The Gospel According To Hal Lindsay (and Christians For Nuclear War) was at its peak

            And that’s the first thing that comes to mind whenever I hear an exchange like the above. And those that took TPD’s position back then KNEW God would beam them up before any “judgment” personally happened to them. I never want to go back to that time of terror and smugness.

          • Somehow we have a greater theological struggle with the genocide of the Canaanites than with the worldwide flood where God Himself destroyed virtually every breathing creature including children, infants, and animals (save for those in the Ark). You’d think if we could wrap our minds around that one, the genocide of Canaanites would be comprehensible.
            Perhaps the really troubling part for us is when God commands His people to be the agent of His justice. The whole “God told ME to kill YOU” makes us understandably nervous about how we come to discern God’s will.

            • This is going to get me in trouble…

              I don’t think the flood story teaches a universal flood that wiped out all living things. Even if one reads it “literally.” Actually, my “literal” reading of it says that God flooded the “land” — i.e. a large portion of the Ancient Near East.

              I also wonder, since there are many such flood stories in the Ancient Near East, if God’s direct involvement in the account is a matter of revelation or human interpretation of the events according to the theological perspectives of the day.

              Genesis 1-11 is just plain hard too.

              Go ahead, I’m ducking.

          • @HUG
            “And those that took TPD’s position back then KNEW God would beam them up before any ‘judgment’ personally happened to them.”

            You have dramatically mischaracterized what I wrote. I was clear that all are equally deserving of judgment.

            “I never want to go back to that time of terror and smugness.”

            There is no more terror because Jesus has come. There is no smugness since all have been shown to be guilty.

          • TPD, what you are leaving out is cause and instrumentation. Paul’s cause for death is not the same as Moses’. The some goes for instrumentation. The death Paul says we deserve does not come at the hands of humans. Logically, instrumentation of death is irrelevant – at least to the dead people. Ethically, it is everything. After all, no one would ever argue that Christians are justified in slaughtering infidels because, well, they deserve it anyway. That’s the wrong religion, man.

          • “However, nowhere in Scripture does God say kill the Canaanites because they are guilty of original sin. Israel was to eliminate them because of the threat their idol-worship posed to the Hebrews (Deut. 20:17-18).”

            It says more than that. God implies to Abraham that he will judge the Canaanites when their sins are “full” (Genesis 15) and He says in a number of places in the OT that He holds the children accountable for the sin of their fathers. I’ll say it again; judgment without grace is a horrible thing. I think that that is the point much of the OT is developing.

          • “…he holds the children accountable for the sin of their fathers.”

            And you don’t find that repugnant and unworthy of a just God?

            The strict standard of justice is “an eye for an eye…” not “an eye and your child’s eye for an eye.”

            As John Polkinghorne discusses in the post I referenced earlier, there is development in the First Testament with regard to personal moral responsibility too. In earlier Scriptures, there are many instances of people being punished for the sins of others. This corporate, tribal mentality, however, where the family, tribe, nation, etc. bears the sin of its members is challenged by later prophets such as Ezekiel (18:20), who teach individual responsibility and judgment.

            I don’t think that “judgment without grace” is the point of the O.T., or even a primary point. The O.T. is a book of unrelenting grace in the midst of a brutal, tribal era with a gradually growing light that leads to Christ.

          • @John – The cause of all death is sin no matter what the instrument is. But you are right, when the instrument is human then the instrument bears a level of responsibility that is dependent on the circumstance.

            @CM – You can interpret the OT however you wish, but I am attempting to lift my interpretation directly from St. Paul and I don’t see any hint in his writings that the Law is flawed or that God is misrepresented in it.

          • Guys, when dealing with the OT genocides we have to take a few of our modernistic philosophical developments into account. Their societies were not founded upon the individualistic autonomy our mindset takes for granted. Back then, there was much more corporate solidarity amongst people groups. It was considered normal to wipe out families as a whole, not just the able men fit for combat, as modern standards of war might suggest. Case in point, often when God publicly judged someone from the Jewish camp, he would often take the life of families at a time. Didn’t he cause the ground to open up and consume whole households? The point is that the judgement of God is scary. You don’t have any rights when you stand before a holy God as a sinner, regardless of your age. God owes no mercy to adults nor children, yet he gives it anyways. Just not to the Canaanites.

