So here's where I left off basically: God is violent but less violent than the gods in the surrounding region. That's no small thing, but is that the best we can do managing our real anxiety in the face of clearly violent God-actions and commands in our inspired Scriptures?
In a previous post I stated that one of my assumptions about the Scriptures is that it is a library not a legal constitution.
Another assumption is that the Bible isn't always and everywhere to be taken literally. Not only because the Bible utilizes many forms of literature, but also because the persons and communities that wrote and assembled them did so in a particular time and culture. Add to that our own culturally conditioned context and the old bumper sticker sounds pretty lame: "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." (1)
My view of the inspiration of Scripture is simple. The Scriptures are inspired by God, by which I mean, they communicate a true knowledge of God and nurture a saving faith in Jesus the Christ. How do I know this? Well, I can't know this; but I trust this and my experience reminds me that it's true.
So, I take the Scriptures seriously but not always and everywhere literally.
What opens up to me because of this is a greater appreciation of this Sacred Story of God. I have come to see something that I was not able to see before. First, the images and understandings of God in the Scriputres change and mature as the story unfolds. And second, God is the one who initiates this.
Let me share some examples.
In Exodus 3 Moses encounters God in a burning bush on the mountain of Horeb. Moses runs out of excuses for why he isn't the right candidate for the job of returning to Egypt to tell Pharaoh to let God's people go. Finally, Moses acquiesces. But before he's finished he wants to know God's name. "What if they ask me your name? What shall I tell them?" God tells Moses, "My name is Yahweh. I am that I am." But that isn't the only thing God says in response. God also tells Moses that this name was intentionally withheld from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself fully known to them." (Exodus 6:3 NIV). Before Moses God let himself be known only as El Shaddai, God Almighty. From Moses onward, God is now also known as Yahweh, I am that I am." God initiates this new thing.
Another example is in Hosea. God initiates a new maturing dynamic relationship. Listen to what Hosea says: “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master. ’ (Hosea 2:16 NIV). God iniates a new relationship from God as Master or Creator to God as husband and lover.
This happens in the Gospel of John. Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples for shortly he will be arrested and executed by the state. He says to his disciples, "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15 NIV)
And even Paul acknowledges this. Think of his letter the Galatians and his delineation of Law and Grace. He says at one point, Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, (Galatians 3:23-26 NIV)
So my point is simply that the images and understandings that the biblical writers held about God constantly changed and evolved and matured. But more importantly that changing, evolving and maturing was at God's initiative.
Clearly, the biblical writers moved from an understanding of God as one among many to a God who was all powerful to a God who is unique and the one and only. God initiates a maturing from a community deeply concerned with religion and ceremonial fidelty to a community more passionate about social justice. God chooses an odd band of nomads called the Hebrews but then sends Jesus as the first move to becoming the universal God for all nations. God also intervened directly into affairs, giving special knowledge or power, but now has left us the Spirit to guide us.
An Illustration from Everyday
Brian McLaren reminded me of what it was like when my children were in second grade learning to do math. When they got to subtraction, their math textbook had a rule: You cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number.
Correct? You bet; for a second grader that's perfectly correct.
Then one day in the sixth grade they came home. The class was starting a chapter in their math textbook that was entitled "Negative Numbers." The first line stated, "This chapter will show you how to subtract a larger number from a smaller one."
What if something similar must happen in the theological education of the human race? What if people who live in the second-grade world of polytheism need to learn that God is superior before they can learn that God is uniquely real?
Ah, so I can hear it. Who do we think we are to say that we have arrived theologically and know more about God and God's relationship to the world than the biblical writers?
Good question. More to come on that..
(1) I want to write a series of posts expanding this further, but for now I will leave it at this: when Paul writes "an elder must be the husband of one wife," I feel free to interpret that as culturally conditioned by a patriarchal society that had certain assumptions about men and women. However, I take literally Jesus' answer to the man who asked him What is the greatest commandment? "Love the Lord your God ... And your neighbor as yourself." Everyone does this. It's simply a matter of how and based on what rules of interpretive engagement one uses.