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Why We Must Treat the Bible No Differently Than Any Other Book

There are brilliant, bold, even sublime texts in the Bible, and I am persuaded that some of the finest literature we have is found there. But then there’s all the horrifying stuff in the Bible too, and this is why we must insist that the Bible not be imbued with any special authority, or revered as if its origin lay in some transcendent realm. It is, in its entirety, a product of the human mind and heart, which has proven capable of love and hate, fairness and unfairness, kindness and cruelty, capaciousness and the genocidal impulse.

By James A. Metzger
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC, USA
January 2012

In the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake that brought Haiti to its knees, televangelist Pat Robertson suggested that in each case God was punishing people for sin. He was roundly condemned for his comments by liberal and conservative Christians alike. The suggestion that the Creator of the universe might punish so horrifically and so gratuitously, demanding the lives of thousands of innocents, proved to be downright reprehensible to the overwhelming majority of religious people. “That guy’s out of his mind,” I heard time and again after his remarks surfaced in the media. Or, “Where does that loon come up with this stuff? He’s giving Christians everywhere a bad name!”

What many Christians may not know, however, is that Robertson’s theological accounting of these three catastrophes is far and away the most common explanation for suffering in the Bible: human beings suffer because they have disobeyed God. For instance, whenever ancient Israel’s or Judah’s fortunes waned (as they so often do in the Deuteronomic history), their scribes invariably seemed to have fallen back upon this very formula to make sense of their troubles. “We went running after other gods,” they concluded after the dust had settled, “and that’s why we find ourselves under foreign rule.” Many of Israel’s prophets and priests believed that disobedience was also the real reason for the land’s reluctance to yield its fruit in season as well as for personal misfortune such as infertility, illness, disability, poverty, and premature death. Because the gospel writers attribute this theory of suffering on occasion to Jesus and his disciples (John 9:2; Mark 2:1-12) and because it turns up again and again in other Jewish literature contemporaneous with the writings of the New Testament, it is safe to assume that many Jews during the first two centuries of the Common Era still found it persuasive. Thankfully, there are a few slightly more palatable theories in the Bible as to why people suffer, but this is – hands down – the dominant one.

Robertson, then, is hardly a loon. As a Protestant Christian committed to taking the Bible seriously and to interpreting it “plainly,” just as the Reformers sought to do, he is merely highlighting for his audience an explanation for catastrophic suffering found throughout his scriptures. One might contest the kind of sin that he believes was responsible for these catastrophes – condoning abortion, tolerating gay and lesbian “lifestyles,” striking a pact with Satan – but the bare assertion that suffering is a result of sin is a biblical commonplace. Robertson simply opened his Bible and told people what he found on page after page, and his fellow Christians gave him hell for it. Robertson’s not the nut – on this issue, anyway, he’s quite a sound exegete. If we wish to accuse anyone, we ought to accuse the authors of the Bible, or perhaps the countless priests, prophets, and scribes before them who also couldn’t help seeing divine justice at work in human tragedy. Robertson is just telling us what’s actually in the book that hundreds of millions claim is God’s infallible Word.

This past spring in my introductory course on the New Testament writings, as a kind of “warm-up” to addressing Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ return in 1 Thessalonians 4, I distributed photocopies of a newspaper article on Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture would occur in May, 2011.1 The article focused on a local follower of Camping’s named Allison Warden, who advertised his prediction across both sides of her Subaru in big bold letters, presumably trying to do her part in saving as many as she could before the end arrived. Warden told the staff writer of the Raleigh News & Observer that Camping calculated the date by tallying up exactly 7,000 years from the moment God had shut the door to Noah’s ark, and what he came up with was May 21, 2011. Exactly five months after the rapture, she said, the world would come to an abrupt end. In the interim, non-believers would have an opportunity to repent of their error and join the winning team.

I asked for responses from the class. Predictably, all who spoke up thought both Warden and Reverend Camping were nuts. None could say precisely why they felt as they did, except for the hunch that such an extraordinary event seemed unlikely in the immediate future. I then asked them to compare Paul’s thought on the subject in 1 Thessalonians with what they’d just read, noting similarities and differences. As it turned out, students felt there was little difference between the two, except that Paul refused to offer a precise date. But both still held that Jesus would return in dramatic fashion and whisk believers away before God unleashed his fury upon the world, and both were convinced beyond any doubt that such an event would take place very, very soon.