            About instruments of death: Also remember that not only did God use Israel to deliver his judgment on the heathen nations, he also used the heathen nations to bring about discipline for Israel. The sword goes both ways, but grace does not.

          • I have a lot of trouble with the flood as I asked one fundagelcial who’se reformed when I was laying in the hospital bed recently. So did Noah gathor 2 Panda Bears from China, 2 Buffalo from the great plains of North America, 2 giraffes from the horn of Africa, and 2 poisonous frogs from the depths of the Amazon, and a as a sampling of ALL animals together into Noah’s Ark? (Don’t forget the Koi in Japan!!) IF so that’s a hell of a feat especially since the technology didn’t even exist yet.

            Miguel…Miguel…Miguel 😯 you have to remember the genocide stories MUST be taken literally. In Fundementalism 2.0 expect to see Sunday school classes similar to Al Qaeda terrorist training camps. My God we’re going to have to add most of the Neo-reformed to the FBI terrosit watch lists to keep them off planes in an effort to prevent them from creating modern day “Cannanite situations” in major cities! 😯

        • Marcus Johnson says

          But wouldn’t the Israelites who did the killing need to kill themselves as well after they killed the Canaanites? I mean, under the doctrine of original sin, the Israelites themselves were just as worthy of death as their victims, even if they were carrying out God’s vengeance.

          • Paul makes a related point in Romans 2:1-3 where he basically says “Don’t get the idea that you are better than they are just because you haven’t been judged yet. You are just as guilt.” My paraphrase.

        • Original sin is a part of Christian theology, and not even an early development. So clearly the Hebrew Scriptures have been read without that lens for a very long time.

          For me, I take it as the victors (in this case the Israelites) writing their rah rah message down and the vanquished not having the same opportunity. So of course, the vanquished were horrible, terrible people and of course, the All powerful told us to kill them.

          Quite honestly, that’s all I see in those passages. Writings by flawed human beings about a flawed people in a savage time.

          It’s probably why I don’t spend a lot of time with the “historical” books. The Torah I enjoy. The Psalms I find relaxing. The prophets are weird, but they sometimes had interesting things to say.

          • cermak_rd put the finger on the problem. We must deal with the text. We don’t start with our theology.

          • “Quite honestly, that’s all I see in those passages. Writings by flawed human beings about a flawed people in a savage time.”

            I agree, cermak_rd.

          • Starting with the text has gotten Enns in trouble. It has gotten Traphaggen in trouble. It has gotten Sparks in trouble. Frankly, you’re taking a big gamble if you put the text above the denomination that pays you…

          • We must deal with text, but the text includes the Pauline epistles where the doctrine of original sin is spelled out quite clearly, without relying on implication. You cannot dismiss that doctrine when dealing with other passages. The OT must be read in light of the NT.

            CM, you will have a very hard time finding a doctrine to teach which will get you in trouble with the ELCA. Not that you would try, but if there’s one taboo left in liberal circles, it’s telling somebody they are wrong.

          • There’s a lot of hate-filled “rah rah” messages in the New Testament as well, not to mention the church fathers.

          • I really don’t see a reoslution to this issue. You hit the nail on the head. But how can we even understand the text given the vast and huge gulf between our cultures? The Hebrew culture and post modern America is way beyond night and day. It’s almost a galexy apart.

  6. Very interesting post, Mike. And it helps when we approach Scripture in the light of the Incarnation. Like Jesus is both human and divine, as the Chalcedonian formula says, without division, confusion, and I forget the other two, so the Scriptures are both human and divine. To deny either is to go astray. Some err in the direction of the divine, approaching Scripture in almost an Islamic way, as if there were no human elements, it just dropped down out of the sky.

    Others deny the divine and go totally human, that it is no more inspired than any other work, just a psychological case-study of the authors.

