- The reverence and authority given to the Bible, the Christian sacred book.
The Bible is recognised as a sacred book. I’m not quite sure what this phrase means but it certainly puts the Bible into small select group of books regarded by many humans as being very special. These books are often accorded a reverence and authority given to no other books. They are regarded by millions of people as being a guide for human behaviour and a way to view God and reality which should not be doubted or questioned. They are even thought of by numerous devout religious people, as being without error. The words in these sacred books are sometimes thought to have come directly from God, that transcendent, perfect, all-knowing supernatural Being/Person. I do not share any of this approach. In fact, how ordinary religious people have been instructed how to treat sacred books, I believe constitutes one of the main issues I have with some world religions, including Christianity.
Do I need to ‘Start all over again’ regarding my attitude to the Bible? No, but I have to do quite a bit more ‘clearing out’, on top of what I have already done in the past As I have for years, I need to continue to ‘faithfully question’ what I have been taught about it and what I read in it. I have been ‘faithfully questioning’ the content of the Bible for many, many years and have revised my attitudes to it many times. I have little doubt that my willingness to allow the Bible to have influence or authority over my theological thinking will continue to change. Every new book I read, every new insight I gain from wherever, encourages me and sometimes forces me to reconsider or reprioritise my thinking and so it is with the Bible. Modern biblical scholarship has been very influential in this part of my journey with Jesus.
I am pleased that in church services I attend these days I am not subjected, as I was in the past, to the introduction to Bible readings with, “Hear the word of God as it is contained in…..” and at the end of the readings, “This is the word of God” and then the congregation was expected to reply, “Thanks be to God.” For me this announced that the Bible had complete authority and should not be questioned. For regular church-goers I believe it was far more than a mark of respect for what was read. These liturgical comments by the leader prompted a reverence which, I believe, no book deserves. The congregation in some churches, stand when services commence with a procession in of the Bible and the officiating leader. In some church services, congregations are requested to stand when sections from the gospels are read. For me, this borders on idolising the Bible – bibliolatry.
This sacred book is so big and varied, it is difficult to know where to start. With 66 individual books, the Bible really is a library. Read through modern western-culture eyes, it has inspiring books of love and loyalty as well as books that would not pass an ‘MA’ rating if made into a film. Many of the individual books have content which ranges from exciting and engrossing to totally boring. The images of the Bible’s theistic God range from the extremely ultra-violent to unconditionally loving, and everything in between. It argues with itself and has books in it that contradict each other, presenting different attitudes on many issues. It often points in different directions on matters of morality and human behaviour. The characters within its stories vary widely, from disgracefully in-human to profoundly divine. From its rousing wondrous heights to very disappointing, disgraceful lows, the Bible has it all. Despite all this, it has Jesus and his story.
Because of its content, the Bible should never be given to children. Some content is OK for them but certainly not the majority of its stories. The fact that it has been openly available to adults in different cultures through the centuries, has led to significantly different results, many very desirable but some mammothly disastrous. When I look back over my life, I think I may have unfortunately contributed to some of these disasters. Am I one for censorship? Well. No, but! Every crazy, misinformed interpretation has flourished without restriction and this has brought about calamitous results for religion generally, the peace of the world and for the well-being of countless individuals. Maybe one of the big problems we have is not the Bible itself, but how much reverence and authority has been given to it by human beings over the ages. But it has Jesus and his story.
The Bible has been used and abused so much over the ages and this continues. It has been the basis for unscrupulous people to take unto themselves uncurbed power, instil fear into millions, condone and encourage slavery, rip millions of dollars off the public by corrupt, self-serving individuals and to finance spurious church purposes, demonise those of various sexual orientation, subjugate women and condone, even encourage, all sorts of violence. It has been used as the foundational ground for justifying burning some people at the stake and terrorising the masses. One could go on. It also has been the basis of much positive social change. It has been the inspiration for numerous peace initiatives. It has been used to fight racism. It has given a core message of love to millions of ordinary people in innumerable, ordinary ways and expressed our common humanity, inspiring many to work for equality. One could go on. And it has Jesus and his story.
The size and complexity of the Bible has inevitably given rise to experts. I believe this is extremely helpful and necessary. Biblical scholars and historians have shared much wisdom and given to me an enormous amount of information that, I believe, has helped my spiritual growth and understanding. Unfortunately however, this need for experts has also given rise to an attitude in many church-goers’ minds, that if someone knows a lot about the Bible, this sacred book, they must be right. Not so.
For me, a tremendous amount of biblical teaching takes me back into the past, and if it is not interpreted appropriately, leaves me there. I wonder where other disciplines of human knowledge would be if such authority and reverence was given to their 2000 – 3000 years old texts and writings? I venture to say that we might still be back in the Dark Ages.
I wish to state that the Bible has been the most important book in my life. It still is. It has taught me about love and forgiveness, respect and equality, mercy and justice. It has helped me understand these human values and has challenged me to live by them. However that is not the end of the matter. Because of its total content, the Bible has provoked in me numerous serious theological and moral questions. The feelings I have now while writing, are feelings of considerable ambivalence. Even though there are some comments about its positive instruction, the process I use now is to do the ‘clearing out’ of that which I find unhelpful now. Continuing this way causes significant turmoil within me.
The Bible has been fundamentally influential in my Christian upbringing. There has been an emphasis on the New Testament, particularly the story of Jesus in the gospels, but the Old Testament has not been ignored by any stretch of the imagination.
I have been encouraged to think about Jesus and his ministry as being built on and expanding the religious ideas of the Old Testament. The Suffering Servant concept in the prophet Isaiah is one example. The whole Judaist sacrificial system is another. With other Old Testament themes, both these have prompted much ‘faithful questioning’, so I continue.
My continuing ‘faithful questioning’ about the Bible revolves round these matters.
- Biblical theism and dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divine/Human.
- The major biblical themes of the ‘chosen-ness of God’s people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.
- Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.
- The public use of the Bible in church services.
- The Bible’s internal conflict.
- Can we create our own Canon of Scripture?
- The different age and culture, to our own, in which the Bible was written.
- Biblical Theism and dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divine/Human.
Acknowledging that I am now a post-theism student, I question the talk by God I encounter all through the Bible because it nearly always assumes God to be a separate distinct Being/Person, conversing and having dealings with humans and inhabiting a place other than our Earth home. Because of this, if the Bible is to have any real meaning for me, I need to re-word, or at least re-think nearly all the talk by God in it. At times, that can be very difficult, sometimes impossible.
If the Bible had been written without the basis of its theism and the dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Human/Divine, it would have come to us as a completely different book, probably unrecognisable when compared with what we now have. I do acknowledge that the authors of all the Bible books were honest, thinking, devout people who, in their time and environment were making their sincere response to the Mystery and in that, did their best at the time. However, that does not make the content something that I need to take as correct or even helpful. I have to exercise my critical faculty but always keep in mind that they were writing 2000 and more years ago.
How we approach the Bible obviously affects its meaning for us. Among many ways of trying to understand it, two significantly different frameworks can become apparent. They have to do with whether the Bible is regarded as a God-book revealed by God to inspired authors or whether it is a human-book written by inspired authors searching for appropriate responses to the unknowable God, the Sacred, and ever present Mystery. The first sits comfortably with supernatural biblical theism and dualisms and the second, I believe, makes room for panentheism. I firmly subscribe to the second.
If we accept the first of these approaches, the Bible is the account of God’s activity revealed by God. God is understood to be a distinct and separate Being/Person. This God is the initiator, the One who does things, who speaks and fulfils God’s own will. From creation to the sending of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, everything occurs because of God’s activity to execute God’s own plan. If the Bible is approached this way, God continually enters our world, having relationships with humans from the outside. I believe this is the basis of biblical, supernatural theism.
I go to a well-known story in the Old Testament. It is found in Genesis chapter 22, a story about Abraham, Isaac and human sacrifice. This story is an example of there being an ‘outside’ influence right through it and this influence is God.
I quote from the Revised Standard Version.
After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled an ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.
On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.
And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father.” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering my son.” So they went both of them together.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.
Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from Heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
So Abraham called the name of that place, The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’ (Genesis 22:1-14.)
Abraham does things, following instructions given by God. God calls Abraham, tells him where to go and what to do. An angel of God from Heaven directs Abraham to stop when he is about to kill Isaac, his son. Abraham is told that he has passed the test initiated by God.
This reading of the story with its biblical theism relates that which is totally outside my experience of life and of God. The custom of human sacrifice obviously makes the story impossible for me to enter it. Told this way, with God being a separate but all-important character, the story is not only strange but irrelevant to me. Abraham seems to be responding only to outside influences and the final outcome is controlled by the same.
So what for me now?
If I accept the second framework suggested previously by which to approach the Bible – that it is a record of responses of inspired human beings to the Mystery – it contains the story of human struggling, trying to make a godly response to perceived important religious customs and to life in general. Telling the story within this framework prompts me towards panentheism. God is active within the story, not from the outside but from inside Abraham. God is active from within, deep inside Abraham and is the ever-present divine dimension in his questioning, in his struggle, in his agony and in his deciding. Some might say this is the way of a struggling conscience, the way of listening to the good inner voice, the way of human ‘faithful questioning’ life as it affects us. I have called it God Within throughout this venture.
With this framework operating when looking at the Bible, we usually have a movement of three steps forward and two steps back, as humanity tries to come to grips with its experience of the unknown Mystery, as humans try to live life within the customs of society, as humans struggle towards truth and express it in action.
With this second approach, God Within is involved in this inner human experience of Abraham. I believe I can use this non-theistic, non-dualistic way of approaching this story but it needs re-wording. When the story is understood within this framework, there is an ‘inside’ influence right through the story and this influence is God; God Within.
The Bible reading from Genesis 22:1-14 with a presumptuous re-write.
Abraham was a man of honour. He was highly regarded as a great leader. But he was also a person who questioned the status quo. He took risks. Abraham took very seriously the cultural custom of human sacrifice. He had to face this issue personally. He knew all the surrounding religions practised human sacrifice and the practice was believed to be obeying their gods’ command. The first born had to be sacrificed to the gods. People of his day knew it, feared it, hated it but obeyed it.
Abraham had avoided the issue far too long. However, he knew he had to face it. So he rose early one morning, saddled his donkey, took two of his young men and his young son, Isaac, whom he loved, with him. He cut some wood for a burnt offering and set out for a very distant place. He wanted time to contemplate the matter thoroughly conscience-wise, and check it against his own internal moral judgements. He seemed to draw strength from the country-side he loved so much.
But the time for the decision arrived all too soon. So he said to the two young men, “Stay here with the donkey. My son and I will go a little further and we will make our sacrifice together. Then we will come back to you.”
So Abraham took the wood for the offering and gave it to his son to carry. Abraham carried the fire and the knife. So the two walked on together. Isaac called out to his father, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” Isaac said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering.” Abraham replied, “God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two walked on together.
When they came to a place that Abraham thought worthy, he and Isaac built an altar and put the wood in place. Abraham then bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the wood, on top of the altar. Isaac struggled and screamed, shouting, “Father! Don’t! Don’t! Why do you have to kill me?”
Abraham, crying uncontrollably, and embracing his only son, yelled, “I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know!” He reached out, took the knife and raised his hand to strike his son dead. “No! No! No! No!” he roared. “This is wrong! This cannot be right! God does not want this! The law is wrong! I can’t do this! I love my son and that love is right. God loves my son and God wants me to love and care for my son. Love is the way! Not killing!”
Breaking down completely, he cried, “Oh, Isaac, Isaac my son, my only son, what have I done to you. How could I consider doing such a terrible thing? Forgive me! Forgive me! Please forgive me!”
Abraham unbound Isaac, fell to his knees and begged his son’s forgiveness. They both embraced. They sobbed together until there were no more tears. They laughed and wept together as Abraham tried to tell Isaac about the custom of human sacrifice. But in the telling, it just didn’t make any sense whatsoever. In his bewilderment, Abraham cried, “Why do we think such a commandment should be obeyed? Why do we have such a horrendous custom? Why do we have to kill, kill, kill and think we are doing something for God?”
Looking at his father who was crushed with guilt and confusion, Isaac stood up and said, “I love you, my father. I do. I really do. But father, what are we going to do about the offering?” Abraham, still not able to stand, muttered, “What offering? I want to worship God with love not death!” Isaac replied, “What about the altar then, Father. Should we break it down?”
