Our parish Bible study—which meets at 10 a.m. Sundays on the second floor of the parish house—has been reading through the books of Joshua and Judges, and boy has it been interesting!
These books contain some of the most dramatic stories in all of Christian Scripture. Many of them are also among the most troubling. Joshua, for example, includes God’s instruction that the Israelites not only to conquer the so called “Promised Land” of Canaan, but slaughter its inhabitants without mercy. If this wasn’t bad enough, when the Israelites fail to fully enact this “scorched earth” agenda—when, for whatever reason, they do not completely wipe out the people God says to completely wipe out—God’s retribution is swift and fierce upon the Israelites.
These stories invite all sorts of questions, and in particular, questions about how we should we read the Bible. Christians throughout the centuries, for example, have used these stories to justify their own conquests, even justify acts of genocide and “ethnic cleansing.” On face value, there is a kind of plain logic to these interpretations. But is that really how we’re supposed to read these texts?
Let me say three things here that may help answer the question: How are we supposed to read the Bible?
The first is that Christians don’t think the Bible is “the Word of God”—at least, not primarily, or in and of itself. Christians believe that Jesus is “the Word of God” (Cf. John 1.1), and that the Bible is only “the Word of God” secondarily and derivatively, as the revelation of Jesus. That may seem like strange distinction, but it’s one that has huge implications. The Bible consists of a vast panoply of texts—written in wildly different genres, over thousands of years. In and of themselves, many of these genres (e.g. stories, poetry, or wisdom sayings) don’t lend well to literal, surface level meanings. But Christians also claim that this seeming cacophony actually blends into a wonderful symphony. It is that symphony that we are called to hear, more than any one note. And that symphony is the story of Jesus.
So as we read any one story, just as we hear any one note, we are not to jump to any conclusions—or read it in isolation. We’re supposed to wait, and see, and read it in light of the story of Jesus, and let his story be the interpretive key.
A second and related point is that Christians do not think the Bible is more “divine” than Jesus. That may seem obvious, but it’s not—at least not for some. Mormons and Muslims, for example—while thinking of Jesus as (at best) semi-divine—think of their Scriptures as if they were divine dictation of the literal words of God—in both cases, dropped “as is” as golden tablets from the sky. This is why in Islam, for example, the Qur’an is not “divine” when it is translated. Only as dictated (in Arabic) is it truly God’s word.
Christians, by contrast, believe that Jesus was fully divine, and fully human, and that Jesus’ full humanity—the fact that he had warts and pimples and defecated like the rest of us—in no way diminishes his divinity. Christians also believe that the Bible is a divinely inspired—though not divinely dictated, and certainly not as divine as Jesus—yet fully human text. And just as we believe the full humanity of Jesus does not threaten his full divinity, all the more do we believe that the very human things we find in the Bible—its warts, its blemishes, and its…well you get where I’m going here—do not undermine its divine inspiration, either.
How so? Well, that gets to the third thing I’d want us to do while reading the Bible. It’s a well-known fact that the Bible shares some of its stories with other “Ancient Near Eastern” texts of its day. That is, if you read the religious texts written by Israel’s neighboring tribes during the same periods, you find a lot of overlap—similar stories of creation, of a great flood, of divinely commanded conquests, and even, of a guy who was swallowed by a great fish (only to survive). In light of this, many have claimed that Israel simply copied these stories from their neighbors—and something like that seems true.
That’s the humanity, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. The Bible, like Jesus, is fully human.
But if you look closely, you also start to see something else. Each time Israel tells a story that starts to sound like something you would have heard before (if you lived in the Ancient Near Eastern world), something different happens. In the Creation accounts, just when you think you’re hearing the familiar story of how a particular people were born, you find out that Adam and Eve aren’t just your parents—and so, don’t just make you and your kindred special—but rather, are the parents of the whole human race—and similarly, their God is not just a local tribal deity, but the creator of all things. Just when we might be tempted to think of Noah as a triumphant figure like Gilgamesh, Noah gets drunk and has a prank played on him by his sons—and we find, after all, that this is not the “coming of age story” of a heroic, semi-divine human, but a story of the judgment and the mercy of God.
And Joshua gives us one of the best examples of these differences. Because, as Joshua begins his conquest of Canaan, he finds himself dependent on Rahab. Before Joshua does anything, Rahab is the first hero of the conquest, the first person who opens the door for Israel to enter into the promised land. And Rahab is a strange hero—not the kind of hero you’d find in other Ancient Near Eastern texts. For Rahab is not only a Canaanite—someone outside “the camp”—but a woman, and likely even, a woman in prostitution. Against all expectations, this story gives the pivotal role to someone who would have been considered totally outside of belonging.
And Rahab is not alone. While at first glance it appears that God has developed a strangely particular relationship with this one particular people, we keep finding clues that something else is going on—as God not only reveals himself to Gentiles like Melchizedek, or Balaam, or Ruth, or Naaman, but in many cases, uses them as prophets to show Israel they are on the wrong path. Neither should we be surprised, then, when we find that the story Rahab (and Ruth before her) is quite literally woven into the story of Jesus—as Rahab, according to the Gospel of Matthew, is Jesus’ mother—twenty-six generations removed.
What we find, in other words, is that the very human qualities of the Bible cannot keep the glimmers of its divinity from shining through. And as we attend to that divine light breaking through, we come to realize something astounding—the “understory” has been the real story all along. This has always been the story of God who seeks after all people.
And in Jesus, a way has been made for all to be welcomed in.