    The way people sway from one to the other reminds me of something Luther said that humanity is like a drunk riding a horse. First he falls off one side, then gets up and falls off the other.

    I’m glad you are looking to achieve the balance here.

  7. Thanks for some good things to chew on. I think we’re too quick to resolve what we don’t understand. I too look in horror at the commands to kill nations, even children. I don’t understand it. Why not leave it there? Resolving Scriptural problems in Jesus is, I think right, but we have to be careful that we’re not simply imposing our view of Jesus on the Scriptures. As one theologian points out, he saw Jesus go from being a great humanitarian to an existentialist in the space of a few years. We need to listen. I need to listen. If I can use an analogy, let’s not jump up and fix all of the dissonance before the symphony is finished.

    • Good point, Craig. As for me, I’m 35 + years into thinking about this.

      • I’d give it two more years (just kidding). It’s presumptuous of me to caution you against quick resolution. I’m thinking more of myself. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time as well, but I’ve taken many more vacations than you. By vacations I mean times when I thought I knew the answer so stopped thinking.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I too look in horror at the commands to kill nations, even children. I don’t understand it. Why not leave it there?

      My reaction is “Welcome to the world of Iron Age Semitic Tribal Warfare.”

      A Jewish friend told me years ago about the Wisdom of Torah regarding such barbarities. His specific examples were honor killing and slavery, universal among Semitic tribes of the time (and still found among some Semitic peoples to this day):

      “If Torah allowed honor killings, they’d just go ahead with the honor killings. If Torah flat-out forbade honor killings, that would be so out of the range of reality that they’d just blow Torah off and do the honor killings anyway. So Torah allowed honor killings, but regulated them in a way that made them impractical. Yes, you could honor-kill your daughter, but you had to get permission — in public — from the ‘elders at the gate’, the local city council. Since the whole point of an honor killing is to hush things up, this defeats the purpose while still ‘allowing’ it.”

      “Torah allows slavery because slavery was universal at the time. Forbidding slavery was out of the range of reality. So Torah allows slavery, but regulates it to the point it’s a lot less hassle to just hire free workers.”

      (However, in both examples, as time went on there was a lot of playing “Beat the System”, as was pointed out and lamented by the Prophets.)

      • Those are great observations. Thanks.

      • Interesting. A thought: It occurs to me that one could interpret a lot of the NT commands about female/slave obedience in the same way. We have “Women, obey your husbands” on one hand; on the other hand, we have a commands to husbands that nearly cancels out their right to issue self-interested commands.

      • HUG, I think it was the same with “a eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. This in fact limited liability to ONLY an eye, and ONLY a tooth—and not a full-blown vendetta that included murder, rape of the womenfolk, and theft of the livestock.

      • Wow, fascinating analysis. Perhaps this could explain the OT allowance for divorce as well. Indirect prevention through endless litigation… I wonder how much of this goes on in Paul’s epistles as well?

  8. Josh S Blake says

    Scot McKnight says, “God spoke in those days in those ways.” That has been one of the most helpful phrases in my Biblical understanding.

  9. I’m about to read his ‘God’s Word in Human Words’ as recommended to me by Scot McKnight…has anyone read it?

    • From what I understand, the two books are similar, but “God’s Word” goes into more detail and addresses more specifically the concerns of evangelicals.

      • Cool, that’s probably the angle I need to read more from…as I read this article, & Michael’s article I could just hear so many ‘oh, but’s’ in my brain, that when I look at them are more assumptions about Scripture from a more Biblicist perspective than anything more studied.

  10. I don’t think it is completely fair to view the OT through cynical “winners right the history books” lenses. We have to keep in mind that if they were edited to make the winners look like heroes, they sure didn’t do a very good job. In few instances to the Israelites come out looking clean, if anything the OT is a chronicle of their pitfalls and blunders. I think if their writers are as flawed as this view claims there would be a lot less sin among God’s peoples, less discipline on them, and longer periods of prosperity and obedience. Instead, we see that the Israelites are no better than the pagan nations around them.

