Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

The Bible: Eternal Word in the Vernacular

By Erhard S. Gerstenberger
Fasanenweg 29
April 2012

I have dedicated most of my life, about 60 years, to the study of the Old Testament. And I would do it again: The Hebrew Scriptures (with its appendix: The New Testament) are a treasure, “sweeter than honey” (Ps 19:11 [NRSV 10]) and more nourishing than any hefty meal. It is worthwhile to delve into its spiritual sphere and wrestle with its rich insights into matters divine and human. At the same time, the Holy Writ has come to us from very distant times and quite different societies carrying with it the taste of ancient world views, strange habits and sometimes contestable values.

What can we do in this situation? It certainly needs to be emphasized that many a passage of the Bible immediately evokes understanding in the modern reader. Emotions of trust and fear, love and hate have been known to human beings probably from the beginning of mankind some millions of years ago. There are straight lines of empathy with the ancient forbears when it comes to matters of life and death, despair and deliverance. But ever so often we get stuck with our modern world-views and value-judgments unable to grasp the meaning of biblical assertions, be it that the sun stands still (Josh 10:12-13), a husband hands over his wife to abusers who violate her to death and she then being cut into pieces by her husband (Judg 19:25-30), God is pictured as living in the sky and above the heavenly waters (Ps 104:3), opponents are cursed and annihilated (Ps 109; Deut 20; 27-28), – and hundreds other unlikely stories are told.

Some Christians believe that the problems are not related to the Bible itself but that they have been created by modern theological scholarship supposedly destroying simple and straight faith in the truth of Scripture by rationally dissecting divine revelations. My contention is the other way around: Every reader of the Bible will find discrepancies between ancient and modern views, and he or she may be unable to explain them. Critical investigation, on the other hand, may be helpful to get to grips with them.

First of all, we may have to investigate our own assumptions and preconceived ideas when reading the Bible. We like to simply identify divine truth with the written word cherished so long by Christian and Jewish communities. Absolute truth may be confounded with written letters. But, fortunately I would say, written letters in a given language (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, English or others) may never contain the absolute and unchanging WORD. They are in themselves transient phenomena, far from being eternal, very limited indeed, as far as their capacities are concerned to articulate the fullness of God or the totality of the world, for that matter. A universal and all-inclusive language does not exist, or if it exists, our ears and minds will not hear nor understand it (language of angels or galaxies? Cf. Ps 19:2-5 [NRSV 1-4]). The “eternal WORD in fact speaks only in the vernacular” (Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga, Mato Grosso).

Secondly, the Bible gives ample evidence that the words and dealings of God and the reactions of human beings never have been uniform, stereotyped throughout the ages. Rather, faith and ordinances have indeed changed throughout biblical times, and they have continued to do so afterwards down to this very day. There simply are no once and for all fixed patterns of life, thinking, behavior and also of believing in God. To point out only a few verses demonstrating the changing objects of faith: Josh 24:2; Gen 32:23-33; Isa 6:1-7; Psalm 82; 139; Job 19 etc.). The images of God in these passages are very diverse and there is a consciousness in biblical writings that religion changed over time.

Third, if we read the Old Testament carefully we may discover different modes of faith related to the social structures of those remote times (I have elaborated this point of view in my book: Theologies in the Old Testament, Minneapolis/London 2002). The main points are the following:

  1. In pre-state Israel, elementary forms of organization were dominant, they continued to co-exist with national superstructures. Each household had a niche in the living quarter where protective deities were venerated (cf. Exod 21:6; Gen 31:19; 1Sam 19:13). The family god, perhaps in earlier times the deceased ancestor, was expected to take good care of his clients, he or she functioned like a father or mother for them. The psalms of individual complaint in the Psalter originally were directed to the family-god (cf. Psalms 4; 6; 22; 38; 41; 55; 88 etc.; Karel van der Toorn, Family Religion, Leiden: Brill 1996).
  2. Neighborhood living (village, small towns) created new inner human structures and changed religious belief. Questions of fertility of the fields and herds, inter-marriage, defense against enemies had to be solved in common. Local shrines sprang up, as they are testified abundantly in the Old Testament (bamah, = “high place,” simple natural sanctuaries perhaps with symbols of Baal and Asherah (cf. Judg 6:25-35; 1 Sam 9:11-14; 1 Kings 3:3-5).
  3. Tribal and state-organizations are quite different from the basic communities of family, clan, and neighborhood. They become anonymous and increasingly bureaucratic. These larger social groupings no longer permit everybody knowing everyone. Their theologies and religious rites are oriented towards their inherent purposes: to protect a loose agglomeration of clans (cf. Judg 5) or to stabilize and promote the ruling dynasty (cf. 2 Sam 7; Psalms 21; 45; 89; 72).
  4. Finally, the Old Testament tells us, that Israel’s political structure was destroyed (2 Kings 25). The dynasty was deposed by the Babylonians; capital and temple were devastated. A very significant new chapter begins in ancient Israel. The formation of a non-state faith community produces a whole new structure of living. Instead of enjoying political independence, the Yahweh people now live under foreign domination. The new superstructure of the people of God is entirely religious: Yahweh is the sovereign and his adherents are bound to live up to his commandments (alliance). Due to forced migration and thereafter to freedom of movement each family must decide whether or not they will stick to the old faith (cf. Josh 24:14-22). The Torah becomes the visible sign of Yahweh’s presence. Sabbath and circumcision, seasonal festivals and purity regulations become means of identity. Daily life is put under the rule of divine laws – all this in substitution for national life and mores.

If God’s revelation is so much conditioned by cultural and social circumstances, how in the world can we hope to relate it to our own generation and cultural identity? Biblical critical scholarship can show a path to an adequate transference of spiritual and theological meaning into our own world. Recognizing the plurality of God-talk and God-concepts already in the Hebrew Scriptures of old we are alerted to the contextuality of faith throughout the history of mankind. Granted that our forebears responded to God in their specific ways, we also feel encouraged to listen intensely to God’s words and actions today and throughout the history of mankind. The differentiation of social groups and their particular theological perceptions and orientations with good reason puts an end to the monolithic ways of dogmatic theology (which usually coerces living experiences into the procrustean beds of dominant interests). Thus we understand better why biblical (and other) theologians called God the “Father,” if we study formative family religion. And we will become aware of the image of “God, my shepherd,” if we know, that this metaphor used to be a royal epithet, which was democratized and individualized, and now is in need of further interpretation or substitution in our urbanized environments. Social stratification today changed a lot over against ancient organization,but still follows the basic patterns of elementary, medium, and large (in the end: global) associations. Correlating faith on analogous levels throughout history makes it easier to come to adequate theological conclusions in our present world.