Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is the Bible THAT Theologically DIverse?

If you've ever read the play, "Much Ado about Nothing" (or more likely watched the movie) by William Shakespeare, you're aware of the mess that can be created by taking things out of context and spinning half truths with speculation. A lot of "scholarship" these days often reminds me of this play.

It's often argued today that there is much theological diversity in the Bible. This concept is largely accepted without much challenge to it, and I'm not going to challenge it en toto myself; but I do think that it is blown way out of proportion so that it can be used as an apologetic for those who wish to see theological diversity celebrated rather than mourned today. It's interesting to see just how much we impose our cultural ideals onto the text when scholars run through the Bible and try to pick out as many supposedly contradictory teachings as they can in order to show that the Bible was never unified in its teaching. I, of course, completely disagree that proving theological diversity somehow proves disunity (that's quite a logical leap). One can have unity in diversity in terms of progressive revelation, subject matter addressed, diversity used as clarification rather than contradiction, etc. But I also take issue with most of the examples used to prove diversity in the Bible. I do think there is some, but not nearly as much as scholars often imply that there are. Today, I want to discuss just one of those examples.

The bulk of the Bible teaches us that children are seen as one with their parents. If a parent is holy, the child is holy. If the parent is wicked, the child is wicked. If the parent is blessed, the child is blessed. And if the parent is punished, the child is punished. There is no distinction between the parent and child. God can punish the parent by punishing the child, as in the case of David's son born out of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. In fact, many who don't see this teaching often don't understand why God kills the child rather than killing David, the one who actually committed the sin. But this is to ignore that God, in accordance with some ancient Near Eastern thought, views the son of David as David himself. He is, in fact, therefore, killing David by killing his son. This is a way to both bring about what God has planned for David in his future reign and to deliver a death sentence to him at the same time.

Again, in the law (Exod 20:5-6 and Deut 5:9-10), YHWH will visit the iniquity committed by the fathers on the sons to the third and fourth generation. There is nothing here about the sons actually committing the sins. There is only the idea that sins committed by the fathers would be brought upon the sons. Although the qualifier, that these people are those who hate YHWH, as opposed to those who love Him by keep His commandments are blessed, there is nothing here that tells us that those who hate or love Him include the children (as many will argue). It can be taken that way, but it's ambiguous enough to just apply that qualifier to the parents.

Hence, in comes Ezekiel 18. Ezekiel 18 is often said to be a rejection of this theology. It tells us that each person is culpable for his own sin, not for the sins of his parents. The passage is as follows:

Ezek 18:1 (NASB) Then the word of the Lord came to me saying,
2 "What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel saying,
'The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children's teeth are set on edge'?
3 "As I live," declares the Lord God, "you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore.
4 "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.
5 "But if a man is righteous, and practices justice and righteousness,
6 and does not eat at the mountain [shrines] or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor's wife, or approach a woman during her menstrual period--
7 if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, [but] gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing,
8 if he does not lend [money] on interest or take increase, [if] he keeps his hand from iniquity, [and] executes true justice between man and man,
9 [if] he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully-- he is righteous [and] will surely live, "declares the Lord God.
10 "Then he may have a violent son who sheds blood, and who does any of these things to a brother
11 (though he himself did not do any of these things), that is, he even eats at the mountain [shrines,] and defiles his neighbor's wife,
12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore a pledge, but lifts up his eyes to the idols, [and] commits abomination,
13 he lends [money] on interest and takes increase; will he live? He will not live! He has committed all these abominations, he will surely be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.
14 "Now behold, he has a son who has observed all his father's sins which he committed, and observing does not do likewise.
15 "He does not eat at the mountain [shrines] or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor's wife,
16 or oppress anyone, or retain a pledge, or commit robbery, [but] he gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing,
17 he keeps his hand from the poor, does not take interest or increase, [but] executes My ordinances, and walks in My statutes; he will not die for his father's iniquity, he will surely live.
18 "As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed [his] brother, and did what was not good among his people, behold, he will die for his iniquity.
19 "Yet you say, 'Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity?' When the son has practiced justice and righteousness, and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live.
20 "The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
21 "But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
22 "All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live.
23 "Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked," declares the Lord God, "rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?
24 "But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die.
25 "Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is not right.' Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right?
26 "When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies because of it, for his iniquity which he has committed he will die.
27 "Again, when a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life.
28 "Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
29 "But the house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is not right.' Are My ways not right, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right?
30 "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct," declares the Lord God. "Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.
31 "Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel?
32 "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies," declares the Lord God. "Therefore, repent and live."

Part of our problem with all of these passages is the word for "children," which is usually the word for "sons." Either way, "children," or "sons" doesn't always mean "young children" or "young sons." Hence, we need to ask the question, Are these passages referring to children under the care and guidance of the adult, or are they referring to children/sons in terms of relationship that adults have between them? In other words, Are these grown children or children-children? A child-child in ancient Israel was likely seen as prepubescent. Adulthood was when one reached puberty. In other words, if you could make children, you were no longer one. Hence, a man leaves his father and mother to go have relations with a woman/wife to have children himself. He can do so at puberty, so that seems to be the cut off (although it might be extended to a person who remains under the household and whose life is in moral continuity with the adult under whom he lives).

When it comes to David, obviously, the child is a baby. Hence, the child is a child-child, not an adult child. He is identified with David, and by punishing him, God is punishing David (and I don't just mean in the sense that David suffers loss of a child, but in his mind, the loss also of himself through the child). As an aside, inheritance issues and the common desire to have an heir is bound up with this idea that the parent continues to live through the child.

But to what kind of child does Ezekiel 18 refer? Well, the passage gives us some indication.
 It tells us that the child can either partake or reject his portion in his parents' sin or righteousness by doing those sins or practicing that righteousness himself. How many little children do you know murder and commit adultery with their neighbors' wives? Do they have sex with women? Obviously, then, Ezekiel 18 is talking about adult children, not children-children. This tells us that it is not contradicting the concept that God destroys children-children for the sins of their parents (thus identifying children-children with their parents).

But does it contradict the law? Here is where it actually clarifies the law for us. When it comes to the law, its ambiguous as to who is hating or loving YHWH, but Ezekiel does clarify that if it is referring to adult children, each individual adult is guilty for his own crimes. So Ezekiel 18 tells us that those who love or hate YHWH is to be applied to each individual. If the adult child continues the hatred of YHWH (i.e., a rejection of the relationship offered by Him through His Word), then that adult child will simply accumulate the wrath of his parents upon his own sin; but if the adult child turns and loves YHWH by keeping His commandments (i.e., he accepts the relationship offered by YHWH), he will be blessed, and will not receive the punishment of his parents.

Hence, if the law refers to children-children, there is no contradiction between it and Ezekiel 18, and if the law refers to adult children, there is no contradiction between it and Ezekiel 18. Either way, Ezekiel does clarify the ambiguity of the law, but it doesn't ever contradict it. Hence, where is the theological diversity in this example? There is nothing to say that the law originally referred to all children, whether they love or hate YHWH in contrast to their parents, so the apparent contradiction is merely a fabrication of our modern misunderstanding of the passages.

I merely use this as an example because a lot of what is considered to be "theologically diverse" is simply a matter of lifting things out of context (child sacrifice, polytheism, etc.). Put them back into context, and some theological diversity still remains, but it likely remains, not in ultimate contradiction, but in ultimate clarification and complementation. But our presuppositions concerning the divine origin of the Bible will show in how we come down on what remains. My only point here is that a lot of these prooftexts that supposedly prove rampant, theological diversity are much ado about nothing.

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