What’s particularly disturbing for some Christians is that Paul expected Jesus to return during his lifetime and that he offered his scenario to the Thessalonian Christians as “a word from the Lord” – that is, as direct revelation from the risen Jesus. This is not mere speculation claims Paul: it’s bedrock. Live quietly and mind your own affairs, he therefore urges them elsewhere in the letter, for the time is near. And don’t trouble yourselves with transforming unjust social structures or contesting imperial power. Time is far better spent preparing yourselves for Jesus’ imminent return.2

“So, how would you evaluate Paul’s thought?” I asked at this point. Two types of responses were forthcoming: first, that Paul must be a little loony too; second, that at least he didn’t count up days from the moment God had sealed shut the door to the ark. “‘Like a thief in the night’ is all Paul ever says,” a careful reader helpfully pointed out. “And didn’t Jesus say,” another student offered, “‘No one knows the hour, not even the Son?’” While both comments are on target, they also aim to redeem Paul, to differentiate him from Warden, Camping, and all the other self-proclaimed Christian visionaries from the past two millennia who blew it.

As always, I spoke for a few minutes about Paul’s cosmology in 1 Thessalonians, as a way of helping students envision what Paul expected to see when Jesus returned to gather the elect. Paul seems to assume a three-tiered universe like so many others in his day: there’s a heaven above, where God, his angels, and a few luminaries like Elijah and Enoch (possibly Moses too) dwell, a flat Earth below, and hollowed out caverns beneath Earth’s surface where the righteous and wicked dead are held until the final resurrection and judgment. When Jesus descends from heaven, he first calls up those who “fell asleep” in Christ, and they unite with living believers (among whom Paul intends to be) in the air, after which Jesus zaps them all straight up to heaven, where they live “with the Lord forever.”

Such a scenario may have made sense to Paul and some of his contemporaries, but it makes zero sense today. There’s nothing “up there,” and there are no rocky chambers housing the living dead (“shades,” as they once were called) “down there.” If Jesus were to return (from where, exactly?) to whisk a bunch of the faithful up and away, they would either suffocate or freeze to death before making it to God’s abode. The important point here is that Paul really believed all of this, and he was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that this event would occur within a generation at most. Very rarely does Paul stop and tell his hearers that what he’s offering them is “a word from the Lord,” but this is one of those times, and not a bit of it is true. Paul’s cosmology is wrong in every sense, and the event that he was certain would occur in his lifetime has yet to occur two millennia later. But Paul was not alone: these beliefs were widely shared in the early Christian communities. In fact, Jesus himself very likely believed that God would intervene in human history in a dramatic way, which helps account for the early church’s fervent eschatological expectations.

Students, of course, see the problem right away: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, purportedly a “word from the Lord,” is one giant error. Harold Camping and Allison Warden may be nuts, but Paul is, at least in part, the source of their belief in Jesus’ return and subsequent “rapture” of believers. Like Pat Robertson, they too opened their Bibles and took what they found there seriously – at face value. The calculation of a precise date may have been added, but the basic narrative of a glorified Jew returning to gather his favorites is already there. With regard to belief in Jesus’ return and the “rapture” of believers, neither of them can be accused of hermeneutical malfeasance, of making the Bible say something that it does not. There are wacky things in the Bible, and all they’ve done is shown us that’s true. Any Christian who wishes to mock Camping and Warden for their “loony” beliefs also must do the same to Paul, a highly revered and “inspired” biblical author who here claims not to have spoken on his own authority but to have received a direct revelation from the Man Upstairs.

So, there’s a lot of crazy stuff in the Bible that few Christians – thankfully – would ever adhere to. But there’s also a lot of ethically unattractive stuff too, even in Jesus’ teachings, and I think it’s important that students know and come to terms with this fact. Much of it is widely known, placed in the foreground once again by several of the new atheists, so I won’t dwell long on these passages.

