When I began studying my Christian faith seriously when I was an undergraduate at Harvard I had the good fortune of taking Professor Peter Gomes’ course, “The Interpretation of the Christian Bible.” In discussing the problems that come with reading the Bible, he quoted a Catholic writer from before Vatican II who said that Bible reading is not necessarily a good thing for everyone because the Bible is a “dumb and difficult book”– in the sense that it does not have much to say about some very important contemporary issues and what it does have to say about anything is not always easy to interpret.
Even Henry VIII and Martin Luther were at times distressed with the results when Bible reading became a privileged spiritual practice in their respective countries. What came afterwards sometimes bore little resemblance to Christianity, even in the eyes of these first Protestants.
The Bible is a complex library of documents written over hundreds, if not thousands of years, in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) set in a variety of different cultures (Egypt, Babylon, the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Israel, the Hellenistic Empire, etc.). It contains songs, poems, historical sagas, court histories, letters, biographies, prophecies, law, instructions for worship, apocalyptic literature and even some sermons.
It is not a book that one can just pick up and read from cover to cover expecting to make any kind of sense of it.
Every day people try to do this very thing with the Bible. They attempt the impossible and the results are predictable.
Atheists and semi-believers read the Bible without a historical sense and see the god described in the Bible, or at least in parts of it, as wicked and evil, especially the god described in the Old Testament. Atheists use the Bible to discredit religion. Semi-believers engage in a type of dualism that rejects anything they do not like as being the god of the Old Testament who is obsessed with rules and judgment. In place of this dark god, semi-believers embrace what they do like as coming from the new god that Jesus came to reveal who accepts us no matter what we do and does not care about our morality, especially sexual morality.
Skeptics read the Bible thinking that it is an ancient history or science textbook and point out the obvious problems they see. Ignorant Christians perceive such observations as an affront to the Good Book and rush in to defend the honor of God and concoct all sorts of wacky theories like Verbal Inspiration, Biblical Fundamentalism and Young Earth Creationism, which tend to make belief more rather than less difficult for most Christians.
Some Scripture scholars claim that large portions of the Gospels are merely stories made up by the early Church that have little if anything to do with the historical Jesus. Creating a Jesus in our own image seems to be easier, at least in the short run, than going through the painful process of being formed into the image of Jesus that the Gospels give us, which has something that is distasteful for every one of us.
This technique is also a great way to break new ground in scholarly debates. Unfortunately, it tends to unsettle the faith of the simple believers and some priests, especially if the priests in question talk about such high-level scholarship from the pulpit.
Even among the conventional Christians (i.e. Protestants) in the United States who look to the Bible as the primary norm for the Christian faith, there are problems. Despite being able to agree on the fact the Bible is the Word of God, these same Christians cannot agree on what it means. Doctrinal and disciplinary issues lead to divisions among Christians. Thus,we have thousands of different Christian denominations in the United States, which is in manifest contradiction to Christ’s express will that all His followers be one (Jn. 17:21).
Atheist readings of Scripture use the Bible to prove that God does not or should not exist. Dualists are semi-believers who see two gods in the Bible, the evil Old Testament god and the good God that Jesus reveals in parts of the New Testament.
Both atheism and dualism struggle with divine commands to do things that we would today regard as immoral. Take for example the words of the psalmist
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy [shall he be], that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy [shall he be], that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Ps. 137:8-9)
Even the context of the entire Psalm, these verses are difficult to swallow. Could God really inspire words that praise the murder of pagan babies?
The atheist would say in response to these verses, “You see, the god of the Bible is a monster and is to blame for genocide and violence. We should do everything we can to stamp out religion, especially Christianity, because the world will be a much better place without it.” Such atheists forget to mention that the most brutal practitioners of genocide in the 20th century West were those who had rejected Christianity of their youth, Hitler and Stalin. Neither can we blame Mao and Pol Pot on the Bible.
Still, many of Christians feel like it would better if these verses were not in the Bible. Perhaps there was some this sentiment behind the actions of those in charge of the revision of the Breviary after Vatican II when they cut these offensive verses out of the monthly recitation of Psalm 137. We are not surprised that some look at these verses and others like them and see evidence that there are two different gods being described in the Bible. Nor are these two verses the only such instance in the Good Book.
The Fathers of the Church, especially Ambrose and Augustine, are fond of trying to settle this problematic by appealing to Saint Paul’s phrase, “the letter kills, the spirit gives life.” There is a dialectic tension of promise and fulfillment between the Old and New Covenants inherent in Christianity. The Old Testament foreshadows the New. We should not be surprised by the darkness cast by this shadow on some parts of the Old Testament. For Christians, such passages point toward the need for a more definitive revelation in the future. They cry out for fulfillment in Jesus Christ
The Old Testament is a record of God’s project of choosing a people in order to bring them progressively more deeply into the truth. As such, there will be some passages in it that do not accord to New Testament moral standards. A good teacher of novice musicians aims at improvement rather than perfection.
It would be a mistake to regard commands to practice genocide, holy war and capital punishment as unmitigated negatives. These commands prefigure in a dark way what Jesus will say later in the Sermon on the Mount, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” For a follower of Jesus, there can be no compromise with personal sin; occasions of sin should be uprooted mercilessly.
At times, the imperative to root out sin in our own lives might seem as senseless as the command to destroy the children of one’s enemies by dashing their brains out on rocks. But we must smash the skulls of those little sinful habits of ours no matter how distasteful or irrational it seems to us. For we, like Israelites of old, are far too inclined to seek a modus vivendi with sin in our lives.