Using the Bible to Talk about the Death Penalty

The past two weeks have generated a heightened discussion of the death penalty in America, largely as the result of the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29.  Plenty of others have written about that event and about the death penalty in general.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who devastates me with everything he writes, established the moral framework for the discussion here : http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/05/the-inhumanity-of-the-death-penalty/361991/

Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “Why Christians Should Support the Death Penalty” here:  http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/05/01/why-christians-should-support-the-death-penalty/

Shane Claiborne responded to Mohler, observing among other things that in a 1200 word essay, Mohler never mentioned Jesus: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2014/05/if-it-werent-for-jesus-i-might-be-pro-death-too-a-response-to-al-mohler/

Rachel Held Evans responded with a more direct attack on the “myth of redemptive violence” here: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/jesus-death-penalty-al-mohler-sarah-palin

Anthony Santoro, using the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev two weeks before the Lockett execution, proved one need not appeal to any one specific religious tradition to make a thoroughly convincing moral case against the death penalty.  http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/archives/5763

I am happy to see Claiborne and Evans entering the discussion because it means large numbers of young adults will be thinking and talking about the death penalty in America, and I can hope they will do better with it than my generation has.  I want to take up one specific question here, prompted by their essays, regarding the use of the Bible in the discussion.  Can we use the Bible to talk the death penalty without creating a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy?

Christians who use the Bible to support use of the death penalty tend to quote passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, in part because it is so easy.  Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:12-17 could hardly be more clear, and they do not merely make the death penalty an option, but a legal and moral obligation.  This is where the Old Testament argument of death penalty supporters like Mohler falls apart.  If we are to follow such texts then the death penalty should not be “rightly and rarely applied.”  It should be common and frequent.

Christians who oppose the death penalty will tend to go to the teachings of Jesus like the “Antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount, again, because it is so easy. Matthew 5:35-48 could not be more clear.  There is a reason why in the oft-cited, recent Barna poll only 5% of American Christians believe Jesus would support the death penalty.  They have read that text and they know Jesus himself became the object of the death penalty.

It is only a little more difficult to find texts in the Hebrew Scriptures to use in opposition to the death penalty.  In Genesis 4, God chose a punishment other than death for Cain, the first murderer.  The three greatest heroes in Israelite tradition were subject to the death penalty, but dodged it.  One could easily argue that Jacob’s deception of his father fell into the category of dishonoring for which the law prescribed death, and if Esau had succeeded in carrying out the death sentence he proclaimed in Genesis 27:41 there would have been no Israel.  If Pharaoh had succeeded in his attempt to use the death penalty on Moses in Exodus 2:15, then the Israelites might have had no deliverer.  When David was found guilty of murder, no human authority considered executing him, though God chose to execute his infant son instead in 2 Samuel 12:15.  There is a profound ambivalence about sin, guilt, and punishment at the core of the Torah in Exodus 34:6-7:

The LORD, the LORD,a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in        steadfast love and faithfulness,keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,    forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting  the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and  fourth generation.

Who could read such a divine statement and be sure about anything? There is no other single text to which subsequent writers of the Hebrew Scriptures return more diligently to wrestle with its implications.  The prophets pull it apart, quoting portions of it as they struggle to understand the fate of Israel and Judah.  When Ezekiel dives into the depths of this debate, he emerges with a word from God in 18:32: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.”

Jesus did not begin the struggle to interpret and reinterpret the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures on sin, guilt, and punishment.  He stands in midstream, along with many of his contemporaries, the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah, who engaged in the same debate and said similar things.    We avoid the Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy by honoring Jesus enough to put him in his context.

The Character named Ezekiel as a Reflection of Israel’s Story

I am preparing to write a journal article on Ezekiel, a book that presents interesting problems and possibilities for integrating historical and literary approaches.  Of the four prophetic scrolls Ezekiel may be the most self-consciously unified as a literary work.  The most visible aspect of the literary cohesion is the Merkabah (divine chariot) vision, which describes Ezekiel’s visualization of YHWH’s glory in chapters 1, 10, and 43.  The divine glory departs the condemned temple in Jerusalem (10:18), appears to Ezekiel among the exiles in Babylon (1:1), and returns to inhabit a new temple (43:2).  Ezekiel also contains many chronological notices, most of which appear in order.

