Troubling Texts: The death of the firstborn

Ah, the violence of the Hebrew Bible. Not surprising that this would come up as the first troubling text people want to tackle. Except, it’s not really one text, is it? And that’s part of the problem: We have a hard time wrapping our minds around the fact that it sure seems like God is repeatedly revealed to be violent and wrathful.  


Knowing the prevalence of oral tradition, the history of the Israelites, the circumstances of the written tradition, and the authorship of the Hebrew Bible goes a long way toward making sense of some of these troubling stories. A few of my favorite books that help do this are herehere, and here. (You’ll notice Walter Brueggemann features heavily in this list; in my research and reading I’ve found his Hebrew Bible scholarship to be without parallel.) 


The first Passover


But our endeavor is to (attempt to) make sense of problematic passages in light of what we believe to be the overarching themes of scripture. So let’s pick a specific instance of divine violence: The death of the firstborn during the first Passover, while the Israelites are in slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:21-32).  Let’s utilize a few modes of higher criticism to get to the heart of this text. (This is where books like the ones listed above come in helpful, along with other reference and research tools.) 


Historical criticism: Looking at what was happening in broader history and Israelite history we can acknowledge that the story of the Hebrew Bible is largely about one people group, from their perspective and their experience of God. It was written at a certain time with a certain motive. That motive includes acknowledging Egypt as wicked oppressors, perhaps to help justify any evil they may have suffered. 


Textual criticism: It is possible that the text indicates Egyptians who wanted to be spared this plague were given opportunity to participate in the Passover (Ex. 12:38). 


Contextual criticism: While the Moses story would have been passed down in oral tradition for generations, it was likely written down after the rise of the Israelite monarchy, the division of the kingdom, and the invasion by Babylon. These texts were probably written down while the Israelites were in Babylonian captivity - again becoming oppressed by overpowering forces. 


Literary criticism: Knowing the above context we begin to see how certain literary and rhetorical devices could have been used in crafting this story. I, for one, can see how it certainly would have been adventageous for a people who had been overpowered (both in Egypt and again by Babylon) to believe that God was capable of overpowering Pharaoh, hardening his heart, enacting “justice” to facilitate their freedom.


Back to the birds-eye


So with a bit more contextual understanding, we can begin to pull back up to that overarching view we’ve talked so much about. If you’ll remember from last week, some of the themes we see throughout scripture are: 


- chaos to order

- justice

- love is the law

- concrete renewal and salvation


And you may have other themes that you see as important to understanding scripture and your faith - this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list! What I want to do now is see where - and if! - our story fits within these themes. As uncomfortable as it makes me to say this, I think for the Israelites, it fits nicely! God is taking their chaos and making order through the justice of liberation, with the concrete action of plagues unto death, which ultimately lead to literal, physical freedom. 


Depending on how you look at it, it can be tempting or disturbing to stop here and say, ok — God is advocating so strongly on behalf of the oppressed Israelite people that God is “willing” to go to these extreme ends to see them liberated. This is certainly one truth the passage is telling, and a mode of interpretation that has been key for Black Liberation Theology and other oppressed groups.


But if the Gospel is good news for all; if our above themes are to be inclusive of all people, can we stop here? When we look at the story from the other perspective — innocent children died, children from families that likely had little or nothing to do with the power struggle at play — we’re back to balking at this troubling text. Taken from that perspective, it doesn’t fit with the themes which remind us that God loves the world (not just a select people group). 


One thing N.T. Wright cautions in his book Scripture and the Authority of God is to be careful about overlaying too much of our culture, experience, and expectation onto scriptural texts. This is to the point of taking the texts on their own terms. We can see the text as liberative for the oppressed Egyptians, but it’s hard for us to understand the death of innocent children. We want a better explanation.


Wrestling match


I said from the outset that I wasn’t seeking to explain away troubling passages, but to wrestle with them in a way that makes our faith more real. In the story of Passover we see chaos, injustice, a situation in need of renewal. This text reminds us that God sees, too, and fights mightily to right these wrongs. 


