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Old Testament Violence Discussion

Allan R. Bevere is hosting a response from L. Daniel Hawk to Adam Hamilton’s three part series on the violence of God in the Old Testament. It’s a topic I find fascinating. I’m going to wait for detailed comment until I’ve read all of Dr. Hawk’s response. But I can tell you what I’m looking for in two quotes.

In Adam Hamilton’s second part he states:

… If we understand the Bible as having been essentially dictated by God, then yes, we have no choice but to accept what is written as accurately describing God’s actions and God’s will. But if we recognize the Bible’s humanity—that it was written by human beings whose understanding and experience of God was shaped by their culture, their theological assumptions, and the time in which they lived—then we might be able to say, “In this case, the biblical authors were representing what they believed about God rather than what God actually inspired them to say.” …

Note that this is extracted from the middle of a paragraph which may contain pointers to how Hamilton would answer the question. I have not read his book. But the issue that this statement raises with me is this: Do we have an adequate hermeneutic that will allow us to discern God’s will and purpose from the human-divine mix? In my experience, very frequently those who say this do not. Note that I’m very definitely one who says that the Bible is a divine-human combination, using an incarnational model. But that combination (not mix), is all present by divine will. Why are those violent passages present? How do I learn from this?

Dr. Hawk, on the other hand says this:

Here’s the main flaw in this line of reasoning. Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis? This is a slippery business to say the least, and especially so when historically-oriented interpreters attempt to ground their decisions by discerning the intent of ancient authors and redactors. While we have learned a great deal about the historical and cultural environments of the ancient world, we cannot even today confidently locate the composition of most texts in a particular historical and social context. Furthermore, our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives.

This time I at least quoted a full paragraph. And what’s my problem with this? Well, in my experience both sides pick and choose and then accuse the other of doing so. There is not only choosing what we accept as relevant, but we need to choose just how some particular passage is relevant. I’m going to wait for the rest, but I doubt Dr. Hawk is suggesting otherwise. Nonetheless statements like ” … our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives” tend to get me on edge, because I am so frequently then told that either we must then accept the orthodox interpretation (also selected by the speaker), or that we must essentially give up on discerning the meaning. I have some confidence that Dr. Hawk isn’t headed that direction, yet paragraphs such as this raise an attention flag for me. I ask here again just how we will discern the message God intended, and discussing the obscurity of it can drive people away just as much as the attempt to discard the humanity.

I’ll say more when I’ve read the final post. I may have to read a couple of books as well, considering that what both of these men are saying comes from much more extended works on the topic.

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6 Comments

  1. Henry asks, “Do we have an adequate hermeneutic that will allow us to discern God’s will and purpose from the human-divine mix?” Perhaps the larger question is, “Do we have an adequate hermeneutic that will allow us to discern God’s will and purpose, period?” If postmodernism has taught us anything it’s this: what we bring to our reading of the Bible that precedes our engagement with it helps determine the outcome. Eisegesis is an inescapable fact of life in biblical interpretation. There is no pure reading of scripture. Therefore, I must contend that Adam Hamilton’s characterization of a literal reading is impossible (and he may very well agree). He says, “… If we understand the Bible as having been essentially dictated by God, then yes, we have no choice but to accept what is written as accurately describing God’s actions and God’s will.” This is another way of stating, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.” Yet the question remains: what exactly does what God said actually mean? So, neither the literal nor the incarnational approach (or any other) settles the question. In neither case do we eliminate the subjective element and we forever remain at a distance from the pure voice of God. Rather than this being a hopeless situation, it forces us to acknowledge our own myopia and opens our hearts and minds to other possibilities of knowing. After all, if God is the ultimate author of the Bible, this must be what was intended, as it is inescapable, not absolute knowledge. This forces us to lean more on God than on our own understanding. Seems like I read that somewhere.

    1. What comes to mind in this case, however, is my twin complaints regarding modernism and post-modernism. Modernism seems to assume that we know. Post-modernism seems to assume that we can’t. (Note: This is “street” versions of both. In general not that many fit my dichotomy precisely.) The problem is that we rarely know fully, nor are we completely in the dark.

      So I maintain my questions for both sides, though I might modify “discern God’s will” to “discern God’s will adequately for our needs.” Or something like that!

  2. Might we ask the helper?
    Personally, I don’t know what to make of this cruelty, other than knowing it is a major stumbling block.
    Maybe that is the purpose of it.

  3. Wisdom 11-12, the sparing of Lot, the sparing of the Canaanite prostitute who saved the Israelite spies, the sparing of Isaac for sacrifice, the story of Jonah, David sparing Saul and Saul sparing the witch, the miracles of the Prophets and of Jesus and of His Apostles, and the Commandments of God – all in union with Sacred Tradition and interpreted by the Magisterium – explain the Old Testament “violence”: justice was served along with mercy.

    The Scriptures are divinely inspired and humanly authored since God authored the Scriptures through human beings. Not by dictation or automatic writing, but by God’s Power: for example, Moses going up to receive God’s Commandments. That was empirical evidence, as well, since Israel saw him go up, come back down, and heard him tell them God’s Commandments. But the greatest example is Jesus Christ, God’s Word Incarnate.

  4. The Bible leaves many clues that it is a human/divine product. One such example is Paul’s ridiculous statement that “even nature teaches us that it is a shame for men to have long hair.” Nature teaches us no such thing, but his culture did. So Paul saw them as synonymous. That is certainly human error. In fact, his culture, as taught by Hippocrates until way past Paul’s day, thought that one’s head of hair acted as a vacuum that, in a woman, pulled sperm into the uterus, and in a man, pulled it back into the body. The longer the hair, the greater the pull. Hence, long hair on a woman was “natural,” but “unnatural” for a man. One aided procreation, the other retarded it.

    Perhaps the violence in the Old Testament is a reminder that the human element is present and needs to be considered before we endorse it wholeheartedly. Marcion’s error was to blame it on a violent God unsuitable as the father of Jesus, when the blame should go on human nature as reflected in the text.

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