When we consider depictions of divine behaviour in the Old and New testaments, quoting a string of verses to support our favoured portrayal of God typically reveals more about the person who enlists these passages than it does about what the Bible actually says. We can all engage in cafeteria hermeneutics—choosing only those verses that appeal to our theological taste buds—but this is missing the forest for the trees. What’s absent, then, is a cohesive interpretive framework for providing at least a bit of consistency.
And yet, neatly packaged solutions to the inconsistency of divine behaviour in the two testaments fail to enter the struggle and remain there if need be. Why, for example, does God seem to authorize genocide (1 Sam. 15), while also preaching peace, love, mercy, and 70x7-fold forgiveness (Mt. 5)? What is the take-away here, and what are we called to imitate and obey? When we ponder Old Testament prescripts through a Christlike lens, is it ever a happy occasion to smash a baby’s head against the rocks (Ps. 137:9)? Do any of us stone fortunetellers (Lev. 20:27) or think that God has an evil spirit (1 Sam. 18:10)? Was it that “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel” (1 Chr. 21:1) or was “the anger of the LORD … kindled against Israel, [so that] he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah’” (2 Sam. 24:1)? If I’m in a tussle with someone and my wife tries to defend me by grabbing my opponent’s nether regions, should I cut off her hand (Dt. 25:11-12)? Or, am I supposed to gradually learn how to love my enemies, pray for those who persecute me, bless those who curse me, forgive my transgressors 70x7-fold, and refuse to fight back—even heal those who are harmed by others who come to my defense—when I face suffering and the prospect of death, all without a weapon in my hands (Mt. 5:43-48)? None of this is meant to discount Scripture or disrespect it, but it does reveal the need for a more consistent hermeneutical framework to make sense of it.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds ...[since he is] as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Heb. 1:1-2, 4)
So, every jot and tittle of the Tanakh was still unfulfilled and therefore incomplete until Jesus arrived as the fullness of God’s self-revelation (Mt. 5:18). They lay out the trajectory of the racetrack, but not the finish line. When the New Testament authors cite these halakhic and prophetic words, they serve their own ad hoc purpose in light of Jesus’ message, example and authority—almost exclusively to show that Jesus is the Messiah—and not for much else, including any sort of self-identification with portrayals of divine wrath that pepper the Old Testament.
One helpful check and balance to authentically draw out the fullness of Scripture is to avoid stringing together a litany of verses that suggest only what the authors and actors say and to look also at what they do. So, for example, when they quote exclusively from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanakh used by the Eastern Orthodox Church), they use a number of different interpretive approaches without any misgivings:
- Literal, or quoting passages verbatim;
- Midrash, which is a mix of following rabbinical rules for Christian purposes, often conflating oddly paired passages from the Old Testament;
- Pesher, which interprets the Old Testament in light of subsequent events, much like a Christocentric and cruciform hermeneutic does;
- Allegorical, by which symbolic meaning is extrapolated from the text.
Interestingly enough, a literal reading of the Old Testament is in the minority when we look at all the passages that Jesus and the apostles quote, with Jesus favouring the pesher form of interpretations and Paul using midrashic methods (likely because of his training as a Pharisee). A few examples:
- Paul quotes Psalm 68 in his epistle to the Ephesians as, “he took many captives and gave gifts to his people” (Eph. 4:8), but the original says, “you took many captives; you received gifts from people.” So, instead of receiving, God does the exact opposite in Paul’s paraphrase of this verse.
- Jesus quoted Zechariah 13:7 at the last supper (Mark 14:27), which originally read, “strike down the shepherds and draw out the sheep,” but he changed it to, “I will strike down the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.”
- Matthew quotes Zechariah 11:12 (but mistakenly says it’s Jeremiah) and isolates the 30 pieces of silver in a simple narrative and transforms it into a prophecy about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, even though this connection isn’t in the original text (Mt. 27:9).