After contemplating the whole scene for some time and struggling to compose himself, Abraham, in his agony, stood up and looked around. He saw a ram, caught by its horns in a thicket. He said, “Come here you unfortunate animal. You have to pay the price for being caught up in this terrible crisis. I have made enough mistakes for one day. We will make an offering but IT WILL NOT BE MY SON!”
So Abraham took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. And so it was that Abraham called that place, ‘Human sacrifice is wrong.’, because on that day Abraham said that human sacrifice had to cease. The name of that place has remained to this day.
With this re-wording, the story is more relevant to my personal human experiences and strivings. I too have struggles with the moral decisions I have to make. Certainly nowhere near as traumatic as in the story, but I believe that God Within me is involved in my struggles and in my decisions, just as with Abraham, just as with all of us. I often use more common phrases like ‘my conscience’ or ‘the inner voice I hear’, when talking of these experiences.
There are numerous other Bible passages which for me, need this sort of re-wording. When I do this, I find the passages inspirational and very instructive but without a basis of biblical theism. Bible passages can regain their powerful message for me.
The well-known Psalm 23, without the outside God influence, speaks to me when re-worded. Another presumptuous re-wording, but for me, necessary.
I experience the Lord as my shepherd. I shall not want. When I lie down in green pastures and when I walk beside still waters, my soul is restored. God in me, prompts me to walk the paths of righteousness. They are godly paths for me. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. I am at peace for I am united to God. My rod and my staff are ever present symbols of my experience of God within me, supporting me. A table is prepared before me in the presence of my enemies; my head is anointed with oil and my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy is my portion all my life for God is in me and I am in God forever.
The familiar beautiful poetry is absent but, for me, the meaning is still very powerful.
In the books of the Old Testament prophets there are numerous profound religious teachings.
Behold the days are coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,.. But this is the covenant I will make…I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord.”, for each shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31 and 33-34.)
This passage points towards God Within, for me. However, I understand this passage in a far more universal way than is presented biblically. I think most church-goers, most of the time, take this approach. A possible re-thinking of this passage might be,
Behold, I live in the days when I am heedful of the Lord within me. The Lord’s covenant is such that God’s will is within me, written on my heart; we are all in God and God is in all of us. So no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord”, for each shall know that God is in us all, from the least of them to the greatest; for we know our iniquity is forgiven, and our sin is not remembered.
With re-wording, I always try to move as close as I can to a unity; God united with humanity. So, for this passage it is not God’s law or covenant that is in me, as in the original Bible teaching. It is God in me. If God is in me then God’s law or covenant, I understand, is part of that experience.
For me, the book of Isaiah reflects the way society very often reacts to rebellious servants/heroes. Whistle blowers come to my mind. They often suffer.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… By oppression and judgement he was taken away… ..although he had done no violence… (From Isaiah 53:1-12.)
And as history often regards them,
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great… (Isaiah 53:12.)
… he shall see the fruit of his travail of his soul and be satisfied. (Isaiah 53:11.)
Amen for people like Martin Luther King Jnr. and Mahatma Ghandi and numerous others about whom I know nothing. Heroes! All of them. For me, they certainly have their portion with the great and hopefully they have had a deep conviction to the end that they have done well.
Even though this Isaiah passage has been used in the church as a prediction of Jesus and a foundation for Fall/Redemption theology, I believe it conveys different wisdom than that, and can be interpreted in a far more universal and relevant sense. For me, it conveys profound and sensible theological wisdom about the way some contemporaries and society in general, often treat innocent, but godly rebellious protesters. For me it need not be cluttered up with biblical theism and the Fall/Redemption theology connected to Jesus.
The violent initiatives taken by God can be deleted from this passage of Isaiah 53. For me, they add nothing to the wisdom of the passage. They detract from it. Suffering certainly happened to Jesus and has happened to many others down through history, but I do not believe this happens because of God’s initiative or God’s plan. It is the result of the abuse of power by humans within human society.
Reader-Response interpretation I know, but if these deletions are made, it makes the passage relevant for me and enables me to listen to it. Otherwise it hinders my growth in Jesus.
The prophet Micah is often quoted about true worship.
He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8.)
So what for me now?
Simple and profound. I can quite easily re-think, re-word this passage as being,
You have been shown, George, what is good; and what is required of you in life to be a true disciple of Jesus but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly at all times.
When I say “You have been shown…”, I mean that my parents, my immediate and extended family have shown me, other good people have shown me, all the good in my environment has shown me. Jesus has shown me by his life and teachings. In so far as God is in everything and everything is in God, God has shown me, but not as an outside separate Being/Person.
I believe nothing is lost when hearing this passage the second way but without its biblical theism, and I think this way is probably how many regular church-goers approach it.
These few examples illustrate how I need to work on stories and teachings in the Bible to regain, in a non-biblically-theistic, non-dualistic, non-supernaturalistic way, that which is noble and inspiring. The more I do this re-interpreting, re-thinking, the easier it often becomes, however, sometimes it takes quite a bit of work.
Looking to the New Testament, it has an untold number of passages which are challenging and inspiring. Some which immediately come to mind are the parables of Jesus, the Prodigal Son, the Great Feast, the Importunate Widow and the Good Samaritan. I could go on and on. For me, biblical theism doesn’t get in the way too much with many of these.
Consider Matthew’s collection of sayings from Jesus in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, see particularly Matthew 5:3-11. What could be more radical, challenging and inspiring? Because biblical theism and the supernatural do not get in the way all that much for me, I can overlook these and listen to their spiritual wisdom.
However, some other gospel passages that come to mind are so steeped in biblical theism and accompanying dualisms that this framework makes it difficult for me to hear the spiritual wisdom they might express. Jesus’ conversations with the disciples in John’s gospel chapters 13-17 are a case in point. For me, they have less to do with God and more to do with Jesus and my relationship with him. Even though supposedly spoken to the disciples, I can hear them spoken to me. This, I believe, is the way most church-goers approach the instruction within them.
From these ‘conversations’ come the quotes listed below. They are not overly steeped in biblical theism and dualisms, thank goodness. From John’s Gospel,
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (13:14.)
I am the way the truth and the life. (14:6.)
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? (14:10.)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. (14:27.)
I am the vine, you are the branches. (15:5.)
This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. (15:12.)
In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (16:33.)
I have made much more comment about Jesus’ inspirational and challenging teachings in the previous chapter on Jesus himself.
Numerous teachings in the latter part of the New Testament have also been, and continue to be crucial in my journey with Jesus, many of which are free from biblical theism.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hope all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7.)
I personally find ‘the fruits of the spirit’ very challenging. They can be found in Galatians 5:22-23. Have a read. Together these passages alone give me voice to praise this book as ‘my sacred book’. I might be in a bad place without it.
Some of these comments highlight the need for me not to allow the theism and dualisms of Bible passages to block off wisdom and guidance which might be encapsulated in them. The message is more important than the framework in which it is housed, even though both are important. For me, I just have the extra exercise of interpreting the words outside the box of biblical theism and its dualisms. Sometimes, as I have said, it is not easy.
In this rejection of biblical theism, I suppose I am exercising the ‘Reader-Response’ way of biblical interpretation, maybe to an extreme. Dangerous? Some might say, “Very!” Some might even say that I am being totally arrogant in changing Holy Writ to such an extent; not just with interpretation, but with re-wording! It could be claimed that I am destroying the message of the whole Bible.
If I embrace panentheism and no longer believe in an outside separate Being/Person called God, then this desire, even necessity, to re-word/re-think biblical content is the consequence. I realise this is a fundamental shift and some make claim it robs Christianity of its Christian-ness. I don’t accept this criticism because I believe Jesus is what makes Christianity Christian, and I still retain Jesus as central to my beliefs.
Having stated my rejection of biblical theism and its dualisms, I believe I have the responsibility to do this extra work of re-thinking, re-wording numerous biblical passages and also some central biblical concepts.
2. The major themes of the ‘chosen-ness of God’s people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.
God’s ‘Chosen People’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’, in context here, are all concepts built on supernatural, biblical theism and the dualisms of Heaven/Earth and divine/human. For me, without that basis they make no sense to me.
The Old Testament makes it abundantly clear that the Hebrew people are God’s Chosen People. This chosen-ness leads inevitably to Promise and Fulfilment. Many passages declare this.
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it was the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8.)
I have been told that God ‘chose’ in order to give responsibility, not privilege. This could be confirmed by the call of Abraham.
…and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Genesis 12:2.)
‘So that you will be a blessing’, is being chosen for responsibility and not to be given privilege.
However, so many of the early stories of the Hebrew people, not the least of which are the stories about the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land, point to a favouritism/privilege of the Israelites over other nations. God even punishes nations that did not help the Hebrews when they were escaping from Egypt.
I can accept the concept of ‘a call’ being directly linked to a responsibility but I find using the word ‘chosen’ difficult. In biblical theistic terms, ‘choice’ points to the possibility that God will do things for God’s ‘chosen’ people that God will not do for other nations. God will protect them; God will win wars for them; God will sustain them and give them a second chance. This God will also punish them at times.
I believe this term, God’s ‘Chosen People’, is nearly universally understood by regular church-goers as one which points to favouritism. For me, the term is unhelpful. I do not use it.
When taken as pointing to responsibility and not privilege, the concept can be helpful, but when there seems so much evidence in the Old Testament that the Israelites are God’s favourites, I find linking the idea of being ‘chosen with responsibility’ difficult to retain.
In the text quoted above we have
and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers… (Deuteronomy 7:8.)
This obviously speaks of ‘Promise and Fulfilment’.
Marcus Borg states,
The theme of promise and fulfilment is central not only to the Pentateuch as a whole, but to many of its individual stories. These stories often dramatize and intensify the theme of promise and fulfilment by adding a third element; a threat to the promise and a formidable obstacle to its fulfilment. …. Will God be able to fulfil the promise despite what looks like hopeless circumstances? 
That is a very good question for the biblical theist.
Sometimes promises lead people who make them, into very difficult situations. It would seem that some of the promises that God made to Abraham and God’s chosen people, led God into such situations. In many Bible stories, it seems that the fulfilment of God’s promises justifies the means whereby their fulfilment was accomplished. God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would be a great nation but there they were, slaves in Egypt. God had to make good God’s promise even if it meant taking violent actions against Egypt and all its people. That seems to be OK because God has to be faithful to God’s promises. This imperative is contained in the biblical text quoted previously.
Worse was to come with the invasion of the ‘Promised’ Land. All this seems necessary to preserve the faithfulness of God who would not break God’s word. This again, I think is how biblical theism works.
God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’, in my understanding of the phrase, presupposes a separation between God and humanity. In my church experience, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ has to do with God’s work of reconciling humanity to Godself, bridging a gulf. All I can do, I have been taught, is plead for God’s mercy and rely on God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.
The church teaching I have received about God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is encapsulated in Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost.
… this Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men… (Acts 2:23.)
The New English Bible has it,
When he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God…
I believe this points to a dominant theme of the New Testament. Biblically, God’s initiative in God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is definite and deliberate. It is about God’s activity in the Old Testament to save his chosen people announced in Exodus 3:7-10 & 17 etc., and then in the New Testament, this is expanded into the saving of all humanity, or at least to those who believe in Jesus.
In my church experience, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is deeply involved with the Cross of Jesus, paying the price for sin, reconciling us humans to God, finally and completely bridging the gulf; all God’s activity.
I no longer use the term, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’. For me, it is built on an image of a blood-thirsty God, inseparably bound to a human invented sacrificial system. I do not see any of this in the teachings of Jesus. It also presumes God’s intervention and that makes no sense to me at all.
All talk of God’s ‘Chosen people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’, and ‘Plan of Salvation’ is also brought about by the continual anthropomorphic images of God, acting as a human being, and a very strange one at that. It is also entirely built on God and humans in relationship but being distinct and separate.
So what for me now?
I cannot believe any of this theistic theological thinking and, at the same time hold to panentheism. My understanding of panentheism turns all of it on its head.
