How should we respond when we discover passages or ideas in the Bible that mystify, offend, or scandalize us? Discussions of violence, God, and the Old Testament over the last few years keep the issue on the front burner. Should we reject the whole thing? The parts that offend us? Or grit our teeth and refuse to jettison these parts hoping that somehow we can find a way to live with them? There may be other options but these three are the major ones so I’ll go with them for now. Just a few comments from my seat in the peanut gallery.
Obviously, one’s view of the Bible will in large part determine which way you go. If you don’t think God’s involved with it in any way that appends his authority to what it says, you’re free to go any of the three ways I mentioned above, though usually the first two ways will appeal more to you.
If you do think God is involved with and gives a special authority to these writings, you are probably not free to take the first option. You could go with either the second or third options, though. And it’s these I want to comment on.
God is clearly in the dock over these troubling issues in scripture in our culture today. I recognize the issues, know they are unavoidable, appreciate the energy many are expending on better understanding them, and realize that we should be troubled/offended/outraged at these stories in our holy book. How else can 21st century Western people feel about them?
I don’t doubt we must press our case. These matters must be faced. But do we have to end up making ourselves arbiters of what should be included in the Bible or not? Three things make me wonder if that’s appropriate.
1. It is often noted that Jesus appears to accept the Old Testament in toto as God’s Word. He gives no criteria for us to determine what is or is not to be included or excluded from it. The Prince of Peace was apparently not offended and scandalized as we are by these stories. This not necessarily decisive depending on one’s Christology (or lack thereof), but it’s not a negligible as far as I can see.
2. Elie Wiesel tells a story of Jews in the Nazi concentration camp who put God on trial for faithlessness to his promises to his people. Arguments are made and adjudicated. God is found guilty. Then the Jews arise and say to one another, “Come. It is time for prayers. Let us go.” God is found guilty; yet God continues to be God. Their only real recourse, having done what they could to protest, was to go to prayers and continue wrestling with God.
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, surprisingly, claimed that in the face of the kinds of struggle we scripture we are dealing with we should practice a “sacrifice of our intellect” in matters that remain opaque, perplexing, questionable. “And who would not in fact bring his or her own sacrifice of intellect into such a situation, that is, with the acknowledgment one does not yet understand this or that place of the Scripture, in the awareness that even this will one day be revealed as God’s own Word? I would rather do this than only to say, following some suitable opinion: ‘This is divine, that is human.’” (Testament of Freedom, 426)
Obviously much more than this needs to be said. I don’t claim that these three items prove the case one way or the other. But I think they are important to reflect on, especially in a time when many are inclined to make the decision between what is divine and human in the Bible.