In yesterday’s post I quoted at length from Rachel Evans who busily quoted N. T. Wright on the authority of the Bible in relation to his book, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. A critical aspect of the attack on the authority of the Bible is the assumption that the scriptures are in contradiction with themselves, with the testimony of Jesus and with the findings of science. In yesterday’s post, I shared my response to Rachel’s thoughts. Today I am sharing another comment from Rachel’s blog, from the same comment stream, on the way violence, misogyny and treachery early in the Bible seem to belie the message of Jesus, especially when it seems like God is either a party to evil or at least blesses its results.
Item: Abraham causes Sarah to lie about her marital status to Pharaoh and God blesses their deception so that they leave Egypt wealthy.
Item: Issac pulls the same trick on Abimelech and walks away with more than he had before.
Item: Rachel conspires with Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing and God legitimates their treachery.
Item: Jacob tries to cheat his father-in-law out of livestock and God rewards the cheating with success!
And it does not end with Genesis. God uses his people to annihilate whole cities of Canaanites under Joshua: God-sanctioned genocide, at least and ethnic cleansing at best! How can the god of the Old Testament be the same god as the Father of Jesus?
This is a more serious question than we perhaps realize. The early centuries of Christian expositors explained away the Old Testament narratives which featured so much earthy sex, violence and treachery by teaching that the real meaning was not the literal obvious meaning and that a “spiritual meaning” must be sought. The first Christian heresy, Gnosticism, based its entire understanding of the New Testament books on the assumption that they revealed a god, the Father-God of Jesus who was at war with the creator-god of the Old Testament. How could they be the same god? How could Jesus’ Father be treacherous, violent and hateful towards women like the creator-god of the Old Testament?
In one of the strings of comments on RHE’s blog, the conversation had been turning around some of the issues of inconsistency between the old and new when I addressed the following comment to several spirited folks within the discussion:
My Comment from RHE’s Blog Post on N. T. Wright
Adrian, Jessica, Mike B., PVK, James (and of course, RHE!)
The way Wright deals with this issue of evil is by understanding the nature of the story of God. Things happen in Genesis, awful, terrible, unspeakable things, and it is very clear to me that because of not-just-average-sin but because of “awon,” deep, habitual, structural, systemic sin, God had few options for dealing with evil that were not rife with the problem itself.
A great example of this is Genesis 6; a series of stories and bits of stories which only hint at the depravity, murder and despair which lie behind the words. The only way we know that all the goings-on of that chapter were unspeakably terrible is the author’s cryptic remark that things got so bad God was sorry he had created in the first place.
In Evil and the Justice of God, Wright wrestles with the fact that God determines to solve the horrors of human rebellion, represented by passages like Gen. 6, by using the redemptive work of humans themselves! So, endemic to the solution is the problem; a bit like washing one’s hands with filthy water because it is the only water you have.
So, in the ancient story we see God use truly “filthy-water” solutions to clean up even worse problems. For example, in Gen. 38, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, miserable with in-turned feelings of rage, shame, guilt and sorrow over his treatment of his hated brother Joseph, finds he cannot stand to be around his father who has gone on grieving the loss of his eleventh son for years and years.
So Judah leaves the family and moves to and marries into a Canaanite family. Using modern Jewish framing, we might say that just like Esau and Ishmael in the previous generations, Judah assimilates into the surrounding culture and essentially he ceases to be of the house of Jacob/Israel. He marries a Canaanite and gives his son in marriage to a Canaanite. Given the way the ancient narratives use geographical removal to imply faith decisions — compare the Ruth narrative and the Esau narrative — Judah ceases in Genesis 38 to be a believer in the God of his fathers if he ever was one.
So, how does God get Judah back into the house of Israel? He uses the death of two of Judah’s sons, a barren Canaanite daughter-in-law, Tamar, who has “known” both of the dead sons and a nasty, corrupt trick by Tamar to bring Judah to his senses. We, 3500 years later may ask, “Why did God use a woman who tricked her father-in-law into getting her pregnant to bring Judah to his ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment?” I believe the answer is, “How else? What else did God have to work with, given his decision to solve the problem of human perversity through human beings?”
So if we see the gradual unfolding of the story and the painfully slow pace of redemption, then we see that much later, a way was set up so that if anyone became destitute he might glean at the farm of another during the harvest and therefore not starve (Leviticus 19:9-10) and then even later in the story, six daughters of a dead man get a legal ruling from God that women may inherit property if there is no male heir to their dead father (Numbers 27). Added together these bits of law mean that “she” may also glean on the land of a neighbor.
Without these critical pieces from the old stories and the legislation of Moses — shot through with problems though we find that legislation to be — there would have been no solution, hundreds of years later still, for Naomi and Ruth. And that would be very serious because Ruth the Moabite is the ancestor of Jesus as are Tamar and her son Perez, one of the twins whom her father-in-law “got on her” for her dead husband.
Fact: in ancient times the only profession for a woman apart from wife and mother was prostitute. But Tamar played the prostitute so that Ruth did not have to and Naomi inherited the property of her dead husband and sons because the daughters of Zelophehad had been uppity and made a fuss before the Israelite elders and Moses in the wilderness and Ruth and Naomi did not starve because in Torah there was what we might call an ancient food stamp program!
Pulling on another story-thread, that of war, when looked at in this way, we can also see: early on in violent times God used the violence of war to temporarily build up and preserve his people. But we can also see that eventually, even beginning with bloody King David and the building of the first temple, God makes it clear: warfare is never more than a temporary fix and no true solution at all. Eventually, God ceased to use such violence on the part of his people as a means of redeeming his people (see Isaiah 37).
Virtually any horrid, misogynistic and violent narrative or law in the older covenant can be pulled out and examined in this way, in relation to the long redemptive tale. In case after case, there is a progression in the story and there is a shalom answer to even the most repugnant business in which God seemed to have a hand, way back when.
Thus, rather than seeing the older testament as in contradiction with the newer one, we can see the story of the redemption of creation over time, rejoicing with God in those ancient saints who endured terrible times so that we might inhabit a much better world than Tamar or Naomi or David could have asked for or imagined.
We should not be surprised that God has gotten down in the dirt and used unspeakable evil to do incredible good. What is that thing hanging around so many Christian necks?
So is the story of redemption complete? Not at all. Ours is a vastly more open and whole world than theirs, yet 27 million people are estimated to live in slavery today and tens of millions more are so destitute they would probably trade places with those slaves, at least at first. We all live under the massive power of a captivating economic empire which reduces everything to its market value, a world in which even human beings are just resources.
So how might we contribute in such a world to the blessing of the next generations? How might we use the evil around us to bless the whole creation with what is good?