In our Living in The Story project, when we come to the reading of Old Testament books like Joshua and Judges, we read horrific stories of war and violence. Walter Brueggemann says:
There is no question more troubling for theological interpretation of the Old Testament than the undercurrent of violence that runs through a good bit of the text.
There is, moreover, no part of the textual tradition that is more permeated with violence than the conquest traditions of Joshua and Judges.
And so (we may well ask) why on earth are we reading these ancient stories that so offend our modern, civilized sensibilities?
What do these stories of Joshua and the defeat of the city of Jericho, of Deborah and the taking of the land of Canaan have to do with us?
Well, for one thing – like making ourselves sit down and watch a movie like Lincoln – these stories cause us to remember that this is OUR human story. Violence is a part of who we are. Atrocity is what we all are capable of.
We must remember that. We must not forget how tempting it is for every one of us humans to sin against shalom.
But when we read these stories in the Church’s Scriptures, there is another aspect that is even more troubling than the persistent reality of human violence. Very often this narrated violence is represented in the Bible to be sanctioned by – even commanded by – God.
When Joshua and the armies of Israel marched around the city of Jericho, when the priests blew the trumpets, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, the text says Joshua said:
Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. … Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword everything in the city – men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys …
I don’t know about you, but I have trouble saying: “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God” whenever I read something like this. It’s hard for me to stomach that this proactive violence is part of our Holy Scripture
Here are some helpful insights I’ve gained as I’ve pondered some of these difficult passages in the Bible; maybe they will help you as well.
In James Michener’s wonderful book, The Source, a Jewish archeologist on a dig in Israel explained to his colleague: “If you want to understand the Jewish people, read Deuteronomy. Read it five times.”
“It’s the great central book of the Jews,” the character Eliav said. “If you master it, you will understand us.”
The people of Israel seem to have a strong sense of God’s faithful presence with them. They have seen God’s hand bringing them out of Egypt and into a sacred covenant relationship in a new land. They have recognized God’s amazing grace preserving them as a people and rescuing them from Exile in Babylon.
The Moses of Deuteronomy asks:
Ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened …?!
Deuteronomy is set on the far side of the Jordan River, looking across into The Promised Land.
From this perspective, Moses recounts the story of rescue from Egypt. He retells YHWH’s presence at Sinai. He reminds of the 10 Commandments and the Law. He prepares them for the years ahead, when Moses will have passed on the baton of leadership to Joshua.
When we read Deuteronomy, we remember how the people of Israel were a motley crew of slaves in Egypt. They went from being no people to being God’s own people.
But please remember, the story the Old Testament tells is The Story of Israel. It doesn’t pretend to tell any other people’s story in the vast sweep of human history.
There is no mention whatsoever about what the God of all creation and the Lord of nations might have been doing in Mongolia or Ethiopia or Machu Picchu during those ancient days.
I am confident God has been on the move throughout all time, in all places, creating relationship and writing the divine story in the human heart in ways we cannot even begin to fathom. However, none of those stories are the stories of the Bible.
The Old Testament is Israel’s story – and it is shot through with amazement.
The Book of Numbers does what it says: it names and numbers Israel.
Here we find numerous lists of tribes and families listed and counted. Here is another origins document naming the original members of this newly called out tribal people; a people who will eventually become the nation and kingdom of Israel.
As it opens, Numbers is set at the holy mountain, Sinai (or Horeb as it is sometimes named) and its first ten chapters complete the Exodus story about the giving of the Law.
Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:10 describes how this ragtag rescued people were received into a formal covenant of relationship with the God who brought them out of Egypt. Here they receive instructions about how to live within this covenantal relationship.
I have a friend from seminary who once tried to write a paper for a class that explored how Leviticus is the Word of God. He couldn’t write it. He worked on it for weeks and weeks and he never could figure out how to understand this odd, ancient book as “the word of the Lord.”
My friend is not the only one. Many of us struggle to understand these kinds of strange passages from the Church’s sacred texts.
Just how could it be “the word of the Lord” that people with various disabilities should be excluded from worship?
How could it be that people who are born a certain way should be excluded from the ministry of the priesthood?
I believe it is not possible for Christian readers of the Old Testament to make sense of Leviticus without reading it through the lens of Jesus Christ.
And that’s exactly what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews did two millennia ago: he re-read and re-interpreted Leviticus through his understanding of the Christ Event.
This is why Living in The Story juxtaposes the book of Leviticus and the Letter to the Hebrews as we read during weeks 14 and 15.
Let us allow this Hebrew Christian theologian to help us with our interpretive approach to the Old Testament. Let him help us re-read our Scriptures.
As you read the fascinating books of Esther and Jonah, think of them as within the genre of short stories or novellas. Watch the way the storyteller sets the plot and develops the characters. Listen for the historical context: they both are told within the real history of Israel.
Consider how these stories address the core eternal questions: Who is God? Who are we as God’s people?
The story of Esther and her uncle Mordecai are tales from the Diaspora.
After the Exile, many of those who had been forced to leave their homes in Palestine made new homes in Babylon. After their release, many of the Jews returned to rebuild their devastated country but many Jews and their descendants built new lives in foreign lands all over the world.