This does not mean that I ignore the brokenness of the world and brokenness of human relationships, mine included. No. This is all too obvious and ever present, all-pervading. Nor does it mean that I have no hope for the world and humanity as a whole. My theological response to these three biblical concepts are replaced by my belief that there is no separation between God and humans in the first place. ‘God is in everyone’ and ‘Everyone is in God’ are the drivers of all my theology, so the anthropomorphic activities of God’s ‘Chosen People’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and ‘Plan of Salvation’ are no longer relevant for me.
From my lyrics No. 19.
God is Love, Unfailing Grace
God is love and ever present
In each time, at every place;
God is love and dwells within us;
Is discerned in every face;
This is scared; this is myst’ry;
God is love, unfailing grace.
When love blossoms, when love beckons
Let us taste its sweet delight;
When love welcomes, when love listens
Then our darkness turns to light;
This is myst’ry; this is sacred;
This is sunrise after night.
3. Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.
I come to the vexed question of violence. I have dealt with this previously, very briefly. I do so now in more detail. This area of my ‘faithful questioning’ brings about a major crisis in my questioning. For years I have been ‘faithfully questioning’ many parts of the Bible as to whether they really teach me about the God of love that I perceive Jesus taught about and reflected in his life. My conclusion is that many parts actually hinder my spiritual growth significantly because of the violent image of God they present.
Some myths/stories of the Bible leave me with big problems because of their underlying messages. Violence is particularly evident in the Old Testament but by no means absent from the New Testament.
I probably have little right to expect the stories of the Old Testament to teach me about the God I learn about from Jesus. However, being a follower of Jesus and a member of the church, I have the Old Testament and its stories in front of me, so I have to determine whether or not particular stories help my spiritual growth or hinder it. I believe this dilemma is shared by many regular church-goers. I believe that many who may think about the issue of God’s violence, put it out of sight because it is just too difficult.
The other day I was sharing with a friend in the congregation, my concern about violence in the Old Testament. She was one whom I regard as a faithful follower of Jesus. She is a regular church-goer like myself. She said to me, “Well, George, just don’t read it.” Sound advice but my questions remain and the whole content of the Bible is still available for all to read and we are encouraged to do so.
As I have previously stated, it takes the Bible only about 100 verses (not counting verses that just list names in genealogies) for God to impose and carry out the death penalty on all humanity except one family and a few animals; Noah, plus. This God burns to death all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah except Lot and his family, and this God systematically inflicts death and destruction on the whole land of Egypt, picking out innocent children for special attention. One could go on and on.
I take none of these stories literally but the image of God presented in them is gross, wicked and ultra-violent. I do not believe that my reaction to this image should be ‘awkward and embarrassing’, as some commentators might suggest. I think it is good that even regular church-goers probably do not think too deeply about these stories but again, they are there to be read and studied by us all. This violent image of God continues throughout the early books of the Old Testament and then there are numerous references to this God of wrath punishing wrong-doers and idolaters in many of the later books of the prophets, including Amos, Hosea and Micah. Hosea, Micah and Amos are awash with God’s violent punishments even though these books are often quoted about God demanding justice and mercy from human beings. An important example of this is in the book of Micah in which is an often quoted text of significant moral challenge.
He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8.)
Yet only 9 verses before this injunction, the violence of God is active.
I will root out your Asherim from among you and destroy your cities. And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance upon the nations that did not obey. (Micah 5:14-15.)
We don’t often hear these verses quoted. Is this a case of ‘Do what I say but not what I do.’?
This violent image of God is not absent in the New Testament, as the Book of Revelation clearly demonstrates.
I must remind myself that this violent image is by no means, the only image of God presented in the Bible but it is there on a vast number of its pages and, being in the process of ‘clearing out’, I highlight it. Sometimes I wonder why the Christian Church has retained all of the Hebrew Scriptures in our sacred book.
Along with most regular church-goers, I do not believe in a violent or punitive God. This image of God plays no part in the message of Jesus, as I understand it. I find it significant that Jesus never refers to the Exodus story in his preaching and teaching.
Like many other stories in the Old Testament, the Exodus story presents God as a separate, supernatural, very powerful Being/person who is ultra-violent. Commenting on this story in detail, highlights the extent of God’s violence. In my analysis, I am using the text as presented to me in the Bible. I pick on the Exodus story because it is the central story of the Old Testament. In many ways it could be considered determinative for the whole story of the Old Testament. This particular story is a pivotal story for the Children of Israel, told as biblical history of their great national liberation.
The Hebrews were bitterly oppressed slaves in Egypt and their cries of servitude were heard by God, so God came down to Earth and sent Moses to announce God’s work of liberation. Never in my church education has the Exodus story been identified as probably the most violent story in the whole of the Bible. It certainly has the strong theme of oppression and liberation. Many liberation theologians treat this story as nearly definitive in the way God is primarily interested in liberation and freedom. With this Exodus story, however, it is my experience that they seldom comment on how God delivers it. The fact that the story tells of God achieving deliverance is what is totally significant for the Hebrew slaves. In my reasonably recent past, I had this story described to me by a member of the clergy, as one of the most wonderful stories of liberation. When I heard this comment of praise, I had to voice my disquiet.
Liberation and freedom are certainly major themes of the story, however it portrays the Lord as not only murderously violent, but also seeming to enjoy it. This is pointed to by both the New English Bible and the Revised Standard Version.
.. how I (the Lord) made sport of the Egyptians. (Exodus 10:2.)
This is the same attitude of the Lord that underpinned the continuing teaching of the priests, quite a bit later in Israelite history; see 1 Samuel 6:6. For me, this is a very disturbing extra feature of the story I just cannot accept. What does this story in my sacred book teach me about God?
The Lord is depicted as gaining glory through violence, see Exodus 14:4, and gaining that glory by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, see Exodus 10:1-2. Even before any serious negotiations begin, we are told in the text that the Lord is active.
I (the Lord) will harden Pharaoh’s heart… (Exodus 4:21.)
This idea of the Lord hardening hearts occurs seven times throughout the story, see Exodus 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:8. The last time is with the Egyptians having their hearts hardened by the Lord so that they pursued the Hebrews into the sea.
And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, so that they shall go in after them… (Exodus 14:17.)
This message is consistent throughout the story. It appears that Pharaoh and the Egyptians have no choice in the matter. They have their hearts hardened by the Lord. Biblical theism again. The Lord makes everything happen.
There are ten plagues in the story; water in the Nile and all over Egypt was turned to blood; frogs; lice and gnats; flies; cattle death; boils; thunder and hail and fire; locusts; darkness for three days and lastly human death. These ten plagues are climaxed with the death of countless humans.
..the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt… (Exodus 13:15.)
The whole story is told in Exodus 7:14 – 11:6. I come away from the story feeling utterly repulsed by the Lord who inflicts all the terror and suffering. How could anyone worship this sort of Lord? Particularly Exodus 12:29-30 is horrific.
At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not one house where one was not dead.” (Exodus 12:29-30.)
Would Jesus be happy? Of course not.
I realise I am making my 21st century response but in this story, the Lord deliberately targets innocent men, women and mainly children for death. Even cattle are not exempt. All the killing is deliberate, in order, it seems, to make Pharaoh change his mind to let the Hebrew slaves go, even though it had been continuously ‘hardened by the Lord’. I suppose this could point to the human experience of not being able to negotiate with someone who is just not willing to negotiate, trying to reason with a person who is totally unreasonable. But that is not what the text states. Everything happens because the Lord makes it happen.
I believe that one does not need to be a Bible fundamentalist to perceive the underlying message of the story that, ‘Violence wins’. When all else fails, violence becomes necessary. Liberation in this story apparently required excessive violence. And the Lord does it all! That’s how the Lord’s power is demonstrated – through violence. I find this unacceptable; anti-Jesus, anti-gospel, anti-Christian. Maybe I am looking too much for things in the story that I wish to reject. I deny I am deliberately doing this, even though I am emphasising the nasty parts. I just keep looking at the text itself. I am not inventing the negatives within it. They are there for all of us to read. I find it a disgraceful story and should not be in a sacred book, presenting such a picture of God.
I have been told that God is a magnet for human pain, when voiced. However for this story, I must retort, “What about the cries of the Egyptians? Does the Lord have selective hearing?”
There was a great cry in Egypt for there was not one house where one was not dead. (Exodus 12:30b.)
In a ‘Living the Questions’ DVD, Walter Brueggemann is featured in a series of lectures on this story. He states twice that
The story ends well. 
I beg your pardon! I find that conclusion totally unacceptable. How can a story, which has as part of its end result
There was a great cry in Egypt for there was not one house where one was not dead. (Exodus 12:30b.)
the killing of every first born, all done by the Lord – how can it be understood that such a story ‘ends well’?
I find it significant that Jesus himself, and the writers of the gospels preaching about him, do not mention the Exodus story. In the Cross-reference Bible I have, there is no cross reference in any of the gospels to the Exodus story. There are well over 500 cross-references in the four gospels to the Old Testament, but not one to the Exodus story. It seems to me more than strange that this is the case. The larger story of Moses is alluded to many times in the early chapters of Matthew; in the Jesus’ birth stories, his baptism and temptations, and the Sermon on the Mount. Some commentators have said that Matthew portrays Jesus as the second and greater Moses. It has been commented that the Passover has been re-interpreted by Jesus and New Testament writers, presenting it as the basis for the Last Supper and the church’s sacrament of Holy Communion. However, I believe that Jesus turns the Passover meal from being one which celebrates being saved from death at the hands of God, into being a remembrance of one who was willing to die with strength, integrity and love for what he believed. The Passover is the most solemn of all Jewish festivals. They celebrate it every year and by it, they remember their defining story.
Marcus Borg states,
For the people of ancient Israel, the story of the exodus from Egypt was their ‘primal narrative’. It was the most important story they knew. 
I repeat that Jesus does not refer to the actual story of the Exodus in any of his teachings even though he certainly would have known it well. I ask, “Why does Jesus never mention this story in his ministry?” It was not just another story! He teaches his message about bondage/oppression and liberation without it. Of course Jesus didn’t use every story in the Old Testament. It would be absurd to think he could have. There are too many. But the Exodus story was not just another story. It was so important to the Jews that I believe Jesus and New Testament writers didn’t forget about it or pass over it without thought. For me, it is not unreasonable to think that it was a deliberate omission by Jesus and/or the gospel writers.
When considering another passage where Jesus does use the Old Testament, he stopped short when, in the synagogue, reading from the book of Isaiah. The text in Luke 4:16-17 states that Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth and was given the scroll with Isaiah in it. It states that he opened it and found the passage he wanted.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19. Quoting from Isaiah 61: 1-2a.)
Jesus stops short. He omits a section of the last part of the last verse of that Isaiah reading.
…and the day of vengeance of our God. (Isaiah 61:2b.)
After he had finished reading, he closed the book and gave it back to the attendant.
Whether this is actually Jesus speaking, reading in the synagogue, or the gospel writer telling the story about him, I believe this omission from Isaiah is not a slip nor inconsequential. The part of the verse dealing with the vengeance of God was not read. Jesus did not read it. I do not believe this was a mere oversight either by Jesus or the gospel writers.
Back to Exodus. If Jesus’ omission of the Exodus story from his teaching and preaching was deliberate, his non-use might have come down to two significant reasons. Firstly it may have been because the Lord in the story is pictured as so partisan, so discriminatory against one race, one nation and in favour of another. This is certainly opposite to a major thrust of Jesus’ teachings. The second reason could have been that the image of the Lord is so violent that Jesus, of necessity, had to avoid using it in his message and preaching of non-violence. It is my contention that these are both good reasons why Jesus could have omitted using the story, however I believe it was more likely the second. The Lord – God portrayed in this Exodus story is just too violent.
This Exodus story is not the only story in the Old Testament presenting this violent image of God. Biblical theism is a problem for me but the image of a violent theistic God is totally unacceptable. The Exodus story belongs to the age in which it was written. Even though we should not ridicule the authors and even though we might lose a few positive insights from the story, I can do without it and I believe we all can. Although not given total vindication for my stance, I believe I have a very significant precedent in Jesus of the gospels.
