The Mirror & the Telescope, Part III
THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART III: EXAMPLES OF DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN DIVINE & HUMAN SUBJECTS
We will now consider several biblical passages in light of the dual-subject approach to Scripture. In Psalm 137:8-9, an exilic or post-exilic author writes: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” We must ask whether this text reveals to us theological source material that we may to develop a doctrine of God’s severity in paying back evildoers, or if it reveals anthropological source material in which we primarily see the human desire for brutal retributive justice (if not merely revenge)?
This passage in particular was what stimulated Witherington’s observation that Scripture may “be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character,” in that, we must consider how this text “comports with the idea of a God who loves all humankind and is especially concerned for the weak, the vulnerable, and the young.” (Living Word, 24) Witherington’s thought process hints at a hermeneutical key we will explore subsequently, but we may for now say that there is evidence to suggest that the divinely inspired author of Psalm 137 was revealing human nature to us rather than depicting God’s attributes.
Dealing with this passage in terms of anthropological source material, we must then ask whether it represents a revelation of positive human character that God is commending, or whether it is a negative attribute that is merely being accurately recorded. To determine where this passage falls, we could see if the author had cited God’s approval of this desire for revenge; if so, then we may consider this a model of human behavior that God finds acceptable. However, we do not see this, so without this divine endorsement, we must remain ambiguous toward the text: it may be a legitimate human response to evil, or it may represent an attitude that is contrary to God’s will for humanity. Overall, we can say that God certainly allows humans to express their feelings of anger, even in the extreme. Also, this text reveals to us historical background on the plight of the Jews in exile—their experience must have been incredibly dreadful to elicit such a monstrous response.
Let us consider another example, from Psalm 13, which evinces a more specific claim about God that we must discern as being either theologically absolute or an example of human experience. The author, presumably David, cries out, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1). Do we see this as theological source material from which we can develop a theology of God’s “hiddenness”—was David correct in asserting that God was hiding from him? Had God indeed forgotten him, not literally, but relationally? Or does this reveal an anthropological picture of David’s experience of feeling like God was hiding from him and that God had forgotten about him?
There is more ambiguity here, due to the fact that many Christian thinkers (e.g. Luther, St. John of the Cross) see evidence for a theology of God’s hiddenness in the pages of Scripture. While we cannot rule this out as being true of God, it does seem obvious that the passage is primarily speaking of David’s experience of feeling and thinking particular emotions and thoughts, so it would be safe to say this reveals more about the human subject than the divine.
We may wonder, then, if Psalm 13 is actually more about an experience of human perception than divine actuality, could we say the same about Psalm 139, where David makes claims that have been used to support a number of theological doctrines: God’s omniscience (“Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” v. 4), omnipresence (“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” v.7), and human predestination (“In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed” v. 16). Could all of these examples reveal David’s human sense of God’s intimate involvement in his life without necessarily being absolutely true of God’s being or plans?
One could ask the rather blunt question of David: how exactly do you know all of these things? What access do you have to God’s mind to comment upon what he knows? Have you been to heaven or Sheol, or have you seen God’s book in which your days are numbered? We can logically assume that none of these questions could be answered positively to support David’s assertions and yet we also find no evidence that David has actually been told these things by God, as we see in other parts of Scripture where it is claimed that “the Word of the LORD” came upon an author. This is an argument from silence going in both directions—we don’t know whether God revealed these things to David or not, though they do seem in line with other theological claims we see in Scripture. Ultimately, there is tension, particularly in a genre like lyrical poetry, between being able to clearly discern what is reliable theological source material and what are examples of human experience (such as doubt, fear, or anger) that contribute to an inspired and accurate anthropology.
We could also look beyond claims or statements in poetical works to accounts and narratives in Scripture in order to raise questions of whether the Bible is telling us about humanity or God. For instance, when Noah curses Canaan to become “lowest of slaves” to his brothers in Genesis 9:25, do we take it to be the case that God approves of this curse, which was later used to promote racism and the practice of enslaving Africans (who were purported to be the sons of Ham)? It is interesting to note from the text that Noah does ask God to bless Shem and Japheth and make Canaan their slaves (Gen. 9:26-27)—but we do not see evidence of whether God endorses Noah’s curse or not.
From a human perspective, we can see that Noah is angry, embarrassed, and struggling with a hangover—it would be natural for him to lash out at his son, as many of us would do in this situation. We must not assume that merely because God commends a biblical actor at some points in the Bible that it means everything they do subsequent to that time is approved by God. Noah’s reaction may clearly serve as anthropological source material, but to put a divine stamp of approval upon this curse is not necessarily justified from the text. So why should we allow critics to place the blame of Christian use of this verse to support racism on God (even though the identification of blacks with the sons of Ham is nowhere in the text as well)? Noah spoke the curse and we have no reason of which I am aware to believe God fulfilled it. This stands in contrast with God’s specific promise to Abram to “bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3).
[In Part IV, we will consider the problem of discerning between the two subjects in biblical interpretation.]