Randal Rauser wrote a very good book about Old Testament Passages.
I mostly agree with him and I am glad he wrote the book. I do not intend to do a review of the book as much as do a few blogs where I talk about a few places where I diverge from his views. Do not think because I am disagreeing with the book I think it is not worth reading. It covers many important issues.
One topic is how we might interpret Old Testament passages. I definitely take what he calls the “spiritualized” approach to some of the Old Testament. I believe Origen used the term “spiritualize” to describe his own non- literal reading of scripture and indeed I draw many of the same conclusions Origen did. However, I would simply say I am taking a “non-literalist” approach to many parts of the old testament.
I think saying I “spiritualize” the text suggests that I promote a certain particular interpretation. Sometimes I do, but often I don’t have any interpretation other than to say I would not take that passage literally. If I had to choose how to interpret the Old Testament passage of the Canannites I would choose the method chosen by Origen. (I was not aware he interpreted it the same way I do until I read it in Rauser’s book) But I am not saying I believe it is, more likely than not, the true intent of the author. I just think the probability that Origen’s interpretation is correct is higher than the probability a literalist reading, or other options, are correct/true.
Over all, I am happy to admit I am not sure what message was intended by particular passages of the old testament – including that one. And indeed much of the old testament may not even be true or false. It can be artistic. Is a poem or work of art “true or false”? Scripture may be intended to invoke feelings and mindsets rather than just offer literally true and false facts about the world. How would those feelings and mindsets have played a role for cultures distantly removed from us in time is often just an exercise in wild speculation.
It is for this reason that I do not find fault with the Church for omitting certain parts of the Old Testament from the lectionary. If we don’t know what message the Holy Spirit is trying to convey why would we spend time on that passage as opposed to other passages that are more clear? Christ is our guide and he was repeatedly challenged with this or that particular passage from the old testament. Again and again he reinforced what the fundamental take away of the old testament was.
He did not get into the weeds about what this Hebrew word meant and how we can understand it this or that way. So it is just not concerning to me that I must admit I am not sure what specific message the Holy Spirit was trying to communicate in a particular passage. And often I think we don’t know very much at all about what the Holy Spirit was doing to guide people.
Let’s say you find this song.
Further assume you know nothing about the context of the song, you don’t even know who wrote it let alone what the political issues of the day were let alone what his political or religious views were. You can at least translate the song and when you translate it you can see that some of the lyrics are things like, “We’re moving night and day to go to Meadowlands / We love Meadowlands.” Based on the beat and the lyrics you might think the writer of the song really liked the meadowlands and was happy to move.
In reality, it was written as a protest song in South Africa protesting the forced move many black people had to make from Sophiatown to the Meadowlands. South Africa had censorship of music that went against government policy. So the music was deliberately upbeat to suggest to the government it was in favor of the move. But in fact the upbeat nature just added to the irony and sarcasm that was intended by the author Strike Vilakazi, and his audience that heard it.
Some officials in the South African government took it literally and so they played the song on the radio. Those government employees were living in the context but still misunderstood. The joke was on them and that inside joke shared by a community makes the song inspiring. But how do we know this? We know this because the song was written less than a century ago at time long after the printing press and even video cameras that documented the history and intent of the author. But what if you just found this song without any of that context. What if you didn’t even know who wrote the song, all you could do was translate it? Almost certainly you would get a completely wrong message.
The way this song played a role in South African history is wonderful. I might even call it historical scripture. Is the song “true”? Did people misunderstand the song then, and might they misunderstand the song later if they lack the context? Yes but their ignorance adds to the songs brilliance.
When we read the Old Testament we should not pretend we know all the meanings or purposes the writers had in mind if, in fact, we know precious little. But some people will insist they know God wants them to read it literally as a default. How they know this I have no idea. Instead I think the view of interpreting scripture and other material literally has come about as a consequence of sola scriptura and also the printing press. I will explain that in another blog.
Origen is one of the earliest commentators on Old Testament passages whose works still exist. He was onve of our closest in time sources to understanding what these authors would have intended. He did not interpret them literally. My own approach is I might read a passage where “God says” kill every soldier, and I think ok, but, if this is literal how do we know this is God saying this and what does he look like etc. But ok maybe we can get past that. But then “God says” kill every male even if they are not a combatant. And there I think hmm that seems questionable based on other writings like the fifth commandment not to mention what God said and did when he came to earth as Jesus. But then I read “God says” and kill every woman. At this point I am definitely thinking the author is up to something other than literal history. More likely than not this is not simple recording of literal history. And then “God says” kill every infant! And here I am definitely thinking God is communicating in a non-literal way. Beyond reasonable doubt this is not literal. But then even if you are still not understanding this is not intended as literally what God said the author writes God also said kill every one of the enemies donkeys! Ok at this point unless your name is Dwight Schrute you have to be thinking the author is up to something other than a simple transcript of what God literally said.
