Freitag, 14. Oktober 2016

"Slaughtering children in the Bible": On interpreting Scripture

Of course, there is no way around the violent passages in Scripture. That's why the assertion that Christianity be a harmful ideology is a cheap cop-out: precisely because it avoids discussing these passages in favour of an already fixed point of view. Christian extremism/fundamentalism - and, by supporting it as "true" or "real" Christianity, radical antitheism - is dropping the fullness of Scripture. In this case: the fullness of understanding Scripture which is much more than just some naive literalism. Expanding on the critique of naive literalism: Not everything that's in the Bible is also taught by the Bible. Confusing the two, or even (as might be more often the case) dropping the latter, is avoiding the question of violence in the Bible in favour of an already fixed point of view. 

One central issue is that the violent passages in Scripture are not supposed to be the end but instead the beginning of theological exegesis. That's what most antitheists don't get: The violent passages are the (or a) starting point for theological research, and not the end point. Not to be misunderstood: Interpreting Scripture is not meant to hand wave the violent passages away. Quite the contrary is the case: Its purpose is to delve into the fullness of their meaning. Also, I'm not talking about some "secret meaning" or some "reinterpretation".

Yes, slaughtering children is not a good thing. Which might be why, within the narrative of the book of Exodus, the Pharao - who happens to have ordered the slaughtering of children in Ex 1:22 - is presented as the villain. And interestingly enough, again speaking within the narrative, this sets in motion the whole plot which finds its climax in the plagues that strike both his successor on the throne and his people: The Pharao orders the slaughtering of children, one child is saved, who grows up to be Moses, who then is called as a prophet, who negotiates with the Pharao, and who eventually brings the plagues upon Egypt. So, still speaking within the narrative, the death of every Egyptian firstborn child is directly mirroring the order of the Pharao. In any old fairy tale, it'd be seen as a "be careful what you wish for" narrative, as a cautionary tale, because the Pharao's order to slaughter children backfires quite shockingly as it eventually strikes his very own children. Should we treat the biblical narrative differently? If so, then why?

Another Common Criticism: The Binding of Isaac is presented as "oh look, how wonderful his obedience was that he was willing to butcher his child".

That's one way to look at the narrative. But, I'd argue, it omits certain elements to the narrative that are quite crucial. First of all, yes, the extrinsic motivation for this episode lies in God's order: Take your son, your only son who you love, and sacrifice him to me. This might be seen as the inciting moment within the narrative of the episode. And Abraham's extrinsic reaction is to get up and go sacrifice his son, yes, and this is only prevented because the angel intervenes. If the story were told only within these perimeters, I'd fully agree: it wouldn't make for a very inspiring story, let alone have Abraham as a convincing role model of faith.

However, its meaning is not as lean as these extrinsic elements of the narrative, and any theology reducing the narrative to these extrinsic elements is somewhat misreading the narrative:

Within the narrative of the episode, Gen 22:8 tells us about the intrinsic reaction of Abraham, his intrinsic answer to God's order: God would provide himself a sacrificial lamb. Up to this point, from Abraham's perspective, it seems as though God was providing the lamb by demanding it from the midst of his creation. And, yes, this would make for quite a volatile God: giving a child to his prophet only to demand it back as a sacrifice. Moreover, such a sacrifice would be literally meaning-less, as in: not referring to anything beyond itself, a purely self-referential act. But there is more to the story, and not only because we can look at the greater narrative (where God the Father answers the demand for blood by offering his only Son) - the point of the episode is to tell something about God. And it is precisely to tell the reader that it's not a volatile God. In a turn of the narrative's dramatic structure, the extrinsic motivation is internalised while the intrinsic motivation is externalised: It's the classic mirroring of rising (quite literally, as Abraham is ordered upon a mountain) and falling action within a narrative. God tells Abraham to let go of his son while at the same time and in actuality providing a ram to be sacrificed. The point of the episode: God doesn't want a child to be butchered but an intrinsic disposition that acknowledges him (God) as sovereign over and owner of all of creation. Not to be misunderstood: This is after all still an intriguing moment within the salvific narrative, and one also misreads it by brushing it aside just because of the outcome. The episode is also here, as I'd say, to incite discussion about the relationship between faith and ethics.

On an interesting side note: The next thing we hear of Isaac within the narrative is that he is given a wife, which according to Gen 2:24 means for a man to leave his parents. And aside from the bare legal minimum (marriage and heritage), the narrative tells us nothing about the relationship between Abraham and Isaac. When Isaac's mother dies, Gen 24:67 tells us about the comfort he gets; therefore, we can reasonably say that there was an emotional loss on Isaac's side. When Abraham dies, Gen 25:9 merely tells us that Isaac and Ishmael buried him; no emotional dimension is mentioned. This, I'd say, might be read at least as a hint towards a certain alienation between Abraham and Isaac.

Now, that's just concerning the literal reading of the biblical narrative - we've not even glimpsed into the typological, tropological or eschatological dimensions of the text. And yet, the meaning we've discovered thus far is way fuller than just "blood is demanded".

As demonstrated, even such a comparatively small chapter as Gen 22 carries such a richness of meaning, and this only in its literal sense, that it seems somewhat odd to try to confine it to only one part of one single part (in our example: a naive literalism as regards exclusively the extrinsic part of the narrative). As also shown, the challenging aspects, even the strikingly strange implications are not put away with when one delves into biblical interpretation. But unlike many antitheists say, these aspects and implications are not the end point of said interpretation - quite the opposite, they are what incites the reader and drives him to wrestle with the text. After all, biblical exegesis is closely linked to textual hermeneutics, which means that we must not drop general principles of textual understanding when approaching the biblical text.

The biblical text, in turn, comprises many different literary genres as it contains many different books, and it deals with a wide variety of subjects and topics: from the right offering / orthodoxy-orthopraxy (as is dealt with e.g. in the Binding of Isaac) to the right rule of a king (as is dealt with e.g. in the Exodus story arc as well as in the narrative around David) to other issues, including even delicate topics such as war and punishment.

The Bible is, after all, not a book but a collection of books, and therefore the sensible reader has to approach it as such.

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