There has been some historical and geological research into the possible origins of parts of this story. One suggestion made is that a volcano, maybe on Crete, erupted, sending clouds of ash drifting towards Egypt, causing the darkened sky. Volcanic ash may have precipitated a sudden plague of lice. The Nile has been known to turn red, maybe because of its banks of red sand. The water when polluted could have caused various other calamities like sickness and boils or even a plague of frogs, trying to escape the filthy water; etc. The number of Hebrew slaves with their families could reach 2½ million if certain texts are taken together. This of course is crazy in terms of crossing the Red Sea and the striking of a rock to give the thirsty millions a drink. Crazy! There are other texts which, when taken together, paint a far more realistic number of Hebrews. For the actual crossing of the Red Sea, it has been suggested that this could have taken place at the Reed Sea, a marshy stretch of land near the mouth of the Nile. If this was the case, the walking multitudes could have progressed but the wheeled chariots of the Egyptians would have become bogged and thus inoperable. They and the soldiers in them would then present no danger to the escaping Hebrews.
This maybe fascinating for those interested but I find it all quite irrelevant to the theological issues raised by the authors regarding the picture of their theistic God and how this God violently intervenes in human history. I think this historical distraction goes in the wrong direction, looking at the story literally and/or historically, thus trying to answer what are irrelevant questions for me.
The Exodus story carries within it the picture of an ultra-violent God and it is there for all to read. This meaning comes to me without any literal understanding of the text. Even if the total story is fiction/mythical and I think it is, the underlying message is clear. Can I keep this story without its image of the ultra-violent, theistic intervening God? I think not. It just doesn’t work for me that way so I have to ‘faithfully reject’ it all. This is very serious! If this story determines or is foundational for a biblical faith then I do not have a biblical faith. I feel somewhat betrayed by my past church teachings in this matter, but in rejecting the story I also feel I am cutting myself off from an important part of that church heritage.
On this matter of ‘faithful rejection’, I quote again from Derek Flood’s book where he deals with Jesus’ own use of the Bible. Flood, refers, in particular, to the story of Elijah in combat with Moab. Half way through the biblical story, Elijah calls down fire from Heaven on his enemies.
..And Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from Heaven and consume you and your company.” Fire fell from Heaven and consumed the officer and his fifty men. (2 Kings 1:10.)
Hoping to follow Elijah’s example, James and John in response to opposition they were experiencing, “Lord do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to destroy them.” (Luke 9:54-55.)….. Luke tells us the response of Jesus was not to affirm this narrative, but to sternly rebuke his disciples. In that rebuke of Jesus is an implicit yet clear rejection of the way of Elijah as well. Later manuscripts include the response of Jesus, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:55-56).* In other words, Jesus is essentially saying that the way of Elijah is not of God, but instead belongs to the spirit of the one who seeks to destroy, that is, of the devil.
While Elijah claimed that his actions proved he was a ‘man of God’, this passage in Luke’s Gospel makes the opposite claim; The true ‘man of God’ incarnate had not come to obliterate life, but to save, heal, and restore it (Luke 19:10 & John 3:17). Jesus not only recognises this himself as the Son of God, but rebukes James and John for not having come to this conclusion on their own
In other words, Jesus expects his disciples – you and me – to be making these same calls of knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject.
Flood has a footnote which states,
*Even if this verse is a latter edition representing a sort of biblical commentary by the early church, it certainly reflects the ethos of Jesus as well, who constantly rejected violent force as a vehicle of the Kingdom. 
I have deliberately underlined what I believe is a very valid way to approach the Bible, certainly not encouraged by the church in my past or present experience. I believe Flood has a point when suggesting that Jesus ‘faithfully rejects’ the underlying teaching of the Elijah story. Of course that story is about Elijah. It deals with what Elijah says and does.
For me there is a significant implication that God’s activity is announced. Elijah says, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from Heaven….” and fire fell. Was this not a vindication of Elijah being a man of God and also of God’s willingness in the story, to use violence? Flood states, ‘that the way of Elijah is not of God’, but who made the fire fall from Heaven? It is not suggested in the text that Elijah had such power. For me, God is clearly implicated. Is Flood trying to ’protect’ the God of the Bible?
I wonder what Jesus might have done with the story of the Exodus if the disciples had used it as a foundation for some of their bad, maybe violent or racist behaviours or attitudes? I think my rejection of the story of the Exodus is far more significant than rejecting the story about Elijah, but I think it is a logical extension of Jesus’ reaction to James and John, commented on previously.
‘What to embrace in the Bible and what to reject’, from Flood, is the closest to any permission I have been given to deal with the Exodus story the way I have.
The use of violence by God is consistent with numerous stories in the Old Testament. There is a notorious story in 1 Samuel 15. It tells of the first command the Lord gave to King Saul after he had been anointed king.
Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3.)
Saul did not kill Agag, the Amalek king, but took him a live captive. He also did not kill all the animals. He kept the best to sacrifice them to the Lord. The Lord was angry with Saul for not obeying his command to the letter, and even though Saul repented and asked for his ‘sin’ to be pardoned, the Lord was still angry.
I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments. (1 Samuel 15:11.)
Not a story to be read in a church service, especially if it is said at the end, “In this is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.” Also, not a story for Sunday School children.
This particular story is one of the final episodes in the saga of the conquest for the Promised Land. Violence is either sanctioned or carried out by God.
And violence continues in the passages within the prophets. Isaiah 37:36 tells of the angel of the Lord killing 185,000 Assyrians. Violence is found in many Psalms and prophets.
Shamefully, the story of the violent conquest for the Promised Land has been used as validation for other, more recent conquests. I quote from George Tinker, Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Ministries.
The socio-political context of imperial Europe generated a colonial interpretation of the Exodus account.…and the 17th Century Puritan conquerors of New England, who consistently saw themselves as the New Israel settling in the new promised land. 
Even more recently again, there is the 1997 publication of ‘Rainbow Spirit Theology’ written by The Rainbow Spirit Elders, Aboriginal Australians.
When the missionaries spoke about the land, they often spoke of the Promised Land of Canaan where God led the chosen people of Israel. They said that Israel had a right to possess the land because God had promised it to the people. And Joshua was hailed as the great hero who conquered the land and so fulfilled God’s promise. But little was said about the indigenous people of the land whom the Israelites conquered. No questions were asked about whether Joshua’s scorched earth policy was what God really wanted for the indigenous people. Today Joshua’s mode of operation sounds to us very much like that of the British colonial conquerors. Was there another way, a better way? Did the British have to follow Joshua’s way? 
We believe that the Abraham story, rather than the Joshua story ought to be the model for how indigenous and immigrant peoples are to live in this land. 
I believe there have been, and still are shameful ways to use the contents of the Bible, but the content is there for all to read and ‘unquestioning obedience’ is given to it by so many church-goers. Is it their fault or is it a lack of responsible teaching by church teachers and leaders and maybe even the theological education presented today in church seminaries and theological colleges?
In the Old Testament there are so many other stories of violence and commands of God to war violently against God’s enemies, there is not room to recount them all here. However, the God portrayed there would certainly be convicted today of crimes against humanity and be deemed a terrorist. And it’s all there in the sacred book. I sometimes do not wish to call the book ‘sacred’. I believe this problem of the violence of God has its roots in biblical theism. It just would not fit with panentheism because with panentheism, as I understand it, humans are responsible for what happens, from wars to loving deeds. There is no outside God to blame or thank.
In his book, Walter Brueggemann uses more than 1000 quotes from the Old Testament and about 50 from the New Testament in giving a detailed explanation of what the text of the Bible says and the theological emphases it is making. He makes numerous comments on many contemporary implications of the teachings in the text. I found his book very instructive and helpful. On the overall situation of violence, he makes some comments.
There is no doubt that the imagery of divine warrior is problematic for biblical faith, as we have become increasingly aware that the Bible is permeated with violence in which YHWH (God) is deeply enmeshed. …
… we are of course much more aware of the ways in which such imagery is a huge liability for it serves willy-nilly to authorise and legitimate all sorts of military adventurism in the name of God….
There are, of course, interpretative strategies that can lessen the toxin of these traditions. Biblical theologians, however, must take care not to ‘explain away’ what is so definitional for the textual tradition. The imaginary is something we must live with, albeit with awkwardness and embarrassment. We might wish for another, better theological tradition. This, however, is the one we have. The presentation of this God is not marginal to the Bible nor can it be justified simply as human projection among the disinherited, nor can it be easily resolved by a ‘developmental hypothesis’ the preferred strategy of Old Testament scholarship. It is there; self-critical reflection requires of course critique of the very God the Jews and Christians confess. While we make our awkward self-aware confession, we cannot fail to notice, even among us, the ways in which this theological tradition continues to fund that which we rightly abhor. 
For me, Brueggemann has righty named the problem.
The imagery is something we must live with… We might wish for another, better theological tradition. This, however, is the one we have. 
I think he is correct. I cannot alter this ‘imagery’ even though I wish to. However, if it ‘funds that which we rightly abhor’ then my reaction to it is that I must ‘faithfully reject’ it. I don’t have to live with it because it is there. I can reject it and never refer to it, or I can refute it every time I do encounter it, wherever and whenever. If I give it authority or influence or even take any notice of it in my beliefs in or about God, then I believe I am leaving myself open to spiritual abuse. Is it similar to saying to a woman whose partner is violent, “We know he is violent but he is the only one you have, so you have to live with him and make the best of it.”? We know what this often leads to. Has the church being saying the same sort of thing about the biblical violence of God, to church-goers for centuries? Shame!
I realise the authors of many of these biblical stories were writing within their own theological framework but that does not make their teachings authoritative or even helpful for me today. Just as I may have things wrong regarding my opinions and theological stance, I believe the biblically violent image of God is wrong, horribly wrong. My journey with Jesus is seriously jeopardised if I give any credence to this image of God. I ‘faithfully reject’ some Bible passages vehemently and I speak out against them. I reject them and say so.
What does this rejection do to the rest of the Bible and its possible guidance for me? If I ‘faithfully reject’, ‘clear out’ this violent image of God, I am rejecting a major theme in the Old Testament. Brueggemann says,
that the Bible is permeated with violence in which YHWH (God) is deeply enmeshed,… 
so I am rejecting a major emphasis of the Bible. I cannot do this lightly. Regarding the way we approach the Bible, I think Flood is helpful but challenging, with his suggestion, mentioned previously, to ‘faithfully embrace’ or ‘faithfully reject’ what we read. That takes a lot of very serious thinking and study.
From my lyrics No. 20.
Violence in the Bible
Tune Cross of Jesus
In our sacred book there’s violence
Often done at God’s behest;
Why would God demand mass killings,
Act in ways that we detest?
Can we see the hands of Jesus
Cutting off Goliath’s head?
Can we think of Jesus wanting
All of Egypt’s first-born dead?
Jesus is for us the standard;
His non-violence is our stand;
When we look at God through Jesus
We begin to understand.
I doubt whether these lyrics will ever be sung in a church service but they are out there anyway.
This matter of violence in the Bible is a gigantic problem for me. However, I do not wish to sit in judgement on modern disciples of Jesus who may decide that violence is the last and only option to them, in the pursuit of liberation from oppression. I believe that godly human reactions to a situation need to be made in the context of the particular situation and no ‘silver bullet’ is available to solve every moral dilemma. It is relatively easy for someone to make grand moral pronouncements to answer incredibly complex issues, when one is sitting in an armchair away from such situations, or when writing comments about them. Even one’s interpretation of how Jesus might respond, might be seen as rather trite and unrealistic to the people who are actually enduring terrible suffering. I cannot imagine what internal turmoil Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident and a strong advocate of non-violence, must have gone through in deciding to become involved in an assassination plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Maybe situations arise in our human predicament that we find violence is ultimately necessary and all we can do is ask for forgiveness after having been violent. It could be said that it is pointless loving someone if they repeatedly refuse to accept that love. Yet Jesus says to forgive seventy times seven. We are called to exercise perfect love yet that may not bring about liberation from oppression. Where do we go from there? It seems sometimes that I/we are left with questions that have no satisfactory answers, even on the horizon.
However, what I find significantly unacceptable is that the Bible commences with a judgmental, unforgiving, violent God in the stories of the Garden of Eden and Noah, exacerbated by the excesses in the Exodus story, and then ends with one of the most violent of books in all the world religious sacred books, the Book of Revelation. This last book paints God as the one presiding over the end of the world with destruction, punishment and annihilation. The anger and wrath of God is ever present. I think it was Richard Rohr who once said,
We have to create a violent God so that we could be violent.
