Saturday, April 29, 2006

Exodus as a Macro Story

I know that I promised the second half of my take on Elsa Tamez's interpretation of James - dealing with James' empowering and calling out the laity (though it is important to note that in the church at the time of James there was not yet a clergy/laity distinction). But, I'm sorry, something else came up.

DagoodS of Debunking Christianity has posted a well reasoned and relatively thorough refutation of a literal reading of the Exodus story of the ten plagues. In the comments section of that post I argue for a less literal reading of the Exodus story, saying that it represents a mythologized history whose value is not in the literal-historical truth value of the details of the story, but rather in what that story communicates to us, particularly about how ancient Israel saw their history in relationship with God.

But, of course, the inevitable question is, if the story is not "true" in the sense that we usually mean (literal-historical), then how can it communicate anything of value? I can push that question back a few steps, making arguments for a "truth" independent of a literal-historical truth, but at some point it is incumbent upon me to argue for some valuable meaning that these stories can communicate to us. I can't just say, "If you don't take it literally then it is still true and valuable." I must say something more, something constructive which recaptures what is lost in a literal reading. If I don't, then I'm not really adding anything to the discussion; I'm just saying that we shouldn't be so damned literal, and people weren't always like this.

So, what does the Exodus story communicate to us, apart from a literal-historical reading?

Before I answer that I do want to say that while the Exodus story is not entirely historical, most scholars think that it touches on history. That is, while stories like that of the ten plagues may not have happened, the broader story points to a real people who were enslaved in Egypt, and somehow broke free of slavery, left Egypt, and eventually formed what we call ancient Israel. As such, the Exodus story is not historically bankrupt, even if it is mythologized.

But it is mythologized, and the modern paradigm has been built on de-mythologizing history and religion. Modernity sees myth as at best primitive, and at worst false. If it communicates a truth, it communicates a lower-level truth, the superstitions of primitive minds which can't come up with a literal or scientific explanation for events, so the weave elaborate stories and posit a supernatural explanation.

But we are starting to recapture an appreciation for myth. This is because myth does not communicate falsehood or a lower-level truth, but rather a deeper truth which goes beyond a literal description of events and gets at their meaning. That meaning is a way in which we can become connected to the story, seeing it as something more valuable than just a true description of something which happened at a point in history. It becomes connected to our experience of life. But none of this theoretical framework answers the question of what the Exodus story, re-mythologized, means.

We can see Exodus as one of three Macro Stories within the Judeo-Christian tradition. These stories are found on both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and help us to see how we relate to God. They help us to interpret our experiences, and our deeper experience of life [note: by "deeper experience of life" I mean a broader experience which transcends our individual experiences; the framework within which we interpret our individual experiences and make them part of our life narrative] and to provide those experiences with meaning. These stories are both the stories of our tradition - our collective past - and our own personal experiences. That is why they still speak to us, and are part of an enduring religious tradition.

The three Macro Stories of the Judeo-Christian scriptures are:

1. The Priestly Story (or the Temple Story)
2. The Story of Exile and Return, and
3. The Exodus Story.

To understand the concept of a Macro Story, I will briefly describe the first two stories, before I give a slightly more detailed treatment of the Exodus Story, particularly as it relates to the story of the ten plagues. My understanding of these Macro Stories comes in part from Marcus Borg, whose work introduced me to "Story Theology."

The Priestly or Temple Story is the most familiar Macro Story within the Christian tradition. It is the way in the role of Jesus as the Christ is most often seen, though I must confess that this story does not speak to me nearly as much as the other two. It is the story of our need for atonement.

Something has gone horribly wrong within us. We understand good and bad, we know right from wrong, and yet we so often chose wrong over right. We are corrupted. We do bad things. This creates a problem with guilt. There is a need for atonement, to make things right.

So God provides for us what we could not provide for ourselves, a sacrifice that balances the scales, that atones for our sins. In the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the ritual completion of this story; their way of connecting themselves to the story. In the Christian tradition, the death of Jesus completes and connects.

At the very least the Christian take on this story turns a very bad thing (the crufixion of Jesus) into something constructive. It redeems a senseless death. But can this be taken literally? Can we say, as a matter of literal-historical truth, that Jesus died for our sins?

Certainly many Christians say just that, though they do not have in mind the distinction between mythological truth and literal-historical truth. The statement that Jesus as the Christ died for our sins, as the completion of the Priestly or Temple Story, is a tremendous part of the Christian tradition. It has spoken to Christians for nearly 2,000 years. But as a matter of historical fact, it is simply not true.

Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, was killed by Roman authorities because he was seen as part of a growing Jewish threat. There had been many Messianic figures in and around first century Palestine, mobilizing Jews to revolt against the Roman authorities. Such figures were crucified, a public warning to other would be revolutionaries about what happens when you mess with Rome.

But Jesus was seen very early on as a completion to this Macro Story. Jesus was seen as both a priestly mediator between God and humanity (even to the point of being seen as the way in which God is made incarnate to us), and as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. This was a way to connect Jesus to one of the important Macro Stories of ancient Israel. Its value is found in its enduring ability to speak to Christians, rather than in the literal-historical truth value concerning the primary reason for the senseless death of a spiritual leader.

But I will not here get into exactly how it communicates to Christians for a few reasons. Firstly, because it does not speak as much to me. The Priestly/Temple Story provides us with a solution for our existential guilt. At this point I don't experience that kind of guilt. That simply isn't my problem. But that it isn't my problem doesn't mean that it isn't a very real problem for many, many people. As such it has value, even if it doesn't speak to me, keeping me from being able to say exactly how it speaks.

Also, this Macro Story is not my primary concern here, but is instead offered as an example of a kind of Macro Story, building to the primary Macro Story we are considering, the Exodus Story.

The Second Macro Story is the story of Exile and Return. While this story is principally the concern of Diasporic Jews, it permeates the Jewish and Christian scripture. The story of Adam and Eve, particularly in third chapter of Genesis, can be seen as part of this story. They have been, because of their disobedience, exiled from their home. They live their life "East of Eden," outside not only "paradise," but also the only home they had ever known.

The story of Exile is a story of being far from home. It is the story of being existentially alone, wandering aimlessly with no security and no real meaning. It describes what is too often our human experience. But like all of the Macro Story, it describes both a problem and a solution. For while we are in Exile God comes to us. God is with us, in our Exile, making wherever we are a temporary home, while preparing us for our eventual return.

In the Christian tradition this story is perhaps seen best in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. The son leaves home only to find himself in a self-imposed existential exile. Yet while he is away from home, he remembers his home, and he remembers his father. He turns toward home, only to find that his father has seen him coming and set out to meet him. While still away from home he meets his father who takes him home. Exile to Return.

Part of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation sees Jesus as the Christ as the way in which God meets us in our Exile. While we are, existentially speaking, "strangers in a strange land," God through the Christ is with us, helping us to make a temporary home while awaiting return. In this way we know not only that our Exile is temporary (there will be a Return), but that we can find a home even in the midst of Exile. It is not the lonely, aimless wandering that it at first seems to be. It is instead a way in which God is made present to us.

But the Macro Story confronting us today is the Exodus story. The Exodus story says that while we were enslaved in Egypt, in bondage and oppressed, God listened to us and heard our cry, and has sent us a deliverer. This story is a recurring theme in the Hebrew scriptures, but it is also a way in Christians see Jesus as the Christ.

Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God to deliverer us from our slavery and oppression. This can be seen both in terms of spiritual slavery (that is, slavery to our sinful natures, trapped in a destructive pattern of behavior) or in more literal socio-political or economic terms. In fact, it should probably be seen in both ways, since both a very real problems.

This is easy enough to see, even if you don't believe in any sort of a God to hear our cry and answer our prayer, delivering us from our slavery and our oppression. But how does the story of the ten plagues, which presents us with a very ugly a wrathful God who kills the innocent with the guilty, fit into this re-mythologized story?

That is a question with which I have often wrestled, because I simply don't see God the way that God is often depicted in the Hebrew Bible. I can't worship a God who, external to our reality, comes down from time to time to smash those who do wrong, or even those who have the misfortune of living in a place where wrong is often done. As such, it is not immediately obvious how the story of the ten plagues on ancient Egypt could speak to me. Has it lost its voice for those of us who do not serve a bloodthirsty God?

No. It can still speak, and it can still speak to me. First of all, it tells me that the natural order rejects slavery and oppression. In the face of slavery and oppression, water turns to blood (Exodus 7:14-24); that which sustains lives becomes full of spilt life.

In the face of slavery and oppression frogs act unnaturally, leaving their river homes to swarm human dwellings (Exodus 7:25-8:11). The natural order of things has been overturned in response to the unnatural imposition on human freedom and dignity.

