When the Bible doesn’t make sense, don’t run away, run alongside

The Bible is hard to read alone. I think we do it best together, in community, and when we work to apply it and learn from it practically. Rather than run away when it’s hard, I encourage you to try reading it in community and apply it that way. That’s what I mean when I say, “run alongside.”

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is about the violence and the patriarchy that’s in the Bible and specifically the Old Testament. My friends are often so befuddled by it that they are ready to toss out the whole Old Testament and parts of the New one too. The Bible is tricky to love and to read. It’s a long-term group project. But with so many difficult parts in it, it’s hard to commit to such a project. I have written about why I read the Bible and even how to read it here, but I want to focus on the more practical aspects of reading hard texts.

This week at the Sunday meeting, we read parts of the story of David. David is a man after God’s own heart. That’s how the Bible describes him. He is a passionate person and his passion leads him to do great good, but also great evil. We see this at least in the story of David and Goliath, where the heroic young boy defeats the giant Philistine. But we also see the dark side of this when David sleeps with Bathsheba, and uses his own nation’s enemy to kill Uriah. David defeats the enemy when he kills Goliath and then uses its power to do his murdering to cover his sin. It is a vile crime and a vile act worthy of death and condemnation in its own right.

Nathan the prophet comes to visit David and offers a famous rebuke. The parable of the poor man’s ewe lamb stolen by a rich man in charge of many herds of livestock in 2 Samuel 12 (I’d recommend reading that passage to make sense of the rest of this post) is a powerful illustration of David’s sin. He is full of blessings from God, but his unhinged passion leads to greed for pleasure and power. It is a sin that haunts many in power today. David knows that he has sinned and his, again, unhinged passion leads him to react with a deadly punishment of the man in the parable.

Nathan informs him that he is the man, but that God has spared him. However, while he tried to cover up his sin, Nathan will bring it out from cover and expose it to the world. God won’t be shamed.

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But David will be. The punishment that God gives David in the story is all about honor and shame. The entire culture hinges on that. If you look back to the story of David and Goliath you’ll see a similar theme, where the two combatants taunt one another with bringing shame on one another’s nations.

The same pattern follows. David’s private sin is exposed when he is publicly embarrassed. This honor/shame economy is still prevalent in many parts of the world (including my own Egypt), but the way it expresses itself here is bizarre and downright wrong in our contemporary eyes. Nathan says David’s son, the one Bathsheba bears him, will be murdered and his wives will sleep with his friend (in public!). That is horribly exploitative, and to me, it is painfully clear that the wrong people are suffering because of David’s sin.

What do we do with such a passage? How does it impact how we see God, never mind how we see David. Four considerations:

Consider it textually. This takes some research and thought, but the question is really about the purpose of the writing and how it was given to an audience. Many think that this piece of writing, termed Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), is a compilation of sources of various ages, and in essence, being complete during Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE (some date it even later than that in the Persian period). What does that mean for us? It means, that we may want to consider the Jewish condition in exile and how these stories impact them. They are intended to comfort a group of people. Here, God is providing judgment to a sinful king, and previously (in the Goliath narrative), God is providing hope against insurmountable odds. These stories are meant for a people in a time and a place. That time and place is decidedly not now. When we expect that stories in the Bible to speak to us, as if they were written to us, we get into problems.

Consider it culturally. The actions of David and the punishment of God, by all accounts, in our contemporary understanding, are wrong.  Bathsheba was in no position to consent, and the shaming that follows as David’s punishment is abuse in today’s terms. But when children and spouses are property of the patriarch and shame is a huge punishment (and when David’s actions are all about concealing his sin, and hiding his shame), Nathan’s prophecy is at the height of justice. For us, it is the opposite. But without doing considerable damage to the literature, or to our own faith, considering that context helps us. It also helps us understand a culture that is different than ours. I’m not postmodern enough to say that just because it’s different, it’s OK; I don’t think it is. But I do think it is helpful to consider from where these stories came.

Consider it theologically. Connected to the occasion of the text, though, we would also do well not to burden the Bible with too much theological explanation. Just like the stories do not always prescribe our behavior, they do not necessarily describe God’s. Sometimes, I think, we bend the Bible into a rulebook for us and a map for who God is. I think under that pressure, the Bible is likely to break. We might think we are justifying in killing our enemies with God’s blessing, and that God punishes us and our family in bizarre and peculiar ways. I don’t follow a God like that, and the Bible’s intention isn’t to offer us a God like that.

Consider it Christologically. The lens through which I see my life is Jesus Christ. And that’s certainly the lens through which I read the Bible. I start reading the Bible through my relationship with Jesus, and when I read the story in 2 Samuel 12, I am reading through the revelation of Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God and his revelation continues to unfold today. We might get caught up in figurative language in the Bible that says that “God never changes,” and while one could make an argument that God is above changing, I do not believe God is static. And I think God incarnate, in the person of Jesus, reveals a decidedly clear character of God that should inform how we read the God in the Old Testament. Quite honestly, the Old Testament itself, is hardly static and describes many images of God too. We can’t even settle on 2 Samuel 12 to describe the fullness of God. What we learn from Jesus and later Paul is that mutual sacrifice and submission are elemental to life in Christ, and that power over and hierarchy are undone in the Kingdom of God, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus ends the cycle of honor and shame. We are free to live without fear of death because Jesus saved us. Our actions may lead to turmoil, for sure, but not because of a punitive God.

We can’t read the Bible alone and studying it together is crucial to our own development. I’m offering my thoughts on the matter and I hope you offer yours. I hope we can move to read the Bible with an open mind and open hands. I believe that doing so, rooted in community, is critical. I think that our current experience with God in community and the evidence of God in the revelation of Jesus are elemental to how we read the Bible. When we encounter something that seems to contradict our experience now, it is good to ask questions, dig deeper, and ponder further.

None of this is easy or it is hardly satisfying. I tried to explain how I read difficult passages in the Bible, but it may leave room for desire and thought. I pray and hope you will keep exploring and wondering. It’s a tricky and messy thing to do, reading the Bible, but it is a noble endeavor. Don’t run away because it’s hard, come run alongside of us.

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