This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities
Anyone interested in the Old Testament, especially those difficult passages and concepts found in it, cannot help but be drawn in by the title of this book. In This Strange and Sacred Scripture, Matthew Richard Schlimm tackles some of the most difficult questions regarding the Old Testament. While some Christians treat the Old Testament like an alien source from another planet, and while a number of atheists have used its “oddities” (as Schlimm puts it) to argue against belief in God or religion, Schlimm chooses to see the Old Testament as “our friend in faith” (p. 6). The friendship metaphor is applied throughout This Strange and Sacred Scripture and allows Schlimm to explore the Old Testament from a number of different angles. At the outset Schlimm argues that seeing the Old Testament as a faithful friend has several benefits: 1) friendship dispels loneliness and the Old Testament “reminds us that people of faith are not alone” (p. 7); 2) friends are fun to be around. Although there are difficult parts of the Old Testament, it is also a resource of great stories that bring joy (e.g., the story of Joseph); 3) friends are useful to have around. “They provide valuable information and ideas that allow us to navigate life more easily” (p. 8); 4) the best friends make us better people. Schlimm argues that “When the Old Testament is our friend, we become more holy, more aware of God’s presence in the world, and more concerned with justice and righteousness” (p. 8). Throughout the book Schlimm argues for other ways in which the friendship metaphor is a helpful way of viewing the Old Testament. For example, at times we disagree with friends, they can even make us feel uncomfortable, but we don’t give up on the friendship. At times our friends challenge our views which causes us to grow as people. Schlimm argues that the Old Testament has this same effect, as well as other effects, on people who befriend it.
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Contents
After an opening chapter which explores whether the Old Testament should be viewed as an enemy (aka, Marcion and his children), a stranger (the way many in the church today treat the Old Testament), or a friend (the author’s proposal), Schlimm tackles the following subjects:
Chapter 2: Our Fleeting Moments in Paradise (Should Genesis 2:4-4:16 be read as literal history or as a poetic story?).
Chapter 3: Darkness Over the Face of the Deep (How should we read and understand Genesis 1? Is there a conflict with science?).
Chapter 4: The R-rated Bible (Schlimm looks at some of the troubling stories of the Old Testament such as Jacob’s unethical behavior).
Chapter 5: Killing All That Breathes (a look at violence in the Old Testament).
Chapter 6: Male and Female God Created Them (What does the Old Testament say about Gender equality and how should we approach difficult passages that seem to treat women as less than equal?).
Chapter 7: God Commands Us to Do What? (a discussion of some of the strange and obscure laws found in the Old Testament).
Chapter 8: Is the Law Engraved in Stone? (an examination of laws in the Old Testament that seem to contradict each other).
Chapter 9: Truth Is Many Sided (this chapter continues the discussion introduced in the previous chapter, but extends it beyond a discussion of laws in the Old Testament).
Chapter 10: Drowning in Tears and Raging at God (a look at difficult statements in the Book of Psalms).
Chapter 11: Great and Terrible is the Wrath of the Lord (a discussion of passages dealing with God’s judgment).
Chapter 12: The Old Testament’s Authority (in this final chapter, Schlimm discusses various approaches to the Old Testament’s authority and proposes his own).
Selections from This Strange and Sacred Scripture
Since it is impossible in this review to discuss every chapter of Schlimm’s book, I have selected a few points that I found either provocative, helpful, or in need of further treatment by the author. Hopefully this selection will whet the reader’s appetite to read This Strange and Sacred Scripture for him or herself.
The Story of the Garden Historical or Symbolic?
Some readers will find Schlimm provocative from the start as he suggests in chapter 2, “Our Fleeting Moments in Paradise,” that Genesis 2:4-4:16 should be read as symbolic rather than historical. Schlimm presents the following arguments. First, the Hebrew names in the text suggest a symbolic reading. Adam (human), Eve (life), Eden (delight), Cain (a word that sounds like other Hebrew words, especially the word “spear”), and Abel (fleeting breath), “begin to look much more like names of characters in John Bunyan’s allegorical story than the names of actual historical people” (p. 19). Second, talking snakes and trees that provide life or “the knowledge of good and evil,” suggest symbolism (pp. 20-22). 3) Third, the location of Eden which is geographically impossible to locate suggests a more symbolic locale (pp. 22-23). Fourth, and finally, the use of parallelism, repetition, wordplay and symbolic language suggest a poetic story (p. 23).
