Sunday, 21 January 2018

When the Bible Offends- Epiphany 3

Today we are in week 3 of our Epiphany series based on questions that have been submitted by members of our congregation. This is our question for today:
“How do we deal with controversial passages/messages in the Old Testament vs the New Testament?”

You have heard a few difficult passages this morning. In our Genesis passage God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In our Psalm it speaks about happy people hurting infants. In our passage in Corinthians there are reinforcements of patriarchal male-female relationships, and a lot of time is spent dealing with whether a woman covers her head, and declarations that a guy shouldn't cover his head and shouldn't grow his hair long (contrast that with some popular images of Jesus!). In our Gospel we hear Jesus basically call a woman a dog for not being Jewish. All of these are examples of troubling passages. And there are many more we could look at.

There are some broad principles that I find helpful when I read the Bible and bump into these kinds of passages.

First, as Christians we look at Scripture through the lens of Christ. We read Scripture in a way that always keeps Christ in mind. We always interpret it in a way that is in accordance with the person of Christ. For example, in Psalm 137 we just read,
“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps 137:9)

When we read that passage and we ask if it is in line with the person if Christ, something seems off. It doesn’t make sense. So, we are forced to find a way to read it that makes sense of it in light of the person of Jesus. One way that Christians have done this is to read it metaphorically. In the Psalms many ancient interpreters would see Jerusalem as the church or as the soul. Babylon becomes the enemy, which might be viewed as Satan or sin.

Origen (185-254AD) said this about this disturbing text- 
“the just [people] give up to destruction all their enemies, which are their vices, so that they do not spare even the children, that is, the early beginnings and promptings of evil. … For ‘the little ones’ of Babylon … are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who ‘dashes the little ones against the stones’; and he is therefore truly blessed.” (Against Celsus 7.22).

And Ambrose (340-397AD) says about this verse, 
“[we] shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ” (Concerning Repentance 2.11.106).

It also helps to read according to the genre. We can’t read every part of the Bible the same. Psalms are poetry, songs, and prayers. They are expressions of an emotional reality. In Psalm 137 Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. The psalm is full of bitterness and pain, even a desire for revenge. The Psalm expresses a desire for the destruction of a group of people who have been the cause of incredible pain for the psalmist's people- brutal slaughter, slavery, and the destruction of the Temple (which is nearly the destruction of the faith of the people). The psalmist, expresses the emotional desire to eliminate the Babylonians to the very last- even a child who might grow up to do more destruction. The genre is poetry, which is full of hyperbole. It is not a command to go and harm children. We do this in our language sometimes. In prayer it is especially appropriate to give our anger to God. I remember a friend describing his experience in Sierra Leone where he saw even children with limbs cut off by a rebel army. I remember going to my room that night and pouring our vicious angry prayers for vengeance. This might be the kind of thing the psalmist is doing. All the emotions are found in the Psalms. I think it was Calvin who said that the Psalms are a mirror for the soul. All that is to say it is important that we read according to 
the genre. 

Another general principal is to consider the part of the story the passage of Scripture is in. There is the creation and fall part of the story. There is the calling of Abraham and Sarah’s family. There is the giving of the law, and then the establishment of the kingdom under David and the building of the Temple. Then there is the arrival of the Messiah- Jesus Christ. And after that the establishment of the age of the Church. … The parts of the Bible are all parts of the overarching story and it is important to read the Bible according to where in the overarching story we find the scripture we are reading.

We read in Leviticus that, 
“You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material” (Lev 19:19).
 We don’t make Christian farmers and clothing manufacturers follow those laws because we are in a different part of the story. It was written reflecting a time when Israel was defining itself against the people that surrounded them. They were drawing thick lines to create a space for them to be drawn into a kind of holy purity. Even the way they planted their crops was effected by this call to purity. While we still care about holiness, we are not called to enact it in the same way because we are living in the age of the church. 

Bishop NT Wright speaks about the authority of Scripture using the analogy of a 5 act play. Imagine a long lost play has been discovered and a group of very experienced Shakespearean actors are given the play. The problem is that the last act is lost. The actors act through the play, but for the missing last act they have to improvise it. They can’t ignore the acts that came before because there wouldn’t be continuity, but neither can they just re-do the first act. The story has to progress. It has to move forward, but it can’t ignore what has come before.