    I think that this view of scripture comes about as a result of it’s graphic detail offending our enlightened sensibilities. As if the truth of God is supposed to appear like a bed of roses to us at all times. The two things which prevent that are our own fallen nature (which sees the beauty of the cross as foolishness) and the nature of God’s justice (which the natural man always thinks God owes the other guy).

    Step 1: We see the OT genocides. Step 2: “But that’s not fair!” Step 3: Explain it away. It’s the same thing Baptists do when the read the Words of Institution: Step 1: “This is my body”. 2. “But that’s not possible!” 3. Explain it away. When scripture offends our reason, we squirm underneath it in our efforts to make it conform to our will.

    At some point, we must give God the right to be right and accept that we are wrong if we disagree. If we accept only the portions of scripture that we like to be true, it is not scripture we believe, but ourselves. If we approach the stories that say “God told X to go and do Y” and we conclude that “X did Y and then blamed it on God,” in what sense can we remotely hold that the story is even true?

    • Miguel, I just think our imagination has been limited when it comes to the Scriptures and the interplay of the divine and human involved in what they say. God himself said he gave Israel laws that “were not good” (Ezek 20:25) and that he accommodated his law to the “hardness of heart” of the people when he regulated divorce. From what we know of sacrifice and rituals like circumcision, they were not unique to the Hebrews but God accommodated his dealings with Israel to include such practices. In the psalms people give blessings to those who dash enemy babies against the rocks, but surely this is not God speaking, even if we accept the Psalms as an “inspired” text!

      I suggest that we must not be so concerned about defending the perfection of a text that is complex and mysterious in so many ways. It is enough that it all works together to point us to Jesus and the Gospel. That’s where its authority lies and that’s where its divine power dwells.

      • I couldn’t agree more with your last two sentences. But in terms of defending a perfect text, I think that what happens in reaction to a narrow understanding of inerrancy is a defense of the perfection of modern enlightened understanding. It’s not that I extol the text on the page as divine dictation apart from human involvement, but rather I have an extreme skepticism for the rational ability of man, because he’d rather spin a text to suit sinful desires. Everybody does this, and we must be willing to acknowledge this as we unpack grammar and historical context. And I don’t think that current philosophical trends are the pinacle of human achievement, I believe future generations will be able to see our flaws as blatantly as we can our ancestors’. Higher criticism adds much thoughtful commentary to the way that we wrestle with the substance of an ancient document, but it also has the potential to make a text say virtually anything.

        I’m all for the use of imagination when trying to understand cultures that are vastly removed from our own, but we must be wary of the human tendency to get edit happy with our revisionist history. We should study ancient cultures to learn from them and expand our thinking, but too often a “more accurate understanding” of ancient civilizations is a pretext for justifying a contemporary agenda. We are not as “advanced” over the “primitive” cultures of the Bible as we like to think: For all our developments I do not think we are generally happier, and the world isn’t any more at peace in our time.

        And I must take issue with your use of Ezekiel 20:25. Before even looking at the context, the way in which you are interpreting this verse is that you are using it to prove other verses wrong. The approach of historical Christianity is to harmonize, not impose contradiction. The point of the verse isn’t that God is condemning his own laws. That would be somewhat of a schizophrenic deity. Instead, how about this approach by Albert Barnes:

        The “judgments whereby they should not live” are those spoken of in Ezekiel 20:18, and are contrasted with the judgments in Ezekiel 20:13, Ezekiel 20:21, laws other than divine, to which God gives up those whom He afflicts with judicial blindness, because they have willfully closed their eyes, Psalm 81:12; Romans 1:24.

        Wesley, Clarke, Henry, and JFB all pretty much say the same things. Your use of that verse seems, imo, to be the interpretation of the skeptic rather than the acceptance of faith. There are ways of understanding the nature of human agency in the creation of scripture that do not take away from the divine authorship. Like the hypostatic union, there is a balance to the paradox at work here, and the emphasis of one aspect to the minimization of the other leads us astray.

        • That’s a good word, friend.

        • I always appreciate your comments, Miguel. Well thought out and well said.

        • I agree, Miguel, that it takes some balance to surf many of the paradoxes to be found in scripture.
          I think a big part of our problem is just the comparatively tiny scope of our understanding and experience. Unlike God, we can’t see the end of things from their beginnings. The abusive, alcoholic father may poo poo his sins as minimal, but he can’t see ten generations down the road to the ever widening family tradition of hellish homes and broken lives. And I’d be willing to bet that Adam never imagined that his weakness and willfulness might snowball into all the evil that would follow — or that it might eventually lead to the complete self extermination of the human race or even the extinction of life on this planet.
          I certainly wouldn’t want the job of trying to redeem humankind and saving us from ourselves. Even for the Maker of All Things, that task required laying down His own life in the most bloody, brutal, and shameful of deaths. It would be easy for me to criticize God for doing something outside the parameters of my modern, “civilized” sensibilities — but the bedrock truth is that I would never be willing or even capable of giving what He has given. And for a depraved sinner like myself, I would be much wiser to simply be thankful for the grace and mercy that permits me to draw each breath.

  11. If we encounter Jesus in prayer, in sacraments, in scripture, in our lives, then I do believe I know what Jesus would answer to this question: “Jesus, did God want babies to be bashed against the rocks as we read in the scriptures?” I could NEVER say Jesus would answer that with a “yes” and keep a straight face about it.

    • That’s about a good a summary as I could imagine, Joanie.

    • I don’t think Jesus would say “yes” about anybody spending an eternity in hell either. Or the fall of man. Or the rebellion of Satan. He wasn’t necessarily so happy about his own crucifixion either. But honestly, at what age does murder become less unethical? I think murder is generally evil whether it is an embryo, infant, a young child, an adult in his/her prime, or an elderly person. However, the reason it is evil is because God is the author of that life and it is not yours to end. Ultimately I think the prerogative of life belongs to God, and his judgements, regardless of whether we like them, are right.

      The imprecatory Psalms are difficult to wrestle with. But there are many ways of dealing with them other than saying than labeling them contrary to Christ. You could call it emotionally induced hyperbole, or you could even say it is an example of praying vengeance upon your enemies in lieu of exacting it yourself, being honest with God about your emotions even when they are wrong. Ultimately, though, Christ will trample his enemies underfoot, even as the head of the serpent is crushed. And it will be bloody, like a crucifixion.

      God is love, but it is the love of a fiery, jealous passion. Remember, Jesus can go from teddy bear to grizzly in the space of one hypocrite.

  12. I am reading another of N.T. Wright’s book (which may be my favorite of his books!) and I think this passage from his book says a lot about God dealing with evil through love. Here it is:

    “Jesus takes temptations, hatreds, curses—the bitterness of a bitter world—and he absorbs it into himself on the cross. Jesus, pronounced guilty as a blasphemer for claiming to be the Son of God, demonstrates on the cross that he was speaking the truth, by doing what only the Son of God could do—loving his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end, the bitter end. And this pattern, acted out uniquely on the cross, becomes then for us, by the Spirit of Jesus working within us, the pattern we are commanded to live out, as we give back good for evil, blessing for curse, prayer for persecution. One might say this is the vocation of the Church: to take the sadness of the world and give back no anger; the sorrow of the world, and give back no bitterness; the pain of the world and not sink into self-pity, but to return forgiveness and love, blessing and joy. This is what Jesus was doing on Calvary. He drew on to himself the sin of the ages, the rebellion of the world and humankind, the hatred, pain, anger, and frustration of the world, so that the world and humankind might be healed, might be rid of it all.”

    Pages 52, 53 in The Crown and the Fire: Mediations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit by N.T. Wright.

    • Sorry about the HTML formatting error. The only word that should have been italicized in the passage was the word “the” before the word “vocation.” Darn. Maybe Chaplain Mike can fix it for me?

  13. Why do we read and love the Bible? Not because it is a perfect book. But because it points to the perfect Word who redeems our sinful world and opens the door to a new creation.

    If there ever was a perfect book written, believe me, sinful man would find plenty of problems with it. Just look at how we reacted to the one perfect man who ever lived.

