Preaching from the Old Testament

Preaching from the Old Testament

violence and scripture booksNo, I’m not going to do it, but I’m going to ask Dr. Bob Cornwall some questions about it. He’s currently preaching a series in his church from 1st & 2nd Samuel. Bob is one of my Energion authors (see his book list here), and is editor of the two book series we publish in cooperation with the Academy of Parish Clergy, Conversations in Ministry and Guides to Practical Ministry. You can find more information about this event on its Google+ event page.

I’m going to ask Bob how he handles the authority of the text he is preaching from, and especially whether he will deal with some of the more violent passages and how he will preach from them. There are quite a number of passages in the books of Samuel that could be very troubling to a 21st century conversation.

This morning, I was reading one of those: 1 Samuel 15. You can read the whole thing if you want to get a general picture, but let me just summarize here. God tells Samuel to pass the order to Saul, King of Israel, that he should go and wipe out the Amalekites. He is supposed to designate them as herem, meaning that they are devoted to destruction, every person, every creature, every thing is to be destroyed. And lest we be tempted to soften the story, we are told that this included men, women, and even nursing babies.

Saul disobeys God and doesn’t kill everyone. The best of the animals are preserved, and the king is taken captive. Saul blames this on the people. God blames Saul and says he has cut Saul off (or at least Samuel says God says this) from being king over Israel. This story opens the cycle of stories about the conflict between David and Saul, which ends with Saul’s death in battle and David’s accession to the kingdom.

I have heard this story handled in a number of ways:

  1. Get a modern lesson from it, ignore the gory details, and hope nobody notices. I remember hearing it in my early years taught as a story about obedience. When God tells you to do something, you better do it. When I did ask about the killing, I was told that it was God, so it was OK.
  2. Emphasize the gory details. We’ve all become too cowardly to truly uphold God’s will in the world. (Yes, I’ve actually heard this.) We can just hope folks like this aren’t too serious.
  3. Some things in the Bible are less inspired than others, and this is one of the less inspired. Bloodthirsty people did bloodthirsty things and blamed God.
  4. When people lived in a violent world God worked within their context. So things that might be commanded then could be forbidden now, not because God has changed but because he is staying the same, and working with us where we are.
  5. The Old Testament God was violent. That’s why we stick with the New Testament. (If you take this approach, you should likely avoid texts like most of Revelation and Acts 5:1-11.)
  6. Let’s never read this in church and hope nobody notices.

I could probably come up with some more given time. I’ll be interested to see how Bob Cornwall handles the text. He’s both a good preacher and accomplished scholar, so I expect his comments to be helpful.

In the meantime, two things. Following a challenge on a similar text, I wrote two blog posts. The first was a story/dialogue discussing the text, titled The God-Talk Club and the She Bears, on my Jevlir Caravansary fiction blog. (In the God-Talk Club series I write dialogue without any intention of expressing my own point of view. It’s sort of an exercise for me in trying to express several views on a topic.) The second was a homily on the same passage, titled Real Guy Interpretation.

Finally, I recently interviewed two authors, Allan Bevere, author of a book based on a series of Old Testament sermons he preached titled The Character of Our Discontent, and Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m embedding that video below.

One thought on “Preaching from the Old Testament

  1. I find several issues with #4. First, just because it’s in the bible doesn’t make it inspired. Jesus’ “canon within the Canon”” (the two great commandments) would reject this story as from God.

    “When people lived in a violent world”…suggests we are in a different kind of world. Not! We live today in the very same world.

    To say that God works with the people as they are (violent) is to say that God’s way involves violence. Jesus’ ministry repudiates that notion.

    There’s one “justification” that you may not know of. Archeologists discovered syphilis in Canaanite bones. God had to wipe out the Canaanites to spare Israel of this affliction.

    Emerson said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Making everything in the bible a good thing (one way or another) is a perfect example.

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