When we encounter a text like Leviticus 19:19 that talks about not planting 2 different kinds of seed we can rightfully see that as being part of the establishment of ancient Israel. They were to be different from the nations around them…. However, for us the purity of the sacrifice of Christ means that we are no longer required to follow the ceremonial purity requirements. Christ has moved us into a different part of the story. However, we can’t ignore Leviticus in its entirety. There is a moral thread that carries through that we shouldn’t ignore. For example, Lev 19:18 says, 
“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.
 I’m sure we don’t want to ignore that verse. So there are some aspects that continue to apply, and some that don’t really fit our part of the story except as far as they might remind us of the purity and holiness of Christ. Sometimes we will say that there is a ceremonial purity part of the law (which is fulfilled by Christ), and then we say that there is a moral code that still has an effect in our part of the story. 

Another way of saying this is that we read scripture as a whole. We don’t just pick and choose versus out of the Bible. Each verse is found in a book that relates to a particular time in the history of the people of God. 
 In the Book of Common Prayer we find the 39 articles, which are declarations about various questions that were in the air during the reformation. Article 20 says, 
“THE Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. …”
 It is a way of saying that we need to read the Bible as a whole. It needs to have an overall coherence.

We have to consider the individual part of Scripture in the context of the whole of Scripture, but we also need to consider the immediate context of what we are reading. For example, In Matthew 15 we read about Jesus having an encounter with a Canaanite woman. She comes to Jesus saying,
“'Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.’”
 It sounds brutal, right? But when we read it in context it gives us another possible reading.

Gentiles were considered defiled people. The teaching Jesus gives immediately before this passage is this, 
“'it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. … Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person’”.
 Right after this passage a woman comes to Jesus who is considered defiled, but she is speaking words of faith (which Jesus recognizes- Matt 15:28). What comes out of the mouth is what defiles the person or doesn’t. With that context it looks like this was a test for the disciples regarding purity. This woman was traditionally considered impure because of being a Canaanite gentile. Her heart is exposed by her words of faith. Is she impure?

I want to speak about one other principle that is helpful as we read Scripture. That is historical context. In the ancient world, in some cultures, there was a practice of child sacrifice. Some scholars think that this was also true of the world Abraham lived in. To show your ultimate dedication to a deity, you offer something that is incredibly important. The theory is that because children were so valued, they were also considered very valuable sacrifices. In a sense then, the fact that a deity asks Abraham to sacrifice his son is not all that unusual. ... What is unusual is that God stops the sacrifice and essentially says, “I am a different kind of God”.

Historical context also helps us with our passage from 1 Corinthians 11. The biblical teaching here generally has to do with the value of modesty. Modesty looks different in different cultures. In the culture Paul was speaking to it meant women covered their hair and there were very patriarchal roles between the genders. We then have to ask the question as the church, “are we supposed to recreate that ancient image of modesty and impose the same patriarchy, or are we meant to be modest according to our own culture?” As missionaries encountered people who lived in warm climates like Hawaii or the Amazon rain forest their modest would be expressed in a different way. They wouldn't have to wear much for clothing. The value of modesty should matter more than the specific expression of modesty in a particular culture.

We might find that we are offended by this kind of teaching, but I think that when we look at the historical context and the cultures that surrounded them we often find that the Scriptures are quite progressive for their time. They have a trajectory that aims us towards a more respectful relationship between the genders. 

There is much more that we could say. I’m not at all suggesting that these principles solve all our problems when we are reading the Bible, but I think these principles can get us thinking a little bit about how we read the Bible and maybe gives us some avenues we can explore when we do bump into something hard. 

Ultimately the Bible is a guide for us. In 1 Timothy 3:15-17 we read that, 
“sacred writings… are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”.
 Scripture is not given to us as a science textbook, and not even necessarily as a history textbook. Scripture is given to us for spiritual formation and to prepare us for God's mission. We should be careful to read it accordingly. AMEN

Recommended reading:
If you want to investigate reading the Bible, especially in light of difficult passages, then I recommend the following. 

Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan
Did God Really Command Genocide? by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan 

The Bible Tells me so by Peter Enns

The Story we Find Ourselves in by Brian McLaren

The Blue Parakeet by Scot Mcknight

How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

Scripture and the Authority of God
 by NT Wright
Surprised by Scripture by NT Wright

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