In the face of slavery and oppression the natural order, in fact, lashes out at the unnatural infringement on basic rights. Lice, or vermin, pests, are uncontrolled, feeding on the suffering (Exodus 8:12-15). Insects swarm and attack, (Exodus 9:1-7) and even the skin of the oppressor quite literally rises up against them, in the form of boils, as severe skin affliction (Exodus 9:8-12). Hail pounds down on the oppressors, as even the sky strikes out against them (Exodus 9:13-35), and in verse 25 we see that for the first time a human life is taken by the plagues. As the heart of the oppressor hardens, the consequences of the oppression worsen.

Finally locusts eat all of the crops, the basis for the economy which was built on the slavery and oppression (Exodus 10:1-10), and darkness descends (Exodus 10:21-29), mirroring the spiritual condition which is the necessary consequence of such hard heartedness in the face of the human suffering caused by their exploitation of foreign workers.

Finally the tenth plague, the death of the first-born sons, the inheritors of this exploitive economic legacy (Exodus 12:29-42). Ultimately an economy built on slavery, a society built on the backs of the exploited and oppressed, ends in death.

Economic exploitation and oppression is often justified in the name of immediate self interest. We say, sure this is a bad situation, but if we take any radical steps to correct it our whole economy will come tumbling down. One of the ways in which the plague stories from Exodus speak to us is that they tell us that when we say those sorts of things, when we engage in that kind of justification, we fundamentally misidentify our own self interests. Because God hears the cry of the slaves, the exploited, the oppress; and because God's nature violently rebells against such exploitations and oppression.

The value of the story, then, rests not on its literal-historical truth value, as though it were merely a report of something that happened once. Rather the value of it rests on its ability to communicate to us the message that God hears the cry of the oppressed.

There is one other contemporary point I want to bring out, before I get very briefly into a more historical point. That is this: in the story, there are no innocents. We may say that some people (Pharoah) bear more responsibility than others for the oppression and slavery of those who eventually became ancient Israel. But, in those who participated in exploitation come to the same end as those who orchestrate it. I'm not comfortable with the end they all come to. I don't worship a bloodthirsty God. But this story says that participating in exploitation and oppression makes one an oppressive exploiter; tolerating a slave-based economy makes one an enslaver.

And when one oppresses, exploits and enslaves, one is opposed to God; and in opposing God one is opposed to the natural order of things. And for that there are consequences, whether I like that image of God or not. I'm not trying to call down hellfire here. I don't even believe in hellfire. But I am saying that if we listen to the voice of this story, it calls us to not participate in economic injustice or socio-political oppression.

But, of course, we don't need the Bible to tell us that. This message, while part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is not unique to that tradition. (And it has not always been heard by that tradition, though that is another story.) We can know that we ought not exploit, oppress or enslave others without reading about how ancient Israel interpreted the role of God in breaking their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. But that failure to be unique does not make the message here less valuable.

This story is not just a moral or a message to us in our historical and cultural setting. Historically speaking, it is also the story of the origin of a people. It is a declaration that ancient Israel saw itself in relation with a God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. It speaks to their identity. As such it has historical value. It is not reducible to that historical value, but that value is there nonetheless. It gives us insight into how these ancient people viewed their own history, the myth of their origins. As such it is a cultural treasure, whether or not it relates a literal-historical truth.


DagoodS said...

Thanks, sandalstraps, for your insight on the Plagues in the Exodus story. I appreciate your drawing out of this story beneficial concepts and ideas, while not adhering to a necessary historical context.

I can’t help but wonder what you do with the rest of the story. This lesson may be valuable to not oppressing others, but how does the story continue with the Hebrews’ responsibility regarding slavery?

According to the law, given to Moses literally within shouting distance of Egypt, when attacking at war, the Hebrews were to approach a city, and ask it to surrender. If it did, the people were to be slaves. If it did not, the Hebrews were to kill the men, and take the women, children, food and livestock as plunder. Deut. 20:10-15

And those were the lucky ones—the cities that were NOT specifically in the land promised by YHWH. For those in the land, they were to be utterly destroyed. Deut. 7:1-2. Every man, woman, teenager, child, and baby was to be killed. Deut. 20:16-17. Even if they begged and pleaded to be slaves, they were not to be treated as well.

And, of course, sadly we see exactly this policy implemented. Moses orders all of the baby boys killed, the gold and silver saved, and the virgin females turned over as “booty” in Numbers 31. Within a generation of being a slave themselves.

Why would God provide a myth about how slavery was oppressive, and then continue the tale by not only implementing slavery, but worse, only offering genocide as an alternative?