The Bible may be used, without any hermeneutical sleight of hand, to underwrite the most atrocious beliefs and behaviors. On a few occasions, for instance, God commands exterminating whole peoples – men, women, and children – simply because they aren’t among his “chosen” and because they don’t worship him. God also demands that the men or elders of a community execute adulterers, “a stubborn and rebellious son,” girls who have engaged in premarital intercourse, and men who “lie with a man as with a woman.” Slavery as an institution is simply a given and not directly challenged anywhere in the Bible. In the New Testament, in fact, slaves are commanded to obey their masters (which proved a great boon to white slave-owners here in the United States). In the Mosaic law, women generally are treated as male property and must, in all circumstances, remain subservient to men, whether to their fathers, husbands, uncles, or brothers. Some interpreters claim that women’s status improves dramatically in the New Testament, but this is not true. Although it appears that women assumed leadership roles for a brief time in a few early Christian congregations – as prophets, teachers, deacons, “co-workers” in spreading the gospel among non-Jews, patrons of fledgling house churches, even as apostles – by the end of the first century, they were being told by male leaders to keep quiet during worship, never to teach, and to remain subject to their husbands at all times. In fact, in one of the latest letters in the New Testament, women are even told they can be saved only by bearing children, the effect of which – if heeded – surely would have been to frighten women into traditional domestic roles and heap feelings of guilt and inadequacy upon unmarried women, women unable to conceive, and women whose husbands were infertile.

We also find massive amounts of “othering” rhetoric throughout the corpus. In the Hebrew Bible, this vitriol is often directed at non-Jews, who are portrayed as deluded and irredeemable moral degenerates, stupidly prostrating themselves before lifeless figures of stone and wood. In the New Testament, much of it is directed at Jews, and because Christians eventually came to believe that the books in the canon came straight from the Creator, this rather nasty polemic played a key role in underwriting all kinds of aggression – forced conversion, pogroms, internment in work camps, wholesale slaughter before firing squads or in ovens – against Jews from the seventh century up into the modern era. When John’s Jesus, who is held to be coequal with God, tells us that the father of the Jewish religious authorities is none other than Satan himself (8:39-59), it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Christians have demonized Jews for hundreds of years. When the author of the Gospel of Matthew assigns the line “Let [Jesus’] blood be on us and on our children!” to a crowd of Jews in the passion narrative (27:25), again it should come as no surprise that Christians have been hurling the epithet “Christ-killers” at Jews at least since John Chrysostom’s venomous anti-Jewish tirades in the final decades of the fourth century.

Because progressive Christians often surrender to the temptation to elevate Jesus above the fray of the ethically repugnant features of the Bible, it is important to point out that he exhibits ethnocentric sensibilities on occasion (Mark 7:24-30; Matt 15:21-28), sees fit to curse a fig tree when – as the narrator informs us – it wasn’t even “the season for figs” (Mark 11:12-25), includes not a single woman in his inner circle, presumes the insidious causal link between sin and illness that leaves so many stigmatized (Mark 2:1-12; Matt 9:1-8; Luke 5:17-26), and often rehabilitates the disabled whether they themselves seek his curative touch or not, thereby offering the church a splendid model for marking and punishing somatic deviance.

Even in texts believed by certain Christians to advance a politically progressive agenda, there almost always lurks some troubling or potentially injurious aspect. I’ll offer two examples: one from the Hebrew Bible, another from the New Testament.

Among certain African American and Latin American Christian communities in particular, the story in Exodus of God’s deliverance of an oppressed people from slavery in a foreign land finds broad appeal. Having heard the cries of his suffering people, Yahweh responds by raising up a leader who brings them out of bondage to a land of their own – “a land flowing with milk and honey” – where they might establish social structures and moral codes that are conducive to their interests. It truly is a wonderful story, and it has inspired many Christians (and even non-Christians!) in their quest for freedom and self- determination.

But there’s an unappealing side to the narrative too. In the process of liberating the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, God kills tens of thousands of innocent men, women, children, and animals simply because they aren’t Hebrews, and he utterly decimates the Egyptian landscape and its fragile ecosystems in the process. Near the story’s end, after Pharaoh has conceded victory to Moses and informs enslaved Hebrews that they are free to go, God lures Pharaoh and his army back out into the wilderness for another slaughter-fest, all for the sole purpose of instilling “fear” and “faith.” Although Moses already had achieved the objective of winning freedom for his people, the imperious, vengeful, sadistic Israelite Sovereign apparently hadn’t had quite enough fun and elected to murder thousands more. What’s even worse is what happens when the Hebrews, after forty years of wandering about in the wilderness trying to figure out this irascible and unpredictable new deity of theirs, arrive in the land of Canaan. God commands that they exterminate the indigenous population – men, women, children, even animals – so they won’t be tempted to worship any other deity but him. Yahweh, it would seem, intends to make of them the genocidal maniac he himself is. It appears that he didn’t succeed: we have almost no archaeological evidence to support the so-called “conquest narratives” of Joshua. Rather, the picture we find at the beginning of Judges, where several different groups are coexisting side by side – sometimes peacefully, sometimes not – is more faithful to what layers of earth and stone have revealed.