(During the time of Jesus, there were probably more Jews living in Alexandria Egypt than there were living in Jerusalem. And remember the stories you’ve heard about the Jews Paul encountered on his missionary journeys; Jews were well-established citizens in cities all across the Roman Empire.)
In spite of this wide spread presence and the good intentions of Jews to be good citizens in their adopted nations, history (as well as current events!) document repeated pogroms and periods of persecution against the Jews. A popular Jewish saying even in our day is: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” That’s the Esther story in a nutshell.
As you read this week, understand that the story of The Exodus lies at the very heart of Jewish identity. Throughout the centuries, as this people has endured persecution, pogrom and holocaust, the remembrance of God’s deliverance has sustained this passionate community.
This story of Exodus also shaped the telling of the Christian story from the very beginning. Matthew’s gospel sees Jesus as the new Moses. Mark’s gospel characterizes the work of Jesus as deliverance and redemption. The Exodus story also creates hope for any number of communities that have experienced oppression. Liberation Theology of our own time is a direct descendant of this Exodus tradition and continues to spark a hopeful fire within Black and Brown peoples across the globe.
Whether the liberation from Egypt is a story that is set in time or one of those deeply true stories that transcends time, no one will ever know.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle
There is less archeological confidence in the historicity of the stories of Exodus and Conquest than there used to be, given our growing insights of historical criticism. Some scholars think of this as “paradigmatic history” whereby …
… the narrative is seen to make a claim for intense particularity, but a particularity that invites and permits rereading in a variety of circumstances.
Consider again the context of the Exile and the very real possibility that this ancient story from Egypt was told from the experience of Exile in Babylon. The story doesn’t have to be what actually happened a long long time ago in Egypt in order for it to be true. The story is “true” because all kinds of people who suffer from the oppression by all sorts of tyrants are enabled to hold on to the hope that their cries will eventually be heard and the Creator-Sustainer-Redeemer of all-that-is will ultimately act for salvation and shalom.
As you read Exodus 1-15, pay special attention to chapter 3. Here is a pivotal introduction of God, YHWH, Yahweh, I Am. Recall the I Am sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of John and consider again how radical John’s Christology is.
As you read the story of the plagues upon Egypt, you may be troubled (as I have been) with the odd phrase repeated again and again: “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Think about this within the context of the storytellers’ theology. For the Hebrews of Egypt and the exiled Israelites in Babylon, God is the all-powerful Lord of all creation. Even the most powerful kings of the earth cannot resist the indomitable will of the Sovereign Lord of all Lords. The storytellers frame the contest between God and the Pharaoh as an opportunity for God’s glory to be seen, not just to Israel so as to build their faith, but also to the kings and kingdoms of the earth so as to demonstrate the supremacy of the one true God.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, there are two different traditions of the sacrificial lamb. The tradition of the scapegoat seems to be the more dominant one: An animal is sacrificed in substitution for the sins of the people as atonement. This remembrance of sin and forgiveness is celebrated even today in the symbolic rituals of Yom Kippur. (We will unpack this particular notion of the sacrificial lamb more fully in a few weeks when we get to Leviticus.)
But in our story today, there are no hints of a substitutionary death of the lamb on account of sin. Instead the Passover lamb is strength for the journey; it is the one around whom the community gathers, the sharing of whose life binds the community together. It is celebration and sustenance. This is the other thread of meaning for the sacrificial lamb that is especially appropriate theology for the Christian Communion/Eucharist. This tradition that weaves throughout the biblical texts is the tradition of community and covenant.
As you read the Psalms (24, 90, 105), you will notice that Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses.
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Be sure to take time to appreciate Psalm 105 and its powerful poetic remembrance of these core stories of Israel. Compare this song with the “psalm” recorded in Exodus 15.
As you read Mark 11-16, you will notice that Mark’s description of the last supper on the night before his crucifixion was a Passover meal. The Christian celebration of Easter has always coincided with the Jewish celebration of Passover. The dates dance around each other based on the lunar calendar but their relationship is fixed.
Some Christian churches recognize this relationship by celebrating a Jewish Seder with a Christian twist. My friend, Rabbi Jeffrey joined us at one of our Seder meals one year and led my congregation through the traditional ritual. It became very clear to us how the meaning of Passover connected across the ages to the meaning of the Christ. It was a moving experience.
As you read Ephesians, revel in the powerful poetic prayers; there are several. Words have power to stir the human soul; power that is wielded by some to provoke fear and hatred. Power that is used by others to inspire us to awe and goodness.
Notice as you read, the repetition of the persistent biblical theme of God’s deliverance from slavery, sin, and “death.” Also the theme of God’s triumph over pharaohs and tyrants, named here as “rulers and authorities” – not just on earth, but “the cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…”
See again in the letter to the Ephesian churches the Pauline passion for breaking down barriers between Jew and Gentile.
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003).
As you read this week, you will be finishing up Genesis. If you have been reading all along, you will also have completed John, Romans, Colossians, 2 Timothy, Galatians and you are about to wrap up Mark. Look how easy this is! Be pleased about this discipline of Bible study you are developing and think about what this habit of reading Scripture means for you.
As you read Genesis 37-50, watch for ways the stories of Joseph and Jesus parallel.