I recently saw an advertisement in our local newspaper that told me that a local appliance shop was having the “Sale of the Century” the next day. I huddled the family into the car and drove down early the next morning expecting it to be extremely crowded. When I got there a half an hour early and nobody was there yet, I began to wonder how anyone could afford to miss out on the “Sale of the Century”. Most of us won’t see the 22nd Century so there will never be a sale like this again, right? Well we all know that is not how the advertisement is meant to be read. It is not meant to be taken literally, but is simply a way to say that they were having a big sale. Unfortunately, most people do not use the same approach when reading Sacred Scripture. They do not read it in the context in which it was written.
One such case came to me recently when someone recently pointed out to me the existence of web site that “is designed to spread the vicious truth about the Bible.” This web site intends to debunk God’s existence by pointing out all the atrocities that He seems to encourage in Sacred Scripture. This seems to be a common argument against Christianity so it is worth looking at this question in depth.
To begin, one must ask where they are getting their standard of right and wrong, just and unjust when they complain about the violence of God, especially in the Old Testament. Look at from the perspective of history, putting entire cities under the ban, human sacrifice, slavery and gross inequality between the sexes were all commonplace throughout the ancient world. It is only when Christianity begins to take root that these things are seen as evils and in truly Christian cultures they have all but disappeared. In other words, the authors of Evilbible.com and those of their ilk are using Christian standards by which to judge the Bible. If that is not ironic enough, it turns out that rather than debunking the Bible, they are actually proving something quite to the contrary.
In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Mission of the Church, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the question of the so-called “Dark Passages” of Scripture by reminding the Faithful that context is everything. He says that
…it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. (Verbum Domini, 42)
That “God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance” is an important interpretive technique (called a ‘hermeneutic” in theological language) for the Pope Emeritus and is one that he emphasizes in many of his scriptural commentaries. This hermeneutic, which one might call the “Divine Pedagogy Hermeneutic” consists in God meeting man within history itself to reveal Himself to mankind. But this meeting does not take place all at once, but instead is meant to serve as preparation for the “fullness of time” when God will come to meet man in the flesh. In Benedict even goes so far as to say that “we only interpret an individual text theologically correctly…when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is” (In the Beginning, pp. 9-10).
In short the “inner direction” of history sets man on a collision course with God in the Incarnation, when God fully reveals Himself to mankind and “fully reveals man to himself, making his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). But it is not just about the revelation of the Son in the Incarnation but also the Son’s mission of making the Father known. Because Original Sin, according to John Paul II, is ultimately “a rejection of God’s Fatherhood,” immediately after the Fall God sets out to show Himself as Father, offering sonship to men. What this means for us in interpreting Scripture is that any interpretation that leads us away from seeing God as Father is most certainly the wrong one.
But the hermeneutic of Divine Pedagogy does not fully address the question. In order to do this, we must look at what it means that Scripture is the “Word of God in human language.”
God is the primary author of Scripture but he enlightens men so that under their own power they might write what He wants them to write. This means that the words of Sacred Scripture depend upon not just the literary context, but the historical context as well. In other words, while Scripture is the Word of God, it is spoken by men in a particular place and time. Therefore it depends upon language and cultural values associated with those times.
Every culture in ancient times had their own set of gods. These gods (who St. Paul calls demons in 1Cor 10:20) were nearly all violent and capricious, seeking to trap man in fear and superstition. It is into this historical setting that the God of Israel chooses to reveal Himself. He does not merely come on the scene and say “I am the true God and these other gods are false.” With so many local gods, no one would believe a prophet preaching that message. Instead He must undo the cultural influences on Israel’s notion of what a God is. Because He is Father, he does this in both word and deed.
We can use a favorite example to bash Christians, the sacrifice of Isaac, to make this principle clear. Abraham was all too aware of the fact that every god in his culture demanded human sacrifice. In this setting where gods would routinely lie, it was not enough for God to simply say “I do not require human sacrifice.” Instead He had to show Abraham how He was radically different from the other gods. Abraham’s sacrifice was the most willing of all human sacrifices because he was willing to do it out of trust and not simply fear. In the face of a man who was so willing to do this, we learn that God of Israel will not ask such a thing. The message is louder and clearer what kind of God we are dealing with. But it won’t be entirely clear until Abraham’s prophecy about God providing the Lamb comes true.
The other aspect at Scripture being the “Word of God in human language” is that it is primarily written from man’s perspective. This means when we see things like “the wrath of God” we have to remember that it is spoken from man’s perspective. When a child is being punished for wrongdoing, they almost always say “my parents are mad at me.” Now as most parents know, very often the punishment comes from the perspective of discipline rather than anger. In fact, the less anger involved, the more effective the punishment normally is.
But there is a further aspect of this that bears mention as well. If there is a next world (an underlying assumption of the Bible itself) and God is in fact just (another assumption that any Biblical reader should have), then any punishment meted out by God has to be examined from that perspective. For example, God punishes David’s infidelity by allowing 70,000 people to be struck down with a plague after David orders a census. From the perspective of here and now this seems horrible but that ignores what comes after. Each one of those 70,000 people will end up with the reward that they deserve. The righteous will look back on the plague as a minor inconvenience at worst.
Although it may not be widely discussed, the Bible itself was primarily composed and collected by the early Church to be used in the Liturgy. If this is its purpose then it has an intended audience, namely the initiated. In other words, it assumes that the listener (or reader) already has faith. It is meant to be a book for the initiated and it is no surprise that someone from the outside would misunderstand it. It is foolhardy to believe that you can simply pick up a book written for “experts” in a given field and readily understand without the necessary “education.” So too it is with the Bible, without the proper credentials, namely faith, you will assuredly misunderstand it. When you already have a mistaken notion of Who God is, you will not understand it at all. But when you know God as Father, the Scriptures come alive.
A final example from Jesus Himself will help to summarize what has been said. When confronted by the Pharisees about divorce (Mt 19:8-9), Jesus says that it was “because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives…I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” In the ancient world, the idea that marriage would be for life would have been met with an attitude like “OK, so marriage is until death do us part. That can be arranged.” So to keep something worse from happening, God allowed divorce. The examples of such concessions can be multiplied, but the point is that it is Christ who fulfills the law and thus He needs to be the lens through which anyone “judges” Scripture. He condemns not only killing but even anger because no longer is man on his own to fulfill the moral law. Now Christ commands it and gives us the power to fulfill it. This is why I said the Biblical interlocutors were inadvertently proving a Christian interpretation of the Bible—we already know that the law of the Old Testament was inadequate and that man’s understanding of God was wrong. That is precisely why we profess Christ, the Word Made Flesh.