The conservative church is lying to you about the Old Testament
Part 2 of my series on Joshua. Literal interpretations of violent OT passages are not the most traditional ones.
(Yes, yes, the title is clickbait-y and “lying” isn’t a great word choice to use to describe a misunderstanding that almost everyone comes by honestly. But “your understanding of the history of Christian interpretation is not correct, let me nudge it in the right direction” is a terrible title. This is part two of my series on Joshua.)
When it comes to questions like “was the earth created in six days?” or “did Noah really build an ark that held two of every species?”, we tend to frame the conversation as a disagreement between “traditionalists”, who interpret Old Testament stories as literal historical facts, and “progressives” who want to introduce fancy new interpretive techniques.
This point of view reflects the influence of the American fundamentalist movement. In the white American context, the further back in time you go the more literalist the interpretations get — even beyond creationism, it’s well-documented that the flat-earth movement, the anti-miscegenation movement, and even the pro-slavery movement all grew out of frighteningly wooden readings of the Old Testament.
All this makes it easy to forget that this phenomenon is primarily an American one rather than a universal Christian experience. Enlightenment ideals of what “history” is and how best to interpret it had so thoroughly permeated Western society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that early American Christians (like many of us today) didn’t even think to ask whether biblical writers might have meant something else when they wrote histories.
So it can be genuinely surprising (it certainly was for me!) to learn that the earliest Christians, living a century or two or three after Christ died — the ones who decided which books got to be in the bible — decidedly didn’t interpret the worst parts of the Old Testament literally. In facts, many of them seem to struggle just as much as we do to reconcile the “tribal warrior deity” depictions of God1 with Jesus’s self-revelation. (Or, for Jewish writers, with otherwise clear revelations of God’s loving and liberatory nature.)
There are two ways to resolve a contradiction like this. If you believe the stories of genocide in the Old Testament have to be literally true, you end up either glossing over parts of Jesus’s teaching or drawing a separation between Jesus and the Old Testament God. Early Christian theologian Origen accuses some of the most famous early heretics of doing the latter2 (emphasis mine):
But Marcion and Valentinus and Basilides and the other heretics with them, since they refuse to understand these things in a manner worthy of the Holy Spirit, 'deviated from the faith and became devoted to many impieties’ bringing forth another God of the Law, both creator and judge of the world, who teaches a certain cruelty through these things that are written. For example, they are ordered to trample upon the necks of their enemies and to suspend from wood the kings of that land that they violently invade.
Notice why Origen think they’re heretics: because they believed God had literally ordered the cruelties that books like Joshua depict him as ordering. This position is supported by other early church fathers, nearly all of whom considered this literal type of reading to be unacceptable.3 [EDIT: a friend (correctly) pointed out that “nearly all” here is an exaggeration. This is true of many church fathers, especially in the traditions from which the desert monk movements would spring, but not all! In particular, while Augustine insisted that unacceptable texts should be read metaphorically, he seems to have believed in a literal conquest. Sorry for the error! The same is true two paragraphs down from here.]
When Origen refers to “a manner worthy of the Holy Spirit”, he’s referring to a standard Christian understanding of his time: that the Old Testament’s “literal” meaning is just a husk that hides the truer “spiritual” meaning that only becomes visible through the Holy Spirit in light of Jesus’s crucifixion4.
And so he, like nearly all early orthodox Christians, views Old Testament violence not as a historical fact but as a sort of allegory for the struggle between Christ and demons, between sinners and sin, between good and evil — not good and evil people, between between the forces of good and evil that live within each person:
And yet, if only my Lord Jesus the Son of God would grant that to me and order me to crush the spirit of fornication with my feet and trample upon the necks of the spirit of wrath and rage, to trample on the demon of avarice, to trample down boasting, to crush the spirit of arrogance with my feet, and, when I have done all these things, not to hang the most exalted of these exploits upon myself but upon his cross. Thereby I imitate Paul, who says, 'the world is crucified to me [Gal. 6:14] and, that which we have already related above, 'Not I, but the grace of God that is in me' [1 Cor. 15:10].
