Most of us have read enough Bible to know texts that make us uncomfortable, texts like ignoring Hagar or sacrificing Jephthah’s daughter or patriarchs behaving badly. But most of us do the same thing: ignore them and hope no one asks us about them. John Thompson, though, doesn’t ignore them: he looks them square in the eye in his new book Reading the Bible with the Dead. And he does so by introducing us to how Christians-now-dead read those difficult texts.
Anyone have some specific experiences with preaching difficult texts? Or reading the texts? Any wisdom for all of us?
Thompson is a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and this book studies how the major thinkers in Church history have commented on texts that are by all means difficult to swallow. Hagar, Jephthah, the imprecatory psalms, patriarchs behaving badly, Gomer and Hosea, silent prophetesses, divorce, Adam’s deception, and texts about Dinah, Bathsheba, Tamar and “too many others.”
Thompson doesn’t skewer the Bible and the ancient Israelites and early Christians or their interpreters in the Church. Instead, he enlightens us on the value of learning to read the Bible with the dead. Many of us read the Bible and pretend we don’t need to know how the Church has read the Bible. Some today think they can go at it alone and others are trying to get back — Thompson’s book can help both groups. He judiciously and briefly sums up how Christians have read these alarming texts.
Well, here’s an instance of what this book can do for you. I immediately opened it up to the imprecatory psalms because I’ve been bothered by the psalmist hoping the little Babylonian babies would get their heads crushed on rocks (Ps 137), just to see how he would deal with it. We learn four things from the Church’s interpreters:
1. God cares about injustice and suffering: God’s justice is against those who are being mistreated, regardless of what these texts say about the psalmist.
2. Only Jesus is fit to lament and curse absolutely — the Church’s interpreters did not want Christians settling scores by using these words so they assigned them to Jesus.
3. Laments and imprecations must be appropriated — read these passages because they are useful in the plan of God.
4. Laments and imprecations must not be misappropriated — anti-Jewish exegesis remains a warning to those who would misuse these texts.
OK, that’s a taste. This book is loaded with wisdom and I hope you can find the time to read it. Every pastor or church needs a book like this in the library. I know of nothing like it.