An Undomesticated Word

Let’s do an exercise on this post. Below, I have chosen a few short passages of Scripture for you to read. Observe your reactions as you read and think about how you tend to interpret texts like this. Take note of what  you normally do when you come across passages like these in the Bible.

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9)

“He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow” (Lamentations 3:10-12).

“I was at ease, and he broke me apart; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target; his archers surround me. He slashes open my kidneys and does not spare; he pours out my gall on the ground. He breaks me with breach upon breach; he runs upon me like a warrior” (Job 16:12-14).

“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (Jeremiah 20:7).

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1).

So, what are your thoughts? What do you do with these passages? How do they make you feel when you read them? What questions arise? What interpretive methods do you draw out and use to fit them into your system of thought?

These are not easy passages, that is clear. But they are inspired words. They have function and purpose. I believe the biggest temptation for us as interpreters is to explain texts like this away. Instead of exploring their unique contribution to the canon and our faith we dismiss them by any interpretive means possible. This is old covenant material. These expressions of the psalmist were sinful. Not everything inspired is to be imitated. And on it goes. I have some pretty sophisticated ways to protect myself from passages that make me uneasy. Oswald Bayer has a great quote on the persistent desire of mankind to tame the Word of God.

“Time and again many have tried to smooth out what is rough, or at least minimize such tensions. For example, theologically well-trained and sharp-minded church father Gregory of Nyssa wanted to make ‘the hard, indigestible bread of Scripture disgestible’ with unfettered allegorical interpretation. The hard bread of the literal text is made digestible in that Gregory is drawn back to a sense that was known already: what makes one feel strange gets domesticated (italics mine).”

It is far better to have no satisfactory answer to the meaning of a text or the reason for its presence in the canon then to disregard it altogether. Honesty with the Word of God means that we refuse to mute the parts of it that are most difficult to understand. The true test of our affirmation of the authority and inspiration of Scripture is how we handle its most challenging parts. I believe that giving these portions of Scripture their voice and working hard to hear them out will yield tremendous benefits for the church. After all, even the texts above are profitable for teaching, reproof, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16-17).

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