By Roy Gane
I agree with Charles Scriven that in the current issue of Spectrum (34/3, Summer 2006), “diverse perspectives on the interpretation of the Bible come across like tires screeching.” You can almost smell the rubber burning!
Scriven reacts against articles by Richard Davidson on the authority of Scripture (pp. 38-45) and myself (Roy Gane) on Israelite genocide (pp. 61-65). Scriven agrees, on the other hand, with articles in the same issue by Sigve Tonstad on Isaiah (pp. 46-53) and David Larson, who responds to my article on genocide (pp. 66-69). As Scriven acknowledges, “the issues are complex.”
Although Scriven's brief essay does not attempt to deal with the complexity, he briefly identifies what he sees as main issues at stake. I welcome this frank communication as helpful in opening up further dialogue. So, accepting the challenge, here are a few of my own observations in response to both Scriven and Larson. First I will list some areas in which we agree. Then I will point out some issues that Larson and Scriven have misrepresented. Finally, I will identify what I believe to be the source of our disagreement.
Areas of agreement
1. I agree with Larson and Scriven that the character of God is central to the message of Scripture. In my teaching, preaching, and in several of my books (Altar Call [Diadem, 1999]; Leviticus, Numbers [NIV Application Commentary; Zondervan, 2004]; Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement, and Theodicy [Eisenbrauns, 2005]; Who's Afraid of the Judgment [Pacific Press, 2006]) I have repeatedly and emphatically emphasized that God's character of love (1 Jn 4:8) is the heart and basis of divinely revealed truth (cf. Matt 22:37-40).
2. I heartily agree that Christ is the paramount revelation of God's character (e.g., 2 Cor 3).
3. I agree that divine revelation is progressive. God is continually leading his people to a higher standard (e.g., Isaiah; Matt 5). Examples could fill several volumes. As I have written in my article, God no longer mandates genocide.
4. I agree with Larson that we need to trace the trajectory of Scripture in order to follow the direction it is leading, even when this means moving beyond (but never contrary to, I would add) explicit statements of Scripture. For example, in the Bible there are no explicit divine commands prohibiting everyone from practicing all forms of slavery or polygamy under all circumstances. However, we see in Scripture that God did not initiate these institutions and did not like them. He undermined them by teaching the value of each human being, and regulated them to mitigate their worst effects in an age when completely abolishing them would have resulted in starvation for debt-servants and for rejected women. We correctly deduce that in harmony with the biblical message, Christians must never practice slavery or polygamy.
5. Larson accepts events of corporate destruction by God, such as Noah's flood, incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the ultimate annihilation of the wicked as compatible with God's character (pp. 68-69). I agree because God's love includes his justice as well as his mercy. While he doesn't want any to perish (2 Pet 3:9) and his retributive punishments are alien to his desires (cf. Isa 28:21-God's “strange act”), he ultimately does not allow individuals or groups who refuse to live in harmony with his law of love to continue disrupting the reign of love, which is the only principle on the basis of which intelligent beings with free choice can harmoniously co-exist and not ultimately destroy each other.
6. I agree with Larson that the story of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 22) was never intended to teach that God commands people to do evil (including human sacrifice).
1. Larson defines “genocide” narrowly as “the extermination of entire groups with no regard for the relative guilt or innocence of individual members and no opportunity for any of them to be spared” (p. 68). He reads this definition of genocide into my description of “genocide” carried out by ancient Israel, thereby making the question of theodicy more difficult than it really is. But I simply use genocide in the normal sense of the word: “the systematic killing or extermination of a whole people or nation” (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language). The “-cide” ending in “genocide” simply refers to killing (cf. “insecticide”), without regard for the relative guilt or innocence of those who are killed.
2. Larson's definition of “genocide” leads him to artificially and inaccurately distance what God did through the ancient Israelites from largely analogous events, such as Noah's flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the ultimate extermination of the wicked. As evidence that the latter occurrences do not count as genocide, he cites the fact that God saved Noah and Lot and their families and delays the ultimate extermination of the wicked. If Larson were right, the divine-Israelite destruction of Jericho would not involve genocide because Rahab was saved from that city, and none of the destruction inflicted on the Canaanites by the Israelites would count as genocide because God delayed it for hundreds of years until the iniquity of the inhabitants of Canaan (earlier called “Amorites”) was complete (Gen 15:13-16).