These are but a few of the many instances where there is no attempt (or desire) to retain the literal words or meaning of the Nevi’im (prophets) or Ketuvim (writings), but instead show a willingness to adapt them to specific new situations as they encounter them. These examples may seem minor, but who among us would dare manipulate the text even minimally? Are Jesus and the apostles disrespecting the prophets and Old Testament in general because of their creative and purpose-specific use of Scripture (or, put another way, because they don’t treat the Bible as an inerrant celestial textbook as do many conservative Evangelicals)? I don’t think they are. Tweaking the words of the Tanakh to speak into a specific new and immediate situation—the audience in front of you, in that moment, for a particular purpose or goal—does not undermine their veneration of these prophets. It deepens this reverence.
At issue, however, is the oft-repeated justification of an anthropomorphized, passion-filled, wrathful—even genocidal—deity in the Old Testament who is not only merciful but is also a just God. This ‘theistic bipolar disorder’ allows exponents to imitate this contradictory behaviour (which itself makes God exactly like us rather than in any way better than us) and lead a generally loving and gentle life while holding out the possibility of meting out retributive justice when circumstances call for it. However, John Howard Yoder (and others) has made the point that those who justify Old Testament violence are actually pleading their case too much. This is to say, those who insist on interpreting instances of God’s wrath literally or anthropomorphically are unwittingly providing the means or methods of justifying those actions that none of us actually affirm or follow, including the above examples. So, for example, although we’ve been desensitized enough by a hyper-militarized society to think violence is sometimes (or even often) fine, what about rape? Do the commandments about and allowances for rape in the Old Testament exhibit God’s justice and satisfy his honour? Examples:
- When 12,000 Israelite soldiers killed the men, women, and children of Jabesh-gilead, there weren’t enough women left after the slaughter to satisfy the men of the tribe of Benjamin. So, these were the instructions of the elders:
“‘Go and lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; when the young women of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and each of you carry off a wife for himself from the young women of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. Then if their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Be generous and allow us to have them; because we did not capture in battle a wife for each man. But neither did you incur guilt by giving your daughters to them.’ The Benjaminites did so; they took wives for each of them from the dancers whom they abducted” (Judges 21:20-23a).
- After an attack on the Midianites, “Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, ‘Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves’” (Num. 31:14-18).
- There are many other examples such as these, but in terms of rape laws, women were legally bound to marry their rapist (Dt. 22:28-29), and as for rape victims who are married to someone else, “You shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife” (Dt. 22:24a).
- Women were also considered “spoils of war” (Judges 5:30), and in terms of the celebrated eschatological “Day of the Lord,” Zechariah declared, “See, a day is coming for the Lord, when the plunder taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses looted and the women raped; half the city shall go into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city” (Zechariah 14:1-2). So, apparently rape is also included in the much-anticipated “Day of the Lord.”
Do any of us think this is okay? Do any of us truly think this is from God? Is the authorization of rape or punishment of a rape victim an expression of a “just” God? Is this imitable?
Now, given these “deficient,” incomplete, often heinous, yet purpose-specific texts, it’s important to acknowledge the gradual and incremental self-revelation of God (see my article in Clarion). This unfolding self-revelation re-colours passages that previously fulfilled a particular role, but hundreds of years later are confronted with new circumstances. Thus, they take on new roles or are otherwise corrected and filled-out in line with the commandments of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). For example, the Old Testament outlines regulations for ritual sacrifice (Lev. 16), but the prophets later say that God doesn’t need sacrifices anymore (Is. 1:11) but instead desires only justice and mercy—which are the same thing, by the way (Micah 6:6-8)—and Jesus finally comes along as the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of mimetic violence (Lk. 9:23-24) and tells us to imitate it (1 Pt. 2:21). Scripture therefore makes it clear that previous teachings have been reinterpreted in light of new events—particularly the incarnation (Jn. 1:17; Rom. 16:24,25; Heb. 1:1-2).
But what do we do with all of this and how can we find some semblance of consistency? Well, in tandem with what I’ve already argued in “Beyond Arguing about Divine Inconsistency in the Old and New Testaments,” I suggest we embrace the inconsistencies as they appear on the surface but dig deeper underneath to determine what are the more uniform behaviours, beliefs, ideas, encounters, relationships, transfigured lives and contours of a restored cosmos that these various seemingly contradictory words are pointing toward and are trying to direct their specific audiences. What small, incremental movements are they trying to accomplish; what’s the trajectory; and what is the goal or telos?
To answer this, I’d suggest that the key to understanding inconsistencies in Scripture is acknowledging the pastoral function of everything written. In this sense, “pastoral” simply means giving a particular word or instruction in a very specific moment, for a particular person or group, at a specific time, to meet a specific need in order to move the listener(s) gradually toward a greater, more uniform goal or telos. The words, then, are a means rather than an end; believing correctly is not the goal, but believing different things that are helpful in different circumstances are vehicles that propel us toward a more meaningful goal—to be “perfect (teleios or “mature”), therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, not only emphasizes daily repentance as an expression of this dynamic, but we have the principle of oikonomia, where canons are not simply static statements that should be rigidly and uniformly applied in all applicable circumstances, but should instead be adapted in a flexible manner to particular situations for the person in front of you in that specific moment.
The principle I’d advance then is an “oikonomic hermeneutic,” where we need to keep our gaze on the telos toward which all purpose-specific scriptural passages are pointing. These purpose-specific words include:
- myths that reveal deeper truths about the divine;
- laws given to those who are accustomed to the more familiar Semitic tribal law codes that need to be incrementally tweaked to gradually align with a fuller divine image;
- prophetic pronouncements for their specific audiences, including to the Jews in the Babylonian exile who will eventually return to their homeland;
- warnings against violating God’s covenants, and a renewed emphasis on mercy and justice;
- divine and apostolic kerygma for specific people who face specific struggles and need to hear specific, unique, tailor-made words for their particular circumstances;
- apocalyptic literature as a form of comfort for those who are suffering persecution at the hand of the most heinous emperor in Rome’s history—the “Beast,” Nero;
- epistles delivered to several different wayward or otherwise struggling and “green” churches throughout Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome who each needed tailored instructions based on their specific circumstances, issues, and hurdles; and
- apostolic homilies by those who were commissioned to lead the Church after Christ’s ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
Each of these larger umbrella categories should, however, be broken down even further into their specific messages to a specific person or group throughout all of Scripture—God’s word to Moses is different than Jesus’ word to the woman at the well; God’s word to Moses at one time is different than his word to Moses at another time; God’s instructions to David are different than those that Jesus gives to Nicodemus, or Cornelius, or Zacchaeus.
But why should we read or internalize any of these scriptural passages if they’re not specifically directed at us? Well, the importance is not in the literal words themselves (which are only the means, important as they nevertheless are), but in the end or telos toward which these seemingly inconsistent words are trying to direct their specific audiences. I.e., what are they all aiming for? What is the goal? What does God want all of us to become? The telos, then, is this: God wants to restore his image and likeness in each of us (2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:9-10), in cooperation with our partaking of the divine (2 Pt. 1:4), so that we can be compatible enough with the divine to unite with Christ (Jn. 17:20-23).
But in terms of our day-to-day life here on earth, how do we know what Jesus’ unfiltered and uniform—and therefore not in the purpose-specific tailored pastoral sense—telos looks like? I’d suggest that we see it in the only time that Jesus isn’t “in control” or deliberately orchestrating (and therefore adapting) his message for a particular audience, but instead kenotically submits himself to the coercion and violence of others. The only time we see his unfiltered and uniform telos in action, then, is when Jesus succumbs to death on the cross in self-giving, co-suffering love, mercy, and forgiveness of his enemies. This is the only time that his message (and those of his co-labouring prophets and apostles) is not particular in the pastoral or oikonomic sense, but instead purposefully and intentionally universal. Unlike all other instances, it isn’t shaped, refined, adapted or tailored for a specific person in a specific circumstance at a specific time, but is the only time that Christ forfeits his own will to endure the coercion of others. This is his unfiltered message of cruciform love, through which he has access to death by his humanity so he can conquer death by his divinity. This, therefore, removes the barrier between humans and the divine to allow us access to the telos of transfiguration, of theosis that his tailored, varied, seemingly shifting, purpose-specific pastoral or “oikonomic” words are meant to point us.