On the horrible passages in the Bible

Recently a friend asked me how I respond the Canaanite genocide.  Here is my brief and all too hurried response.

I’m afraid I don’t have a very satisfying answer. When I read in the Bible about stuff like that—the conquest of Canaan, the slave trade, the misogynistic crap, the homophobia—it makes me want to scream, or sometimes weep. But because I’m a Christian I’m committed at least to grappling with the whole canon of Christian Scriptures, and the whole—sometimes horrific, sometime beautiful—history of the Church. There are some things (not many, but some) that I don’t like about family life, either. But when I said my wedding vowels I made a commitment to the whole thing, not just the parts I like. And—trust me on this!—the good parts definitely overshadow the bad. That’s how it is with Christianity, too.

Jews have a somewhat looser notion of canon than Christians. They include in the “inspired writings” commentaries on the Torah, and commentaries on the commentaries, right down to contemporary preaching. I like that, because sometimes I like to imagine that my tears soak into the pages and my screams reverberate the bindings until they, too, become part of the scriptures.

I know that’s not a very intellectually satisfying answer, but that’s what I’ve got. The one thing that does keep me sane is to know that in the Christian canon there is a trajectory toward justice. So, the Torah commands “an eye for an eye.” This was actually meant to reign in out-of-control retaliations and debts in the Ancient near east. If I owe you a goat, you don’t get to seize my land or kill my family, but you can take one of my goats. Then Jesus says “you have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye,’ but I tell you if anyone slaps you on the cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Also, in the Torah one is permitted to beat his slaves. But the Apostle Paul writes a letter to the owner of a runaway slave asking him to accept the man back not as a servant but as a brother. Or again, in the Hebrew Bible women are not permitted to enter the temple courts. But in the New Testament women are deacons and prophets.

I can guess what you’re thinking: the New Testament isn’t really consistent about this stuff either, especially Paul. That’s true. In fact, there’s something of a backwards trajectory in Paul’s writings. But that’s because not all of Paul’s writings are actually Paul’s. Scholars have discovered many of them to be pseudopigraphial. When you look that the letters that Paul actually wrote separately from those he didn’t, it becomes apparent that Paul himself was pretty radical in his views toward women and slavery. It was later writers using Paul’s name that slunk back into the classist and misogynistic status quo. But that brings us full circle to the fact that I’m committed to wrestling with the whole canon of Christian Scripture, often through tears.

If you’re interested in learning more about any of this stuff, for my way of reading these painful texts in scripture I draw deeply from Rabbi Sharon Brous. She gave this interview with Krista Tippett On Being. For questions about the trajectory of Scripture I recommend Kent Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words. For questions about the backwards trajectory of “Paul’s writings” I recommend Borg and Crossan’s The First Paul.



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2 responses to “On the horrible passages in the Bible

  1. Your honesty is refreshing, Joe. I appreciate it more than a “very intellectually satisfying answer.” And I greatly value your thoughts, especially on this tough subject. I particularly like the phrase “a trajectory toward justice” which I think does well to capture the flow of Scripture as a whole. Thanks for posting!

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