But it is not archaeological reconstructions of the past anyhow that have been – nor ever will be – authoritative for Christians. It is the biblical narrative that matters ultimately for communities of faith; it is the biblical narrative that is committed to memory and taught to children. Someone may object, “Surely no one would actually use the story of Israel’s exodus to legitimate genocide!” But they have, many times. Here in the United States, for instance, early Puritan ministers called upon it regularly to justify the conquest and slaughter of American Indians. Robert Allen Warrior, author of the magnificent essay “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today,” notes that as an American Indian he can’t help but read the story from the vantage point of the Canaanites.3 While certain African American and Latin American congregations may benefit by reading the story from the viewpoint of its winners, Warrior suggests reading from the perspective of the vanquished before deciding whether it may be deemed “safe” for use by Christian communities. Christians, he says, must come to terms with its gratuitous violence and wholesale slaughter of innocents, which ideally would result in an unambiguous public repudiation of its core values.

Another example may be taken from Jesus’ parables, which ordinarily are held in the highest regard by traditional and progressive Christian communities alike. On the one hand, the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11-27) has the potential both to conscientize Jewish peasants under Roman rule to economic exploitation and to motivate them for social change; on the other hand, it may be used to underwrite Christian triumphalism and exclusivism.

The parable is about a nobleman who, before traveling to a distant land to obtain “royal power,” gives ten of his slaves one mina each, instructing them, “Do business with these until I return.” The narrator then informs us that because the citizens of his country hated him, they then send a delegation to the authorities with the message, “We don’t want this fellow to rule over us.” When the nobleman returns from his journey, we learn that one slave managed to make ten more minas; another, five; and still another, nothing at all. To the first two slaves he says, “Well done!” and rewards each of them with authority over cities in his jurisdiction (a fine example of cronyism). The third slave, we find out, wrapped his mina in a piece of cloth because he was “afraid” of the nobleman. He describes his boss as a “harsh man” who is in the habit of taking up what he did not deposit and reaping what he did not sow. Importantly, the nobleman confirms that the third slave’s unflattering portrayal of him is right on target and implies that his reputation as an unforgiving, thieving tyrant should have scared him into obedience, as presumably it did for the first two slaves. The nobleman commands that the mina be taken away from this third slave, adding, “To those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The nobleman’s maxim very concisely and accurately describes how things work in this economy. In effect, he’s saying that under Roman imperial rule, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The parable concludes with the nobleman giving the following instructions to those standing nearby: “But as for my enemies, who did not want me to rule over them, bring them here and slaughter them right in front of me.”

It’s a terrible story – a “text of terror,” as Phyllis Trible might say – and I imagine that Jesus’ audience, consisting mostly of Roman Palestine’s poor, were roused to anger after having heard it. They knew this was how things worked. They knew that those who openly opposed the will of the elite stood to pay a hefty price (here, execution). And they knew that the only way to benefit within an exploitative economy like this one was to enhance the largesse of the rich, just as the first two slaves did. Anyone who challenges the system, or who, like the third slave, simply refuses to do the bidding of the elite, can expect to pay the price as well. With William Herzog, I like to see the third slave as a kind of whistleblower, someone who called it like he saw it, who called out the nobleman for what he really was – a tyrant and thief driven by greed – and refused to participate in an exploitative system designed to grow the estates of the rich while keeping just about everyone else at or below subsistence level.4 For me, he’s the tragic hero of the story, and it’s likely that he was the hero for Jesus’ original audiences as well. The other two slaves are spineless pawns of the elite who sell out for a little power.

