Interpreting Scripture

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The first point we need to keep in mind in order to deal with questions bearing upon the difficult passages in the Old Testament is that Jews and Christians believe that God not only reveals Himself in creation, but He also, over and above that, chose to reveal Himself in history. First, what does it mean that He reveals Himself in creation? St. Paul sums it up nicely in his letter to the Romans: "Ever since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what He has made". In other words, if the universe is ordered, intelligible, good and beautiful, and if for every effect there is a cause, then the First Cause of the entire order of creation is evidently supremely intelligent, supremely good and beautiful; for it is impossible for the effect to possess what the cause does not have and cannot impart (i.e., order, intelligibility, goodness and beauty).

But for God to reveal Himself in history, through a gratuitous relationship, is for Him to make manifest aspects of Himself that exceed our ability to figure out through reasoning alone, such as the steadfast nature of His love for us. How does He reveal Himself in history? He does so by choosing a people of His own from "scratch" so to speak. So Jews believe that God chose Abraham. He promises to make Abraham the father of a nation and to bless all nations through him, if he would only obey and do what God commands him to do, which is to leave the land of Ur and go to the land of Canaan. God makes a covenant with Abraham, and the terms of the covenant are: "I will be your God, and you will be my people".

After that point, the great moments in Israel's history will take place, moments that reveal the Lord's hesed, His steadfast love and fidelity to His promises. We witness the birth of Isaac and the story of his sacrifice, the story of Esau and Jacob, the marriages of Jacob and the birth of his twelve sons, the story of Joseph and how he ended up in Egypt, which of course sets the stage for the next great moment in Israel's history, the rise of Moses and their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the institution of the law, which includes the giving of the commandments. And of course there is so much more.

Much of this history, we believe, foreshadows further historical moments that lie in the future, such as the sacrifice of Christ, who from this angle is an image of Isaac, or the deliverance of mankind from the slavery of sin through Christ, who from this angle is the new Moses.

Now, the difficult question is how to make sense of some parts of the Torah that seem to show God commanding Israel to slaughter the enemy, or to put to death a child that strikes a parent, etc. We see Abraham having sexual relations with his wife's slave girl Hagar. Isn't that adultery? We see Rebecca's deception of her husband so that Jacob receives the rights of the first born, and so the God of Israel is now the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rather than Esau. Such examples can be multiplied. What are we to make of all this? What is God revealing about Himself in all this, besides His own inexhaustible patience? Is it true that the God of the Old Testament is a violent and vengeful God, while the God of the New Testament is a God of mercy? No, it is not; we would argue that this is a common misconception.

The bible is not to be used like a mechanic's manual where he looks up the solution to certain problems in order to make a repair, although many people treat it that way. Everything in the bible must be read in historical context. When we read the text in its historical context - which takes a great deal of time and study-, the passages very often become far more understandable. A good biblical commentary is indispensible. Nonetheless, this does not always eliminate the difficult questions.

But allow me to offer some points that might help clarify some of the difficulty. God reveals Himself in His historical relationship with Israel. Now, all relationships have a starting point, and they develop. It is only gradually that we come to understand the one with whom we are in relationship, and we grow in our understanding of that person, in time and through our relationship with him, that is, not merely by what he says, but in what he does. As the saying goes, "actions speak louder than words". So too with God's relationship with Israel; He reveals Himself precisely in His fidelity to His covenanted people. Israel reflects upon history with the eyes of faith, that is, with the eyes of a people who see themselves as God's covenanted people, that is, a people that God has chosen as His own, so as to be a first born son to the nations.

God is infinite and inexhaustible, and so His self-disclosure in creation is not complete. But to be revealed in a historical relationship with Israel is also not a complete and final self-disclosure, for it is possible for God to reveal Himself more directly and completely. Christians believe that God actually joined a human nature and entered into history "in the flesh", in the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, which is a complete and total revelation, even though our understanding of it is always limited.

Now, there is a distinction between a proposition and an assertion. There are all sorts of propositions in the bible that are not God's word, just as not every proposition we utter is an assertion. What do we assert when we utter certain propositions? The context in which a person speaks is crucial in allowing us to discern what the speaker is really saying. Without that context, we are bound to misinterpret what is said. This is especially true of the Scriptures. We speak of Scripture as being the inspired Word of God. The authors of the biblical texts were historical persons who wrote in a particular language, within a particular historical context. In order to properly understand Scripture, we need to become familiar with that historical context. That is why if one majors in Biblical Studies, one will have to learn Greek and/or Hebrew, and he will spend a great deal of time studying biblical history.

But we believe that the authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote. It is not that God dictated to them word for word what they were to write; rather, they wrote under divine inspiration. That's an article of faith. So God's word is there, present in the Scriptures, but what exactly is being asserted is not always easy to determine. If we know what is being asserted, we know God's word, and we know the truth. But discovering that is no easy task; and that is why we have to read Scripture carefully and prayerfully, and in context. So, did God really command Israel to put to death homosexuals, or children who strike their parents? Israel thought so, but we hold that in light of the New Testament, that is, in light of God's self-disclosure in the Person of Christ, no, He did not command that. I think I would have to say that what is being asserted is that children have a sacred duty to honor their parents. In other words, this passage is not about punishment, but about filial piety. This honing in on the genuine meaning of a biblical text will take time, and we believe that it has taken centuries. It is comparable to the gradual growth in understanding of the person you are in relationship with, which very often takes years. Did God really command that homosexuals be put to death? We don't think so, but we would certainly hold that it has been asserted that homosexual acts are contrary to natural and divine law.

When we enter into a relationship with our own children, we do not and cannot reveal everything about ourselves all at once. A child simply does not have the capacity to understand an adult, and so a child will typically misunderstand much of what his own parent stands for or the reasons why he does what he does. This is especially true in adolescence. It is only later, when we become parents ourselves that we begin to see the larger picture and finally understand that we previously saw our parents from a very limited framework. Our knowledge of them was certainly genuine, but incomplete. So too, Israel's relationship with God was initiated by God, and Israel is truly God's covenanted people, and God is truly faithful to His promises, but Israel's understanding of her own relationship to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is necessarily limited and over time will gradually widen and become more precise. This is especially true if God "becomes flesh" and reveals Himself in Person, so to speak.