My good pastor read this whole chapter from John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence to our congregation last night. I have never heard him read something to lengthy to us; he obviously felt it was important. You’ll see why if you click! Flavel knows his Bible. It’s worth a read and some meditation.
A perceptive observation from a book full of such insights into the Old Testament:
The structure of Judges shows that Israel gradually descends into a moral and political quagmire, and this is mirrored in the sequence of judges themselves, most of whom are questionable characters. But the last one is a particularly striking mirror-image of the nation. Samson, the supernaturally born Israelite, was set apart as a Nazirite with a distinctive vocation. He constantly breaks his religious vows, is enamoured of Philistine women, loses his identity and physical strength through these encounters, becomes a slave and has his eyes gouged out by the enemy. He represents his own people, who had a supernatural origin, were set apart from among the nations with a distinctive vocation, broke their vows and were enamoured of foreign idols, until finally they lost their identity and spiritual power and became the blind slaves of their oppressors in exile.
In her book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, Jennifer Knust assumes that because the patriarch Judah committed immorality with a woman he supposed to be a prostitute, the Bible takes an ambiguous stance toward prostitution. “Hey, it’s not that big a deal—even in the Bible. Why are Christians so bent out of shape about sexual morality?” That’s her argument.*
Likewise, the cover of some free-thinker magazine (Free Inquiry maybe?) I saw years ago had a finely hand-painted illustration of Lot shoving his unwilling daughter out his front door into the outstretched hands of the lustful men of the city. The implication was that biblical morality is misogynistic because this major Bible character did this terrible thing.
Neither of these stories is new news, especially in a blogosphere where time is counted something like dog years. But these perspectives are alive and well now as they have been for a long time. The cognitive effects of the fall are on display: people come up with sometimes artful and sometimes simply boneheaded ways to justify ignoring what God says.
I’m afraid I’d put both of these in the bonehead category. These interpretations are like someone listening to the story of the tortoise and the hare and concluding that Aesop thinks fast runners should take naps during races.
Both of the authors of these pieces—the former unforgivably because as a self-proclaimed “biblical scholar” she ought to know better—assume, apparently, that everything the “good guys” do in the Bible is good. The Bible, however, contains few if any developed portraits of people that don’t contain at least some major flaw. Jesus Christ, of course, is the only picture whose thousand words contain no misspellings.
What I’m wondering is this: are evangelical Christians, who ought to know better, unwittingly aiding people like this? I think, too often, we come to the text with the same basic perspective they do 1) when we think that the major purpose of biblical narratives is to give us good examples to emulate (and the occasional bad one to avoid), and 2) when we fail to model literarily sensitive interpretation of Bible stories.
Bryan Chapell was the first to point out to me that the Bible does its best to tar the reputations of even its biggest heroes. Right after Abraham receives and believes the promises of God in Genesis 15, he lies to Pharaoh about Sarah to protect his own skin. Right after he successfully petitions God to have mercy on Sodom if even a few righteous are present, he commits the same sin again. After Gideon wins an amazing victory, he starts acting funny. Like seventy sons funny.
This is a surprise if the main point of Bible stories is to provide us a list of good examples to work at emulating (this is one of the Bible’s points, but not the primary one). But if the main point of the Bible is to tell us about what God is doing to redeem His fallen creation—to save us all and put the world back the way it should be—then stories like these are exactly what you would expect.
2) isn’t too far from 1), but take the story of Jephthah from Judges. A Bible textbook with which I am familiar (let us not say more than that) made the lesson of his life out to be overcoming adversity. Born to a prostitute, can’t deny that. But rose to be a great leader—what an example for today’s disadvantaged youth!
Yes and no. The Bible textbook, written for junior highers, failed completely to mention one key fact: at the end of the story, the man of faith Jephthah achieves a great victory—but only after making a foolish vow to sacrifice whatever came out to greet him after his victory. When his daughter came out to greet him, he grieved exceedingly because he knew what his vow meant. Yes, many have attempted to come up with another way to understand, “she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made” (Judges 11:39). But it’s theological pressure from problem 1) above that’s pushing them to grasp for those straws. Jephthah killed his own daughter.
Literarily speaking, Judges tells a story of continued dissolution and degradation among God’s people. With no king to restrain them and guide them, every man did that which was right in his own eyes. Even Israel’s deliverers are embarrassments to them. Their poor-quality leaders are themselves a sort of judgment on Israel’s sin. Yes, Samson and Jephthah make it into the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11, but see 1) above—their praiseworthy acts aren’t erased by their sins anymore than their sins can be forgotten since they did some true good.
A story doesn’t come out and make its points explicit. That’s part of the beauty of a good story. It’s bad stories that sound preachy. Christians ought to be masters at interpreting stories, at picking up the clues the narrator leaves as to how to interpret each character and the overall point(s). This will provide us the best arguments against “Christian” promoters of homosexuality, for example. Yes, God’s commands in Leviticus are part of the biblical data, but it’s the story of the way God originally made man and woman that provide the strongest argument for the way things ought to be. Jesus thought so (Matt 19:8). He got the point of the story.
Of course, He is the point of the story (Luke 24:27). And the best interpreters will come to see that most of all.
*This is what Knust says about Judah:
The Bible does not object to prostitution, at least not consistently. The biblical patriarch, Judah, for example, was quite content to solicit a prostitute while out on a business trip, offering her a kid from his flocks in payment for an opportunity to “go into” her. It was only later, when he learned that this “prostitute” was actually his daughter-in-law Tamar that he became angry. Sentenced to death for playing the whore, Tamar stood up to her father-in-law, proving to him that he had been her one customer. She was forced into the ruse by Judah, she explained, since he failed to give her the support she was due after the death of her husband, Judah’s son. Repenting of his mistake, Judah let her live, admitting, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my [living] son Shelah (Gen. 38:26). With her life spared and pregnant with Judah’s sons, Tamar went on to bear twins, Perez and Zerah, one of whom became an ancestor of both King David and Jesus. Does the Bible have a problem with prostitutes or prostitution? Not necessarily, as I have come to learn. (pp. 5–6)
Join the discussion over at Charlie Johnson’s blog. Or turn it into a discussion, I guess!
I think Charlie raises a great point—but then again, so does the first commenter! =)