The latest episode (rd110) featured a conversation about how Christians interpret some of the most horrendous passages in the Old Testament such as the commanding of genocide and the imprecatory Psalms. We expressed sincere praise for apologist Randal Rauser’s refusal to whitewash these passages, though we did not find much substance in the alternative method of interpretation he presented. After reading his response to our episode it is clear that Rauser does not share the same high regard for us. I’ll get to why that is in a moment but first I would like to summarize Rauser’s position and our critiques of it.
Rauser defends what he calls a “qualified embrace” the scriptures. He maintains that God inspired the authors and that God had a purpose for including all the senseless violence and hateful curses contained in the text. But just because all scripture is inspired by God does not mean all scriptures are morally inerrant. The command to violence and the cursing psalms are examples of moral errors in the text. They represent what the human author intended (sensus litteralis) but God had a different purpose (sensus plenior) for including them. But is there any criteria to guide us in distinguishing between the authors voice and God’s intended message? Rauser says we must look to the overall tone of the Bible. Through the life of Jesus we see God to be a merciful and compassionate God that desires us to love and not curse our enemies. Clearly then, the genocides and imprecatory psalms are the human voice. But what was God’s purpose in including them? Its hard to say, but one possible reason was to carry the story forward. At least in the case of the imprecatory psalms they might also be examples of irony. We gleefully share the hateful sentiment of the psalmist towards the enemies of God but then stand condemned when (centuries later, I’d like to point out) we discover God really wanted us to love them all along .
The doubtcasters offered two challenges to Rauser’s “clever hermeneutic”
1. The genocidal passages play a pivotal role in the overall narrative of the Old Testament. They cannot be removed as merely the human authors prejudice without significant damage being done to our understanding of the OT.
2. it is not at all obvious that the vengeful passages are inconsistent with the overall tone of the Bible. If “overall tone” is our criteria for separating out the sensus litteralis from the sensus pleniur of the text, the merciful statements of Jesus are the ones that should be contextualized.
Let me briefly reiterate the case for both points while adding a few small details not mentioned in the episode.
First, the OT presents a coherent narrative of the rise and fall of Israel in which the genocidal conquest of the Canaanites plays an pivotal role. Having been promised the holy land by God, the Hebrews, upon reaching its borders do not trust Gods guarantee that they will be successful in their military campaign against these powerful enemies. For their lack of faith they are cursed to wander the wilderness until the nation is purified by repentance. At the end of their conquest it is clear that Joshua and his men once again, have not followed God’s commandment…they have not finished the job of whipping out the Canaanites. This failure will lead to their downfall as God predicts in Joshua (23.11-13) because the Israelites will intermarry with the non-Hebrews who still remain and will eventually be seduced into worshiping their Gods. That is exactly what happens. As punishment for their apostasy, God eventually banishes them to exile. After they are once again purified by repentance they return to the holy land. Making sure not to make the same mistake twice they send away the families of those who remained and intermarried making sure the “holy seed” (Ezra 9) is not contaminated again. The whole story turns on the attempted but incomplete genocide of Canaanites. Had they been faithful to God’s commandment they would have benefited from God’s blessing. Instead they “whored” themselves out to the peoples of the land and their gods and must endure God’s curse until they reach repentance. What sense would the Old Testament make if God did not wish a bloody conquest of the promised land but instead for the Israelite to love and pray for their enemies?
Turning to the New Testament we find Jesus who does preach mercy, compassion and forgiveness…that is, when he isn’t warning people to get on the right side and escape the wrath to come. Christians are quick to emphasize Jesus’ forgiveness but In the synoptic s the “gospel” that Jesus himself preaches is “repent and be baptized for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. One cannot fairly emphasize only the merciful passages and exclude the scores of parables and direct teachings which portray this coming kingdom in apocalyptic terms–God’s mercy is never more than a few breaths away from his judgment in these texts. Even in the Gospel of Luke, which softens Jesus apocalypticism (compared to Mark and Matthew) one of the first word’s out of Jesus mouth is a threat to the Pharisees “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” The message is clear: we are all sinners but God has given us yet another chance. Repentance is available for time but then, wrath. This sentiment is echoed by Christianity’s earliest writer, Paul: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:17-19).’ If overall tone is our guide then we see that the New Testament fits neatly with the vengeance of the Old, only the wrath Jesus warns us of will claim more than a handful of cities and villages. A few will slip through the narrow gate and enjoy God’s mercy. The majority will wish they could be so lucky as the Canaanites.