I must admit that I have also wondered at times if the account in Genesis 2-4 was to be taken as history or as symbolism. Talking snakes and special trees do seem to lean in that direction. In spite of Schlimm’s arguments however, I still find myself in the historical camp for several reasons. First, while it is true that the names have great meaning to the story, this is no less true of other stories in the Old Testament (Abraham, Moses, Hannah, etc.). The significance of certain names does not mean the text is not historical. Second, the use of parallelism, repetition, wordplay, and symbolic language also occurs frequently in Old Testament texts that are historical. Third, if the story in Genesis 2:4-4:16 is to be taken symbolically, then what are we to make of the genealogies of Cain (Gen. 4:17-24) and Adam (Gen. 5)? In other words, at what point does Genesis transition from symbolic story to history, and how is that indicated in the text? Fourth, although Schlimm argues otherwise, I find Paul’s statements in the New Testament regarding Adam and Eve (e.g., Rom. 5; 1 Tim. 2:13-14) to refer to real historical people. Romans 5 is particularly important along this line. Paul compares Christ (a historical person) to Adam and says that what was done in Adam was undone through Christ. I would like to hear more from Schlimm on how he would reconcile a symbolic reading of Genesis 2-4 with the genealogies of Genesis and the New Testament references to Adam and Eve.
Violence in the Old Testament
Because violence in the Old Testament is a topic I am concerned about (see my series on Violence in the Old Testament here), I was especially interested to see what insight Schlimm might offer. Schlimm divides his answers into 5 different responses. Response 1: Description is not Prescription (p. 64). In other words, just because a violent act is described in the Bible doesn’t mean we are to imitate it. Response 2: We are not God, and therefore we don’t have the authority to act as God does in certain situations (such as executing judgment on sinners). In conjunction with this argument, Schlimm also points out that sometimes God fights, so that his people don’t have to. Further, he notes that the biblical perspective is not one-sided. God isn’t always pictured as being on the side of his people. Instead, God is on the side of righteousness, justice, and holiness. Schlimm’s third response is based on “The Problem of Application” (p. 70). Not every biblical text applies to our individual lives. “We are not its only audience. It speaks to people in many cultures, times, and places” (p. 71). In the midst of this discussion, Schlimm looks at Psalm 137:9 and under what circumstances it may speak to a believer. I found his explanation of this difficult passage very helpful. Response 4: “The Right Word for the Right Situation,” deals with the fact that the Bible presents different perspectives on various topics (like violence). Schlimm provides some helpful questions to ask of the text. Rather than simply asking, “How should we live out a particular text in our individual lives, we should also ask questions like: “How do different biblical texts provide a conversation with one another?” “Which texts speak most directly to us in our context?” And, “Where do we most closely align with the biblical text? Where do we diverge? Why?” (p. 74). Schlimm’s fifth response is an honest one: “We Don’t Have All the Answers.” Here he calls for humility and prayerful questions when approaching difficult texts (pp. 76-79).
Schlimm ends the chapter with a brief discussion of the herem texts (this word is frequently translated to “utterly destroy” and refers to God’s command concerning the Canaanites and Amalekites). He provides the following arguments: First, this practice was directed toward the Canaanites to uproot idolatry from the land (Exod. 22:20; Deut. 7:1-4). Second, “this practice of herem ensures that people don’t go to war for personal gain” (this is because the spoil is devoted to God). “Third, this practice recognizes God as the military victor of Israel’s battles.” He also points out that some texts in the Bible describe one-time events. Ultimately, Schlimm states, “these passage nevertheless should always leave us uncomfortable” (p. 80).
Truth Is Many Sided
Chapter 9 begins with the question, “Does the Old Testament contradict itself?” (p. 139). Schlimm does not gloss over the issues with a defensive “no” or a glib “yes,” instead he takes a constructive approach by looking at the complex nature of the Old Testament and the theological and ethical tensions within it. Three analogies guide his approach. He contends that the Old Testament does not offer a sales pitch, but rather a conversation. He states, “The Old Testament refuses to act like a half-honest sales rep. It doesn’t give readers just one perspective. It shows things from different lights and from different angles. It doesn’t present every viewpoint under the sun but, it does recognize the complexity of truth ” (p. 141). One example of this complexity is the difference between the Deuteronomic teaching that the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be cursed, and the Book of Job (or some of the psalms) which reflect that the opposite can also be true. Schlimm observes that, “While it’s possible to see the Old Testament’s teachings on this topic as contradictory, it’s also possible to see them as ongoing dialogue about complex truths” (p. 143).