The parable has subversive potential: raising economic exploitation to conscious awareness (many peasants undoubtedly tried to repress the fact they were being exploited to retain at least some equanimity) rouses anger, which is a primary catalyst in all movements for social change. Recent examples here in the United States include the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements. When enough people know what’s really going on and get angry about it, you’ve then got the spark you need to change the world. And I suspect this is exactly the sort of thing that the historical Jesus was trying to achieve – but peacefully, nonviolently, as Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. both sought to do. Saving souls, or convincing the masses to prostrate themselves before him, was the last thing on his mind.

So, we have here a marvelous parable. This is one of many passages from the Bible that I love. But, as with the story of the Israel’s exodus out of Egypt, there’s a catch: this potentially subversive parable is set within a narrative frame that asks readers to perform an allegorical reading. The referents in this story are unambiguous and easy to decipher. I’ve asked students to decode it many times in small groups without any assistance from me, and not once have they failed to reconstruct the allegory in its entirety.

Here’s how the allegory breaks down. The nobleman, who travels to a distant land in search of royal power, is Jesus. Once you’ve identified the nobleman, the rest quickly falls into place: Jesus’ “traveling,” for instance, is his ascension; the “distant land,” heaven; and “royal power” is an elevation in status perhaps best expressed by the familiar phrase from the Apostle’s Creed, “... [he was] seated at the right hand of the Father” (see also Mark 16:19; Matt 26:64).5 The “slaves,” of course, are Jesus’ followers, either narrowly conceived as “disciples” or more broadly as “Christians,” and the minas – the only truly polyvalent symbol in the parable – may represent spiritual gifts, the Christian gospel, or even material resources. The nobleman’s summoning of the slaves upon his return and subsequent doling out of rewards and punishment represents the final judgment. Notice that the third slave who refuses to use what he’s been given is only stripped of his mina and chastised verbally; it is those who outright refused to acknowledge Jesus as ruler for whom the most severe punishment – execution – is reserved. The resurrected Jesus’ desire to have “these enemies of mine ... slaughtered right in front of me” is certainly the most disturbing feature of the allegory.

Students see the problems with the implied allegory, as I’m sure you do too. First, Jesus is portrayed in the worst light imaginable. A cruel and greedy tyrant who requires his “slaves” to increase his largesse while he’s away, Jesus takes swift revenge upon his return on any who contested his “lordship,” ordering those standing by to slaughter every last one of his enemies “in [his] presence.” In the context of the Gospel as a whole, a portrayal like this might seem strange or incongruent, for elsewhere Jesus is generally about bringing good news to the poor, speaking truth to power, lifting up the weary, healing those who are suffering in body or spirit, and breaking down social and class barriers. All of a sudden, he morphs into a merciless tyrant, a figure who inspires fear in his “slaves.”

But this transformation from herald of good tidings to that of an unforgiving and vengeful judge occurs time and again in the New Testament writings. The risen Jesus, many early Christians believed, would return one day in wrath. As the pseudonymous author of 2 Thessalonians puts it, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire,” he shall “inflict vengeance on any who don’t know God and on any who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These people will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction...” (1:7-9). The risen Jesus of our Lukan parable is actually more merciful: nonbelievers are simply annihilated and therefore at least do not suffer “eternal destruction.” In Revelation, the risen Jesus is an equally terrifying figure who arrives at the end on a white horse to “tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God,” a process that begins when he “makes war” on non-believers and “strikes down the nations.” Afterward, at “the great banquet of God,” the birds are invited “to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of high-ranking authorities, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders – the flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great” (19:11-21). Notice that it’s not just those in power whose bodies are devoured at “the great banquet of God”; anyone who opposed Christians, whether rich or poor, slave or free, can expect to be served up for dinner. In Matthew, too, at the final judgment Jesus will consign any non-Christians who did not see fit to treat (Matthean) Christians with dignity to “eternal punishment,” a sentence that far exceeds in severity the purported crime (25:31-46).

