On Reading Difficult Passages in Scripture

Ronald Rolheiser
San Antonio, Texas
February 7, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

A colleague of mine shares this story: Recently, after presiding a Eucharist, a woman from the congregation came up to him with this comment: “What a horrible scripture reading today! If that’s the kind of God we’re worshipping, then I don’t want to go to heaven!”

The reading for that day’s liturgy was taken from Chapter 24 of the Second Book of Samuel where, seemingly, God gets upset with King David for counting the number of men he had for military service and then punishes him by sending a pestilence that kills seventy thousand people.

Is this really the word of God? Did God really get angry with David for doing a simple census and kill seventy thousand people to teach him a lesson? What possible logic could justify this? As it stands, literally, yes, this is a horrible text!

What do we do with passages like this and many others where God, seemingly, demands violence in his name? To cite just one example: In his instructions to Joshua when they enter the promised land, God orders him to kill everything in the land of Canaan, all the men, all the women, all the children, and even all the animals. Why? Why would God so grossly want all these people destroyed? Can we believe God would do this? There are other similar examples, as, for instance, in the Book of Judges, where God grants the prayer of Jephthah, the Gileadite, on the condition that he sacrifices his own daughter on the altar of sacrifice. Texts like this seem to go against the very essence of the nature of God as the rest of scripture reveals it.

God, in scripture, is sometimes seemingly shown to be arbitrary, heartless, violent, demanding violence from believers, and completely calloused about the lives of anyone not among his chosen favorites. If one were to take these texts literally they could be used to justify the exact type of violence that extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaida carry out under the belief that God loves them alone and they are free to kill others in his name.

Nothing could be further from the truth and nothing could be further from the meaning of these texts. These texts, as biblical scholarship makes clear, are not to be taken literally. They are anthropomorphic and archetypal. Whenever they are read they could be preceded by the kind of disclaimer we now often see at movies where we are told: No real animals died while making this film. So too, no real people die in these texts.

First of all, these texts are anthropomorphic, meaning that in them we attribute our own emotions and intentions to God. Hence these texts reflect our feelings, not God’s. For example, when Paul tells us that when we sin we experience the “wrath of God”, we are not to believe that God gets angry with us when we sin and sends positive punishment upon us. Rather, when we sin, we punish ourselves, begin to hate ourselves, and we feel as if God has gotten angry with us. Biblical writers frequently write in this genre. God never hates us, but, when we sin, we end up hating ourselves.

These texts are also archetypal, meaning that they are powerful, primordial metaphors that explain how life works. I remember a man coming up to me one Sunday after a liturgy, when the reading had proclaimed God’s order to Joshua to kill all the Canaanites upon entering the Promised Land. The man said to me: “You should have let me preach today. I know what that text means: I’m an alcoholic in recovery - and that text means ‘cold turkey”. As an alcoholic, you have to clean out your liquor cabinet completely, every bottle, you can’t be having even a single drink. Every Canaanite has to be killed! Jesus said the same thing, except he used a softer metaphor: New wine, new wineskins.” In essence, that’s the meaning of this text.

But even so, if these texts are not literal aren’t they still the inspired word of God? Can we just explain them away because we feel them inconvenient?

Two things might be said in response to this: First, all individual texts in scripture must be seen within the larger, overall framework of scripture and our overall theology of God and, as such, they demand an interpretation that is consistent with the nature of God as revealed overall in scripture. And, in scripture as a whole, we see that God is non-negotiably all-loving, all-merciful, and all-good and that it is impossible to attribute bias, callousness, brutality, favoritism, and violence to God. Moreover, scripture is binding and inerrant in the intentionality of its message, not in the literalness of its expression. We do not, for example, take literally Jesus’ command to “call no one on earth your father”, nor Paul’s command: “Slaves be subject to your masters.”

Context and interpretation are not rationalizations, they are sacred duty. We may not make scripture unworthy of God.