I have looked at violence and the ultra-violent image of God mainly in the Old Testament and in the Exodus story in particular, but it still bewilders me that the New Testament ends with the Book of Revelation. Even though there was serious debate by early church leaders about its inclusion in the New Testament, what bewilders me most, is that it was actually regarded as being appropriate to be incorporated in the Canon of scripture at all. Maybe having been written about the same time as the other Johannine material, it could be dated about the mid to late 90’s. That would place it about only two generations after the preaching and life of Jesus. It amazes me that such a book, with the accompanying image of God in most of its pages, presiding over or at least sanctioning such a catastrophic violent end to the world, could have been thought suitable to include in the Cannon, so soon after the preaching of non-violence from Jesus. Is humanity so hooked into, obsessed and dominated by violence that so soon after the intrusion into human history of one of the world’s greatest preachers of non-violence, the sacred book about him mostly ignores his message about God in its final book? Whether the Book of Revelation is taken literally or figuratively my comment is the same. It seems that we go back to the Exodus story with a vengeance. Do we create God in our own image?
So what for me now?
With no biblical theism, the two dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divinity/Humanity and no Fall/Redemption, the problem of violence, to an extent, dissolves for me but that of course necessitates the rejection of much in the Bible, the story and teachings of Jesus being the all-important exceptions. His story and how I understand it, determines how I treat the Bible, ‘faithfully affirming’ and ‘faithfully rejecting’ various passages.
Having discussed the problem of violence, I must add that this violent image is not the only image of God in the Old Testament. Thank goodness there are numerous stories of love, mercy, justice and forgiveness, both of God’s own activity and God’s commands for humanity to behave in such a way. Thankfully they present some sort of a counter to the negatives I have emphasised. For me, unfortunately they do not balance or force into minor significance, the image of the violent God. I have to do that very difficult job but that job, I feel, must be done! That job can be done by comparing everything with the teachings of Jesus. For me, this brings about many condemnations and ‘faithful rejections’.
What more for me?
Having done this exercise, I also need to reiterate that there are numerous fabulous passages and wonderful ethical teachings in the Old Testament. I want to share just a few examples of what I have find important.
For starters, Jesus could have extracted an emphasis from Old Testament laws in order to add a third commandment to his main two, namely, ‘Love the stranger.’
The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself…. (Leviticus 19:34.)
In Deuteronomy it states that God loves the stranger,
He (God) loves the sojourner… (Deuteronomy 10:18.)
The stranger is singled out for God’s love. I find it significant that Jesus identifies himself with the stranger in Matthew 25:35. I suppose Jesus could have included in his second commandment, in his meaning of the word ‘neighbour’, all strangers and aliens. However, over 100 times the word ‘stranger’ is specifically mentioned in the Pentateuch and a great majority of these have to do with caring for them and not discriminating against them. The Hebrews were to deal justly and fairly with aliens/strangers as they would deal with their own fellow Hebrews. They were to care for them as a brother or sister.
A few times, the Hebrew farmer and vineyard owner are commanded to deliberately leave some of the harvest or grapes for the poor and the stranger to gather.
You shall not deprive aliens/strangers and orphans of justice nor take a widow’s cloak for a pledge. ……… When you beat your olive trees, do not strip them afterwards; what is left shall be for the alien/stranger, the orphan, and the widow. …… When you gather the grapes from your vineyard, do not glean afterwards; what is left shall be for the alien/stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17‑22.)
When you reap your harvest in your land, you shall not reap right into the edges of your field, neither shall you glean the fallen ears. You shall leave them for the poor and for the alien/stranger. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22.)
I am not a student of anthropology and know very little about the customs and laws of ancient civilizations, but it would not surprise me if these injunctions were unique to the Hebrews, or at least not common in other ancient cultures. They would certainly not go well with a Productivity Commission investigation today.
Also in the Old Testament there is the Year of Jubilee, an amazing concept. Have a look at it in Leviticus chapter 25. I wonder how capitalism as we know it, would accommodate such a concept. No doubt it would be dismissed as a stupid and unworkable system by modern economists. Surprise! Surprise! The four big Australian banks would not be able to make their obscene $20 billion profit each year. That’s for sure! I think this concept of the Year of Jubilee was probably a genuine effort of the part of the Old Testament Hebrew theologian/economist to aim at equity and fairness; to give the opportunity to make a new start.
Both the Old and New Testaments are full of new starts, new beginnings, new opportunities.
This brings me to further questions about how we use the Bible in public church services.
4. The public use of the Bible in church services.
Because the Bible was written 2000 years ago and more and because its authors came from a different culture and historical context, if there is no competent explanation of its content, certain texts/passages could either be misunderstood or their intent be completely missed.
A classic case for me, is the story of the Good Samaritan. In each of my Bible versions, which gives a top-of-the-page title for the content of the page below, this parable is named ‘The Good Samaritan’. For the people to whom Jesus was telling this story, there was no such person. None of them, by definition, could be good. The Samaritans were hated by the Jews. Yet Jesus, in this story, is praising the despised foreigner and castigating Jewish religious leaders! No wonder these religious leaders wanted to silence him. This could be missed if the historical context was not explained to those who may not know.
The Bible is often read in public church services without any explanation at all. I believe this is not good. It seems to be considered by some church service leaders that the Bible is always able to stand alone. This, I believe, is a serious mistake. I can remember at one particular church service recently when the New Testament reading read, was from Matthew.
In the passage that was read was,
A man who divorces his wife must give her a note of dismissal. But what I tell you is this, “If a man divorces his wife for any other cause than unchastity, he involves her in adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery”. (Matthew 5:31-32.)
This reading was left with no comment on its historical and cultural context and no explanation about it was given in the whole service. There were at least six divorced and re-married people in attendance at that service. They were left with this teaching as it stood, supposedly from the lips of Jesus. If they were listening and took this passage seriously as it stood, how would they react? I suggest, guilt upon guilt, and they might have said to themselves, “I should not be here in church. Jesus has condemned me.”
This ill-considered use of the Bible should not occur. If such readings are used in public church services, their historical, cultural context must be explained. If no explanation is intended, I believe such readings should not be used.
Another reasonably recent church experience I had was when another passage from Matthew, as nominated by the lectionary, was read.
(Jesus said) Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a son against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. (Matthew 10:34-36.)
The service as a whole, I remember was helpful to me but that part of the Matthew passage had no comment made on it at all. No teaching of the cultural setting was offered by the lay-leader of the church service. This passage is often considered as one of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus but I contend that if no comment or teaching on it is planned, the passage should not be read.
This sort of misuse of the Bible doesn’t happen all that often, but it happens occasionally and it shouldn’t.
It has been my experience, there is not much teaching done in church services. Preaching from such a book needs teaching to accompany it. Modern commentaries abound so there is no excuse for a lack of teaching.
In the Uniting Church of Australia, the Revised Common Lectionary is nearly universally used by leaders of church services. I believe it is not mandatory in this church, however, in Australia, I believe it is encouraged to be used in most Christian churches. This lectionary has a three year cycle and nominates a prescribed set of Bible readings, 4 readings for each Sunday. There is a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel reading and a second New Testament reading, recommended for each week. The use of this lectionary, I believe, brings a mixed blessing. I have been told by clergy friends that if the lectionary is followed, it prevents preachers getting on their ‘pet hobby horse’ every Sunday. While this seems valid, I would have thought there are other effective strategies that can be used to combat this tendency. I have also been told that if the lectionary is followed, the main themes of the Bible will be covered in the three years. However, I suggest that the theme of the violence of God is certainly not covered. Is it not a major theme?
In pursuing my ‘faithful questioning’, I have looked reasonably closely at this 3 year cycle lectionary because it determines to a significant extent, what passages of the Bible are read in most public church services. Obviously not all of the Bible content can be used in such a lectionary. Choices have to be made.
Of the 150 Psalms available, over 50 are not listed for use; 29 are suggested for one year; 26 are suggested for each of 2 years and 32 are suggested for use in each of the 3 years. A few are recommended to be used many times; 9 times for Psalm 8, 8 times for Psalm 23, etc. Most of the 50 or more not listed for use, have content about enemies and a request for God to deal with them. Some have the wrath and anger of God highlighted. These are obviously not really suitable for church services and, I think, are rightly omitted from the lectionary.
Listed suggestions from both the Old and New Testaments show a strong bias for certain books and exclusion of others. Some passages are listed for use in each of the 3 years of the cycle. From the Old Testament, Isaiah is by far the most listed, over 70 times, many of the passages being suggested to be used more than once. Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, Job and Jeremiah are suggested often, while Leviticus, Nahum, Haggai and a few others hardly get mentioned. For the New Testament, there is a gospel reading for each Sunday. All but 3 of the New Testament letters are listed for the second New Testament reading. Romans, 1 Corinthians and Hebrews are the most commonly listed, followed by 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and then 1 Peter and Revelation.
I personally think that those entrusted with the responsibility of determining what readings were to be included, were given an onerous job. Sometimes it would have been very difficult to decide what passages to list and which to leave out. As I found, when trying to write new lyrics to be sung with each gospel reading in the three-year cycle, some passages I believe are just not suitable for singing about in church services. I have stated quite openly in my publications that I found some gospel stories/passages were not suitable to work with. There are great biblical passages but there are very nasty ones as well.
A rather blatant example of the exclusion of the nasty biblical bits is that of the listing of Psalm 104, the verses to be used being 24-34 & 35b. I wondered what the content of verse 35a is. Answer?
May the sinners be destroyed from the Earth; may the wicked be no more. (Psalm 104:35a.)
Is this protecting church-goers from the whole content of the Bible or protecting the Bible from a possible bad reaction from church-goers, or both? Tricky!
When the lectionary lists passages from the book of Revelation, I have questions. Together by themselves, the lectionary passages chosen, give the impression that the book presents a wonderful image of God. Revelation is listed eleven times for use, four of which are the verses 21:1-6. These verses give a vision of a new Heaven and a new earth with God dwelling with man.
Now at last God has his dwelling among men! He will dwell among them and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes; there shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain; for the old order has passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)
This passage concludes in verse 6 with,
And he said it is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life. (Revelation 21:6.)
This whole passage gives a beautiful image of God and life in Heaven. However, immediately prior, the message is very different.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he will be thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14-15.)
Immediately following the lectionary choice, this nasty picture continues.
He who conquers shall have his heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for the murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:7-8.)
These other verses announce the darker side and, I believe, the main theme of Revelation. This book has been stated by some biblical scholars as the most violent book in all religious sacred writings.
Also the last listed lectionary reading from this book of Revelation in the 3 year cycle, 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, gives me problems. I was curious about the content of the missing verses.
Outside are dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters and every one who loves and practices falsehood. (Revelation 22:15.)
This tone is continued.
I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book; if any one adds to them, God will add the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19.)
The other passages listed for use from Revelation speak of God being Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, of worshipping the Lamb that was slain and of all tribes and peoples clothed in white, worshipping God. This is mostly positive but I believe, they alone, present an image of God which is not consistent with the main image in the whole Book of Revelation as we have it in the Bible. My question arises, “Is this censorship or responsible choice?” I have a sneaking suspicion that it is censorship.
I do realise that using the Book of Revelation in church services can be somewhat problematic. It does have sections in it which may be considered worthy of use in church services, however, I have to question whether the lectionary creators are protecting church-goers from the violence of the book or are they protecting the book from being berated by church-goers? Maybe both, as I have suggested previously. Exposing the bad parts has to be weighed up against emphasising the good parts. I would certainly find it rather difficult to strike this balance and be honest in the presentation of the story of the whole Bible.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5:1-11, dropping dead after withholding from the disciples some of the proceeds of property they sold, is not listed for use, I suggest for obvious reasons. The same goes for numerous passages of the Old Testament. I don’t think the book of Joshua is a good book from which to read in church services. It gets listed once. The last few chapters of Ezra are, I think, unbecoming for a sacred book.
As I have said previously, I believe we have a mixed blessing with the lectionary. On the one hand we have suitable passages for church services for praise and thanksgiving and for teaching the positive aspects of our religion but I believe we have a somewhat skewed presentation of what the story of the whole Bible actually tells. I realise that a church service is not the time or place to come into disagreement with the Bible, its stories and teachings, however, it is the only book consistently read in church services and brings with it an authority that many regular church-goers do not question and are not encouraged to do so. Teaching about the whole of this book’s contents is essential. I believe the Bible is presented to a large extent as a book to be unquestioningly obeyed. To do otherwise can be unsettling.