And, while I am certainly against slavery, thanks to this little myth, we have a Jewish nation (and much of an American nation) that is firmly convinced Hebrews have a God mandate to a portion of real estate, to the exclusion of those people that were inhabiting it. People are dying over this myth, sandalstraps. At one time, it may have had value for demonstrating oppression, but now that it is justification for oppression and death itself, its time for usefulness is over.

Troy said...

This is a very powerful blog and comment. These are some of the issues I'm struggling with in my faith right now. I'd toss out a couple things:

one, I agree with Sandalstraps that the Hebrew God is deficient in many respects. Looking at the OT canon as a whole, he does have beneficial characteristics: creation for one, and mercy, concern for the oppressed and the poor, tolerance with people who worship him on the side like an entree to a main meal of other gods who apparently required ritual sex with temple girls for crop enhancement and sometimes, child sacrifice.

However, there is much in the OT I cannot stomach. I don't actually see how the plagues show nature rising up against slavery. I think the best way to approach the OT is through the eyes of scholars who study it thoroughly (and it really would take many years to become an expert in the collection of texts we call the OT).

Sometimes, YWHH gets blamed for things his chosen ones do. This is partly true in the Numbers 31 example. YHWH tells Moses to enact vengeance, he doesn't say to keep the virgins as slaves (an unusual feature; usually YHWH holy wars involved no plunder or booty for Israel to keep at all). But that is no dodge for the main issue: it is true YHWH is shown commanding the Israelites to annihilate those already in the land.

This is surely an accurate descripion of much ancient war, but how does this jive with Jesus' parables in Luke, or his statement that the law and the prophets, generally what we now call the OT, is summed up in 'love God, love your neighbor as yourself.'

This is an issue I'm wrestling with, and I'll throw another twist in the discussion.

Most scholars think the Torah is ancient material edited during the Exile into a final form (or forms) and that the emphasis we see there, and in Joshua and elsewhere in the OT, is in part the Jews trying to understand what went wrong, why are we in Babylon, how did we get kicked out of YHWH's land? Ritual purity, separation, was a big theme; as was worshipping God alone, was a must have been our syncretism which screwed us.

I'm barely touching on an enormous issue, but the best answer for me is simply that God didn't write the OT. That while he somehow, someway, was interacting with individuals in that culture (and he may have been interacting with other individuals in other cultures, places and times) what we have in the OT is not a divine dicate but a very flawed, human, often nationalistic history using what Brueggemann calls 'imaginative remembering.' And it comes from many sources, was edited and redacted over time with changing theological reflection.

The evidence, the OT itself, seems to support this.

Did God talk to Jeremiah, for example, at all? Maybe. There are powerful passages in the prophets; more than one blasts Israel for its neglect of the poor and widowed, those whose land has been taken, etc. But when I read it and try to understand it it feels very remote from me. I need years, not months, to bend my mind around the OT.

That said, the real question for myself as a Christian is: why did Jesus come to these people? That is where I wrestle. The gospels are extraordinary documents, if not also human and imperfect. I have pledged my soul to the Nazarene they recall. The historical arguments for the resurrection, the strength of my own religious experience...these all strengthen my faith. But why did Jesus show up to this bunch, at this time?

There I'm still thinking. It's a very tough question, and I'm late for class! All I can guess is that God did make some kind of promise with some Jews; they reached monotheism early, maybe earlier, than any other culture; their sacrifical system was not only for favorable winds, or for crops, or for victory in battle. It was also about atonement, guilt, violation of some kind of legal code, whose form we can only guess at in the redacted content left to us.

Truthfully, I don't have any better answer yet. But I want to agree with dagoods: these are damned tough questions: what kind of God acts like that? And with Sandalstraps: the Hebrew OT God, not in is destructive totalit at least, is not something I see reflected fully in Jesus.

In fact, and I'll close here: one thing that strikes me is that radical shift in tone from any OT book and any one gospel. Read through the OT sometime and then read a gospel. Wow. Something's changed. I realize I haven't reallly said much except that I myself am struggling with these same questions. I haven't thrown in the towel, however; I actually thank God for that.

Peace to both,


Sandalstraps said...

DagoodS and Troy,

I won't be able to fully get into either of your insightful comments in detail yet, but having just checked my email I couldn't let them sit without some sort of a reply.


You have correctly identified a problem witht he Judeo-Christian tradition, what I call the "dark side of chosen-ness." That is, while there are many benefits to seeing yourself as chosen by the Sacred for some sacred purpose, as soon as you starting thinking that you're the only chosen ones, bad things happen.

