Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How We Use the Bible


Here be the latest in Conversations with Bob! Bob on the Bible!


John,

A very kind introduction. Thanks. I doubt any members of my congregation are reading this, although they are welcome to do so and can get here through the congregation’s website to my blog and so to your blog. But I have to say that I don’t think what we’re talking about would hold their interest. My poor wife sometimes listens to what I have written to you and I know she does so out of love and not out of interest. But I am glad others participate and wish more in the Church in general and the PCUSA in particular would read and comment.

First a few comments on text in the Old Testament and human prehistory.

I agree with you that we have to understand that the texts of the Torah, (and later documents too like the Deuternomic documents, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings), were placed in their final forms during exilic and post exilic times. I suspect I place more trust in the truth of the stories in the sense that I think they speak in part of events that actually happened. I think I place more trust in the faithful transmission of oral tradition than you do. I think there Abraham, Sarah and their offspring really existed. I know I cannot prove this historically. I also think there was an exodus from Egypt, but don’t think that all Israelites left Egypt. I think they ran into a lot of relatives in Canaan and started to take over the highlands in the interior. Now, if you asked me if the events happened exactly as written in their final form I would say no. I’m fairly certain that they were modified to fit theological explanations. So I suggest that the texts were not made up and written during the exile and the post-exilic period. I think there was a long period of oral transmission, maybe as long as 800 years, followed by a time when individual stories were written down. Then there were those who gathered the stories and edited them together and those gatherings were later edited together as well.

I do agree that there is little independent record that supports the Biblical material from the time of the patriarchs down through the time of the exile. There are tantalizing archeological artifacts that cause great controversy in the archeological community. I don’t claim to be an expert but there does seem to be agreement that there are Assyrian and Babylonian records that speak about the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Records of earlier periods are much more controversial. And certainly there are no independent records that speak to the existence of the patriarchs or of the exodus.

I suspect that the mistrust of oral tradition is an enlightenment prejudice that thinks that modernity is naturally better than pre-modernity. Some cultures, including some Native American cultures required strict memorization of the tribes’ history, word for word memorization. I can’t say if this was the tradition in Israelite oral tradition or not. I’m just unwilling to criticize oral tradition simply because it’s oral. Writers make mistakes too. Look at the various ancient texts of the New Testament and even the differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic text!

We do agree partly on human evolution and development of culture. My obviously inadequate study of human origins suggests that human ancestors appeared between 3.6 and 3 million years ago. I would disagree with you, if I understand you, about the critical time of agricultural settlement as a time that affects the text of the Bible. First, while I am sure there was a great deal of conflict between agricultural communities and hunter/gatherer tribes I am fairly certain that humans fought and killed each other before the beginning of agricultural settlements. I can’t prove this but I suspect hunters fought each other over hunting grounds. I don’t think human prehistory falls so neatly into the empire/oppressed dichotomy. Second I don’t think the Biblical editors intended to talk about life around 4,000 BC. That particular date was selected by Bishop Usher sometime in the 1700’s I think. I don’t think that the ages listed in the patriarchal period and the pre-patriarchal periods tell us anything about the amount of time those periods covered. I think the name lists in Genesis serve more as markers between saga cycles and that the age of the various people had a theological message not a chronological message. So I find your use of the time period of 4,000 BC as a basis for a theme in the Bible to be unlikely. I think it more likely that the stories tell us about settled agricultural communities and their conflicts with shepherding tribes.

On to the questions you asked:

  • What is the character of God? I think we discover the character of God in the Biblical narrative. I do believe that we learn more about the character of God as we move through the Bible. I believe in progressive revelation. Thus I would use the teachings of Jesus to evaluate the claims about the character of God in Joshua.
  • Following that, what does it mean to be in right relationship with God and with one another? I think this one is very simple to say but terribly difficult to do. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t think this is possible without knowing the character of God, best seen in God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ. And I don’t think it is possible outside of a redemptive relationship with God through Jesus. Finally I think that humans will continually fail at this until Jesus returns.
  • Following that, if we do use the creation, fall, redemption schema, what did that mean for the various authors as well as the final product (canon). Here I think we have two problems. The first is the intention of the authors/editors. Again I think that this falls into the area of progressive revelation. Clearly the person(s) that put Genesis in its final form believed that God had created a perfect universe (creation) in the sense that there was no evil in it. Then humans came along and messed up that perfect universe, or at least their little part of it. Now, we have to take evolution into account here and I do think that the Church as a whole has failed to do so in any meaningful way. We either end up with process theology which offers little hope to humanity and the earth in my opinion or we have people who say evolution didn’t happen. I’m willing to say that I don’t know what happened, but things sure are messed up and God through God’s election of Israel and later through coming to earth in the person of Jesus is trying to fix things.
  • Finally, what might it mean for us today? I am trying to get at these questions. This I think will be a very long conversation so I will save it for another individual post. I will say that the previous question began to move us from the question of what the writers/editors meant to say to how we apply what they meant to say and this question is explicitly about application. In other words we have moved from exegesis to hermeneutics.

Finally I agree with you, in part, about the purpose of the Bible. God was hard at work from the Big Bang through the development of life on earth and into the times when people began to record their thoughts through writing. Very little of this is in the Bible. Why? From the Big Bang down through Lucy, (the 3 million year old almost human found in Africa) God wasn’t doing things that had anything to do with us. I mean, I love dinosaurs and all the work spent digging up their fossils but God’s relationship with the dinosaurs is none of our business. If there is life in other solar systems God’s relationship with those life forms is none of our business. Not yet anyway. It may become our business if we can last long enough as a race to move off this pebble in the sky. And if there are other universes, well I suspect we won’t be able to go to them during my lifetime.

An historical opinion: writing only takes place in settled communities. Only after a society has a fixed place to live is there time to develop a code for recording thoughts and yes, only when that society has developed social classes. You need a class with enough leisure time to invent writing or at least a class that wants to keep records. The idea that everyone should learn to read and write is a very recent idea, begun by Presbyterians! (So everyone could read the Bible but also so that we could all study God’s wonderful universe.)

I don’t think creation happened in 7 days but most of it sure is wonderful

Fall is much more than violence although violence is one of the results. The Fall begins with disobedience to and separation from God which then divides human from human which ultimately results in violence. And along the way we have nasty words, rumors, attempts to dominate through words, stealing without violence and envy, all of which can end with physical violence. The others we might call precursors to violence.

Redemption includes justice but also forgiveness and shalom.

I have volume after volume in my study on creation fall and redemption so I don’t think my answers are extensive or sufficient.

Grace and Peace

Bob

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