So, how might we account for the odd, unsettling juxtaposition of a Jesus for the poor and downtrodden with a Jesus who mercilessly inflicts vengeance on any who fail to acknowledge his authority? It is now well known that oppressed peoples can internalize the values of their oppressors so that it is not uncommon for the even the most repugnant beliefs of a colonizing people to turn up in the art and literature of the colonized. Perhaps that, in part, is what we are witnessing in the Parable of the Minas – and, for that matter, in so many other passages in which readers come face to face with a bloodthirsty Messiah. Furthermore, early Christians were small in number and sometimes persecuted, not only by Roman authorities but likely by certain Jewish leaders as well.6 Christians understandably were angry at having been insulted, arrested, betrayed, “hated by all,” “beaten in synagogues,” even put to death (Mark 13:9-13), and they longed for a day when those who had abused them would receive their comeuppance. Feelings of vengeance constitute a very natural response to persecution and marginalization, and early Christians not only felt free to express them but soon came to believe that the founder of their fledgling movement would be the one to execute vengeance on their behalf. After all, they themselves were powerless to do so.

In addition to minimizing the troubling features of the Bible’s most beloved texts, many theologians and biblical scholars continue to speak of the Christian God in only the most sterling manner: as, for instance, all-loving, just, infinitely wise, and inexhaustibly merciful. But this is not the God of the Bible – not even close. If that were the God of the Bible, I would retain little respect for its authors, who would have proven themselves far more interested in promoting a fiction they liked than in bearing witness to the terrible, unpredictable Power they felt best accounted for (often unseemly) facts on the ground. There’s just no way that the omnibenevolent, all-wise Sovereign of traditional Christianity created and presides over this place. No, if there’s a God at all, he’s likely just the sort we find in the Bible – magnanimous and cruel, loving and spiteful, noble and base, impulsive and deliberate, intelligent and incompetent, responsible and spectacularly negligent. A little like us, in fact, but with a lot more power.

In the Hebrew Bible, for instance, one finds a God who: 1) initially finds his taming and ordering of primeval chaos “good” (Gen 1:1-2:4a) but is subsequently disappointed in how his experiment fares and, like a sullen, petulant toddler, sends a cataclysm to destroy nearly all terrestrial, organic life (Gen 6:5-9:17); 2) commands Abraham to slay his only son Isaac, for whom he and Sarah have waited most of their adult lives and upon whose shoulders rests the fulfillment of the covenant, and offer his body to him as a burnt offering – an atrocity brought to a halt not by Yahweh, who vanishes after issuing the order and never returns, but by one of his angels, who presumably intervenes last minute of his own volition to redress Yahweh’s reckless caprice and salvage his master’s honor (Gen 22:1-14);7 3) assaults two of his favorite sons, Jacob and Moses, under the cover of darkness and without cause (Gen 32:22-32; Exod 4:24-26); 4) incites David to take a census of the people of Israel, leads him to believe that it was a voluntary act of disobedience, and subsequently kills 70,000 by pestilence as punishment (2 Sam 24:1-17); and 5) conscripts a member of the divine council for the job of killing an innocent man’s children, destroying his possessions, and afflicting him with a horrible, painful illness “for no reason” (Job 2:3) and then refuses to offer him a candid explanation of the callous, inhumane wager struck between himself and ha’satan (Job 1-2; 38-42).

It is often assumed that the portrayal of God improves dramatically in the New Testament. Although it is true that in the Gospels Jesus generally highlights God’s benevolence, mercy, and justice, one does not have to look far to find a wrathful, partial deity who behaves very badly. In Revelation, for example, the sage forewarns that God, as in Genesis and Exodus, will soon destroy untold numbers of living organisms and utterly ruin entire ecosystems (see especially Chapters 6-18). Needless to say, the consequences of God’s fury for our species and the earth are devastating. Additionally, in many (if not most) books in the New Testament, one finds a highly partial God who is “for” the elect (typically a tiny minority) but whose wrath burns hot against the non-elect. Curiously and perplexingly, readers also meet a deity who, although presumably all-powerful and wholly good, has for centuries refused to put an end to evil and gratuitous suffering, bind Satan and his legions, and establish a just reign. A reader may wonder: Why does God delay in instituting justice on earth when he presumably has the power to do so? What might such a delay say about the character of God or his capacity for instituting a just reign? Why, indeed, must human beings implore God at all for an intervention when the extent and nature of suffering and evil should make its desirability so plainly obvious?