The second analogy Schlimm uses is the difference between math problems and artwork. He argues that the Old Testament is more than a math problem with a fixed solution that never changes. It is more like an artist that “captures truths that are far more complicated than any math equation” (p. 148). This analogy of course has its limits. God is a God who never changes and there are eternal truths contained in the Old Testament (e.g., one God, God’s holiness, etc.). Schlimm is in agreement with me on this as the next metaphor demonstrates. The final analogy contrasts a “one-size-fits-all” garment (like a hospital gown) with tailor-made clothes. Schlimm admits that in some respects the Old Testament reflects some truths that are “one-size-fits-all” such as, loving God with all that we are or our neighbors as ourselves. However, he cautions against the attitude that the entire Old Testament can be viewed this way. By “tailor-made” Schlimm means that some truths “work for certain people in certain situations” (p. 151). He illustrates this with the verses from Proverbs 26:4-5 which appear contradictory unless it is realized that wisdom must be applied to know which advice to follow (v. 4 or v. 5). He concludes the chapter with a hypothetical conversation between Ruth and Ezra over whether God’s people can marry foreigners and the contrasting perspectives represented by the books that bear their names.
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Conclusion
Schlimm concludes this book with a look at the various kinds of authority and how we should approach the Old Testament. He notes those who would say the Old Testament should have no or limited authority in our lives and it is clear he disagrees with this position. Next he points to those who treat the Old Testament like a drill-sergeant. “It tells us what to do and we do it. No questions asked” (p. 200). He notes at least 3 problems with this approach. 1) It gives an incorrect impression of God. If God loves us, why would the Bible address us as a drill-sergeant as opposed to a loving teacher? 2) New Testament Christians didn’t follow the Old Testament this way. For example, they didn’t observe certain laws such as circumcision and food laws. 3) The drill-sergeant model is susceptible to misuse and can portray unhealthy images of dominance and submission.
Schlimm then examines the “Inerrant-Infallible” Model. He writes, “Many have found the language of inerrancy and infallibility appealing. Insofar as their main concern is to say that the Bible as a whole is reliable when it comes to thinking about God, humanity, and creation, I don’t have a bone to pick with them” (p. 201, author’s emphasis). However, he continues by stating that words like “inerrant” can cause various problems to arise. His objections include: 1) it suggests we are dealing with sentences that can have a true or false value; 2) it causes readers to focus on the wrong things; 3) it means we need to wrestle with “odd ancient expressions like ‘the four corners of the earth’…and whether such expressions are error free” (p. 201); 4) infallibility can suggest the Bible will never let people down yet we know the devil can quote it and that we need the Holy Spirit and other people to make adequate sense of it; 5) the only writings which can be considered error-free are boring. Clearly some of these arguments are not as compelling as others. Although he finds argument 5 the “most damning” (p. 202), I find it the least convincing. Similarly, argument 4 is based more on the devil’s wickedness and people’s sinfulness than it is on any inherent problem with the Bible.
After examining the view that the Bible is a “way of becoming closer to God” and noting that all of these ways of looking at the Bible fall short, he proposes “A Better Model;” the one he has utilized throughout the book: the Old Testament as friend. Schlimm argues that, “Seeing the Old Testament as our friend in faith explains how we can be firmly committed to Scripture, even as we express questions, doubts, and possible disagreements with it. He notes that some may find this a weak model of biblical authority but asks the question: “Yet who has more power over us than our closest friends?” (p. 205).
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Evaluation
Schilmm has provided a very stimulating look at the Old Testament. I admire his desire to share its value with those who are willing to read this book. I share his commitment to the Old Testament and his conviction that there is much there to enrich our faith. Schlimm doesn’t duck any of the difficulties with the Old Testament. He faces the problems squarely and provides some good answers and food for thought. Certainly each chapter could be a book in itself and so the treatment here is only a beginning. At times one can feel the incompleteness of the treatment, but such is the case with a book this size. Schlimm’s arguments regarding the potential problems of viewing the Bible as inerrant will certainly rankle some evangelicals (at times I felt the discomfort), but his reverence for God and his respect for the Old Testament is clear on every page. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, Schlimm has written a stimulating book that provides some answers to perplexing difficulties, while at the same time challenging the reader to view the Old Testament in new ways. This Strange and Sacred Scripture is written in a very accessible style. I not only recommend it, it is my hope that it will stimulate many to a deeper appreciation and study of the Old Testament.
This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities is available at Baker Academic and Amazon USA / UK
(Special thanks to Baker Academic for a copy of This Strange and Sacred Scripture, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review).