Is the author making an inside joke about certain hard line priests/rabbis/political leaders of his time? Would certain rabbis misunderstand the intent that more sensible Jews/Rabbis understood as happened with the song meadowlands? I am not necessarily saying that. I am saying we don’t know. And I am certainly saying that I think that is much more probable than the intent was that he literally believed God thought we should take vengeance on the farm animals of our enemies. I also believe that inside jokes against arrogant powerful leaders is likely one of the oldest forms of entertainment and expressions of solidarity for oppressed people. If it was intended as a jab at certain overzealous preachers of the day I can see why it was handed down as a classic.
My own view – if I had to choose one – is that the author was using symbolism where the canannites represented sin. My view is similar to Origen’s view. But even that I do not think is more likely than not true. I just think that is more probable than a sarcastic interpretation. Both of those interpretations are not combined to be over 50% in my mind. But either the sarcastic or symbolic interpretations seems much more likely than a literalist interpretation. The biggest part of this pie graph is – we really can’t say what to make of this passage.
I often hear/read that authors of this literature lived in a time where science was non-existent and therefore ignorance was everywhere. We hear that most people could not read and write and therefore they must have been very stupid. I have read many times claims that people in ancient times thought things like thunder was made by Thor banging his hammer. And they thought the world was on the back of a tortoise etc. And I wonder how do these people know what the ancient authors thought? Today we tend to read this literally and so we project our views on the author. But how do we know they interpreted these stories literally? And if I am able I will ask the person making the claim how he knows that. Rauser offers some decent reasons in support of a literalist interpretation, (which I will address in another blog) but for the most part there is no response other then they repeat what is said and assume it is to be taken literally.
But If some myth author suggested that the earth rested on the back of a tortoise and some person asked the author “what does that toroise stand on?” or “well how does the tortoise get enough water to drink” I think the author of these myths would not praise this person hung up on literalism for their insight, but rather shake their head and possibly consider them someone that is difficult to communicate ideas to. I don’t think the ancients writing myths and stories that were handed down for centuries in any culture were just dumb people. In particular I certainly do not think that of the ancient Jews that wrote the stories that were considered scripture for their culture were dumb.
People often assume they are smarter than others. They especially think other people distant in time, culture or space lack their understanding. I really think we apply this prejudice to ancients, in ways that are not unlike what the South African apartheid government did to black people. The joke was on the government leaders. The culture that revered the books of the Old Testament was not a culture of idiots. But I think there is a certain prejudicial arrogance that allows some modern people to think their literature really was just crude ignorance in word form.
The bible has 73 books. We should not claim we know what every passage means. It is ok to say we don’t know what that particular passage means. Just because all scripture is good for instruction 2 Timothy 3:16 that does not mean every passage is good for every person at every time in history. It may very well be that parts of the bible were revered for reasons that are lost. Denying this possibility is not going to help anyone gain understanding.
It is for this reason that I would push back on Randall Rauser’s view that we shouldn’t “omit” certain Old Testament passages. I think there are Old Testament passages that we do not really understand well at all. I think they are properly left out of church lectionaries and Sunday school. Why read scripture when we don’t know what to make of it? Especially when there is so much scripture that we can understand and provides wonderful instruction in how to live in the modern world?
But people might say well how could God let this happen? Why wouldn’t God make sure people always understood what the author was communicating? And I would respond, why should he? God reveals himself differently to people at different times. Why would we assume we need exactly the same messages people of a different time and place needed?
And anyway the answer is that in reality the meaning of written words in our world/reality does often get lost. The written words may stay but the full meanings are often lost not just in scripture but other writings as well. So what would we expect God to do to help us not be lead astray? Well Scripture tells us 1) he wrote his law on our hearts as a guide. 2) He created a Church, and 3) if you are Christian you also believe God came down from heaven and told us the important takeaways from the old testament. I don’t think it is reasonable to ignore God’s commentary on the Old Testament just because you decided literal readings should be the default. Start with God’s commentary on the Old Testament. If someone’s literal interpretations puts them at loggerheads with the author’s interpretation of his own work we can acknowledge the literal interpretation is wrong. We should do the same with scripture.