But if I deserve to act thus, I shall be blessed and what Jesus [Joshua] said to the ancients will also be said to me, 'Go courageously and be strengthened; do not be afraid nor be awed by their appearance, because the Lord God has delivered all your enemies into your hands' [Josh. 10:25] If we understand these things spiritually and manage wars of this type spiritually and if we drive out all those spiritual iniquities from heaven, then we shall be able at last to receive from Jesus as a share of the inheritance even those places and kingdoms that are the kingdoms of heaven, bestowed by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, 'to whom is the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen!' [1 Pet. 4:11]
(This is the kind of reading of Joshua I can get behind! It doesn’t implicate God in evil acts and it comes with a practical application! We’ll tie this reading in with some cool modern scholarship in one of the next few posts.)
Other Early Christian readings
My favorite example of both the promises and the pitfalls of this kind of reading is the so-called Epistle of Barnabas, a Christian letter written in either the late first or early second century AD — close enough to the time of Jesus that some early church leaders considered it to be part of the New Testament.
Most of the text of the letter is devoted to teaching Christians how to read the Old Testament “spiritually”, with a particular focus on how Jesus’s resurrection “unlocks” spiritual meanings that were previously hidden.
Some of these interpretations have now become standard — phrases like “he was pierced for our transgressions” (which originally referred to the suffering of the innocent in Israel’s exile) are creatively reimagined to apply to Christ’s crucifixion. As Christians we have internalized the Jesus connection so thoroughly that we sometimes forget that the passage meant something entirely different for the first few hundred years of its existence!
On the other hand, some of the interpretations… haven’t. The author is convinced that the Jewish dietary laws are allegories hiding “spiritual truths”, insisting that the rule against eating pigs is “really” a rule against behaving greedily or gluttonously (“like a pig”). More confusingly, the rule against eating weasels is revealed to secretly be a commandment against oral sex, which the author seems to believe is how weasels reproduce. And even more alarmingly, the author sees rabbits as a symbol for pederasty because “the hare gaineth one passage in the body every year; for according to the number of years it lives it has just so many orifices.”
This sort of reading sounds insane to us today, and not just because of the bewildering misconceptions about rabbit biology. Today “good biblical interpretation” is often used to mean a combination of
Literalism: assuming the biblical accounts intend to portray events as they actually happened
Originalism: defining the “meaning” of a text as its meaning to the original writer or audience.
There are certainly good reasons you might want such an interpretation, and certainly some potential problems that this approach avoids.
But — and this is hard to internalize so bear with me — the idea that this is the right way to understand the bible is new. It is not something the bible tells you to do, and it was not believed to be “the best way” for at least the first fifteen hundred years of Christian history. It is a choice that contemporary Evangelical culture has made, and it is a choice we can make differently without losing a single iota of the biblical witness or Christian faith.
The author of the Epistle of Barnabas didn’t attempt to find the literal, contextual meaning of Levitical food laws and fail, the author just had a completely different understanding of what it meant for an interpretation of the bible to be good.
In the early church, a “good” interpretation was a Christ-centered one. When you read commentaries and sermons from this era, you find Jesus everywhere: any reference to a tree becomes the cross, every reference to wind becomes the Holy Spirit, and everybody who suffers becomes a so-called “type” of Jesus. Again, this isn’t because they didn’t understand the historical context of the passages, but because they believed Christ had so fundamentally reshaped their view of God that we should look for his fingerprints anywhere and everywhere.
My point is not to argue that the early church got everything right (they didn’t.) My point is that when we read scripture creatively — when we allow our circumstances and the cross-shaped revelation of Jesus to shape every biblical passage we read — we are not “introducing something new” to the bible that doesn’t belong.
We are simply taking our place within one of the oldest and most sacred streams of Christian tradition. And in the next three posts, we’ll try to do just that.
