Q&R: Intellectually Honest Bible Reading – Brad Jersak
I am writing to ask for your expertise, advice and suggestions. Even though I have been studying the Church Fathers, your books and expositions on how to read Scripture “the Emmaus Way” for the past three years, I am still troubled by various OT Testament passages.
How do we “ interpret” the Flood Story for example. How do we read the countless rather swift and brutal judgment passages related to the 40 years of Israelites wandering the desert? Whole people groups swallowed up in the ground or burned by fire?
Some of the above stories are also mentioned by Jesus, Paul or Peter in the NT accounts. I know this sounds maybe a bit strange, but I am deeply troubled by these accounts and how to reinterpret them in an intellectually honest way?
I think that the most intellectually honest way to read these accounts begins with the ‘literal’ (not literalist) sense, which for the flood, for example, includes a deep commitment to the authors intent, the genre employed, carefully attending words used and how it functions within the narrative.
SO, intellectually honest includes seeing the authors’ agenda in his flood accounts (he’s blended two) in contrast to the flood epics from other cultures. In those cultures, the flood is all about gods destroying humanity because they don’t like the noise of people. But in the Jewish account, it is a re-Creation story.
After God created the world and saw that it was good (for human habitation – Genesis 1), now he looks and sees that through the violence of men (6:11), the world has ‘ruined’ (6:12)… i.e., ruined for human life, it’s uninhabitable. He must bathe the world and begin anew.
Noah thus becomes a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) for 120 years (6:3) in preparation for this great ‘baptism,’ presumably warning people and inviting them to salvation. But they opt out. Gratefully, Peter writes that in his compassion for those who perished, Christ himself enters death to evangelize them (in 1 Peter 3:19-20), and ‘those who were judged in the flesh are made alive in the spirit’ (resurrected – 1 Peter 4:6).
Along with the author’s intent, to reframe the nature of God as creator versus destroyer, and to call his people into repentance, intellectual honesty includes affirming the genre it was written in: it is not written as geological history but within the genre of myth. We know this, not only from actual geological and biological studies but from the composition itself, an extension of the “theo-poetics” of chapters 1-3.
Was there ever a catastrophic flood? Many. Did fish ever swim over the peaks of Mt. Everest? Too high. Were all the dinasaurs in the world on the ark? Too many. Also, not the point. Here are the real questions the story answers: Where does human rebellion take us? To world-ending violence. Is God the hateful destroyer, as the pagan myths of other religions proclaim? No. Our flood story reveals that God arrested our collective descent into non-being and preserved humanity from extinction through a drastic ‘global’ reset. Literally? Well, not literalistically. But truly. With a flood? In the end, no. Through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ!
These are faith stories. And the NT indeed references these faith stories. Now, a faith story can be historical or fictional or a blend of the two. The point is not what actually happened that I could have recorded on a smartphone but, how do all our stories (historical, mythical, poetic, fictional) inform our faith and life today and how are they only ultimately fulfilled in Christ?
A Christian reading of these stories also asks how they reveal the human condition as cautionary tales (according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13). And intellectual honesty demands that within the ancient stories, we note the theological, cultural and worldview limitations of the authors and narrators. How they still only understood God in narrower, tribal, and warrior-god imagery, an issue Christ will address and correct as the final Word of God (what God has to say about himself). And in reading from the end (from Jesus’ death and resurrection), we look back and see Christ peaking through all along, from Genesis 3:15 onward (or in 1:1 as ‘the Word’ who was ‘in the beginning,’ a la John 1:1), as the God who is ‘gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness’ … a creedal refrain that permeates the ancient scrolls.
None of this would surprise a Jewish rabbi, by the way. They were reading this way from well before the time of Christ. And even today, rabbis are puzzled about our Christian worries rooted in how modernity co-opted our reading in flattened, thinned-out ways. But not all of us. Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, T.S. Eliot … they saw it clearly as those whose intellectual honesty led them to uncover the theological riches of Scripture, of Homer and of Plato, just like the early church fathers and mothers they cite. Here’s how Tolkien says it, inside a great faith story of his own.
- “It’s like in the great stories, Fr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometime you don’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even the darkness must pass.”
And this is also how the Bible reads itself: how John’s Jesus fulfills the ancient stories (especially the Exodus) at weddings, by wells, in pools, at feasts, etc. John (and Jesus himself) teaches us to read the stories as stories about Jesus, even the serpent on the pole in that awful story in Numbers 21 (John 3:14, 1 Corinthians 10:9).
Jesus claims, “Moses wrote of me” (John 5:46). That’s the Christian reading. Other approaches tend to corner us into strange images of God that Jesus came to subvert and resolve. The first Christians saw this. In Mileto’s On Pascha, a second century Jewish Christian bishop explains and demonstrates how it works. Literalist readings, non-Emmaus readings, will naturally trouble us.
As a p.s., this brief video re: the flood (by Matt Lynch) may also helpful: