The about how Thomas Jefferson, dissatisfied with the New Testament gospels as they had been handed down over the centuries, took a pen knife to the texts to remove the passages he didn’t like, the ones thought contrary to reason, or the ones believed untrustworthy. He believed all of the gospel writers were untrustworthy, so I suppose it made the excising easier. Generally, what Jefferson did was remove the references to miracles and the resurrection of Jesus (he kept the crucifixion and death). He entitled his new book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
We have our own version of this today, although it doesn’t involve a President (past or present). A few months ago, Andy Stanley, pastor of a large church in Atlanta and the son of Charles Stanley, published a book and gave a few sermons about the need to “unhinge” the Old Testament from the Christian faith. I’m not going to respond to this; a lot of other people with more theology and Biblical history in their heads than I do have already done that. Stanley wrote an article for Christianity Today in which he tried to explain and clarify what he said, but I don’t think he quite succeeded.
What we think the point here is the Old Testament’s teaching on sexuality. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable that the teaching is so at odds with the prevailing culture. The problem that Stanley didn’t address was that, if sexuality is the concern, it’s not only the Old Testament that has to be unhinged from Christian faith. Quite a bit of the New Testament would have to be excised as well.
If I want to deal with “problem” passages in the Old Testament, I need look no farther than the Book of Joshua. I reread it recently, and I’m still struck by the unequivocal instructions given to Joshua and the Israelites for conquering the Promised Land. It’s clear: God tells Joshua to kill every man, woman and child, and often includes farm animals and anything that lives or breathes.
The mind boggles. The mind boggles even more when Joshua and the Israelites did it. The specific chapters in the book are five through twelve. After the land is conquered comes an extended discussion of how it was divided up for the various Israelite tribes. That division of the land is an easy one to skim and skip, but it’s worthy of its own study, starting with the question of why the division is so incredibly detailed.
But the killing part, what’s called herem in the Hebrew, is stark and troubling. It’s not genocide of specific ethnic groups; it’s genocide of all of them.
More than eight years ago, I used that section of Joshua for a poetry workshop. Our assignment was to use poetry to explore a troublesome verse, story, or section of scripture. I chose Joshua, specifically because it made me so uncomfortable. It still makes me uncomfortable. (My account of that workshop can be found in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)
But here’s the difference between me and Andy Stanley. Just because it makes me uncomfortable, or because it so conflicts with contemporary sensibilities and beliefs, doesn’t mean I think the Book of Joshua should be unhinged from the Old Testament, the Bible, or my faith. It would have made things a lot easier from a human perspective if the Book of Joshua had never been written or never included, perhaps covered with “And Joshua and the Israelites conquered the Promised Land as instructed by God” with the details omitted.
What we have instead is the whole story, with all its gory details. That’s true for a lot of the stories in the Bible. We’re not shielded from the hard and difficult things. Of course, we’re not shielded from the hard and difficult things in life, either. We’re not shielded from the reality that all of us are sinners. The Old Testament, far from being “something that Jesus set aside,” is an account of full array of human sin and depravity.
But then, the New Testament doesn’t shy away from that either. That is point of why Jesus came in the first place. Only one thing would propitiate human sin, and that was a sacrifice like had never been seen or experienced before.