Scripture: Lectionary 422. Aug.22. Judges 11:29-39. Psalm 40:5.7-8,8-9,10. Matthew 22:1-14:
There are texts in the Bible that terrify us. Even the parables of Jesus give us examples of how cruel people were in their behavior toward kings, landlords, and wealthy owners of vineyards. These texts present problems for the believer in the God of Love, Truth, and Holiness. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, yet, he uses these startling examples in his parables that make people wince. There are also the so called hard sayings of Jesus: he comes to cast fire upon the earth; he divides those who follow him from their former relationships; he makes serious demands on those who are married, single, and those who have possessions. How do we handle these texts since we are told they are “inspired”?
Phyllis Trible has an important book that displays four different types of terror in the Bible. She does show the need for a reinterpretation of these texts in the light of the principles of literary criticism, and feminine hermeneutics. This helps us to see that there is more to a text than reading it literally and making everything in the Bible conform to our way of historicizing examples which may have been there as stories, legends, or parables.
The Bible for the most part is a reflection of who we are even though we do not like what we see there. In the letter of II Timothy we have the following challenging sentence: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching—for reproof, correction, and training in holiness so that the man of God may be fully competent and equipped for every good work.” (II Tim. 3:16-17).
That serves as a helpful guideline. Study of the Bible and the times in which it was written are necessary to avoid a fundamentalist interpretation which freezes us into fear of these biblical texts. Thus, for example, in the first reading from Judges we see that the custom of human sacrifice was carried on during the times referred to in Judges. Foolishness in making vows and promises that are not reasonable and faith oriented leads Jephthah to sacrifice his own daughter. She mourns her virginity and yet complies with her father’s vow thus being submissive to the surrounding culture of violence so rampant in the days of battle between Israel and the enemies of God’s People. To interpret these passages we do need to know the history of the times and the surrounding social behaviors of the time periods in the Bible. As one rabbi instructed me, “The Bible is a vast sea; no matter where you jump in, you are going to be in deep waters.” (Rabbi Ira Sud).
These texts of terror are few and far between in the tremendous treasuries we have about sacred history and how God works with the serious inconsistencies of human nature including writing straight with the crooked lines of our ancestors and ourselves. Yes, the Bible contains the words of God, but it is written in the words of human beings with all their shortcomings in responding to that true word of God.
Are our own times so different from the times of some of these problematic texts of terror? I think not when we think of the horrendous impact of wars that wipe out thousands of women and children; terrorism that is based on hatred and prejudice; social and moral behavior that leads to hedonism and disdain of the good, the poor, and the helpless.
We need to remember that the Bible reflects the history of the human race as it learns to believe and trust in the one God who is love, truth, and life. The choice for life is emphasized so strongly in the book of Deuteronomy and the Psalms; the gift of Love in John’s first epistle and gospel; and the virtues are described and spelled out in the Pauline letters. We need to know more about the inspired works of the Scriptures in order to get below what the literal sense tells us. One of the important insights and statements of Benedict XVI is the need for persons who read and trust the Bible to have a hermeneutic of faith in order to learn how to apply the stories to our own time. This is not easy. It takes work and a lot of study.
Biblical stories and images such as we have today in today’s readings are an image of our own times. They mirror what we should stop doing and more often what we should be doing with these texts. They all tell us something about God’s truth and how we respond to it sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. God’s truth is what will set us free when we do more than read the Scriptures. We are to pray them and put their inspired truth into practices that are reasonable, morally sound, and life-giving . Amen.
Texts of Terror , Phyllis Trible, Fortress Press, Philadelphia. This book covers the tragic stories of four women in ancient Israel, Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed concubine, and the daughter of Jephthah.
Copyright 2013 Fr. Bertrand Buby, S.M.