we need to talk about the old testament

I’m often not sure what to make of the Old Testament. More than often, most of the time.

It often upsets me. It offends me. Not in the evangelical ‘the Bible is offensive because it tells me that I’m sinful’ way. No. It offends me when it appears not only to condone, but to promote actions and attitudes which are not simply a ‘softer’ version of Jesus’ teaching but actually in direct opposition to Jesus’ teaching. The racism, the violence, the tribalism, the sexism. There are parts I love – the imagery, the poetry, the drama. But so much of the Old Testament worries me so much so that I hardly read it anymore.

I just don’t know how to read it. I don’t have the tools. I don’t have a framework.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

I’m doing a PhD in history. I spend all day every day reading historical sources, not only for the information they immediately convey, but reading them ‘against the grain.’ That is, interrogating the source for the information that the author didn’t necessarily intend to share. I hunt for the author’s biases, assumptions, motivations and blind-spots. Especially, I think about the ways in which she might by trying to manipulate her readers (everyone writes with an agenda – myself included). That is how I spend my week.

Then, after work, I come to reading the Old Testament, and can’t quite take my historian cap off. I’m not even sure I should take it off: these are historical documents after all.

Suddenly the Old Testament reads like very human literature. I find documents that appear to serve the ruling elite, the priests, the nobility, the Yahweh cult. My beloved Psalms read like nationalist propaganda. I used to be concerned by the genocides in Joshua, now I’m not even sure they really happened (but I can see how the stories would be great for legitimising land claims and tribal boundaries). Likewise, Judges would serve very well for asserting the interests of the ruling family (just look how bad it was when there was no king). I my instinct is to deconstruct the text.

Having talked to others (especially those trained in social sciences and humanities), I am not alone in being unable to shake my suspicion of texts. Moreover, I think with generational change, it will become increasingly common for people to be thinking this way – to intuitively read the text against the grain.

Putting issues of motive and bias aside, there are still questions about historicity. What actually happened? You only have to go to Wikipedia on the Old Testament to learn that the Torah was written down after the Exile (by people whose political and religious interests it secured). That is, it was recorded centuries after the events described. A few more google searches point out how similar Genesis is to earlier foreign literature; how there may be multiple authors for a number of books; how there are internal contradictions etc. etc.

My real question is what does all this mean for divine inspiration?

The authors are human. But In what sense are we dealing with human documents? The authors are shaped by their context, we all acknowledge that. But does ‘context’ also mean that their writings reflect their sinful biases, ambitions, prejudices and presuppositions? Did these parts of their lives make it in? Or did God edit those bits out? (things which can’t be answered by appeals to progressive revelation) Does acknowledging ‘context’ mean accepting that authors may have held different understandings of what constitutes an historical fact? Should we accept all parts of the Old Testament equally (including the offensive bits), or assess them in light of the overall thrust of the Bible, particularly Jesus’ teaching? Am I even allowed to question a Biblical author?

We need to talk about this, not just at Bible colleges, but in our churches.

In years of attending evangelical churches I’ve never heard anything about historicity of the Old Testament (other than Jesus believed it so it’s good enough for me) or how to read it (other than ‘it’s all about Jesus’) in a way that acknowledges these criticisms. Perhaps pastors don’t feel qualified to train us on these issues. Perhaps they don’t want to scare us or confuse us. Perhaps it’s easier to pretend that the Bible fell from heaven. Whatever it is, I’m not sure why we’re not talking about these issues.

The problem is that while we’re not getting leadership and teaching on these issues from Christian leaders, Christians are going to come across it from other places. Most of my knowledge of debates surrounding the Old Testament originally came from atheists – atheists friends on facebook wanting to pick a fight. The thing is, we’ve all got internet. Christians in the pews are getting more and more exposure to critiques that previously just touched the academy. Moreover, as long as leaders aren’t willing to raise issues of source criticism, it will remain a taboo issue. A lonely question you can’t ask and a doubt that festers.

The Evolution of AdamFinally, I will just mention that Peter Enns is one evangelical who is willing to talk about this stuff with a popular audience. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but at least he’s opening a conversation. He is author of The Evolution of Adam and Inspiration and Incarnation (which argues that we must consider the Bible to be both human and divine) and blogs here.

How do you approach the Old Testament? Do you know people who are talking about these issues? Where would you go to discuss them?

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4 thoughts on “we need to talk about the old testament

  1. Once again, YES, I love this thought Laura. We spend all this time talking about the historicity of the NT documents without pause for the tricky business of the OT. (And many of the same arguments are relevant. For example, the gospels were written with a clear bias but the likes of John Dickson have argued that that doesn’t inauthenticate them as historical documents.)

    We evangelicals have so majored on the divinity of the text that we’ve sometimes acted as if it fell out of the sky! Disciplines such as history must complement a theological reading. My experience was of coming from a background in (feminist) literature and asking questions of the Bible’s strong gender bias much as you are asking questions about national/power bias. A pleasant surprise for me was working out how the Bible subverted its own culture’s gender bias. I suspect the same could be true on other levels of bias as well.

  2. That’s something I’d like to explore more – how the bible subverts and challenges aspects of the very culture which produced it. That’s what I meant about whether we should be assessing parts of the Bible in light of Jesus. What does that mean for divine inspiration? Should we think of the whole as inspired, the overarching narrative and tradition, rather than every little verse? How do we identify what’s normative and what is to be subverted? (I’d love to hear your thoughts on that) I feel like that’s getting into dangerous territory, but I also don’t think we should turn off our critical thinking.

    On the feminist front, gender theory is a massive blind-spot for evangelicals. Perhaps we should do something about that…

    • I’m working on it! Will let you know when my latest project gets out of the pipeline!

      I do think that the way we itemise Scripture into tiny verses clouds our understanding of inspiration. Books were written as books, not verses, and they’re meant to be read that way!

      This won’t come as a surprise coming from a student of literature but I think the Bible’s literary techniques help us to identify what’s normative and what’s subverted. That’s tricky because sometimes we don’t have the cultural knowledge to pick those techniques up but biblical scholarship has been starting to move in this direction which I think is really exciting.

      • PS On gender theory, a new release from Wipf and Stock is ‘Tamar’s Tears: Evangelical Engagements with Old Testament Hermeneutics’ is excellent. It’s got some good Aussie and NZ voices in it too!

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