Archive for Redaction

2015 Lent 28

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by timtrue


Jeremiah 23:9-15

With today’s passage, let’s return to the question of redaction: was the book of Jeremiah edited years or even generations later in order to convey an agenda?

After all, we have witnessed individual politicians and pundits in our own day crash and burn morally.  Brian Williams comes to mind, poor guy.  And Monica Lewinsky is in the news again these days.  Need I say more?

Yet, arguably, we are not being judged as a nation.  America is not falling into the hands of enemies.  We seem (fingers crossed) to be pulling out of a lengthy recession.  Life continues much as it has for more than two centuries in our democratic, materialistic, science-smitten country.

In fact, looking at our history, there have been times—like during the so-called Civil War; like that fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968; and like 9/11—when several cries of divine judgment were heard across the land.  Yet American life continues today much as it always has.  Today, as I cup my hand to my ear and listen, the judgment cries have largely fallen silent.

This idea—that there is not a cause-and-effect relationship between immorality and divine judgment—is captured in a scene from a dark movie starring Jason Bateman called, appropriately enough, Bad Words.  The story is of an angry but highly intelligent middle school dropout now grown up (Bateman).  To prove a point, he cleverly navigates his way into the national spelling bee: the bee policy states, “Contestants must not have graduated the eighth grade,” without listing an age limit.  Anyway, Bateman befriends a twelve year-old fellow contestant and persuades him, successfully, to shout out the f-word to express his anger.  After he does so Bateman says, “Well, see there?  You haven’t been struck by lightning.”

Moral failures happen all around us.  But judgment doesn’t.  God is merciful.  And mercy triumphs over judgment.

This doesn’t mean we should live by any less integrity, as if we are able to live as recklessly as we like because mercy rocks.  God is about love.  And real love puts others first.  The greater good, summum bonum, demands integrity of us!

But to rewrite history in order to scare people into walking with integrity doesn’t sit well with us either.  Fear sucks.  And to manipulate others through fear sucks worse.  Yet this just might be happening with Jeremiah.

The enemies of Israel had conquered them.  They had dispersed Israel and Judah into exile.  It would have been really easy in this context for a judgment-minded remnant to reflect:

In the good old days we had it so good—don’t you remember?  The people obeyed God and he blessed us.  Even the Queen of Sheba travelled from afar to see Solomon’s palace and temple and to learn at his feet.  Yeah, those were the good old days!  But then the people disobeyed and God judged.  How can we communicate this cause-and-effect relationship to our people?

And so books of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah (and arguably Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.) were revised and added to in order to convey the importance of living lives of integrity, by giving the prophets powers to look into the future; and then by saying things like, “Repent now from your disintegrating ways, or God will bring enemies into our land and judge us!” because those rewriting them already knew the details, that the people had not in fact lived lives of integrity; and that the surrounding nations had already in fact conquered them.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

The future, however, is more like 1/20.

So this question of redaction is sensible.

But, of course, it poses a serious challenge to those of us who call the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments authoritative.  For even by granting the idea of redaction admittance, we’ve brought a stranger into our party.  And strangers change the mood.  And party-goers don’t want the mood to change.

Nevertheless, that someone probably redacted the prophets makes sense.  None of our politicians and pundits today—America’s priests and prophets—sees into the future.  They can speculate about the future—they should speculate about the future—and make present plans accordingly.  (See yesterday’s post for more about that.)  But as to specific details, no one can say how, when, or where America will come to an end.

Yet that’s just the credit many of the American Christian party-goers want to give to the pundits of old.

Well, what makes more sense to you?

2015 Lent 3

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2015 by timtrue


Deuteronomy 7:12-16

What if Moses really didn’t write the Pentateuch?

In my younger years as a Christian I was taught all that doctrine about the infallibility of the scriptures I mentioned two days ago, in my first post on Lent.

I was also taught that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible: the books we call Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

“But how is this possible?” I asked; “for if Moses indeed wrote the Pentateuch, then he must have written it as a ghost, or at least part of it.  He dies before Deuteronomy is over.”

To which my teachers shuffled their feet.

Later, in seminary, my teachers confronted me with the serious question of redaction.  That is, there is very strong evidence to support the idea that concerned Jews in later years actually went back and rewrote, or perhaps even wrote for the first time, big portions of the Old Testament: they rewrote history from centuries-later hindsight.  Two different points of view come across in the first two chapters of Genesis, arguably.  Portions of the book named after the prophet Isaiah, those portions that predict striking details of Israel’s exile, very probably were not written before the nation’s exile but after, by some concerned Jews–concerned that Israel had not in fact kept its covenant with God and that was in fact why (according to them) the nation was now suffering under the authority of another government.

To which I shuffled my feet.

I don’t like this idea, that my sacred book is subject to human interpretation and error.  I want my Bible to be perfect, infallible, inerrant even; like some kind of reference manual, to which I can turn and, if I’m well-versed enough, find the answer to any problem that surfaces.  I want my faith to be easy, certain, and sure.

But then–if my faith were so–would it actually be faith at all?

Faith, by definition, is wrapped up in hope, not certainty.  Now, we might say we’re certain of the hope we have, as the writer of the book of Hebrews said; but at the root it is still hope we’re concerned with.  Feeling certain of something gives us hope.  Rational certainty is knowledge.  Faith and knowledge are different.

So I have faith in God.  I also have faith that the Bible is God’s Word.  But these are tricky questions that, admittedly, pose challenges to my faith.

But why not?  Why couldn’t there be redaction?  Especially when it comes to the writings of the Old Testament, which circulated around and about for centuries before canonization.

A challenge, to say the least!

So we come to today’s passage, where Israel is told that God is conditionally faithful.  If you keep God’s statutes, they are told, God will be faithful to you, bringing you into and keeping you safe in a land flowing with milk and honey; protecting you from all manner of enemies; and devouring “all the peoples that the LORD your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity” (v. 16).

The other side of the condition, though, is that if Israel fails to obey their God, they will be driven from their promised land into exile, thereby becoming subject to ruling nations.

Which is what happened.

So I ask, frankly, how could they not fail?  As the Kinks remind us, we’re a mixed up, funked up, shook up world (‘cept for Lola, L-o-l-a, Lola).

Now, seen this way, whether shuffling my feet or not, I’m actually kind of liking the idea of redaction.  For my God is not a harsh taskmaster–at least as I understand God.  But here, in this section of the Old Testament, where God is portrayed as conditional and pitiless, my faith in God wins the day over the words of Deuteronomy.  The scriptures do in fact come across to me here as a human document–written by God’s people, yes; but subject to the emotions, irrationality, and even erroneous thinking that so characterizes humanity.

Please understand, I’m not rejecting the Old Testament.  I’m not in any way suggesting that it’s not authoritative for Christians today.  But it is difficult.  Which is why we need to argue with it, like the people of the Old Testament did.

May God bless us as we wrestle and argue our way through it this Lent.