You ask

Why would God provide a myth about how slavery was oppressive, and then continue the tale by not only implementing slavery, but worse, only offering genocide as an alternative?

That is a good question, if in fact it is God who provided the myth. Of course, you don't think that it was, and it might suprise you to learn that I don't think that it was either.

Even if the scriptures can be seen as a form of divine revelation (the self-disclosure of God) - and as you well know that is a big if - there are still two parties involved in the revelation: the giver of revelation and the receiver of revelation.

I do think that there is a revelatory aspect to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the sense that they do in fact come out of an experience of and relationship with what we call God, the Sacred. But that does not make the myths and stories which emerge fromthis encounter with the divine a divine product. Rather they are a human responce, and an imperfect responce, to the human encounter with the divine.

In other words, God did not provide ancient Israel with these stories, these myths. Rather, God provided ancient Israel with a liberating experience, which did them a great deal of good. However, they were unable to generalize that experience, and see that it applies to others as well. They saw God as their liberator, rather than as the liberator.

I, for one, am glad that this dark side of chosen-ness is included in the scriptures. That is because it - despite its original intent, which was to endorse this sort of behavior (which Kierkegaard called the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical) - serves as a warning to those of us who wish to see our relationship with God as something unique which applies only to us and justifies our most selfish and self-indulgent impulses (exhibit a.) John Ashcroft's behavior as US Attourney General). The temptation to do evil in the name of God is as old as our recorded tradition.


Something did indeed "change," as the early Christian movement can be seen as a reformation and reformulation of Judaism (in the same way, for instance, that Buddhism reforms and reformulates Hinduism). But we should be careful not to divorce ourselves from our Jewish heritage, mindful of the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and a Jewish rabbi.

If you get a chance to do some serious reading, I suggest you look for Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos' book Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice. Johanna is Dora Pierce Professor of Bible and Professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and was my scripture professor when I went there.

She brings up many of the issues which you allude to, and answers some of the questions you have about reconciling the different visions of God contained in our scriptures.

Troy said...


that book is now next on my list. I've actually wanted to email and ask you about these issues but am glad they came up on the blog.

Meeting the Christ of the NT and then reading the OT as a sensitive modern is, uh, painful and ripping hard. Put better, it's been kicking my ass.

There are the wonders of the 23rd Psalm, but then in the same collection the Psalm from exile (and I forget the number) where the author looks forward to seeing the infants of the dominating country smashed against the rocks and killed.

It's quite possible that happened to some Israelite infants when they were hauled off, that it was common practice during invasions in that era and region. I can understand the desire for vengeance. But surely, God, Jesus at least, would not condone this kind of revenge on innocents.

The EFM material, which attempts to approach the text from a scholarly, even secular, perspective, does not go far enough; neither does Brueggemann in his Intro, the only other text on the OT I have.

I haven't run across K's phrase. However, it's clear life in the ancient middle east, and the rest of the Mediterannean, was nationalistically violent, vindictive, imperialistic, all the things we read about in the OT. Israel, or some of the writers of the texts we have now, put God into that mix in a very different way from the way Homer put his gods into the Trojan war; still, YHWH is there, war god and worse in places.

I wish they hadn't! But between that issue the way Christians applied their Jesus experience to the OT texts and vice versa (some texts messianic, some not) well, yeah, I'm in a bit of a stew.

This all reminds me again that the simple way scripture has been read for so long, certainly the fundamentalist notion of divine dictated inerrancy (and as I've said before, I don't know what older views on scripture were) these simple ways of reading have to go; they are not supported by the texs we call the Bible!

Thank you S. Frankly, no one in my parish knew where to point me. I'll order your selection today and hope that it helps me as I continue to thirst for the Living Water.


Sandalstraps said...


I know that you and I approach the Hebrew Bible as Christians, and so as Christians we are wont to interpret it in light of Christ, using Christ as a way to clean the text of what we perceive as its impurities. Christ, we often say, supplements, completes, and supplants the vision of God in the Hebrew Bible.

We are uncomfortable with the violent God, the vengeful God, the angry God, the intolerant God. We see in Christ a different revelation of the nature of God, and we read that vision of God into the Hebrew texts. This is one way to "clean up" the texts, and make them useful for our faith. Much of what I've written on the Exodus stories does just that, seeing Christ as the new liberator who frees all who are enslaved rather than just these few chosen people.

But we should bear in mind a couple of things:

1. Many Christians have retained the vision of God which, while contained in the Bible, we see as being un-Christian and contrary to the message and revelation of Jesus.