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Appendix: Some more examples of early Christian and Jewish biblical interpretation
In this appendix, I want to sketch out a couple of modes of early Jewish biblical interpretation, as well as a couple examples of the bible’s interpretations of parts of the bible that came before. I am not trying to argue that we should use these methods today — I just want to underscore that what we think of as “the right way to read the bible” is something we as a culture have decided, not something that biblical interpreters have always believed in.
Early Jewish Interpretations
I want to give a quick overview of three modes of Jewish biblical interpretation around the time of Christ — notice in particular how different they are from our own!
Gematria is a system associating numbers to each letter of the Hebrew (or other) alphabet, so that words can be transformed into numbers and (more difficultly) vice versa. This was often used to explain the appearance of certain numbers in biblical texts, and is particularly associated with Kabbalah (a sort of Jewish mysticism popular in medieval times.)
I’m aware of two major Christian examples, although there are certainly more. The Epistle of Barnabas, which we saw above, finds a reference to Jesus in the 318 servants circumcised by Abraham:
For the scripture saith; And Abraham circumcised of his household
eighteen males and three hundred. What then was the knowledge
given unto him? Understand ye that He saith the eighteen first,
and then after an interval three hundred In the eighteen 'I'
stands for ten, 'H' for eight. Here thou hast JESUS (IHSOYS). And
because the cross in the 'T' was to have grace, He saith also three
hundred. So He revealeth Jesus in the two letters, and in the
remaining one the cross.
Second, the number of the beast in St. John’s Revelation is 666. Most scholars think this is a reference to NERO CAESAR, which when converted to the Hebrew alphabet has a Gematria-related value of 666.
Early Jewish interpreters (as well as later ones) employed an interpretive tool known as midrash to resolve inconsistencies, build upon, and even reinterpret biblical texts. A classic introduction to this method is Kugel’s In Potiphar’s House, which explores some of the earliest known examples.
In lieu of a full description, here’s an example of the method from Kugel’s book. In Genesis 4, a man named Lamech boasts to his two wives:
“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.”
Modern interpreters generally view this killing of a man and boy as a general statement of Lamech’s willingness to avenge himself. But (at least some) midrash interprets the story differently.
Lamech, after all, is Cain’s great-great-great-grandson, and Cain never suffers a clear death to punish him for murdering Abel. So these ancient interpreters created a story to explain both:
Lamech, the story goes, was nearly blind. And Cain, who the Bible declares was “marked” by God, had in fact grown horns as a result. So when he went hunting, he mistook Cain for a deer and killed him. Upon realizing what he has done, he blindly claps his hand and murders his guide, who was a young boy (and, some interpreters say, was in fact his son Tubal-Cain.)
Thus our ancient interpreters accounted both for Cain’s punishment and Lamech’s boast of killing a man and a boy, and in fact this particular interpretation became wildly popular among both Jewish and Christian writers in the Middle Ages.
Midrash stories tend to be like this — they take small details and create whole new narratives out of them to apply the characters and stories they know to new situations. While there are (in some communities) specific rules this must follow, it’s clearly distinct from the modern “only write what you can get out of the words of the text” approach.
We see this all the time in our own bibles, although we don’t necessarily recognize it as such — many scholars, for example, draw a comparison to Paul’s “original sin” reading of the Adam and Eve story (which it should be noted is not actually in the Genesis account) and Jewish midrashic tradition.
Pesher is an interpretative method we see from the ancient Jewish Essene community (of Dead Sea Scrolls fame.) It bears a lot of resemblance to Christian interpretation, except that instead of the story revolving around Christ, the scriptures are reinterpreted to revolve around a person known as “the Teacher of Righteousness” and his opponent, “the Wicked Priest.”
Many of the extant manuscripts are fragmented, but you can see the general style of interpretation in this commentary on the biblical book Habakkuk: all the “good characters” in scripture are interpreted as references to the Essene community, while the bad characters become both their Jewish and Roman foes. (In this sense, this is very similar to the American tradition of reading ourselves as Israel in the Old Testament even when we behave more like Babylon.) Pretty much every word is reinterpreted to mean something relevant to the community who produced the commentary.