So what for me now?
In my experience in church services, the Bible message is often equated with the message of Jesus. In church services I have attended over the years, preachers and leaders of church services have concentrated on love as the basic Christian message and there are plenty of Bible passages, particularly from the gospels, which confirm this.
To hear in church services, the challenge of Jesus to love and accept love, is great. Most times that is the message I hear. This is one of the main reasons why I keep attending church services.
I do not conduct church services now so I do not have the responsibility of choosing Bible readings but when possible, I encourage leaders of services not to feel bound to use the set lectionary readings. I encourage choices which blend in with the theme of the service and which help the congregation understand the great teachings of Jesus.
5. The Bible’s internal conflict.
The internal conflict within the Bible is often ignored or even avoided. However, some commentators speak of the dominant and the minority voices of the Bible. I find this distinction helpful. There is a great deal of internal conflict in the Bible. As I have mentioned near the beginning of this chapter,
The image of the Bible’s theistic God ranges from the extremely ultra-violent to unconditionally loving and everything in between. It argues with itself and has books in it that contradict each other, presenting different attitudes on many issues. It often points in different directions on matters of morality and human behaviour.
The book of Ruth is a case in point. I think most regular church-goers would think of this story as a love story about a loyal daughter-in-law who stood by her mother-in-law when things got really tough. And so it is. It has a happy ending, which is a bonus.
Most regular church-goers look at Ruth as one of the heroines of the Old Testament and that’s about it. I submit that many may look no further. However, when a bit of detailed study is given to this tale, we can find a depth of meaning far beyond the obvious. Let us remember this book is in the sacred book of the Hebrews.
Ruth is a foreigner, a Moabitess, see Ruth 1:3-4. The Moabites were historically regarded as a hated enemy of the Israelites, God’s Chosen People. The Lord looked on them with genuine hostility.
No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the Lord for ever. (Deuteronomy 23:3.)
This was because they had not helped the Hebrews when they were escaping from Egypt. This hostility was to continue indefinitely because the Lord decreed it.
You shall not seek their peace or prosperity all your days for ever. (Deuteronomy 23:6.)
After the Babylonian Exile, Moabites are listed as being one of the nations causing the Israelites to have sinned, regarded as faithlessness, by taking their daughters as wives.
After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons; so that the holy race has mixed itself with peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness … (Ezra 9:1-2.)
And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now then make confession to the Lord and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:10-11.)
The book of Ezra concludes with a long list of the ‘sinners’ and then makes a statement of what was considered one of high moral rectitude, following the command of the Lord through Moses. To maintain the purity of their race and their religion, the Israelites had to abandon their foreign wives and children. Not only were they to abandon their wives and families but they had to confess their sin for marrying these foreign women in the first place.
All these had married foreign women, and they put them away with their children. (Ezra 10:44.)
I believe a conflict exists in that, not one, but two Israelites had married Ruth. Yet this Moabite woman is the heroine of the story!?!
Some commentators suggest this story of Ruth originated as a counter teaching to the ethnic cleansing done under the supervision of Ezra the priest. If this is correct, there is serious disharmony within the Bible.
Ruth gives birth to a son, Obed, who is the grandfather of King David; see Ruth 4:21-22. This means that King David has a foreigner as one of his immediate ancestors. That causes David to have ‘outsider’ blood in his veins; not much but enough to label him as not a true-blood. If this was correct, he probably should not have been king. According to the story, for some very strict Jews, he has impure blood flowing in his veins. So Ruth is not only a member of a corrupting nation because of her marriage but she is also the cause of King David having foreign, corrupting blood in his veins.
Amazingly, she gets a mention in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus; see Matthew 1:5. There just might be a hidden message here.
Regarding the story of Ezra’s ethnic cleansing and the Lord’s earlier commands about it, it could be asked if any ‘faithful questioning’ has been done with this God-directed activity. I think that probably most regular church-goers know nothing of it. I have never heard it mentioned or explained in any teaching within a church service.
So what for me now?
Without this more detailed analysis, the story of Ruth would remain just a lovely story with a happy ending. I think there are deeper meanings which speak of racism. The general church teaching I have received on this story has been inadequate. I had to do my own research. I’m not complaining but I maintain that the teaching of the Bible, born of critical analysis, is necessary. Congratulations to those who included the book of Ruth in the Old Testament Canon. This extra meaning of the story is, for me, close to Jesus’ message but sadly most regular church-goers know nothing of this. They have not been taught.
For me, this is an example of the Bible disagreeing with itself. According to Ezra it would not be possible for a Moabitess to be a heroine. Do I discern parallels with Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan? The book of Ruth is not about one religious leader (Jesus) arguing with other religious leaders. It is the Bible arguing with itself; the book of Ruth versus Ezra who was obeying God’s commands.
The book of Jonah is another book like Ruth which also could be regarded as a tract, teaching the errors of the way Ezra, who follows the commands of the Lord. Jonah is the story of God being concerned about gentiles who live in Nineveh, a great city in Assyria. God is concerned about Gentiles; concerned enough to send Jonah to them, in the hope of staving off impending punishment for their wrong-doing. This does not sit well with the racist, ethnic cleansing activities of Ezra.
That’s what the story is about and has nothing to do with a whale, or to be precise, a big fish. Unfortunately the whale and Jonah being its belly for three days and nights, is the only part of this story that is remembered by many who have heard it.
A bit of fun from my lyrics No. 21.
Tune Morning Light
He ran away so quickly; he found a speedy yacht;
He did not want to rumble with such a motley lot!
For Jonah was the preacher whom God had asked to go
To foreigners to tell them, “Stop misbehaving so.”
When Jonah tried to practice a disappearing trick,
His boat sailed into trouble, the storm came up so quick.
The captain threw him over; he had a ‘sort of’ hunch;
The fury stopped, and Jonah became a tasty lunch.
The whale got indigestion and Jonah, he popped out;
He knew he was a loser; he did a turnabout.
He preached to all that city; “You must be good and true,
Then God might reconsider what had been planned to do.”
God did not chuck a wobbly, but Jonah wished them dead;
For they were not like he was – not Jewish born and bred.
So God taught him a lesson; not sure if he agreed;
God’s love is for all people, for every race and creed.
Both the books of Ruth and Jonah can be regarded as examples of real internal conflict within the Bible, presenting teachings, opposite to those presented in other parts of the Bible – the books of Ruth and Jonah versus the book of Ezra.
Also it has been said by many commentators that there is a significant difference of emphasis in the teachings of the priests and the prophets of the Old Testament. Often the priestly requirements for worship are questioned and even ridiculed by the prophets, who insist on other priorities. Passages from Amos and Micah make this explicit.
I (the Lord) hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, even though you offer me burnt offerings and cereal offerings I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream. (Amos 5:21-24.)
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings with calves a year old? … He has shown you O man what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6 & 8.)
In this internal biblical ‘faithful questioning’, there is Jesus. Jesus does his own ‘faithful questioning’ and ‘faithful expansion’ in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew has Jesus saying, not once, not twice, but six times,
You have learned that our forefathers were told …… But what I tell you is this….(Matthew 5:21-22, 5:27-28, 5:31-32, 5:33-34, 5:38-99, 5:43-44.)
In five of the examples, what was taught previously ‘to our forefathers’ comes directly or indirectly from the Torah, sometimes with multiple references to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Jesus here is giving a deeper interpretation to these ancient scriptures. I think this is evidence of further internal conflict which is not censored out. This conflict is not as serious as in other parts of the Bible, but I believe it is there.
It is not unreasonable to say that Jesus and his emphasis on loving ones enemy and praying for one’s persecutors in Matthew 5:44, is in serious conflict with limited revenge permitted in the Old Testament.
Whenever hurt is done, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound. (Exodus 21:23-25.)
In its historical context this law in Exodus, with its injunction of one-for-one retribution, was a step forward because the practice of revenge then, was nearly unlimited in some circumstances. Nonetheless, Jesus disassociates himself from this part of Exodus and replaces it with his own teaching.
So what for me now?
A redeeming feature of the Bible for me, is the internal conflict that exists in much of its content. This honesty of the Bible in telling its story with this internal conflict, gives it a validity because it suggests a lack of strict censorship, to speak in modern terms. The New Testament sometimes tells stories which paint the disciples as either stupid or disloyal to Jesus. Mark’s gospel has many such stories and so do the other gospels. Some very early followers of Jesus are painted in less than glowing terms. This indicates to me an honesty, an authenticity in the telling of the story. I sometimes wonder what Peter and others would have thought about some of the stories in the gospels that were told about them. When the gospels were written, I suppose most of the disciples were dead and not able to defend themselves.
I think this internal conflict is healthy. I don’t look for it but when it is there, I accept it thankfully.
6. Can we create our own Canon of Scripture?
If I did a survey, I think most regular church-goers would be able to recite off favourite Bible verses. I have asked some people and various answers have been the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, John 3:16 etc., etc. Also many people have in their memories such verses as,
God said, “Let there be light and there was light”’, or Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life.”, or Faith hope and love; these three last for ever; but the greatest of them all is love.
You probably have others. One of my favourites is
God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him. (1 John 4:16b.)
It fits very well with my present theological emphases of panentheism.
Maybe regular church-goers build their theologies on their favourite verses and vice-versa. Thankfully I don’t think any church-goer would quote from Isaiah and state it as their favourite, the verse below.
And the angel of the Lord … slew 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians… (Isaiah 37:36.)
Maybe because of our early Christian education, our family life, and/or our life’s experiences, we tend to remember only some sayings and forget others. Maybe a reason we have remembered certain things is because they have supported us when we needed it, or they have resonated with what we think, believe and feel. Also, maybe it’s just because we have heard them repeatedly, so often.
As with most church-goers, I think my own ‘faithful affirmations’ and ‘faithful rejections’ expose my own likes and dislikes, my own prejudices and attitudes, my own theologies. On reading some passages, I have made a mental note to be sure to use them again when appropriate, in personal mediation, in conversation or in church group life. I encourage others to do the same. I think many may already do so. Having read other certain passages, I have exercised a ‘faithful rejection’ so I never use them again. If other church-goers, on reading certain passages/stories of the Bible and after ‘faithfully questioning’ them, feel they need to reject them, I encourage them to do so. There’s plenty of other good biblical material available to remember.
All of this recognises that our views, attitudes and reactions are individual. Different people reading the same passage of the Bible can often get quite different messages and meanings from it. This can be Reader-Response interpretation again. But this is natural and I think, can be encouraged, at least to some extent. If a reading makes an impact, we may remember it and even go back to it from time to time. After doing our ‘faithful questioning’, we may find even more/new support or challenge in the reading. Such, I think, is often the way of spiritual growth.
So what for me now?
I have said that one of my favourite texts is,
God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him. (1 John 4:16b.)
and I use it quite often when discussing religious or theological matters. However, I have also refused for years to read at funerals, a verse which has Jesus saying,
No man cometh to the Father but by me. (John 14:6b.)
Even the so-called words of Jesus should not escape the scrutiny of a ‘faithful questioning’, ‘faithful review’ and maybe even a ‘faithful rejection’.
I believe we all have the responsibility and privilege, maybe not to construct our own Canon of Scripture, but at least to create our own little reservoir of Bible sayings, other stories and sayings which are helpful to us. I think most of us do this anyway. The way some of us do this is with our refrigerator door. Our frig door has many such sayings on it. Some are funny but that’s OK. Along with family photos, there is –
Boring housewives have immaculate homes. (My wife, Wendy, put that one on. She likes it and so do I.)
If coffee can’t fix it… then it is a serious problem.
Then there are others that are more serious.
What you think, you create; What you feel, you attract; What you imagine, you become.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 
No culture can survive if it attempts to be exclusive.
I often read these. Good for the soul. The sayings on our frig door do get changed but infrequently.
The Bible as we have it now, the Canon of Scripture, is there whether we like it or not and I don’t think we can change that, at least not in the foreseeable future. However, I think such a change is what some confronting biblical scholars are moving towards when they have called for the Canon to be opened and revised. I think they are calling for some very serious ‘faithful questioning’ and ‘faithful re-appraisal’ to be done with the Bible and its content as we have it now.
Some church leaders think that parts of the Bible as it exists now, need to be removed. Some other church leaders have suggested seriously, that other ancient documents, not included in our present New Testament, could be included. One such group is called the New Orleans Council, initiated by Dr Hal Taussig, recently retired as Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He, with 19 other church leaders and scholars, both women and men, have, over an extended period of time, researched a large number of ancient documents which were available to be included in the original New Testament, but were not.
Many ancient documents, some fragmented and others more complete in their preservation, have been discovered in the last 60 to 100 years in various parts of Egypt and the Middle East, including the more famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Much research and scholarly discussion has taken place about many of these documents but that has not filtered down to regular church-goers and I’m not sure that it ever will. I would be surprised if many regular church-goers even know that many other gospels, other than the four in our present New Testament, were written in the first few hundred years immediately after Jesus.
This New Orleans Council, organized by Dr Taussig, asked the question as to which of these newly discovered ancient documents, if any, could be considered worthy enough to be included in a new Canon, to create A New New Testament. Taussig has actually written a book entitled, A New New Testament. He could have been burnt at the stake in some previous periods of church history for presuming to undertake such an enterprise. After their deliberations, the New Orleans Council voted that 10 more documents were worthy to be included in A New New Testament. These extra books are the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Truth, The Thunder: Perfect Mind, The Odes of Solomon 1, 11, 111, and 1V, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, The Letter of Peter to Philip and The Secret Revelation of John. These are all included in Taussig’s book, inserted in what was considered the appropriate places.
On Taussig’s book A New New Testament, Marcus Borg comments,
(This book is) important both historically and theologically. Readers will not be able to see the New Testament in the same way again. 
There are twenty-seven books in the traditional New Testament, but the earliest Christian communities were far more vibrant than that small number might lead you to think. In fact, many more scriptures were written and were just as important as the New Testament in shaping early-Christian communities and beliefs. Over the past century, many of those texts that were lost have been found and translated, yet are still not known too much of the public; they are discussed mainly by scholars or within a context of the now outdated notion of gnostic gospels. In A New New Testament Hal Taussig is changing that. With the help of nineteen important spiritual leaders, he has added ten of the recently discovered texts to the traditional New Testament, leading many churches and spiritual seekers to use this new New Testament for their spiritual and intellectual growth. 
Having read these other 10 books listed above, my experience is that Marcus Borg is correct. I found the 10 books refreshing but also couched in 1st century biblical theism, dualisms and mythology and this contributed to some of their content being rather mystifying to me. The Odes of Solomon, presented examples of joyful liturgies and songs of praise, apparently practised by the early followers of Jesus, some of which I found more helpful than some of the liturgies used in church services I attend these days. I found the gospels of Mary and of Truth very helpful. This reaction was my predisposition at work, I suppose; at least to some extent.
These 10 books did present to me a better balance between the male/female imagery of God and female church leadership than that which is presented in our current New Testament. In the Gospel of Mary, there is dissention between the male disciples and Mary, when Andrew and Peter argue that Mary, a woman, should not be listened to as a teacher of the message of Jesus. Levi comes to her defence and suggests that the males should desist their opposition to Mary and repent of their antagonism. This sort of conversation happens nowhere in our present New Testament and, I think it presents a new dimension to the subject, giving women significant recognition, which obviously is their right. The fact that this argument is recorded is significant for me.
I quote from the Gospel of Mary.
But Andrew responded and said to the brothers and sisters, “Say what you will about what she has said. I do not believe that the Saviour said this, for certainly these teachings are strange ideas.” Peter responded and spoke concerning the same things. He questioned them about the Saviour, “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowing about it? Are we all to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?” Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother, Peter, what are you thinking? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am telling lies about the Saviour?” Levi responded and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been an angry person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you, then, to reject her? Surely the Saviour’s knowledge of her is trustworthy. That is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed. We should clothe ourselves with the Perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves, and proclaim the good news, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Saviour said.” 
An introduction to the Gospel of Mary written by Taussig states,
The importance of the Gospel of Mary for today’s worldwide negotiation of rights and roles of women cannot be underestimated. That an early Christian writing presents a major female figure whose leadership is actively disputed by the apostles introduces a dramatic new dimension to Christian understanding of women’s authority. ….this document still turns the tables on claims like that of the Vatican that women cannot be priests because there were no women disciples. 
This particular gospel also presents a far more positive attitude to humanity and to the human relationship with God. I quote again from Taussig’s introduction to this Gospel.
In many ways this gospel makes the promise of becoming real human beings in the most excited and clearest way of any early Christian gospel. … For many twenty-first-century readers this emphasis on the goodness of humanity, comes as a surprise. So often Christianity has been understood as praising God and judging humanity. … TV evangelists and popes alike portray humans as so thoroughly deserving of God’s condemnation that only the bloody sacrifice of Jesus can make things right. This is simply not the portrait of humanity in the Gospel of Mary. Here Jesus and his followers are united in perfect humanity. The good news is not escaping one’s human identity but in embracing it.
Nor does this gospel treat Jesus’ death as a key of salvation. His death is not an act of atonement, but rather an event to overcome through the teachings Jesus told to Mary. 
Regarding another book of the 10, The Secret Revelation of John, I found it particularly interesting and for me, if compared, it is better than the one we have at present. A short comment by Taussig about this book is,
In the Secret revelation of John, injustice and cruel domination are overcome by the power of the Spirit, by knowledge and by goodness without violence and destruction, offering a tradition from within the Christian movement that is both an alternative to stories of divine wrath and judgement and an affirmation of hope and trust. 
Having read The Secret Revelation of John, it was full of mythical characters who supposedly have power over certain aspects of humanity in the world and the different heavenly layers above the Earth, that were thought to exist. Without having the necessary academic or historical background, I found much of the book somewhat mystifying. However, when compared with what is in the Book of Revelation in the present New Testament, this Secret Revelation has far less violence in it and when violence does occur, it is only used by the false gods. The True God, in it, works through the illuminating light of truth, compassion and moral goodness. In this Secret Revelation, God is sometimes referred to as Father-Mother; different from the New Testament we have at present.
Another of these 10 ancient documents is the Gospel of Truth. Of this gospel, Taussig’s commentary states,
The Gospel of Truth takes seriously human pain and error but concentrates on affirming the ways the goodness and beauty of life continue to overflow everywhere. The Son revealed to people who God is, which ‘became the way for those who strayed and knowledge for those who were ignorant, discovery for those searching and strength for those who were shaken, purity for those who were defiled’ (16:10) .. The results are that ‘the Father is within them and they are in the Father. They are full and undivided from the one who is truly good. They need nothing at all, but they are at rest, fresh in spirit, and will listen to their root.’ (27:6-8). For the Gospel of Truth, this is not a beatific vision of Heaven, but one of humans fully alive in the present moment. 
Without ignoring the issues of conflict and difficulty, the Gospel of Truth is perhaps the most joyous and ecstatic book of early Christianity. It provides a stunning contrast to the kinds of 21st Century Christianity that feature condemnation and dark prophesies. 
It would appear that maybe a sort of panentheism is as ancient as early Christian times, with ‘in-ness’ a major theme.
I personally found much of the content of these 10 ancient documents stimulating, however, I would need to do a great deal more study and research, particularly of the then current cosmology, if I am to understand more of these books and their messages. However, from my brief introduction to these 10 books, it makes me wonder what Christianity would look like today if the Canon of the New Testament was different from the one originally decided upon, that which we actually have now.
The fact that these biblical scholars have done this work, is very significant to me.
I wonder how long it will take for all this questioning approach to the content of the Bible, to filter down to church-goers, if ever. I feel privileged to have been exposed to these writings.
There may be other groups of biblical scholars and church leaders who are doing much the same thing regarding a critical investigation of our sacred book. I mention only those I know about. So, if we make personal efforts to create a different but more helpful Canon of our own, or at least put together our own little reservoir of guiding teachings and sayings, let us not think we are the only people looking seriously at what we have in the Bible at present. Let us not think that such a venture should be frowned upon.
If we do create our own special collection of teachings of Scripture and other material, I think it is essential that we have solid criteria for our choices, inclusions and rejections. For me, these criteria are spelt out in detail in the previous chapter on Jesus. Jesus, his life, his death, his living presence and most importantly his teachings, are for me, the norm and standard for my choices. For me, he teaches by word and example, the greatest of human virtues – love. This is my gauge. I have to live with the limitations of my knowledge and understanding of Jesus and that’s why there may be changes as I continue my journey with him, hopefully forward.
At this stage of my journey with Jesus, I have sayings and teachings in my little reservoir, which are not in the Bible, but which I think are very helpful to me in terms of guidance, challenge and support. I comfortably include new material. I don’t think we need to limit our little reservoir to only biblical material. Obviously for me, any new material would have to pass the Jesus test. Does it point in the same direction of his teachings? Does it expand what he was on about? Does it add a modern dimension to what he taught? Does it lead me away from being hurtful to others? Does it speak of love? If it passes these, then I am happy to include it.
For starters, I add to my little reservoir, sections of I Have a Dream from Martin Luther King’s speech August 28 1963,
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. 
Sure, the above quote is localised in America, but so were the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, chapters 2 &3. Each has far wider application than being localised. They both have great words worthy of deep reflection.
Rabbi Rudolph Brasch states,
It doesn’t matter which faith one follows so long as it preaches love, understanding and respect.
Then there is Mahatma Gandhi’s comment on being a devotee of the Bhagavad-Gita.
Thus the devotion required by the Gita is no soft-hearted effusiveness. It certainly is not blind faith. The devotion of the Gita has the least to do with the externals. A devotee may use, if he likes, rosaries, forehead marks, make offerings, but these things are not test of devotion. He is the devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm, who has dedicated mind and soul to God, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action but remains unaffected by it, who renounces all fruit, good and bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect and disrespect, who is not puffed up by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason. Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence at the same time of strong attachments. 
From Nelson Mandela:
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison. 
From John Shelby Spong:
God is life, we say, and we worship this God by living fully. God is love, we say, and we worship this God by loving wastefully. God is Being, we say, and we worship this God by having the courage to be all that we can be. 
I have, in my study, a wall hanging given to me years ago by our second eldest daughter, Beverley. I’m not quite sure where the statements come from but I read them about every week. Again, good for my soul. The six statements are as follows;
Happiness When one’s spiritual needs are met by an untroubled inner life. Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.
Peace To bring peace to the earth, strive to make your own life peaceful.
Wisdom Knowledge, intuition and experience combine to guide us in thought and deed.
Tranquillity The peace that comes when energies are in harmony, relationships are in balance.
Love An inspired form of giving, love breathes life into the heart and brings grace to the soul.
Courage Not the absence of fear or despair, but the strength to conquer them.
All these and more belong to my little reservoir of wisdom. Could we have such or similar readings in a church service as an alternative reading to a Bible passage? Even say after them, “These are words of transforming wisdom for us, today”, and ask the congregation to reply, “We give thanks.” Maybe too drastic a change.
Here’s another suggestion for such a reading. Steve Jobs died a billionaire at the age of 56. This is reported as his final essay.
I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In some others’ eyes, my life is the epitome of success. However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, my wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to. At the moment, lying on my bed and recalling my life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in have paled and become meaningless in the face of my death.
You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone bear your sickness for you. Material things lost can be found or replaced. But there is one thing that can never be found when it’s lost – Life. Whichever stage in life you are in right now, with time, you will face the day when the curtain comes down.
Treasure love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends. Treat yourself well and cherish others. As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, we realize that a $300 or a $30 watch both tell the same time. You realize that your true inner happiness does not come from the material things of this world. Whether you fly first class or economy, if the plane goes down – you go down with it.
Therefore, I hope you realize, when you have mates, buddies and old friends, brothers and sisters, who you chat with, laugh with, talk with, have sing songs with, talk about north-south-east-west or Heaven and Earth that is true happiness. Don’t educate your children to be rich. Educate them to be happy. So when they grow up they will know the value of things and not the price. Eat your food as your medicine, otherwise you have to eat your medicine as your food.
The One who loves you will never leave you for another because, even if there are 100 reasons to give up, he or she will find a reason to hold on. There is a big difference between a human being and being human. Only a few understand it. You are loved when you are born. You will be loved when you die. In between, you have to manage.