Think, for instance, about all of the Christians who proclaimed hurricane Katrina God's wrath against New Orleans for its wicked, decandent, sinfulness. Think about all of the Christians who agreed with the televangelists that 9-11 was caused by God "removing His (their word, not mine - exclusively male images of God deny women participation in the image of God) hedge of protection" on America because as a nation we tolerated homosexuality and abortion.

While many of these people keep the negative component of Christian supercessionism (the Christian faith and scriptures supercede the Jewish faith and scriptures, and Christians replace Jews as the "chosen people" of God), they still keep the angry God of militant ancient Israel (not nearly the only image of God found in the religious tradition of ancient Israel - see for instance the prophets' concern for social justice) and principally identify with that way of seeing God and interacting with God.

2. The way inwhich Christians have reformed Judaism is not the only way to replace this angry and vengeful image of God witha God more concerned with justice, grace and compassion.

Jewish mysticism, for instace, independently of Christianity, arrives at the formulation "God is love," as sees as the goal of spiritual activity a merging with the divine love. And this is by no means the only way in which Jews have wrestled with one of their traditional images of God, which stopped working as a religious symbol long ago.

If I were you I would try, as I wrestle with the aspects of the Biblical text which we find distaseful, to also look for a Jewish interpretation of the text. After all, these stories are in their scriptures, and are at least as much a part of their tradition as they are a part of our tradition.

If you are looking for a book on how Jewish theology speaks to religious and cultural pluralism, I highly recommend Jonathan Sacks' The Dignity of Difference. In it Sacks looks to the Hebrew scriptures and sees in the some precedent for affirm difference and plurality.

As for Johanna's book: it will give you more than you ever thought that you wanted to know. Read it slowly. Live with it for a while. It is a tough and challenging read which, if you let it, will help shape your approach to the Torah. I'm glad that you'll be reading it.

Sandalstraps said...


One more thing:

I forgot to note that the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical comes from Kierkegaard's treatment of "the Binding of Issac" in Fear and Trembling.

Sandalstraps said...

Here is my take on Kierkegaard's Teleological Suspension of the Ethical. I wrote it in a philosophy of religion class in college, and posted it on this blog after I watched WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price. I was very frustrated at how supposedly Christian businessmen could justify building their fortunes on the backs of the oppressed, which is also connected to our willingness to see ourselves as uniquely chosen by God, and justified in whatever we do. Again, the dark side of chosen-ness.

Amy said...

While I think Johanna would be take pride in the number times her name appears on this blog (unlike me, Straps is quite conscientious about naming his influences), there is another Old Testament Professor, also at Louisville Seminary, who has written a piece I think you could find very helpful, Troy. I've included a link below.

Tricia Tull deals with those same angry psalms you talk about; we must remember that they are written as prayers, human language to God, rather than instrucions in righteousness. They are expressions of our own spiritual joy and angst. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, when you pray the Psalms (especially when you pray those that aren't concordant with your own current spiritual condition), you pray in community with those who experience joy, anguish, fear, oppression, and exaltation. You connect with the spiritual life of those around you. And, as Tricia points out, in the face of oppression anger can be very comforting and almost necessary.

I hope this sermon, from our commencement in 2004, helps you as you struggle with these scriptures.

Brian Cubbage said...

Not much to add to the discussion, except that the very issue that DagoodS raises is very much an issue within contemporary Judaism-- in fact, perhaps even more so than in Christianity. A fundamental debate among Jewish theologians concerns whether God's covenant with the Jews is essentially bound up with the promise of land, or whether it is not. Of course, the traditions in the Tanakh tend to mention covenant and land together, so there's always some warrant for saying that you can't have one without the other. But the response of the rabbis to the Diaspora, the very foundation of modern Judaism, tends to interpret the covenant differently. An important recent commentary on the opening chapters of the book of Genesis from the Jewish Publication Society (I forget the name of the author) represents this tendency when it interprets Gen 1 as conveying the truth that God is the lord of time, not of space (and, by extension, of land).

The theology of land has obvious repercussions for contemporary debates within Judaism over the state of Israel. Before extending DagoodS' critique of the Exodus story to Judaism, though, not all Jews adhere to a straightforward theology of the land. (Of course, not all Christians do, either, but the "new covenant" announced by Jesus didn't come with a promise of land in the first place.)

Sandalstraps said...