The Bible’s Own Interpretations
Finally, let’s look at how the Bible itself reinterprets scripture in light of Christ. A classic example of this can be found in the narrative of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Matthew.
By my count, the narrative makes four references to the Old Testament:
An angel visits Joseph to tell him Mary will be with child even though she was a virgin. Matthew tells us that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’”
This is a reference to Isaiah 7:14, which is interesting to us for two reasons. First, in context this verse refers to something that happened at the time Isaiah was writing. In other words, this isn’t a prediction being fulfilled in the modern sense — it’s something closer to foreshadowing. Second, the word translated as “virgin” only means that in Greek translations of the Old Testament — the actual Hebrew word just means “a young woman.”
As a work of ancient exegesis this is perfectly reasonable, but it would break some of our modern “rules” for interpretation.
The baby is to be born in Bethlehem, because the prophet wrote “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” This probably originally referred to the fact that King David came from Bethlehem and any future messiah would be a descendant of David. That said, it’s definitely possible to interpret this (in a “modernist sense”) consistently as a prediction of Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
Jesus and his family briefly live as refugees in Egypt until Herod dies, which Matthew views as a fulfillment of the verse “Out of Egypt I called my son.” This is unacceptable from the modern “interpret passages literally in context” standpoint: Hosea is clearly writing about the Exodus here, using “my son” language to refer to Israel being liberated from Egyptian bondage. Again, this is solid ancient exegesis but it is definitely not literalist.
Herod’s murder of Bethlehem toddlers is seen as a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy that “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
This is an interesting interpretative move, comparing the suffering of God’s people in two different places and times, giving a biblical lens through which to view the pain. But it’s not really a “fulfillment” in the modern sense — Jeremiah was just describing something that was happening, and it takes place in a completely different city (Ramah instead of Bethlehem.) Again, we see that the bible interprets itself creatively, not literally.
Jesus’s family soon moves to Nazareth, which is said to fulfill the prophecy that “he shall be called a Nazarene.” This has confused interpreters for the last two millenia, who note that this is not in fact a quote from the Old Testament, and as a result nobody is really sure what Matthew is referring to.
In short, Matthew’s use of the Old Testament is creative and not always contextual or literal. Whatever lens we decide to apply to the bible, we need to be clear that our lens is not the same thing as the text itself — it’s something we come up with ourselves and with our culture, and we should not stick too hard to a lens that isn’t working.
Given the context of Christian history, I think it’s important to draw a wide distinction between “dangerous literalism” and the Jewish faith, which are very, very different. Many Jewish commentators have similarly objected to the Joshua story, although I’m less familiar with the history here and can’t make any broad statements about their approaches. I do know that rabbinic interpretations often added details to the story, such as attempts by Joshua to warn the Canaanites about their fate, to soften the troubling bits
From Homily on Joshua. I’m taking this quotation from page 9 of Earl’s Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture
Tertullian, for example, makes essentially the same accusation:
You suppose that He is predicted as a military and armed warrior, instead of one who in a figurative and allegorical sense was to wage a spiritual warfare against spiritual enemies, in spiritual campaigns, and with spiritual weapons: come now, when in one man alone you discover a multitude of demons calling itself Legion, Luke 8:30 of course comprised of spirits, you should learn that Christ also must be understood to be an exterminator of spiritual foes, who wields spiritual arms and fights in spiritual strife; and that it was none other than He, who now had to contend with even a legion of demons. Therefore it is of such a war as this that the Psalm may evidently have spoken: The Lord is strong, The Lord is mighty in battle.
See pages 7-12 of Earl’s Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture for more examples. Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism also discusses this kind of reading, but I don’t have a copy in front of me to give an exact citation.
In practice, this can and did become heavily linked with various forms of anti-Semitism. I want to be clear that my point is not that we should follow the early church exactly, but rather that we should recognize biblical hyperliteralism for what it is: a strong interpretative choice that most Christians throughout history have not agreed with.