ON READING THE BIBLE
"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
I recently gave a talk at the Hermanus United Church on Israel and the Church in which I also spoke about the current situation in the conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinians. In the course of my talk I referred many times to the Bible, especially to the great prophets of Israel like Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah, the teaching of Jesus about God's kingdom, and St. Paul's writings about Israel and the Church. Afterwards, someone in the congregation said that he totally disagreed with what I had to say and, moreover, I had not quoted Scripture! When asked what Scriptures he had in mind, he referred to those in which God commands Joshua and the tribes of Israel to go into the land of Canaan and slaughter all its inhabitants, taking possession of their land, their livestock, their vineyards, even taking some into slavery and women to be their possession. It is all summed up in a passage in Joshua (11:16-23), only one of several scattered about in that OT book. Let me read a few verses which will give you an idea of what Joshua believed God had told him to do:
"So Joshua took all that land...He took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites...for it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses."
My critic at the United Church evidently also said that if only the Israelites back then had really obeyed God and killed all the Canaanites when they had the opportunity, there would be no problem today. There would be no Palestinians left in the land!
There are many who claim to be Christian around the world today who think the same, and not a few Israelis! This is how they read the Bible. God commanded Israel to slaughter their enemies on the basis that they were also God's enemies! God even hardened the Canaanites hearts in order that they would be utterly destroyed -- no mercy, only extermination! So God had no hesitation in ordering war, pillage, butchering, raping the Canaanites. God is a tribal God of a war-like clan hell-bent on grabbing someone else's land and possessions.
So it is understandable that many people dismiss the OT and its portrait of God. And because many Christians claim that every word in the Bible, every story from the creation narratives to the end of history, is inspired by God they must believe that it is all literally true. It must be so because it says so in the Bible! No wonder many people reject not just some parts of the OT, but the Bible as a whole and think it reprehensible that children are taught such stories in Sunday School. And I would do the same if it were not for the fact that I do not regard the Bible in that way, and neither do any Bible scholars I know. In any case, such an understanding of God is contrary to everything that we know about the God revealed in Jesus.
History is generally written by the winners. In older histories of the British Empire its generals are all portrayed as if they were not just heroes but also saints, and Britain was fulfilling a divinely appointed role.. Was not the expansion of the British Empire blessed by God, no matter how many people were slaughtered in the process and how much land was stolen! Did not chaplains bless those going into battle, praying that God would give them victory, and quoting passages from the Bible to justify what they were doing? God was the tribal God of the British and therefore they could do no wrong. Hopefully we all recognise that this is nonsense. You can still read that account of history in the old history books, but we can no longer take them at face value. They are interpretations of history and not very reliable when it comes to the facts. And that is also true of the story of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. In any case, they never did succeed in the way that the story is told in Joshua, in fact there are other accounts in the Old Testament itself that paint a different picture. Not only that, but there are many passages in the OT that portray a very different understanding of God, not God as the tribal deity of the warring Israelites, but God as the creator and redeemer of all peoples and nations, the God who calls Israel to be a light to the nations, to do justice and seek peace, to be compassionate, in fact, the God Jesus called his Father.
The bottom line is that the Bible is a dangerous book in the hands of those who do not know how to read and understand it, and especially dangerous in the hands of those who use it to serve their own purposes, including killing enemies and stealing their land. You can, in fact, find a proof text for just about anything in the pages of the Bible if you really want to. So beware the Bible if you think that every word is divinely inspired and must be taken literally as the truth. How much damage that idea has that done to people and nations over the centuries, and how many people have lost faith in God because of it! The tragedy is that in trying to defend the Bible as divinely inspired and without fault, people lose sight of what the Bible really is about, and the truth to which it bears witness. "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
So none of what I have said means that we should not read the Bible, or take it seriously. What it means is that we have to learn how to read the Bible, understand how it came to be, and what it is all about, just as we have to learn how to read Shakespeare or poetry, newspaper reports about Oscar Pretorius or the Rugby cup final and, not least, the small print in our insurance policies. I have a great love for the Bible otherwise I would not be here today doing what I am. But I also know that it is not always easy to understand and that you can't just take it at face value. It is comprised of many types of literature including myth and poetry, tribal oral stories as well as majestic hymns of praise and heartfelt cries of pain and suffering, of people of faith struggling with doubt and seeking to be faithful to God's call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. I am not saying that only scholars can understand it, after all there are accounts of people who have picked up the Bible and found both redemption and comfort. But generally-speaking you can't just plunge into its pages and expect to know what is going on.
With all this in mind that Bernhard and I have been talking about the need for a series of workshops here at Volmoed on "reading and understanding the Bible today." If you think this is a good idea and would like to participate some time during next year, let us know. This does not mean that you have to wait for next year to read the Bible. But I suggest you jump over Joshua and other bits where God seems to be acting like a tyrant, not because they are not there for a purpose, but read the gospels instead. Not the bad news of a God who does not love our enemies and wants us to slaughter them, but the God of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies because he is their God also. After all, did not Jesus himself tell us to be careful in searching the Scriptures because we think that in them we have eternal life, and refuse to turn to him who is the One in whom we find life?
John de Gruchy
23 October 2014