1:1/1:2                  30th year, 4th month, 5th day, and 5th year of the exile of Jehoichin, 4th month, 5th day

8:1                          6th year,6th  month, 5th day (of the exile of Jehoicahin)

20:1                        7th year 5th month, 10th day

24:1                        9th year, 10th month, 10th day

26:1                        11th year, ? month, 1st day

29:1                        10th year, 10th month, 12th day

29:17                     27th year, 1st month, 1st day

30:20                     11th year, 1st month, 7th day

31:1                        11th year, 3rd month, 7th day

32:1                        12th year, 12th month, 1st day

32:17                     12th year, 1st month, 15th day

33:21                     12th year, 10th month, 5th day

40:1                        25th year, 1st(?) month, 10th day

Features like these led many interpreters of the 20th century to conclude that Ezekiel had very little composition history.  They argued the book was written in something close its present form all at one time, perhaps by Ezekiel himself during the early years of the exilic period.

More recent views of Ezekiel have moved away from that model toward one that describes a complex history of composition and allows the book of Ezekiel to participate in the difficult theological negotiations of the Restoration/Persian period.  Among the most important issues the book of Ezekiel negotiates are the tension between inherited guilt and individual responsibility (Ezekiel 18) and the delineation between the righteous and the wicked (33:10-20).  The aftermath of national defeat and shared personal trauma demand reexamination of easy assumptions about these issues in the Restoration period.

Paying attention to the book of Ezekiel as a set of traditions originating in the last days of the Judean monarchy, and arriving at its current status as a cohesive literary work in the Persian period requires a synthetic approach to the book.  The feature best equipped to help us keep our interpretive questions connected is the literary character named Ezekiel.  He begins the book grounded in the last days of Jerusalem and the temple of Solomon in the early sixth century, and finishes his role inside a grand vision of a rebuilt temple, wading off into deepening waters in Ezekiel 47.  Between these two points he is often a tortured and tormented figure who embodies the captivity, pain, and grief about which he prophesies.  His life story becomes the renegotiation of sin, punishment, repentance, and redemption the book wants and needs to accomplish.

The Bible in Public Schools (Part 2)

The story of a new Bible curriculum for public schools moved forward in the past few days.  Months ago the school board of a district in the suburbs of Oklahoma City approved the curriculum, sponsored by Steve Green, CEO of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, but those involved had kept it private.  My last post reviewed the story of a similar effort about a decade ago, and pointed to some early parallels in the promotion of the new curriculum, particularly the secrecy surrounding it and vague claims about the scholarly expertise involved.

Copies of the curriculum leaked out in recent days.  The Associated Press acquired a copy and asked Dr. Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University to review it.  Dr. Chancey’s initial comments are now public, but not his thorough evaluation.  One comment from his evaluation reveals that the curriculum approaches the Bible from an evangelical Protestant perspective, which contradicts claims supporters of the curriculum have made.  Steve Green has said publicly “This is not about a denomination, or a religion, it’s about a book.  We will not try to go down denominational, religious-type roads.”  The superintendent of the school board said, “We’re not asking kids to believe the stories,” McDaniel said. “This is a purely academic endeavor. If it turns into something beyond that, either we will correct it or we will get rid of it.”  The few images of the curriculum that have become public do not come close to fitting this description.

The situation presents two possibilities.   Either the producers and supporters of the curriculum are deliberately deceptive, or they have no idea what an objective, academic approach to the Bible would look like.  I want to try to be charitable and assume the latter as much as possible.  Let me begin with one hypothetical example not in the few examples I have seen, because it should be the first question the curriculum confronts.  An academic course about the Bible should ask first “What is the Bible?”  Many who do not have practice asking and answering such a question in an academic setting may assume this is a simple, factual question with a simple, factual answer, but a simple answer always assumes the perspective of a particular religious tradition, because the academic, historical answer is long and complicated.  If one begins by saying the Bible is an ancient collection of literature with two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and a total of 66 books, the answer may sound factual and objective but is really biased and sectarian.  It describes the Bible only for a minority of Christians, those within Protestant denominations.  The answer is different for Jews, Catholic Christians, and Orthodox Christians.  Who are the writers of the curriculum and will they assume that their Bible, or Steve Green’s Bible, is the same as everyone else’s?