Furthermore, I would even argue that Jesus himself constructs God ambivalently. Take, for example, just the first Gospel. On the one hand, God is presented as beneficent, providential, and eager to meet the needs of his people: he has every hair on our heads counted (10:30); he cares and provides sustenance for animals (6:26; 10:29); he splendidly arrays even the grass of the field (6:28-29); he knows that we need food, drink, and clothing and is eager to provide us with these necessities (6:25-33); and he, whose love is all-inclusive, causes the sun to shine on the good and evil and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous (5:45). On the other hand, God’s wrath looms menacingly over all, including Jesus’ own disciples. Because God is perfect, Jesus exhorts his disciples to be perfect (5:48), and those who fall short can expect to suffer in hell (5:22, 29-30). So mighty, in fact, is God’s wrath that Jesus enjoins his disciples: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away, for it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut if off and throw it away, for it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (5:29-30). He even asks disciples to refrain from making oaths to God, presumably because if circumstances prohibit their fulfillment, the consequences will be unbearably severe. It is best, then, to “let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” (5:33-37). For those outside the community, there is little or no hope. At the last judgment, God will show no mercy: the disobedient and recalcitrant will suffer eternal punishment (25:41-46). Moreover, in this Gospel, God’s world is marked by violence, oppression, injustice, thievery (6:19-20), and scarcity (6:11, 25). It is under Satan’s dominion (4:8-9) and literally infested with demons (12:43-45). It is a place where illness and disease cause tremendous suffering and often disable or kill prematurely (e.g., Chapters 8-9), where all is transitory and nothing is secure (6:19-20). It is, in short, a world in which happiness seems to be the rarest of commodities. Such a construction of the world itself constitutes a critique of its Creator and may provoke a reader to ask: Has God lost interest in human affairs? Does he not care that his creatures are suffering terribly and that his world has become a treacherous, inhospitable place? Does he not have the power to set things right?

Much like any other collection of writings deemed sacred by the world’s religious communities, the Bible too is a wildly diverse anthology that has the potential to inspire great good and to underwrite the most ghastly evils. Precisely because this is so, we ought to be deeply concerned when we hear Christians claim that it is “divinely inspired” and therefore “authoritative.” Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians aren’t the only ones who use this language; progressive Christians use it too, and we should not let them off the hook. In my ideal world, we would treat the Bible no differently than we treat any another corpus. There are brilliant, bold, even sublime texts in the Bible, and I am persuaded that some of the finest literature we have is found there.8

But then there’s all the horrifying stuff in the Bible too, and this is why we must insist that the Bible not be imbued with any special authority, or revered as if its origin lay in some transcendent realm. It is, in its entirety, a product of the human mind and heart, which has proven capable of love and hate, fairness and unfairness, kindness and cruelty, capaciousness and the genocidal impulse. Not only do all of these qualities turn up in the Bible (as we would expect in any humanly produced corpus of such breadth), but they all, in one place or another, receive the divine stamp of approval. God himself, in fact, manifests each one of these attributes, and Christians are commanded both to love and obey him with whole their heart, and even to emulate him in all they do. This is terrible advice. Fortunately, a vast majority of Christians don’t follow it. If they did, they would be clubbing gay men to death whenever the opportunity presented itself, hurling stones at women they suspected of having had premarital intercourse, or advocating genocide for any group that offers its prayers to Vishnu rather than to Yahweh. And they would strenuously oppose any advances made by the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements. Thankfully, most Christians don’t pay much attention to the God of the Bible but instead offer their supplications to a relatively benign, inoffensive Giant Teddy Bear whose only real ability (it would seem) is to rouse warm feelings during a beautiful sunset.

So, while the Bible will always serve as foundational for Christian identity by illuminating the church’s origins as well as its early ethical and theological orientations, it need not – indeed, should not – constrain models of reality or moralities two millennia later. Yes, it will always serve to remind Christians where they’ve come from and may even suggest pathways forward, but continuing to award this ancient anthology the status of “divinely inspired authority” is just unsafe. Too many have suffered under these exalted and unwarranted claims, and it would be far better for us all if the Bible were demoted to the more humble status of dialogue partner – one that has the potential to inspire and to repulse, to liberate and to enslave, to bring out the best and to bring out the worst. Even the Bible’s most beloved texts, like the narrative of Israel’s exodus from Egypt or certain of Jesus’ parables, can be used to legitimate hateful beliefs and nurture harmful behaviors. Christian communities could go a long way in ensuring the safety of future generations by de-sacralizing its canon and demystifying its origins – by refusing to confer on it a status that no text deserves.

