Befriending the Old Testament: Part 6


Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm continues her eight-part series about the Old Testament.

Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm

So far we have seen that the Old Testament, describing God’s love affair with a particular group of people, follows a basic storyline involving many different characters, places and events, spread over 46 books. While it is inspired in its origins and inspiring in its effects, is it true?

As we know there are many different kinds of truth, for example, scientific truth. Dei Verbum affirms ‘the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth, which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation’ (#11). The document makes a critical point ‒ the Bible is true only in what is necessary for our salvation. But what does that mean?

Inspiration (explained last month) concerns religious content, that is, moral and doctrinal truths essential to salvation. For example, a truth essential for our salvation is that we are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore worthy of the utmost respect. Another essential truth is that God is merciful. (More about this later.)

“The Bible is true in the religious sense – in what it reveals about God’s character and God’s dealings with humankind.”

The Bible is true in the religious sense ‒ in what it reveals about God’s character and God’s dealings with humankind. It’s not necessarily true historically or scientifically. Because the biblical writers were concerned with religious truth, the history they wrote was not history as we know it today. It was the story of God’s loving presence in the world. The creation story is told in a non-historical way without any mention of evolution. Yet it contains something Christians believe to be true: God made the world and everything in it and it is indeed very good. The important point is that God made it, not how God made it. Therefore, it becomes irrelevant that the first creation story (Gen 1:1-2:4a) tells us, for example, light was created before the sun, moon and stars.

Dei verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 18 November 1965, following approval by the assembled bishops by a vote of 2,344 to 6.

Dei Verbum claims the Bible is the word of God in human words, ‘…God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion…’ (#12). If we are to honour the Bible as God’s word, then we must take seriously the implications of its human quality. God speaks to us in the images and idioms of particular people. The biblical writers expressed particular insights about God, about God’s mysterious presence and grace, and about God’s self-revelation. There was no divine dictation. The writers’ knowledge was limited, hence there are errors in dating, mapping, and so forth. Therefore, we must respect the historical and literary context of the Old Testament. We need to ask what the original author intended before imposing our own meaning. We cannot ignore the human dimension of God’s word.

The story of Noah and Ark (Gen 6-9) provides an excellent example of what happens when we ignore this human dimension. Some interpreters mistakenly treat it as a factual description of a real event. They ignore its similarity to accounts of world-destroying floods found in many cultures’ traditions. It resembles, in particular, the famous Gilgamesh epic, a Mesopotamian flood story. In treating it as factual, the truth that the account teaches is missed. And what is the truth of the flood story, the truth necessary for our salvation?

A careful reading of the story, including its inconsistencies since chapters 6-9 blends two accounts together, reveals a profound religious truth ‒ the God who takes account of evil is also a God of mercy. God knows humanity’s sinfulness but promises never to flood the earth again. The rainbow is the sign of this covenant. The flood story is not factual, but it is nonetheless true: its religious message of God’s compassionate love and mercy is indeed at the very heart of our faith. God’s compassion is found repeatedly throughout Old Testament. There is always a way back ‒ God never abandons, for example, ‘Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them’ (Deut 4:31).

“To prevent misinterpreting the Bible we need to read it within the community of faith.”

Inspiration is concerned with only one area – religious truth. It is impossible to find the inspired meaning of the text if we omit the meaning intended by the human author. It is the task of biblical scholarship to direct readers to the range of meanings supported by the text itself.

To prevent misinterpreting the Bible we need to read it within the community of faith, which has treasured and preserved the text. This advice will become more evident next month when we grapple with violence in the Old Testament.

Published in WelCom August 2019

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