You said

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, when you pray the Psalms (especially when you pray those that aren't concordant with your own current spiritual condition), you pray in community with those who experience joy, anguish, fear, oppression, and exaltation. You connect with the spiritual life of those around you.

which reminded me of a passage from his work Life Together, in the second chapter, titled The Day with Others, in the subsection The Secret of the Psalter. Are you familiar with this work, and if so, is this what you are refering to? Or did Bonhoeffer delve more deeply into the comunal aspects of praying the Pslams elsewhere?


Thank you for directing our attention to an issue in contemporary Jewish theology. I'll try my best to address this later, though I'm not very up to date on issues in Jewish theology.

Was the commentary on Genesis written by Jon D. Levenson? I know that he wrote the introduction to and commentary on Genesis for the Jewish Publication Society's Jewish Study Bible, which I will read this afternoon.

Liam said...

I don't have much to add here but to thank all of you for the fascinating and important conversation. I pretty much agree with Sandalstraps' take on the whole thing -- especially his warning not to abandon the OT or the Jewish roots of Christianity.

I also think that God, in any given time, can only be understood in the cultural context in which God is perceived. In other words, could God's favor have been interpreted in any way that does not involve promises of land and brutal victory in brutal war? We need historical perspective to see the larger meaning in what the writers of scripture were trying to express about their encounter with the divine.

Back to grading papers, now... Thanks, everybody.

Brian Cubbage said...

Sandman, I really don't recall. Once I do the thirty minutes of grading I have left to do, I will run over to the library and find it.

Like Liam, I've postponed my grading this morning for long enough. Next time I post, I will be a free man!

Amy said...

Yes, I was indeed referring to "Life Together" - just did a project on it for my class in Barth and Bonhoeffer... Fascinating work...

Troy said...

Sandalstraps and all of you,

this is great, truly; I ordered the first book S mentioned and will consider the others.

I don't know that I want to abandon the Jewish roots of the faith; Christ was a Jew, of course; his message is rich with eschatological, apocalyptic, convenantal, redemptive components, all strands found in the OT. But there are strong hints that even he was culling, sifting, the OT content.

As S notes, there are some Christians who believe God really did judge nations via conquest, decimation, and exile during that historical period (dare I say, dispensation). Some of these believers are considerably less whacked than those who feel we brought 9/11 on ourselves; some of them are friends. I suppose if God really does judge us after death and some of us go to the second and final death, then the OT makes a fitting backdrop.

But looking at the OT as a whole, the prophecies which were not fulfilled (unless in a spiritual sense) like the return of the northern kingdom, the mythology in Genesis, the military history, the purity-oddness and sexism of much of the legal code, I have to abandon the belief that this is 'God's word,' that God wrote this thing line for line, even though I know I'm a modern reader looking into an ancient people's spiritual book.

For if it's written by humans without divine guidance, or only remote guidance, I don't really know what to make of it. Even key 'doctrines' like the fall come into question. How did we 'fall' if we evolved? If there was no fall, what do I make of random human suffering and disease? You get the picture. I'm at the beginning of a long journey.

It is true I'd like to toss most of the OT, frankly, Marcion style. Of all sacred texts/faiths for Christ to be born among and to appropriate himself into...'yes, this is actually all about me'...I find the Jewish text a strange pick. But Jesus was born a Jew (not a Hindu or a neo-Platonist) and that means to me that some kind of promise was, historically and in fact, made to Abraham, and David, or at least some of their people no matter how jacked up they and their vision of God may have been. A promise that the Way for the entire world would come among their people, though not all would apparently take it.

I need much time (years?) to digest this. I'm just reading through the OT for the first time. There are things in the NT, well, in Revelation at least, the eternal lake of tormenting fire, which I also find repugnant. It doesn't mean it's not true, but if Revelation is also a human see the confused nature of the modern skeptical Christian, clinging to imperfect yet dynamic records of Christ's time on earth, struggling with the rest of the canon.

Recently I have come to realize, with surprise, that I will eventually die without the answers to all my questions. Doesn't mean I can't work on them while I'm still here.

Thanks to all; I'll read all these posts again. I treasure the assistance. For now, though, I have to grade with Liam.

Amy said...

I understand your struggles. The imagery of the Old Testament, often gruesome and filled with wrath, can be very jarring. I don't know how I would have turned out if I had been exposed to Jephtah's daughter, or the concubine in Judges, during my formative years as a Christian.