    I believe our categories of “err” and “perfection” are insufficient for dealing with the nature of divine revelation. There’s this idea that the Bible is true because it is an accurate description of reality. This view, though, imposes the reason of man over the text of scripture and declares, by virtue of our intellectual analysis, that this text is worthy of being considered trustworthy. It is true because we haven’t found anything wrong with it. In the end, we are merely flattering ourselves that we have been so wise as to choose the right God by identifying the right book. This is my major beef with much of the thinking behind the inerrancy camp (to which I begrudgingly belong) and it also creates a context in which skeptics can easily take issue with this supposed accurate description of reality.

    As a confessional Lutheran, I believe this understanding should be reversed to impose the text of scripture OVER our reason, allowing our intellect to function as a servant of the text, not the ultimate arbitrator of it. The Word of God is not true because it describes reality without mistake: Reality is because God has spoken it. When God speaks, what he speaks becomes the nature of the cosmos, he doesn’t react to creation by identifying it. When God wanted to create, he did this by speaking: “Let there be light” is what caused light to exist. Jesus healed by speaking, he cast out demons by command, and he raised Lazarus by his voice. When he says “your sins are forgiven,” you can take it to the bank because the very act of his saying this has erased your guilt. When he says “this is my body,” the bread doesn’t get a vote. When he says “given for you,” there is no “maybe” attached to it.

    The concept of Biblical inerrancy is, imo, not only redundant (attributing congruence with reality to the source of reality), but an unhelpful simplification of what the Word of God is. It is more than a book, it is the Logos. But to pick apart scripture and point out it’s “flaws” is to misunderstand its nature and purpose, methinks.

  14. Mike –

    This book is good. Have you read his previous one, God’s Word in Human Words? Very similar at heart, but a bit more in depth. Double in length.

    The best thing about the former book is that the whole first chapter (some 40+ pages) compares the epistemological approaches of premodernism, modernism and postmodernism. It was very helpful in seeing why we need to find a good and balanced epistemological approach. He suggests that a) the insatiable desire for objective, empirical truth within the modernist perspective and b) the anti-realist, we-can-never-know-truth approach of extreme postmodernism are both not in touch with reality. He recommends a middle approach – practical postmodernism, which asserts that we, as finite and fallen human beings, can reasonably know and communicate the truth (including in the writing of and our engagement with Scripture). But the kind of fantasy land of rationalist modernism, that truth must be and can only be 100% objective, misses the point.

  15. CM, there’s no easy way to “nest” my comment into the earlier conversation about the flood, so, just picking it up here:

    Now, you may think that some OT writers looked at natural phenomena of a really bad storm, and mistakenly attributed it to God. Perhaps they made up a whole story about Noah, and perhaps in telling that story, they made a character called “God” and put words into his mouth. You are right, you might need to duck – – if our conversation is about the inerrancy of scripture. But that’s another topic for another day.
    Even if you assume the Genesis flood was a myth, an allegory, or was just a local, non-worldwide event, my original point still has merit:
    In the canon of the OT, God wants you to know that He thought it was justice for Him to directly to kill (what many others may consider to be) *innocent* children, infants, animals, etc.

    Solve that dilemma, and you should likewise be able to tackle the genocide of the Canaanites.

    Personally, I think the God is demonstrating that prior to the advent of His Son, the only way He can deal with the cancer of sin is to try and amputate the various limbs of humanity to keep the disease from spreading. The amputation looks brutal, but it is an act of compassion towards creation.

  16. “It is more than a book, it is the Logos”

    I don’t know about that, sounds like bibliolatry to me, we sometimes claim far more for the Bible than it does itself. As far as I know the only real claim is that all Scripture is God-breathed. I feel uncomfortable with calling the Bible the “Word of God” simply because the only time I know this is mentioned is in regards to prophets speaking His message and the beginning of the Gospel according to John (and this is the real Logos, the One who holds all things in existence, the very fabric of Being).

  17. By the way, where in the OT does Moses comand the Isrealites to “kill all the nations”? I couldn’t find the verse.

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