But let’s be real: Are Christians likely to begin treating their canon as mere conversation partner any time soon? Conceding that the Bible probably will remain a divinely inspired authority for hundreds of millions in the foreseeable future, a few secular biblical critics have therefore suggested that interpreters should work tirelessly to turn the spotlight on subversive texts that may be used to advance human rights, to speak truth to power, or to imagine more humane social and economic structures. There are numerous passages in the Bible that can serve in such a way, and I would applaud any effort to reclaim these texts, especially as they threaten to unsettle the hegemonic discourses of personal salvation and piety so fervently and loudly propagated by the Religious Right. For good reason, the Bible has been used to inspire countless revolutionary movements, and we would do well not to forget this. But socially conscious interpretive work ultimately will succeed only if we also dethrone the Bible and set it alongside other ancient writings, as one among and not above them. It is a marvelous anthology, to be sure, but it is neither better nor worse – aesthetically and morally – than so many others, past and present. The Bible may serve us well if it is assigned a more humble status, but it can (and will) hurt us when we elevate it above any other corpus on Earth. Hector Avalos puts it concisely and well, I think: “[T]otal abolition of biblical authority becomes a moral obligation and a key to this world’s survival.”9 A “postscriptural society,” as he calls it, is indeed the only safe society.

1 Josh Shaffer, “She’s Crusin’ to the Rapture: May 21, 2011,” Raleigh News & Observer (December 20, 2010). Online @ http://www.

2 As far as we know, Paul never surrendered this conviction, which is why he advises Christians in Corinth a few years later not to bother about changing their present status, whatever that might be: if you’re married, he says, remain married; if not, then don’t get married; if you’re a slave, don’t pursue your freedom. Because the present form of this world is rapidly passing away, any major changes to your “outer” life aren’t worth your time or attention (see 1 Corinthians 7:17-40).

3 In R. S. Sugirtharajah, ed., Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World. 3rd ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006), pp. 277-85.

4 Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), esp. 163-68.

5 To be seated at a king’s right is, quite literally, to be his “right-hand man” – his go-to guy, his chief emissary. Although orthodox Christianity would eventually adopt Johannine Christology – Jesus is God, and always was – many early Christians believed he acquired his fully exalted status as God’s Son later on, whether during his baptism (the Gospel of Mark) or at his resurrection (Romans). Here in Luke, Jesus only acquires the full extent of his “royal power” when he ascends into heaven.

6 The Gospel of John, for instance, testifies to what several early Christians perceived as Jewish hostility. It appears that the community from which this book emerged was recently expelled from the synagogue, and for its author this remains a fresh wound, an event that has called forth the most virulent animosity – so intense, in fact, that he has his Jesus identify the father of Jewish religious leaders as “the devil.”

7 “For now I know that you fear God...,” says the angel significantly, not “Now God knows that you fear him” (v.12). We know that a few later readers were troubled not only by Yahweh’s demand for a child sacrifice in the opening verse but by his absence in the remainder of the story. In Jubilees, for instance, a book that rewrites several biblical narratives for a second century B.C.E. audience, it is Satan who issues the command and Yahweh who explicitly commands the angel to interrupt the sacrifice. Yahweh is thereby exonerated from the inhumane request for a human burnt offering and portrayed as hero, who steps in at the last moment to frustrate Satan’s plan and rescue Isaac. Not so in Genesis 22, where Yahweh is the monster who demands a child sacrifice and his angel who intervenes as hero.

8 Job, for instance, is in my mind unrivaled among its ancient Near Eastern peers in its penetrating and brutally honest treatment of catastrophic suffering. What makes the book doubly attractive is its upending of Deuteronomic thought on suffering – all suffering is a result of sin – and its implicit claim that God doesn’t give a rip about what we think is fair, or even about our species as a whole, which stubbornly insists that it alone is the apple of God’s eye. The Gospel of Mark, too, is a literary masterpiece that easily demands as much from its readers as many of its more elite contemporaries of like genre. And how daring to ascribe to your protagonist, as his very last words, a cry of dereliction in which he accuses the Creator of having abandoned him! Mark’s Jesus dies believing the God upon whom he staked his whole ministry deserted him when he needed him most, and we hear not a word from him after this, not a peep.

9 The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst: Prometheus, 2007), p. 342.