Thursday, 25 September 2008

Reading Scripture: Not Always as Easy As We Might Like it To Be

We all know that we are meant to "believe" everything in the Bible. And that we should eschew those complex readings that seem to make the Bible say exactly the opposite to what a simple reading suggests. But maybe reading the Bible isn't quite as simple as it sounds. Try this:

"So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (Lk 14:33)

The plain meaning of the text is clear; discipleship of Jesus demands a practical renunciation of all one's possessions. Some have read this kind of passage that way, and I think here in particular of St Anthony and, in the twentieth century, Dorothy Day. But most of us would not take this verse as something to be believed and followed literally. We might try and categorise it as hyperbole, or we might look to its wider context in the Bible, including the Gospel of Luke, the rest of the New Testament and the whole Bible. We might discover that in Luke, although he has the first generation of disciples give up everything (e.g. compare Mk 1:20 & Lk 5:11), there are plenty of indications that this response is not necessarily required of every disciple since.

Let's try another one; the bizarre story of Jephthah and his nameless daughter. (Judges 11:34-40) He makes a vow to God to ensure victory against his foes, to sacrifice what/whoever first meets him when he arrives home. Unfortunately (particularly for her), it is his daughter, and so she is offered up as a burnt offering. (No alternative victim sent by God in this story. Cf Gen 22) What are we meant to make of that? Is his behaviour to be lauded (or at least vindicated because he did, at least, fulfill his vow, even if it was a stupid one) or condemned? The last few verses about the tradition of mourning might be a mild (although ambiguous at best) critique of his oath and actions. And in the wider context of Judges, he fits the flawed character of many of the judge protagonists. And in the wider context of the OT and its disapproval of human sacrifice, it is inconceivable that this story now functions in the Bible as a recommendation for faithfulness, no matter how it was understood when written. I suspect that is how most of us would see it.

But it gets more complicated. Hebrews 11:32 cites Jephthah as a model of faith. (Although exactly what is being remembered is not stated.) And didn't the father sacrifice the Son (Jesus)? Many take this to be literally true, which would then mean Jephthah's actions could at least be vindicated. A straight reading of the text is perhaps not as easy as some might claim.

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