One example that has become public is an image of a page listing the attributes of God under the heading “What is God like?”  Under the heading descriptions such as compassionate, loving, faithful, orderly, disciplined, gracious, and good appear, each with a reference to a verse from the Bible illustrating the divine trait.  It is fine for someone to believe God is like this and the selected biblical statements support such belief, but this is a selective reading of the Bible that does not come close to the academic standard touted by the supporters of the curriculum.  For example, there is not a reference to Exodus 19 where God is erratic, out of control, and dangerous or Numbers 11 where God is vengeful, deceptive, and murderous.  The biblical characterization of God is complex, and most people filter out what they don’t like to construct their own image of the God in whom they believe.  Recognizing when we are doing this requires rigorous critical-thinking and academic discipline.  So far, the new curriculum does not demonstre those qualities.

The Bible in Public Schools (Part I)

Another occasion has arisen for a departure from the primary purpose of my blogging about the Bible.  For the past few weeks there have been stories in the news about a new resource for teaching the Bible in public schools in the United States.  The new effort has received additional publicity because it is sponsored by Steve Green, the founder of the chain of craft stores called “Hobby Lobby,” who has been in the news a lot lately because of the ways his religious views influence the running of his business.  A small school district in Oklahoma has adopted Green’s new curriculum.  A high level of secrecy still surrounds Green’s curriculum, and I have not seen it yet, but have had a brief report from someone who has.  Because I am unable to evaluate the curriculum, it is best to develop some background on the issue by examining a similar case from several years ago.

In the 1990’s an organization was founded in North Carolina calling itself the National Council for Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.  They produced a curriculum that a number of public school districts began using in the early 2000’s.  Part of the strategy was not to produce a textbook for students, but a curricular guide for teachers, which they distributed in a very controlled manner for $150 per copy to the schools using it.  This strategy made widespread review of the curriculum very difficult.  The quasi-official sounding name was not their only act of deception.  They also grossly overstated to prospective users the number of schools already using the curriculum.  The NCBCPS website currently says 873 school districts and 2491 high schools use the curriculum, but they do not provide a list.  They also claimed that expert scholars produced the material, though they have refused to identify them.  The curriculum was poorly produced and promoted a view of the Bible typically found in very conservative Protestant churches.  It has run into several legal challenges which it has lost because the material is so blatantly sectarian.  A thorough report on the curriculum was produced by Dr. Mark Chancey, a religion professor at Southern Methodist University, and is available here:  http://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/TX_Bible_Report_UPDATE_DEC-06.pdf?docID=167

It is uncertain how widespread the current use of the NCBCPS curriculum is.  Along with the exaggerated claims on their website, they list a group of “bible scholars” as an Advisory Board.  The first two names on the list, Dr. Roy W. Blizzard and Dr. Ronald W. Moseley, are credited with writing “a number of books” and “thirteen books” respectively, but searches of WorldCat and Amazon yield no books on the Bible written by persons with these names.  I could go on, but it is obvious this group is not trustworthy and not qualified to do what they claim to do.

There are well-developed federal guidelines for teaching the Bible in public schools, and Steve Green claims his curriculum follows these.  A thorough review awaits public release of the material, but they have already followed the example of the NCBCPS in two ominous ways.  The curriculum has been kept secret even though a public school district has already approved its use, and Green has thus far refused to identify the “scholars” who produced it.

One important thing revealed by these cases is that many people do not realize how subjective their understanding of the Bible is and how widely it differs from the views of other groups that regard it as a sacred text.  Some people involved in these efforts may have honestly thought they were producing a purely objective curriculum that looks at the Bible from historical and literary perspectives, but the results of their work in the NCBCPS case was nowhere close to that standard.  Perhaps this new effort will be better.