I think part of your struggles lies in your assumption of prophecy as a prediction to be fulfilled. While that has been a common interpretation, it doesn't do justice to the aim and purpose of prophecy. The intention of prophecy was to shake people up, to speak truth to systems of injustice, and to challenge the society to live according to their covenant. The visions represented are not necessarily predictions of what is to come, but elaborations on the beautiful potentials of faithful relationship with the LORD. (Out of respect for our inability to capture God, I choose not to write out or speak the tetragrammatron, or name of God. For your future conversations, it's good to know that there are many, even in Christian circles, who find the writing and speaking of the name of God highly offensive.) You may want to look into the work of Martin Buber and others as you look into those texts.
As for Revelation, I highly recommend that you check out "The Rapture Exposed" by Barbara Rossing. While I haven't read it myself yet, I've read some interviews with her. It's a highly accessible presentation of alternate interpretations of the imagery of John's Apocalypse. Her discussion with "The Wittenburg Door" magazine is linked to below.

It is very easy to become shaken when you begin to see the humanity within the biblical authors; the books you will need to build up a faith that takes these matters into account aren't likely to be found in your local Family Bookstore. I wish you well in your search and discernment; let me know if there's a specific topic or book you want to address, and I'll do my best to help out!

Sandalstraps said...

Troy has asked some really good questions, which I'll address later - probably Monday. In the meantime, for people interested in a responsible scholarly treatment of the Revelation, I highly recommend Worthy is the Lamb by Ray Summers.

It is a little old, originally published in 1951, but it is the best work I've seen at setting Revelation in its historical context, and interpreting it in that context. It may be out of print now, but it should be in a seminary library. You could also find it online.

The author was a professor of New Testament and Greek, who through his career taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Baylor University. He eventually chaired Baylor's Religion Department.

The book itself is very helpfully divided into two parts. The first part just deals with the historical context for Revelation. In Chapter I, it looks at Apocalyptic literature as a genre, letting you know what to expect from the literary setting of the text. Chapter II looks at several different interpretive methods which have been brought to the Revelation, and Chapter III places the text in its context, looking at the events and concerns of the day.

The second part of the book offers Summers' critical interpretation of the text. It is almost as rich as a full commentary, but is much more readable, and keeps a narrower focus. His interpretation has enough depth that it should satisfy the scholars among you, but is easy enough to grasp that, when I was a youth minister, I used it to help form my youth group's study of Revelation.

It may be a little hard to find, but anyone interested in a responsible interpretation of Revelation would do well to find Worthy is the Lamb by Ray Summer.

Brian Cubbage said...

I've never read Summers' book, but my very rigorous NT professor as an undergraduate, Joe Lunceford, always assigned that book in his Revelation course. He thought very highly of it, and he had incredibly high standards.

Troy said...

Hey all,

I haven't been able to check back in for a few days, thank you again for all the titles! I felt a bit like a heretic...but I like to think of myself in a Cartesian place. I'm starting at the beginning, and the way I was taught to read the Bible growing up just won't work.

That is the thing that makes this so difficult: the Bible was God's word, written word for word by him and true in everything it affirms...all that. Many still believe it. Though I've said for years I don't anymore, and actually had to toss that belief to find the Jesus of the gospels, the idea still drags at me. Affects me. Heck, many Episcopals still believe it! The current conflict in our branch of Christianity is essentially built on just that (along with a few other preconceptions): 'look at this verse, it says what you can't do right here.'

So, yeah, I have lots of time ahead of me but lots to try and understand.

Thanks again, to all.

And Amy, sorry if my use of the tetra offends or disturbs. We use it freely in EFM, and I don't see a difference between it and any other signifier for God. But yes, I know the Jewish tradition. And there are plenty of other terms which work. There's no special reason for me to use it here.


Sandalstraps said...

I was just talking to a friend of mine about the Bible as "the Word of God." This is a very difficult issue, because those of us who have lost a particular concept of the Bible as the Word of God still want to hold on to that language, and mean something significant by it.

My friend has just started back to college, taking Internet courses from an evangelical institution. His concern was that his scripture professor was teaching a version of the Bible as the Word of God very much like the version Troy is here rejecting (for good reason - it simply doesn't hold water, but that isn't the subject here).

For this professor, to say anything else is to "reduce" the Bible to something "lesser." I say that it is vital that those of us who have rejected this concept of scripture find something to affirm which cannot be fairly rendered a "reduction" of scripture.

The question I have, which for the moment I won't answer, is this:

If you say that the Bible is somehow the Word of God, what do you mean by that?

If you are within the Christian tradition, and do not use that phrase to describe the Bible, why don't you use it? What phrases do you use to describe the Bible? How do you approach the Bible?

If you are outside the Christian tradition, what do you think of a group holding up a work like the Bible as in some form a communication of God and from God?