3. Scriven writes: “Gane ends up, it is true, wishing people would embody the 'truer religion' that reflects Christ's sacrificial love, but he provides no argument, certainly no biblical argument, for privileging Jesus over genocide. His account of the Bible won't let him.” Give me a break, Chuck! Disagree if you like, but try to accurately represent what I say. You grossly distort my article, which shows that Israelite genocide was dependent on and limited to the Israelite theocracy, which no longer exists, and which cites biblical passages to the effect that we should leave vengeance to God and follow the Lord's command to love others as ourselves. If you don't get the clear message that I privilege Jesus over genocide, read my article again. I should also point out that this article deals with a narrow, difficult topic in the context of my NIV Application Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers. For a full exposition of my understanding of the Gospel and God's character in these biblical books, read the rest of this volume (806 pp. + indices). Source of Disagreement
In his introduction, Larson clearly lays out the issue: “The question before us is whether we can think of God ordering ancient Israel to act so ruthlessly (Num. 21:1-35, 31:1-54; Deut 2:1-37, 3:1-29, and 20:1-20. He answers Yes and I say No” (p. 66). Later Larson explains: “The practice of genocide is not compatible with the character of God as embodied in Jesus Christ… As it is with slavery and some other issues, our position should be that our religious ancestors honestly believed that God commanded them to practice genocide but that now we see this differently” (p. 68).
Really?! Larson knows biblical passages clearly stating that the Lord (including through Moses) commanded the Israelites to wipe out groups of wicked people inhabiting the Promised Land. Nevertheless, he simply does not believe that aspect of this part of the Bible because it does not accord with his view of what the character of God/Christ allows the deity to do. C. S. Lewis would say that he is trying to tame Aslan. Larson's view is based on selective reading of another part of the Bible to arrive at a conclusion that he then imposes on the rest of Scripture. Rather than take 2 Tim 3:16 (“All Scripture is inspired by God…”) seriously to mean that the whole Bible is the Source of our knowledge of God and his character, Larson makes the biblical Source conform to his own thinking. This is called “circular reasoning,” and apart from any question of faith, use of this kind of reasoning logically invalidates conclusions derived through it. In the process of selective reading and circular reasoning that privileges part of the Bible as opposed to other parts deemed “primitive,” an approach that pervades critical so-called “exegesis,” Larson disregards Christ's statements regarding divine retribution and Mosaic authority. Davidson could have used this in his article as an example of imposing human reason on the Word of God.
Because I have a solid biblical canon rather than a loose canon, refusing to re-write part of the Bible in order to deny its explicit statements that back in history God commanded something that I do not feel comfortable with, Scriven negatively characterizes my approach (and Davidson's) of scriptural authority as “flat-line”: “It's not just the Bible as a whole that defines Christian life, it's all the bits and pieces. Every book and text has equal sway.” I reply: Did Christ or the apostles say that one part of the Bible is more important than another? If not, should we engage in this exercise, or would that be arrogant, or even blasphemous? I'm not interested in condemning anyone here. But I do wish to say: Wake up and see what you are doing!
Taking all of Scripture seriously as contributing to our understanding of God and his will for us by no means mandates knee-jerk, unthinking obedience to the letter of the law, which would call for re-instituting practices such as levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10). Gulp. Rather, 2 Tim. 2:15 says: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (NAS95). This calls for careful exegesis that takes into account factors such as diverse genres and, within the genre of law, the difference between culturally-conditioned applications of law and the timeless principles underlying them (see in detail in my Leviticus, Numbers, 305-314). Yes, the “bits and pieces” matter in a variety of ways, and we have no right to sweep away their timeless elements, including factors regarded today as politically incorrect (e.g., in Leviticus God condemns the practice of homosexuality as a moral evil; see Leviticus, Numbers, 325-330).
Obviously we have only touched on a few complex matters that branch out in all directions. We have not even begun to dialogue regarding individual versus corporate responsibility, or another category that David Daube (Studies in Biblical Law) calls “ruler-punishment.” Nevertheless, our discussion thus far suffices to amply demonstrate Davidson's point: The source of disagreement boils down to two different views of the Bible and its authority.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4479