The six best doctors in the world are sunlight, rest, exercise, diet, self-confidence and friends. Maintain them in all stages and enjoy a healthy life. 
I also add to my little reservoir, some of my own sayings like, ‘Little people keep love alive.’ Sometimes when I look at what the so-called big people do, I become disappointed. I am reminded of the adage, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. So too, of course, with the behaviour of myself and other little people, I can become disappointed. But often when I look at what little people do, I am delighted and inspired. So I often use my little saying. I do not think that all humans are ‘totally depraved from the moment of conception’. To Augustine, Calvin and Luther, I say, “No Thanks!” I also add my other little saying to my reservoir, ‘The Kingdom of God is alive and well.’ On some occasions I say this to church friends who might understand. I say this when I observe some godly deed they do and when I say it to them, I refer to the deed they have done. They sometimes look back at me with bewilderment but I hope they think about it later on.
Creating one’s own Canon of Scripture may be going a bit too far but I believe it is important for us all to have one’s own little reservoir of sayings and teachings to remember. And what we remember will probably be different for each of us. That’s fine.
7. The different age and culture, to our own, in which the Bible was written.
This last area giving rise to ‘faithful questioning’ is probably the most important because culture determines the basic attitudes, views of reality and the sum total of ways of living of people. Culture is a fundamental framework in which most humans determine their perceptions of nearly everything and helps create the presuppositions and prejudices which affect much of the way we humans approach life. Different cultures give birth to different ways of regarding the human condition, religion, family and community relationships, personality, social status, economics and humour, to name but a few. They also give rise to different customs, bodily gestures, figures of speech, rituals, morals, etc., etc.
An important book for me in this area of questioning is ‘Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels’ by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh.
In their book, the authors itemise about 60 different words/attitudes/norms which they considered needed a 1st Century cultural/sociological explanation to help in understanding the text in its original context. I came away from this book thinking that, in the past with my limited knowledge and understanding of 1st Century living and thought, I have probably misunderstood and misinterpreted some stories from both the Old and New Testaments. I wonder how much of this has happened and still happens in the church today. I think those who have preached, using the Bible as their prime resource, have indulged a great deal in Reader-Response interpretation, creating their own texts and then teaching them as being what the Bible says. I have been and still am certainly involved in this sort of interpretation.
A couple of examples of 1st Century cultural context when compared with 21st Century understandings may help us accept the differences these make.
- Shepherds at the birth of Jesus.
I think it is generally accepted as great, to have shepherds and wise men (Kings) together, in the numerous nativity scenes displayed in churches at Christmas. However, I think very few regular church-goers would realise how confronting these would be for 1st Century Jewish people; those who were contemporaries of Jesus. Even though we have the 23rd Psalm, speaking of the Lord as the Good Shepherd and David being called the Shepherd King, shepherds, in the time and society of Jesus, were regarded as outcasts. They did not worship in the synagogues on the Sabbath. They couldn’t. They had to tend their sheep. Shepherds were regarded as thieves because their sheep ate grass growing on other peoples’ properties as they wandered around the countryside. In those days, if you had a son, the last thing you would want him to become was a shepherd. Shepherds were despised. Yet, here they are at the manger and being the first to bring the good tidings to the world. I think there might be some deep theological wisdom in this. In 1st Century days it would have been totally unthinkable for shepherds and wise men (kings) to be in each other’s company. Shepherds would contaminate the whole environment. They were outcasts. However, I can imagine most church-goers think these various nativity scenes are all rather lovely. That’s fine for so they are. The opposite would be the case in the times of Jesus. It would look gross! Wise men, kings would never be seen anywhere near shepherds! With this contextual explanation of shepherds, a profound insight is available to enlighten us regarding the way love can work in our world. Little people keep love alive.
- Jesus told the parable of the talents.
This is a much longer conversation with those who state that an understanding of 1st Century culture is essential for correct explanation and preaching. The writer of Matthew’s gospel in the Revised Standard Version, has Jesus saying,
For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So too, he who had two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” He also who had received the one talent came forward saying, “Master, I knew you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I have not winnowed. Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will be given more and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30.)
I have been taught this parable had to do with the Kingdom of God, with rewards for those who are diligent, active disciples of Jesus. I have been taught that the master was God and the parable was about the way the Kingdom of God works. The talents were to be thought of as abilities given by the Holy Spirit to people, to further God’s Kingdom. There were rewards and punishments at the end of things. I thought that the servant who was given the one talent was rightly described by the master as being wicked and slothful. I added my estimate that he was also lazy. I have also been taught that the parable has the lesson in it – ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.’
However, I have also had problems with this story. I thought the punishment to the third servant was harsh and I could not understand the one talent being taken from him and given to the one who had ten. I always thought that was unfair. It was not suggested to me that I should look at the way the master did not question the third servant’s criticism of him. Even though the master agreed with the criticism of the third servant, I thought what the master said was his sarcastic response. Rewards and punishments never sit well with what I believe is the basic message of Jesus is, but these seem to be crucial in this story. If the Master was likened to God then I thought God was rather harsh. These were my problems.
- Eugene Boring gives a commentary.
The meaning of ‘good and faithful’ is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and risk…..
The pictures point beyond themselves… speaking of the reality of judgement and the necessity for decision and responsible action. 
This confirmed for me, my understanding that the parable was about the way the Kingdom of God worked and my involvement in it. A disciple of Jesus had the responsibility of working for the kingdom, multiplying goodness and virtue, and not sitting idle, waiting for someone else to do the work of discipleship.
I now have to put alongside this understanding, the comments from Malina and Rohrbaugh, with their 1st century, middle-eastern cultural context.
Essential to understanding poverty is the notion of ‘limited good’. In modern economics, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply. If a shortage exists, we produce more. If one person gets more of something, it does not automatically mean someone else gets less, it may mean the factory worked overtime and more became available. But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite; all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honour, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else.
An honourable man would thus be interested only in what rightfully was his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person. Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron. 
Then, referring specifically to the parable under consideration, the authors give their commentary.
Two slaves trade up their master’s holdings, doubling the amount. They are clever slaves, behaving as slaves should. In the ‘limited good’ world of the first-century Mediterranean, however, seeking ‘more’ was morally wrong. Because the pie was ‘limited’ and already distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Honourable people, therefore, did not try to get more, and those who did were automatically considered thieves. …….
The third slave buried his master’s money to ensure that it remained intact. This, of course, was the honourable thing for a freeman to do; was it honourable behaviour for a slave? ……
When the day of accounting arrives, we find the master rewarding those who were vicious enough, shameless enough, to increase his wealth for him at the expense of so many others. These slaves, in fact, are just like their master. For we find out from the third slave (and the master agrees) that, indeed, the master himself is quite rapacious and shameless ‘a hard (NRSV “harsh)’ man, reaping where (he) did not sow and gathering where (he) did not scatter seed. (v. 24). …….
But the master’s problem is that the third slave is wicked and slothful; he did not even put his money in a bank at usury (v.27). Because of his sloth, the master decides to entrust the third slave’s property to the one who embezzled the most profit. The reason for the behaviour is a truism in peasant society (v. 29); ‘Those with more get more and have abundance; those with nearly nothing have even that taken from them’. And the master’s final decision is to publically shame the ‘worthless’ slave (v. 30)…..
From the peasant point of view, therefore, it was the third slave who acted honourably, especially since he refused to participate in the rapacious schemes of the king. Moreover, the harsh condemnation he received at the hands of the greedy king, as well as the reward to the servants who cooperated, is just what peasants had learned to expect. The rich could be counted on to play true to form – they take care of their own. 
This was all strangely new to me. With this interpretation, built on the 1st Century Mediterranean economic model, this parable is given a meaning precisely the opposite to what I have been taught in my church past instruction.
According to this interpretation, it is not a parable about how the Kingdom of God works but a realistic picture of how the then current unjust society worked.
So what for me now?
These two examples demonstrate how important knowing the original context is when trying to understand what was written in a different age and culture.
Regarding this parable dealt with, the second interpretation of it seems a lot more sensible to me. It takes full cognisance of the original environment in which the story was told and it also answers some difficult issues that have arisen for me with the first interpretation.
With this second interpretation in my mind, when looking at newspaper picture of the CEO of a company, I often ask the unfair questions, “How much corruption have you been involved in to get to the position you now hold? How many people have you trodden on to climb the corporate ladder? Are you a thief, taking from others what was rightfully theirs?”
I suppose, at the end of the day, it is possible to gain instruction from both interpretations of the parable and that probably depends to some extent on how willing one is to open one’s mind to new information and different ways of thinking, comparing it with what one has already been taught. If one chooses one interpretation over the other, one needs to be careful not to be dogmatic about the correctness of one’s choice.
This, I believe, is the dilemma we find ourselves in with quite a bit of biblical material. With such significant cultural difference between the modern western culture and the 1st Century Mediterranean culture, when confronted with biblical material, I have to ask myself, “How can I understand what the speaker or writer originally meant? How can I appreciate what the 1st Century middle-eastern peasant audiences or even educated readers understood, regarding what they heard or read?”
A significant starting point is to at least ask these questions of ourselves and then try to find some helpful guidance in answering them. I believe church-goers need a lot of helpful teaching on such matters.
So what more for me now?
With these seven areas of ‘faithful questioning’, where does this all leave me regarding the bible?
For me, using the traditional words, the ‘Word of God’, it is never static. It is dynamic, on the move. Some old things I need to retain because, for me, their wisdom endures over time. Some other things need to be discarded because they are out-of-date and unhelpful. The ‘Word of God’ can never be tied or limited to one generation, one period of time, to one culture or tradition, or even to one book.
I have made many ‘faithful affirmations’ and I need to articulate these loud and often. However, all the ‘faithful rejections’ and others not mentioned here, worry me greatly, but having done them I feel that what is left, together with the re-constructions and replacements I have made, I have guidance and inspiration far more in tune with Jesus and his teachings as I understand them now.
I am thankful that we have written material in the teachings from Jesus, other great religious and secular leaders still preserved. Yes; used for guidance in making moral decisions – Yes; used for searching the depth meanings of humanity and divinity – Yes; used to challenge people in high places, in positions of power – Yes; used to point in the direction of how to make the world a better place – Yes; used to bring people together in mutual respect – Yes; used for exposing violence for what it is – Yes; used to teach the importance of inclusivity, equality, hospitality, grace, forgiveness and love – Yes. Yes. Yes! And the Bible has loads and loads of this as I have already stated.
Properly used, passages in the Bible can be and have been a source of great wisdom, great guidance, great inspiration, great assurance and help in life. They have prompted me to live abundantly. Passages can and have stimulated wonderful, positive change. They can and have been used to challenge leaders in our community. Passages can and have given hope to those without hope, confidence to those who think they are worthless, purpose to those who think they have none, encouragement to those who are timid and they can speak and have spoken of acceptance and love to all of us. After all, the Bible has the life story and teachings of Jesus. His story and teachings are essential reasons for keeping the Bible.
To conclude this section of my ‘faithful questioning’ on the reverence and authority I give to the Bible, is it a case that I have to ‘Start all over again’? I must keep ‘faithfully rejecting’ as well as ‘faithfully affirming’. I think I have been doing this subconsciously and even consciously for years but maybe not admitted it. ‘Start all over again?’ Not sure! The Bible is still the most important source of guidance and challenge for me but I don’t think I can call it, as for any other book, ‘sacred’. There are, for me, many sacred sayings in it but, for the whole book, I must find another word than ‘sacred’.
 Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 89
 Brueggemann, ‘Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today’, Session I, ‘The Way out.’
 Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 122.
 Flood, Disarming Scripture, 42- 43
 Tinker, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 175.
 Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology, 82
 Ibid, 85
 Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 93-94.
 Ibid, 94.
 Ibid, 93.
 Martin Luther King Jr, August 28 1963 Speech.
 Internet website on Taussig’s book, A New New Testament.
 Haussig, A New New Testament, 225.
 Ibid, 218.
 Ibid, 466.
 Ibid, 228.
 Ibid, 228
 Martin Luther King Jr, August 28 1963 speech.
 Gandhi, Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, 11-12.
 Internet website, https://www.passiton/…/7395
 Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, 73.
 Internet Google search, Jobs, The World’s six best doctors.
 Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8, 453.
 Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 48.
 Ibid, 49.