Interpreting the Bible
Bible Text: Matthew 5: 17-20 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman
Summary: How do we reconcile violence in the Bible with our commitment to the Bible as our authority for life and faith? Part of the answer is the recognition that, while we believe that the Bible is God-breathed or inspired, we realize that people with limited understanding of God’s purposes wrote it. Our faith is evangelical, linked to God’s good news and not to biblicism.
A young man in a Bible class that I was teaching told me that he no longer believed in the Bible. I invited him to grab lunch with me, so we could talk more. As we were eating, he explained that he had been on a short-term mission trip to Central America. There he discovered the ugly truth that European conquerors had brutally killed native Americans, including women and children, in the name of God.
They saw themselves as God’s people entering a new promised land with the prerogative to slay all pagan unbelievers in the same way that God had commanded the Israelites to destroy the towns, women, children and all the possessions of the Canaanites. We can read about God commanding such genocide in the book off Deuteronomy. Such atrocities had not only happened in Central America, it also happened right here where we live. And, lest we get too self-righteous, consider how some American politicians say they will ruthlessly hunt down and kill terrorists (our hated Canaanites) and even their mothers, wives, and children.
How would you respond to that young man? In one sense, all we can do is hang our heads in shame. I so much wish that the young man’s church and family had prepared him better so that he wouldn’t have had to find out about such atrocities in a faith-shattering way during a mission trip. I commend his moral sensitivity. I also don’t believe in a God who commands such atrocities.
But how do we explain the parts of our Bible that say such horrible things without undermining our trust in it’s authority. Let’s be honest. If the Bible were made into a movie, parts of it would be X-rated. Did people really believe such things and act like that? Biblical scholars aren’t sure the genocide happened, at least not to the extent to which it’s insinuated in the Bible. Later, the writer of the book of Judges is upset because the Canaanites are still living among the Israelites.
Even so, those parts of the Bible are there, and we must deal with them. I find it helpful to recognize, as my grandpa Sensenig taught me, that people wrote the Bible. We can therefore say that they really misunderstood God and how to treat your enemies. We certainly don’t read what they wrote as God’s word to us. That doesn’t have to undermining the authority of the Bible for us. We can even see such critique within the Bible itself. It helps to consider the larger direction and message of the Bible. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that “our faith is evangelical, linked to the good news and not to biblicism.[i]
As the Anabaptist leader Ulrich Stadler explained, the written Word is a witness to the inner, living Word. The Bible “is like a sign on an inn which witnesses to the wine in the cellar. But the sign is not the wine.”[ii] We can learn from the way Jewish religious teachers have held to the authority of scripture while engaging in a continual argument with it and even overturning previous teachings. A stunning example is the Mosaic teaching in Deuteronomy 23: 1-8 that bans from the community all those distorted sexually and all those who are foreigners. The prophet Isaiah then overturns this Mosaic teaching when he insists that all eunuchs and foreigners who hold fast to God’s covenant are included and will never be cut off (56: 3-8).
Jesus is another example of such revision. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, and that even the least commandment needs to be obeyed. But then notice what he does with the repeated pronouncement, “It has been said, but I say to you—.” Jesus radically reinterprets earlier biblical teachings on anger, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, retaliation, and how to treat enemies. Consider, also, the arguments Jesus got into with other religious leaders about things such as legalistically following laws about keeping the Sabbath.
It requires a leap of imagination to take the ancient text of the Bible, written in a different historical and cultural context, and then apply it to our world and our lives. Do we think the writers of the Old Testament could see ahead across the centuries and envision the life and ministry of Jesus? Yet, looking back, the Gospel writers unabashedly make that connection. Do we think the writer of the creation stories in Genesis anticipate and speaks to the environmental crisis today? Not really. Yet, we make that connection. Surely Isaiah’s vision of a new earth did not foresee the civil rights struggle in America. Yet Martin Luther King Jr. made that connection.
On this Mother’s Day, let’s consider another fun example. The dominate images of God in the Old Testament are those of warrior and king. Yet, Isaiah imagines God as a woman in labor (42:14) and Jesus uses the image of God as a mother hen gathering her children under her wing (Mat. 23: 37). We can follow their lead in re-imagining God as a nurturing mother. One off my favorite mothering images of God is in our church hymnal and was written by Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century English Christian mystic. I especially love the first stanza of the hymn:
Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, Source of every breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun,
you are my rain my wind my sun.
This brings us to another perturbing matter. None of us can read the Bible entirely objectively and no interpretation is completely innocent. Walter Brueggemann explains, “There is no interpretation of [the Bible] (nor of anything else) that is unaffected by the passions, convictions and perceptions of the interpreter.” We always need to consider how our ideology shapes our interpretation. We can even see this in the biblical text. For example, consider how hatred against the Canaanites, skewed the perceptions off some writers in the Bible. “We humans do not see so clearly or love so dearly or follow so nearly as we might imagine.”[iii]
One way to test how our American ideology may be skewing our interpretation of the Bible is to listen attentively to how Christians from past centuries have understood it or how sisters and brothers from other countries read it. They also have their ideological biases, which are usually more evident to us than our own biases. Still, listening to them helps us better understand ourselves and how our biases shape our reading of the Bible.
This brings us full circle to how the Bible shapes our lives. It’s an ancient text like no other. More people by a Bible than any other book. According to the Washington Post, there are annual sales of 40 million Bibles and that’s not even counting foreign markets. The Bible is not only the best-selling book of all time. It’s the best-selling book of the year, every year.[iv]
Consider how familiar Bible stories like the story of the good Samaritan have shaped our culture or how many grieving people have found comfort in Psalm 23. To not be familiar with the Bible is to be culturally illiterate. While we don’t want to ignore problematic texts in the Bible, we should not allow them to overshadow the Bible’s powerful force for communicating God’s purpose for liberation, reconciliation, and new life.
To confess that the Bible is God’s inspired word, is to recognize that it’s Spirit breathed and the God’s wind blows through it, upending all our critical and confessional categories of reading and understanding. Think of reading a story like the prodigal son and then realizing that it’s really about a prodigal father who extravagantly and unconditionally loves his son—that this is a picture of God’s love for me. Walter Brueggemann explains:
The spirit will not be [controlled], and therefore none of our reading is guaranteed to be inspired. But it does happen on occasion. It does happen that in and through the [Bible] we are blown beyond ourselves. It does happen that the spirit teaches, guides and heals through the [Bible], so that [it] yields something other than an echo of ourselves. It does happen that in prayer and study believers are led to what is “strange and new.”[v]
In other words, we sense God’s call on our lives and, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, we are born again. Furthermore, it’s deeply communal as we together form communities of the Spirit that, imperfectly to be sure, yet in a real sense live into this new world coming. We are a community of peace, where love is lived, justice is grown, and everyone (even hated Canaanites) are welcome.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection,” in Gingerich and Zimmerman, Telling Our Stories (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2006), 262.
[ii] Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline, (Scottdale, PA: 1981), 143.
[iii] Brueggemann, 265.
[v] Ibid., 268