The bible is a curious document. Some, for fairly self-serving reasons, suggest that it must be read with childlike wonder, allowing the Spirit to guide understanding. While this is certainly part of the process, there is no need to deny our rational mind when doing so.
Many suggest that treating the bible as an ancient document and analyzing it much as we do Herodotus’s Histories, or Plato’s various discourses is wrong. That this is in opposition to their belief that God provides all that is necessary for the average person to read and understand God’s “plans.”
For the past several weeks, I’ve been immersed in Genesis. I’ve been studying Jacob and the various stories about him. I am not unfamiliar with them in general and in specific instances, I know a fair amount. While doing graduate work some years ago, I wrote a 100 page paper on Rachel and Jacob and the issue of the household gods.
To recognize that so much of this material was of very ancient origin, and has been collected during the Solomonic period and later in the Davidic dynasty is instructive, since the fair hand of the redactor often speaks to concerns of those times in the theological reflections that can be drawn from the various patriarchal stories they construct.
Somehow, some believe, that such study some how sullies or reduces the impact and import of God’s “word,” in doing so. I disagree most vehemently on this point. It is through serious exegetical review that the true wonder, the true talent, and may I say, the “inspired” brilliance of their work is truly understood.
To be sure, the bible is one of those unique documents that allows of many layers of understanding. Thus, it is accurate to conclude that the casual lay reader can gain a certain aptitude by simply reading and reflecting on the common everyday understanding of the words in the text. However, there will be much that is badly distorted by this method, and some of it leads to rather dangerous conclusions that can last for generations.
The Patriarchs were flawed individuals, and no attempt is made in the writings generally to cover that up. Surely the Yahwist tends to gloss over the shortcomings of these Israelite stalwarts a bit more than the the Priestly tradition does with its no nonsense approach to “just the facts.” But in the end, we see Abraham, Isaac, and assuredly Jacob as very average, very sinful men. In some sense, we are shown that God’s plans prevail even over against his very servants working against his plans.
There is security in this. We can relate to such individuals. But I think something more is said here than meets the eye. Something that begs us once again to remember that there is something special at work here in this document, perhaps unlike most others. There is an absence of “agenda” in a true sense. What do I mean?
As we examine so many of the early stories in Genesis, we find that often we are given benefit of two different traditions which speak to the same general theme. There are two creation stories, there are two Noah stories, there are competing genealogies. There are contradictions in names and places, reasons for doing X or Y which differ, and so forth.
The compiler or collector who created the “finished” document known as Genesis, was not unaware of these things. He is not stupid. On the contrary, he/they was/were quite brilliant. They quite knowingly presented both traditions or perhaps more than both. Here and there, each created transitional material to tie one series of stories to another. They, of course, had a point of view, and they often stated it.
Yet, they did not remove the “difficult” passage or tradition to make their exposition more convincing. They honored the long history of different traditions by presenting them fairly to the reader. And in doing so, we conclude quite rightly, that the readers (the original ones at least) were not burdened by any sense of “literalism” and did not see these stories as factual accounts of history. They were understood as theological statements of various kinds. And they may well have been offered to explain the importance of places and things. Attaching them to Jacob’s history or Abraham’s becomes a convenience.
An example suffices. We all know that Abraham was first commanded to circumcise. Yet, we learn that such practices were known and practices throughout the realm, not just by the Hebrews. And we learn that such practices were not common to Abrahamic peoples, and were generally not tied to ritual purity or cultic practices initially as the text suggests.
Rather, after the exile, when these texts were finalized in writing, circumcision became important. We are returning to Jerusalem after 400 years in Babylon. Who is still an Israelite and who has succumbed to the Babylonian way of life? The writer urges that those who are for Jerusalem are those who will define themselves as Hebrew by circumcision. That is when the practice became part and parcel of what it meant to be an Israelite. It was “read back” to the time of Abraham. Much of the “prophetic” nature of Genesis stories are just this, behavior and belief which is now part of who we are, and is read back into our history as being the place from whence it came.
Contrary to the idea that reading experts on the bible somehow secularizes the message and takes us away from God, the result is just the opposite. The faith exhibited by the collectors and redactors is such that they trusted by inspiration, that the reader could get the “proper” understanding by including everything, the ugly with the beautiful. And when we discern this truth, we are awed more deeply that this work is of deep theological import, than we could ever be by the rather pedestrian and trite understanding we might get by “literal” interpretation.