City-building in the Bible

One of my current writing projects deals with the abundance of anti-city-building polemic in Genesis 1-11.  My work the past several months has convinced me of a few things.  First, all the anti-city-building attitude comes from the J source.  When the composer of Genesis 1-11 combined the sources he was not able to neutralize the polemic, but I cannot say for certain whether neutralizing it was one of the composer’s goals. Second, the other major source, P, is not anti-city, and it is difficult to imagine such sentiments in the kind of person who composed Genesis 1-11, after Judah had become urban and YHWH had become so identified with Jerusalem. Third, the major accomplishments of the composition process were putting distance between the Israelite ancestors and city-building and putting the focus on Babylon (Babel), rather than city-building in general.  Genesis 1-11 connects city-building to the families of Cain and Ham and shifts the emphasis to human pride and the resistance to “filling the earth.”  City-building motivated by a desire for fame (“Let us make a name for ourselves,” 11:4) receives a final judgment at Babel.

One question the above conclusions raise is why a major source in Israelite tradition was so opposed to cities.  Given Israel’s experience with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon the anti-empire stance in Genesis makes sense, but what experiences might lie behind a more general opposition to city life?  It is also fair to ask what would have constituted a city in the minds of those responsible for the tradition.  Archaeological evidence provides a general picture of Canaan in the second millennium that might explain an anti-city attitude.  At the beginning of the second millennium the area was dominated politically and economically by walled cities.  Historians usually refer to “city-states” because they appear to have been independent from one another, each city having its own “king.”  By the end of the second millennium, the size and influence of these cities had declined significantly.  Joshua contains a reflection of the process, even listing thirty-one city-states in Joshua 12, but it condenses the collapse into a much shorter and more exciting story of an invading Israelite army.  Archaeological evidence demonstrates a long period of decreased rainfall in the second millennium, so settled life in cities, requiring intense agricultural production, would have been difficult to sustain in come cases.  Some of the  people who eventually made up Israel were those who had lived between the cities, perhaps oppressed by them, or refugees from the declining cities.  Eventually the Moses and exodus narrative became the dominant “national origin” story, but anti-city elements remained in their sacred texts, even if reshaped.

Ancient Israel’s great heroes all have an anti-city element to their stories.  Regardless of where they were born or died, Abraham, Jacob, the twelve sons of Jacob, Moses, and David all had a shepherd past.  Many biblical stories, from Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12) to Naomi and Boaz (Ruth 1), begin with people moving because of famine.  Even the story that moves the descendants of Israel to Egypt in Genesis 42-43 is a famine and departure narrative.  By the time the literature of ancient Israel was in the form we know today, in the Bible, urban life had become an unavoidable reality.  The anti-city pieces had been shaped to serve different purposes in a larger narrative, forming a national identity for Israel in relation to the nations around it.

Reflections on teaching “The Prophetic Literature,” Again

I am wrapping up my course called “The Prophetic Literature” at Belmont.  Along with my students I have been working through the draft of the book I wrote while on sabbatical last fall, A Chorus of Prophetic Voices:  An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature (forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press).  I am also about finished with the final revision process I have been doing as I taught my way through the book for the first time, so now is a good time for some reflection.

Books introducing the prophetic literature used to use a historical approach.  They started with the earliest “writing prophets” in the eighth century, such as Hosea, Amos, Isaiah,, and Micah, and work their way down to those from the Persian/Second Temple period, like Haggai and Zechariah.  Most work on the prophetic literature acknowledged that the large collections called Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve are composite literary documents developed over two or three centuries, and their primary goal was often to recover the authentic voice of the historical figures who began these traditions.  Sometimes the recovery was part of a larger effort of fitting the historical prophets into the development of ancient Israelite religion.  Working with the prophetic literature in this way was fraught with problems, but its great accomplishment was wresting the prophets away from a purely spiritualized way of reading that had dominated Christian interpretation.  It presented the prophets as flesh and blood characters preaching justice in a material world, whose words could address our material world.

A shift beginning in the last quarter of the twentieth century led to a new practice of introducing the prophetic literature focused on the final forms of the four large scrolls as unified literary works.  The two primary benefits of this approach were avoiding the tendencies toward fragmenting layer of smaller and smaller pieces and making the primary goal of interpretation the understanding of the literature itself.  I liked this way of reading the prophetic literature, and used it in my course for about a decade, but the movement of trauma studies into the study of the prophetic literature over the last decade revealed its shortcomings.  I became uneasy and began searching for a better way to introduce the prophets that gave full attention to the presence of the pre-trauma preaching of Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, and Micah in post-trauma books, whose writers spoke to a recovering community in the Persian period.

