Dialogue on Old Testament Stories

This post is a transcription of an email discussion that took place in mid-July with Ryan Hodges, a Christian from British Columbia who has been dissatisfied with nominal Christianity, and recently come across the writings of Quakers. In the following post, Ryan asks for information on early Friends position on the validity of the Old Testament atrocity stories, as he’s found the way God is represented in those stories to be not in keeping with his understanding of God’s character. A large portion of the second email exchange – which will be posted next week – will focus on particular thoughts about the relationship between God and man as represented in Scripture writings on covenants.

Thanks to Ryan for bringing up these ideas and also for his integrity of mind, which requires a seeking below the surface of doctrine for the reality of faith.  

July 13th email from Ryan:  

Do you believe that God commanded people to kill other people… ever? When David says, “Blessed is the one who bashes the brains out of Edomite infants” (Psalm 137), do you believe that he was inspired of God to say this? I cannot see this as possible, my spirit recoils at the idea. Yet, murder and violence towards enemies is deeply embedded in the Old Testament narrative, and not just that people did it, but that the text specifically and often says God told them to do it. To say that this was somehow preparatory for the New Covenant, is to say that people “did evil, so that good may come.” As of this point in time, I cannot swallow that idea. The same people that said, “God gave us this cultus to follow”, also said “God often told us to commit genocide.” Why should I trust such voices? Did the Prophets ever specifically endorse the cultus? I am not aware that they did. On the other hand, there seems like much evidence to suppose that they could have been “anti-cultus” altogether. This is a preliminary question for me in reading up to page 16 in Benson’s “The Antipathy Between Prophecy and Religion”. I would like to hear your thoughts, or any other Quaker resources you may recommend that discuss this issue.

Patricia answered:

Ryan, in your July 13th email, you wrote: “Do you believe that God commanded people to kill other people. . . ever”? 

What early Friends ultimately sought in their reading of Scriptures was not lessons in history or ethics; what they found was information pertaining to God’s nature and intention, as well as types, figures, and shadows that articulated the righteousness they were to embody and the sin they were to shun.

What does God’s command “to kill other people” signify about God’s intent and nature? One, it signifies God does not tolerate idolatry in people, and one had better “kill” whatever idolatry exists in one’s own self, as formerly idolators were literally killed; two, if one chooses to persist in idolatry, God will not allow the soul to live; three, this life or death of the soul is a highly serious matter for human beings; four, the life of the body is not God’s primary consideration but the life of the soul and what it worships. No doubt there are other lessons too. I’m just trying to show that Friends did not confine their interpretation to the literal meaning; their use of Scripture entailed more. 

I saw death reigned over them from Adam to Moses, from the entrance into transgression till they came to the ministration of condemnation, which restrains people from sin that brings death. Then, when the ministration of Moses is passed through, the ministry of the prophets comes to be read and understood, which reaches through the figures, types and shadows unto John, the greatest prophet born of woman; whose ministration prepares the way of the Lord by bringing down the exalted mountains and making straight paths. And as this ministration is passed through, an entrance comes to be known into the everlasting kingdom [Journal,  Nickalls, 31].

Here is a passage taken from Fox’s journal, showing salvation history through time. Friends held that this grand-scale history was to be gone through by each person. I wrote more about moving beyond literal interpretation in an essay titled That They All May Be One.  That said, it was also Friends understanding that Scriptures could not be read and understood except in the spirit in which they were written, which underscores Christ’s admonition to seek first the kingdom and righteousnesss, and all things else will be given as well. 

A few days later Ryan responded:

In reading your email and your attached blog post (which I really enjoyed), I have this to respond with:

 “What early Friends ultimately sought in their reading of Scriptures was not lessons in history or ethics”;

So what was their take on the historical validity of the stories themselves? Doubtful? Possible? Accurate? Why do I ask this? Because I wonder if it is acceptable to use stories of genocide, even symbolically, to express the nature of God’s action in the world, or in the heart. It is fine not to take the stories “merely” as history, but should we not question whether the stories are historically possible with what we understand to be the character of God?

I have no recollection of reading that any of the early Friends thought that the Old Testament atrocity stories were anything but accurate. I don’t find them contrary to what I understand to be the nature of God to move humanity incrementally forward over the millenia from a condition that is brutal, violent, and lawless, and into the kingdom. There is great variation in the readiness to receive Christ among individual souls; God takes figuratively withered, cast forth branches and consigns them to the figurative fire (Jn. 15:6), or the Flood. Matthew 10:28 illustrates where the concern of God and His Christ is placed:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.




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3 Responses to Dialogue on Old Testament Stories

  1. This dialog is invitational. Ryan’s questions are excellent; they seem somehow universal in their relevance. I always find Patricia’s writings to be illuminating. They always offer a fresh, new angle on the legacy of early Friends. This is my chosen, adopted Christian tradition. It keeps me going; it keeps me growing. And interchanges like this one contribute a great deal. Thank you thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. kwakersaur says:

    Thank you for Patricia for sharing this posting and this email exchange. I think I would add to things.

    First, David almost certainly did not write this psalm. It is situated in Babylon following the fall of Jerusalem. David’s bones are already dust at this point. This is almost certainly written by one of the temple musicians who survived the siege of Jerusalem and probably saw the children of his neighbour dashed to death against rocks either by the invading force or by grieving parents trying to protect them from cannibalism during the siege. As such that the expression is understandable and human and authentic and therefore true. I feel no obligation to treat it as normative — the Psalms are the worship book/hymn book of the Bible and to the extent that they have authority the authority is a different texture than that of law and proclamation.

    Secondly, no scripture is of private interpretation. Each one must be read with the guidance of the Spirit of Christ. And so if a scripture passage seems incomprehensible it is best to assume that it wasn’t directed to you in your current situation but to another person, time or place. One appropriate response to unintelligible scripture passages in a Quaker context could be worship and prayer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, David, for providing scholarly context for Psalm 137, and also your thoughts on its sentiments arising solely from human pain and loss. I hadn’t responded to this question of Ryan’s, and instead spoke to Friends approach to the violence that was described as God-decreed. I agree with your analysis that the psalms’ “authority [have] a different texture than that of law and proclamation,” and your final paragraph is solid advise. Thanks again for your thoughtful response.


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