But the text also leaves us with questions. Holding the story of the first Passover up to some of scripture’s over-arching themes, we learn to listen to voices that are crying out in need of order, love, justice, and renewal. And this quest might actually be what leads us to question the death of the firstborn: Where is their justice and renewal?? 


So rather than leading us back to a hopeless catch-22 where we are stymied in a search of a redemptive reading, I suggest that this questioning process is precisely the answer. This is how we know the text is useful, alive, and working in our lives. 


You may be surprised (ha!) to read that I don’t have a good explanation for the death of the firstborn and the suffering it caused. I can understand the power of the text for communities (then and now) experiencing oppression; I can understand the Egyptians were harmful and deadly oppressors; I can understand there are textual clues that those who wanted to participate in the Passover ritual were invited to do so. 


But because of what this text reveals about God in light of our big-picture themes (that God is, in fact, the God of the oppressed), I am forced to also wonder about the death of the firstborn. And this is something I will continue to wonder. Perhaps you wonder the same thing. I encourage you to allow this question to lead you into places of deeper understanding of the God who fights powerfully for order, love, justice, and renewal — and asks us to do the same. 


Troubling Texts: Understanding the mess

art by julian raven

We wondered last time if ALL scripture truly is useful and profitable, and I provided a brief explanation about how I think we can address those troubling texts we’d rather just gloss over. I suggest that it’s:


1). important to take the text on its own terms — understanding its context, place in history, audience, and so on 

2). important to place the text as part of the larger arc of scripture — the story the Bible is telling from beginning to end. 


So before we can address these individual passages that make us want to throw our Bible across the room and put our head under a pillow, we have to come up with a framework for understanding what the Bible is all about. We can do that in one blog post right??! 😉 


While the Bible is made up of many different books with their own distinct characteristics like genre, author, style, audience, and history, I think we can point to larger themes that come up over and over and help tell the story of what God is up to in the world. 


Chaos to order — and participation


This theme emerges early on, in the creation story, where we see a God who moves the world from the chaos of nothingness to the order of creation. The author of this story is helping us understand an important message that recurs throughout scripture: humanity is continually taking matters into their own hands and God is continually creating grace and beauty from would-be disaster.


God covers Adam and Eve and sends them into the world; God makes a nation of Ishmael after Abraham and Sarah distrust the covenant; God liberates Israel after they are forced into slavery; God sends prophets to liberate when the people become oppressive; God anoints kings when Israel refuses divine leadership; God raises up the faithful during exile in Babylon; Jesus heals brokenness in the world; Christ rises from the dead after the crowds crucify him. 


But that’s not all. Humanity is invited to participate in this process, as is evidenced in each of these examples and many more. And that’s true of each of the remaining themes as well. 


Love IS the law


God’s movement of chaos to order is just one way that God demonstrates a deep, unconditional love for humanity. And many, many times scripture calls us to love, as God has first poured out that love for us. We are explicitly reminded of this in Deut. 6:4-5: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus expands on this when tells us to: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you: this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12)


Scripture is telling the story of God’s love for us, giving us a roadmap for loving God, and expecting an outpouring of that love to the world. 


Justice for the oppressed


The scriptural theme of justice is almost a subset of the previous two themes: chaos to order, and the law of love. But it’s so prevalent throughout the Bible that it deserves its own discussion. 


To me, the most powerful example of this is Christ’s declaration on the cross: My God, my God why have you forsaken me?? Startling though it may be, this expression that God is always with us, even in moments of our deepest God-forsakeness: suffering, oppression, injustice, pain. 


Jesus has come so the work of justice might begin: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18). 


This liberating message is embodied by Jesus, but it was built into the DNA of God’s people much earlier. In fact, justice is often the order that God brings to the chaos of the world. AND it is the refusal to be set apart for this work of justice that eventually leads Israel into captivity at the hands of Babylon. The Bible is woven richly with God’s care for “the least of these.” 


Real salvation and renewal


As a result, salvation from the systems that create these cycles of oppression and injustice is also a prevalent theme throughout scriptures. We are saved from ourselves, our own brokenness, and the brokenness of the world into a belief that there is something more than this.


We are saved into an expectation that there is and will be a literal, tangible renewal we can see and experience — one we are called to work toward so that we can bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. 