I believe these critiques offer a serious challenge to Rauser’s interpretation of the text. Sadly Rauser did not spend any time answering the substance of our critique but instead chided us for cracking a few jokes to lighten the discussion (2 brief, not that funny jokes and one reference to a stunned face, by my count). These mild moments of humor amidst a rather thorough discussion of his viewpoint is enough for Rauser to dismiss us as a show that has abandoned serious discussion opting instead “for an irreverent, iconoclastic tone and a barely concealed intent to dispatch the views of their chosen interlocutors as quickly (and humorously) as possible.” This was news to me. Our podcast frequently wins praise from fans (including Christians and Christian apologists) precisely because we give strive to present a fair-minded & thorough presentation of viewpoints we oppose. I’ll let our reputation speak for itself in this area but I do want to address a few of Randall’s more serious critiques.
Rauser claims we were addressing a straw-man version of his argument or “something close to it.” He does so because we took issue with one of his reasons for making the sensus litteralis/ sensus plenior distinction. Rauser points to a passage in Hosea as an example of where human authors intended one meaning (Israel as the “son” God is calling out of Egypt during the exodus) but when we turn to the Gospel of Matthew we discover God had intended another meaning altogether (The “Son” is Jesus returning to Nazareth after hiding from Herod). We noted that the Gospel writers lifted many Old Testament passages out of context in order to claim they were prophecies fulfilled by Jesus. Rauser says he is writing to Christians who accept the inspiration of the bible and ” since the host doesn’t accept the inspiration and canonical unity of Matthew and Hosea to begin with…my proposal is damned at the outset.” It would be a fair charge had the comment not been a brief aside to our skeptical listeners (instead of our primary case as Rauser’s post may lead one to believe) before continuing to consider and critique Rauser’s case on its own terms. Later he accuses us of having no familiarity with literary criticism (Again, news to us. Especially the one of us is who’s degree is in literature and the other who is a professor of ‘Bible as literature’) because we seemed incredulous that one could sort out the authors real meaning from a literal reading of the text. Contrary to Randall’s assertion, we never doubted that possibility. We only asked for a criteria to follow, recognizing that all too often scholars and apologists like to use their own feelings as a guide. Later we are accused of not being fair to Randall because we only cited one verse for a key part of his case—the compassion of Jesus. This is a ridiculous charge as no one doubts the merciful passages in the gospels are many. If Rauser’s blog was scripture we might be justified in taking his earlier complaint about those who “eschew a nuanced and charitable articulation of [their] chosen interlocutor’s position in favor of over-simplified analysis bordering on a strawman” as a case of irony (will he hear the prophet Nathan saying “you are that man” as he reads this?). We cited only one verse because in the chapter and PowerPoint lecture Randal used to make his case, it was the only verse cited. Presumably, like us, Rauser didn’t think he needed an exhaustive list. Having mentioned irony, Randal also takes issue with our comic dismissal of the genocides as an incidence of this literary tool. Randall only thinks the imprecatory psalms are cases of irony. I’ll humbly concede that we made a mistake at this point in assuming this could extend to the genocidal passages as well. That being said, none of the hosts rejected the notion itself that irony could be used as a literary device in the scriptures, though Randall seems to think so. We only thought it was dubious to apply such a reading to those passages.
Rauser completes his post as he begins: by poisoning the well against us instead of answering the substance of our critiques. Alluding to our “God Thinks Like You” segment, Rauser says “The hosts suggest that I’m engaged in a type of ‘projection’. It is not surprising that they’d say this. After all, their entire engagement with my position is predicated on the assumption that the Bible is not an inspired, canonical whole…If one has this assumption then it follows trivially that any claim to finding a divine voice in the text is mere projection” As previously mentioned, with the exception of a short aside, we presented Rauser with an internal critique of his position. But beyond that, the discussion he is referring to was no mere accusation of projection to discredit Rauser. It was a review of research on the tendency of believers to encounter cognitive dissonance over the passages that create tension with their political/moral worldviews. The study and analysis we presented concluded that believers acknowledge such passages exist, and admit inner conflict, but they resolve that conflict by emphasizing the passages that match their own view as the truly important passages to Jesus, in effect, giving heavier weight to them, and ignoring or trivializing as not the essential message. We ended the discussion on a note sympathetic to well intentioned apologists such as Randall. For as frustrated as we get with their selection of evidence it is not always a case premeditated dishonesty…everyone falls into these traps. It was a study fit to follow our discussion of Rauser’s’ hermeneutic which rests on the case that the overall tone of Jesus message is merciful (to the degree that it is irreconcilable with OT violence) despite many passages to the contrary. While Rauser thinks the other doubtcasters and I regard ourselves as above bias, in reality knowing these cognitive errors are so pervasive is what motivates us to ask for sound criteria when interpreting the scriptures…a criteria Randall has not delivered. Still, the world would be better if the believers of scripture had a sound reason for dismissing its most horrendous passages. We would like to challenge Rauser to offer a stronger version of his hermeneutic by engaging with and answering our actual criticisms of his position.