A disclaimer, before we begin here. I love the bible. I believe it tells us about God, it invites us and teaches us to live under God,'s rule, it has wonderful images and ideas, pictures and stories about God and us. I believe the historical narratives in the bible are theological reflections on events. I hope I have made my position clear...
I like to read the bible every morning and night, and in between sometimes too. In my personal reading I've been going through the book of Isaiah recently. A few weeks ago, I was caught off guard by one verse tucked away in this book. Isaiah 19:16 says,
On that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts raises against them.
Maybe you're already shocked too. But just in case you're not with me, here's why I was shocked. This verse talks about God's impending judgement on Egypt, using the image of the Egyptians as women who tremble with fear before the raised hand of a (male) figure. The word 'women' here is the same Hebrew word that is most frequently used to talk about a wife in the Old Testament. The Inge, therefore, could be that of a husband, striking fear into the heart of his wife with his hand raised, ready to beat her. The fear, perhaps, is based on terrible experience...
My difficulty with this text is not that God would strike like this. That's up to God. My problem is that both the prophet Isaiah, and his audience, would be so familiar with this image. After all, if it's not familiar, the simile doesn't work. It depends on the audience's awareness of the image. And so, it made me think about whether the 'practice' of wife-beating was widespread (this I don't know). And is this image of God, then, ok?
I mean, how many of us think domestic violence is ok?
I'm really hoping the answer to that is very few indeed.
And so, we see how easy and necessary it is to critique the text, and to realise that what may have been acceptable then is not acceptable now. Just to go over that again, I realise that the bible is not commanding domestic violence here, but in some ways it could legitimise it (since it is a valid image for God's judgement). Maybe I'm overthinking it, but aren't we in 'cosmic child abuse' territory here?
We can't allow the bible to endorse or justify any kind of oppression or violence or abuse. Even when the text says it.
The thing is,the bible is not timeless. It is time-bound, and it was written at specific times, by specific people, in specific places, to deal with their specific history and their specific experiences of God.
But the bible always has something to say to us. God can always speak to us through the words of scripture. The bible is not timeless, but timelessly timely, as one hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) scholar has put it (I forget which one!). So, what the bible has to say is not always the face-value reading.
This calls for a critical reading of the bible. We can critique the culture in which it was written. It is not honouring to the God or the people of the bible (characters, writers, communities) to treat the words as final, once and for all. It's not helpful to simply transplant views and values, beliefs and behaviours, doctrines and deeds, from the biblical context to our own. A tutor of mine used to say that if the good news isn't good news for everyone, it isn't good news. So, when we com to a text, we need to ask, is this liberating, or oppressive? In what ways is it life-giving? Does it show God's character and kingdom?
Let's remember, Jesus was quite prepared to challenge the received wisdom on scripture, when he repeated the formula "You have hear... But I say..." I don't believe Jesus was trying to undermine scripture, he was reinterpreting it in ways that brought life more abundantly. Jesus was not afraid to challenge scriptures and interpretations thereof that were designed to exclude or oppress. At times, we see Jesus even setting aside some parts of the Law, in favour of showing a better picture of God's kingdom of love and grace. But he could do this because he knew both the bible and God's kingdom, inside out.
The call, then, is for us all to get to understand both better.
Rolheiser on being stretched and widened...
4 months ago