What I’m not trying to do


These above themes lend themselves to their own mode of theological development. Ever heard of liberation theology? Or feminist theology? Or atonement theology? These individual ways of understanding God and scripture are born of a deep dive into the larger themes above. And they can be helpful for our first task: taking the text on its own terms.


But I’m not trying to drill down into these theologies to come up with the perfect ways for understanding troubling texts. I’m trying to pull back to a high-level view and remember our second task: placing these stories in the overarching narrative. 


I’m also not trying to explain these stories away. Sometimes the texts that we’ll encounter are just … troubling. Full stop. By utilizing contextual tools and specific modes of theology we can get a better grasp on what they’re about. And looking at the larger story of scripture will help us get perspective. But sometimes the best way to honor a story is to let it be what it is, to sit with it in our discomfort, and to allow God into those spaces of resistance. 


I DO think all scripture is profitable, but I think that sometimes the profit comes from our own spiritual quest, not from our ability to clean up the mess and tie things up with a nice, neat bow. 


Next week we bring this framework to some messy, troubling texts - specifically stories of divine violence. I hope you’ll join me! 



Is ALL scripture useful?

What troubles you about scripture? If you’ve spent any time reading the Bible, you’ve likely come across passages that you’d just as soon gloss over. II Timothy 3:16-17 says that scripture is inspired by God, useful for teaching, correction, and training so that we can be ready to do God’s work. But there sure are a lot of stories that I, even as a minister, don’t know what to do with. 


What about Noah and the ark - when we’re told that the entire human population of the earth, except Noah and his family, was wiped out? 


What about when Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac - the miracle child he and Sarah had waited for for so long? 


And what exactly does Jesus mean when he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”? 


If scripture is useful, then how are we to understand these stories and passages? There are many methods of Biblical interpretation that can be helpful: knowing the historical setting is important; understanding what the passage meant in the original language; identifying the original audience; digging deep into Biblical and ancient culture. There is important work to be done in each of these areas when it comes to faithfully interpreting and applying scripture. 


But I believe that the key with troubling texts — as with all stories we might be tempted to lift out of the Bible and apply to our lives — is placing them within the arc of scripture. To be sure, this is its own interpretive endeavor. Understanding the arc of scripture requires a lot of reading, inquiry, and big picture thinking. 


As I spend more time doing this, I am more and more convinced that the story scripture is telling is one of love for a broken world. It’s a story of hope offered amid hopelessness, the story of a servant who suffered for us, and with us, and died to reconcile creation into love. And then we are called to participate in this love as we continue the work of reconciliation. 


Where does Noah fit into this? Or Abraham? Or even Jesus? As we take these stories on their own terms — understanding as best we can the history and context of each situation — we must also orient them as part of the larger scriptural narrative. How can troubling texts help us better understand love and hope and suffering and death and life and reconciliation? 


Because scripture isn’t only useful for teaching and correction and training. We are taught and corrected and trained so that we may join God’s work of love. Our scriptural interpretation needs to influence us toward service in the world and it needs to make sense as part of the larger story scripture is telling us. When we read difficult texts with an eye toward what we can learn about God’s work in the world, and our call as Christians, I think we find ways to redeem some of these stories and may — one day — be able to adjust our impulse to gloss over them. 

Guest blog post: Lent as politics

There’s an unsung hero in the stories surrounding Easter that I think can teach us a lot about what our Lenten practice should look like. He appears in Luke 22, in the passage that we now refer to as The Last Supper. Jesus asks his disciples to prepare the Passover meal so they can all eat together, but they’re not sure how to go about this. Jesus tells them to follow a servant into a house, where they are to ask the homeowner to accommodate them for a meal. And then the homeowner does!!

This subversive act of radical hospitality has me wondering: Who is this unsuspecting yet accommodating homeowner?! I suggest there are a few things we can learn from this person about how to move our Lenten practice from theoretical to tangible. More thoughts from a recent sermon I preached, in my latest for Women in Theology.