My new approach is unavoidable convoluted, because it requires combing the two ways I describe above, and asking some revised questions.  From the first entry into each of the four scrolls the shape and texture of the final forms must be a central concern.  At the same time the material that addresses each of the periods of crisis in Israel’s story (Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian/Restoration) require reading in light of that particular era.  In addition, I am convinced that proclamation of each scroll addressing each period heard along with the others addressing that period, hence the use of the word “chorus” in my title.  Israelite prophecy in the Assyrian period is part duet, featuring the combined voices of Isaiah and the Book of the Twelve, but the latter consists of multiple voices from Amos, Hosea, and Micah.  In the Babylonian period, the powerful voices of Jeremiah and Ezekiel join the chorus, and the sound becomes more complex.  I started the project using the word “harmony,” but quickly realized the falsehood it implied.  The voices are not always harmonious, because they are negotiating life-and-death issues that require and deserve intense debate.

The challenge of putting all of this together in a classroom experience and a textbook aimed at undergraduate students is to provide just enough coherence that they do not feel completely lost on a sea of strange texts without forcing a false coherence onto these ancient texts that betrays their vision of the world.  I get to try again in two years.

Fitting Saul and David Together (Part II)

Before the eruption created by the Noah movie, I had been writing about how a convergence of methods can assist our study of the complex David traditions in the books called 1 and 2 Samuel.  In my previous post I highlighted the incoherent elements of 1 Samuel 16-17, when Saul and David seem to encounter one another for the first time on multiple occasions, and David’s status shifts back and forth from well-known, seasoned warrior to unknown young boy.  I portrayed this as the kind of problem that requires insights from many kinds of methods if we hope to resolve it.

In a recent e-book called King David and His Reign Revisited, which is fascinating both in its content and design, Jacob L. Wright argued that the traditions of Saul and David arose independently.  He identified groups of texts in 1 and 2 Samuel and reassembled them into earlier strands called the History of David’s Reign/Rise (HDR) and the History of Saul’s Reign/Rise (HSR).  Through the careful use of source-criticism, Wright separated the texts about each character that do not involve the other.  Using insights from other approaches, both literary and historical, Wright then considered how and why later writers wove these two sources together and added new material to create what eventually became the book of Samuel.  In some cases the new material is relatively easy to observe.  The account of David choosing not to kill Saul in the cave in 1 Samuel 24:1-22 is an insertion into the section that is primarily about David’s life as a warlord or bandit.  Related stories in 18:10-16 and 26:1-25 about Saul and David make these insertions look somewhat formulaic.  The editors who inserted these stories present a David who had every reason and justification to kill Saul but did not.

The insertions that bring Saul and David together in I Samuel 18-31 bring me back to the problem of their encounters in 1 Samuel 16-17. It is much more difficult to imagine that the final writer/editor of Samuel produced 16:14-23, 17:38-40, and 17:55-58, because they create so much dissonance among themselves and in the surrounding text.  The best explanation for this is that others had already been creating traditions that brought David and Saul together and the writer of Samuel inherited some of these, and some did not easily fit into the narrative as it had already developed.  If this is true, then the effort to connect David and Saul was going on for some time, and involved multiple developers of tradition.  The last of these was the composer of Samuel, but earlier ones could have developed either written or oral tradition, or both.  Other less likely scenarios are possible.  Perhaps one or more of the difficult texts involved just David or Solomon with some other figure who was replaced.  The best candidate for this possibility is the entire Goliath narrative in 1 Sam 17.  2 Sam 21:19 reports that Elhanan killed Goliath.  What if the entire Goliath story in 1 Sam 17 was about Elhanan killing Goliath and David’s name was inserted in place of Elhanan’s?

Why would there have been a sustained effort of significant scope to connect these two figures.  It may not be possible to answer this question in reference to every layer of development.  Wright argues that the HDR and HSR were combined into a single work of literature between 722 and 586, and its purpose was to rally Northern Israelites, defeated and dispersed by the Assyrian army, around Judah and the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.  This proposal carefully balances the results of literary and historical approaches to the text and solves numerous difficulties.