3 Thoughts on Reading the Old Testament
When I hear someone criticize Christianity based on the violence in the Old Testament (and they’re right in that there are pretty violent things in there) a few thoughts occur to me.
1) There is often a failure on the part of the reader to distinguish between description and prescription. – After reading through Judges, for example, one is struck by the violence related in the accounts. So does that mean the bible condones these acts? Or is it merely describing these acts? In the case of Judges, the main theme is repeated througout “In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did what what right in his own eyes.” Part of the point is to draw attention to the evil men do.
Even in the case of Israel’s conquering of the region it is a description of how God established a plan of redemption for a (very) wicked world and not a prescription for us to go and do the same. The Canaanites and the Hittites and the other “ites” were not just innocently minding their own business. For example, They were too busy burning their own children as sacrifices, among other things. (For a good treatment on this particular subject I recommend Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan.)
2) There is often a tendency to impose 21st century sensibilities onto the text. – The world is not nearly as bad as it could be. And even though we have had and continue to have violence episodes, the Ancient Near East was brutality incarnate. I think some readers have a tendency to read themselves and modern culture into the text in an attempt to relate to it, and then come away indignant. They balk at the patriarchal society and spend so much time being offended that they fail to understand the significance of the account. They fail to get themselves out of the way and receive the text. They engage in what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Their own time is the measure by which all else should be judged. (Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism is a good take on different types of readers.)
3) There is often a failure to grasp the context or intent of the author(s) and/or literary genre. – Some assume (and even some Christians, sadly) that the Christian scriptures were merely dictated by God and literary devices don’t matter. Hyperbole, poems, figurative language and the like either don’t matter or are overlooked on the one hand by those who would like to find inconsistencies in the text. On the other hand, some Christians overlook those literary devices thinking that if they admit them into the equation then somehow the word of God is compromised. And after all aren’t we supposed to take the bible “literally?”
If we mean that we’re supposed to take literally what the author meant given literary devices, then yes. And granted, it’s more work. It would be easier if it were an instruction manual, but life isn’t straightforward and we’re not machines. The OT rings true to the human condition and the need to be saved from it, even if you don’t believe it’s inspired. In addition, we can’t hold an author accountable for not doing something he didn’t try to do. If it was the custom to round numbers up or to use hyperbole to make a point, then we can’t fault him for not being exact with the former or accuse him of being concrete (or “literal”) with the latter. (How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren is an excellent resource on the discipline of reading.)