Guest blog post: Teaching religion to babies and toddlers

I am a minister and educator and although I am passionate about religious education, the person I was most afraid to teach was my daughter. I was afraid of emphasizing the wrong things. Of passing on fundamentalism. Of indoctrinating her to a certain way of thinking. Most of all, I was unsure about how to parent from a place of spiritual uncertainty. How do I teach her about faith when, many times, I’m not even sure what I think?!

In my pursuit of resources, I came up woefully short. I am looking forward to utilizing Pete Enns’ curriculum for kids ( when she’s a bit older but until then I was at a loss. There didn’t seem to be much out there, from a progressive perspective, geared toward babies and toddlers.

So over the past several months I have been putting together my own curriculum, of sorts, and have listed these items here as a way to share my approach with others who might find it useful.

Read my recommendations on the Unfundamentalist Parenting blog. 

Guest blog post: Six ways to resist as a family

In these past couple weeks I have marched, I have picketed, I have written and called my representatives unlike ever before. Clearly, I’m not the only one. I’ve gotten emails from a number of people wondering how to turn their activism into a sustainable family activity, how to turn their acts of protest into continued good for their communities, and how to keep up energy for the long haul.

I have been involved with community causes my whole life, and while until now I wouldn’t have described myself as an activist, I have observed a few trends that have made my own work more lasting. Here are a few ways I think we can make activism part of our personal and family culture – no matter the political climate.

Read the rest of the post on Patheos

Taking action against the immigration ban

Word is, today or tomorrow Trump will sign executive orders to deny refugees entry into the US, take action to eliminate sanctuary cities, and begin directing resources to building a wall. This is upsetting to those of us who believe we are called to care for the poor, widow, orphan, and immigrant. The bad news is, we can't do anything to stop an executive order.

The good news is, there is plenty we can do in our communities: to support those who feel threatened, to provide resources, and to get to know these people who also call our cities home. Now is the time for concrete action. Here are a few things I am doing in my community, but they apply to anyone, anywhere who wants to respond in radical love. May we NEVER grow weary of doing good. 

* World Relief runs an amazing program in Nashville dedicated to helping immigrant and refugee youth to make sure they don't fall through the cracks. Watching these kids work through tasks that would stump most American middle and high schoolers is inspiring (writing an essay in French, anyone?!) ... and hearing their stories and seeing their willingness to share their experience with you is truly moving. 

* If you are in Nashville, join me for this fundraiser for Syrian refugees in the area next weekend. Learn more about their culture and challenges. If you're not in the area, there are plenty of similar local organizations doing good work with refugees in most cities. Do some research and get involved!

* Similarly, Middle Tennessee Refugee Helpers is a like-minded organization that frequently posts needs of immigrant and refugee families on their Facebook page. Even if you're not local, you can sometimes help out by ordering and sending simple items they might need to help furnish a home for a new family, or send a child to school with the necessary supplies. However, getting involved in your community is always best, and there are likely many opportunities to do so!

* My local denomination is putting together a network of sanctuary churches that vow to protect undocumented immigrants from any forth-coming crackdown. My seminary has also declared themselves to be a sanctuary school, not requiring immigration documentation for admission. Find out what your church or school is doing, or lead a movement to become a safe space. 

These are just a few off the top of my head this morning, and I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas. 

::and still we rise, friends::

Guest blog post: From exiles to exilers

You’ve probably seen them: memes going around Facebook and other social networking sites highlighting silly laws that are still on the books but – let’s face it – laws that no one is ever going to uphold. I think this one’s my favorite: In Alaska, it’s illegal to give a moose a beer. Which makes me wonder – how many people had to try that to make a law necessary?

Ezra’s unpopular law

Scholars suggest that something similar is happening in Ezra, when he and other Israelites returning from exile resurrect a law that had likely fallen into disrepair. This law, though, isn’t silly or entertaining and it ends with dozens of women and children put out of their homes. Ironically, the exiles now become the exilers. 

It’s easy to read scripture and interpret what God’s people do as directive and flawless. But it’s important to remember these are human portrayals of how they understood their history. And they are people! They are making decisions about what they think is best.

So what do we do when we come up against passages like these that just don't sit well with us? I explain the importance of looking at the long arc of scripture, in my latest Women in Theology guest post.