From May 2011:
Timothy Beal, in The Rise and Fall of the Bible, points out the story of Phineas, found in Numbers 25. Israel is suffering from a plague, and Moses' explanation is that God is punishing them for their inter-ethnic marriages. A priest, Phineas, discovers an inter-ethnic couple, and impales both of them on the same spear. As a result, God then lifts the deadly plague, blesses Phineas, and promises him an everlasting priesthood. Today, many white supremacist groups rely on this story to bolster their ideas of racial and ethnic purity.
Chapter 7 of Beal's book paints the Bible as a library, a collection, rather than one univocal book. In fact, the Greek word for Scripture was "ta biblia," which is a plural form of book or scroll. Due to mistranslation, a word that was supposed to signify a collection of biblical literature now represents a single, unified, authoritative text.
Beal quotes the philosopher Jacques Derrida, who fleshed out the idea of "impoverishment by univocality." When we force a text to be univocal, having one voice, then we miss out on its richness. Beal writes, "To interpret with the goal of 'getting to the point' about what a text really means is an act of impoverishment" (p. 147). Not allowing the contradictions, tensions, and ambiguities to stand is making the Bible out to be something that it isn't.
Beal highlights the polyvocality of the Bible, to avoid forcing our univocal expectations on it. He points out many instances of contradictory stories in Scripture - too many to name here. Many are well aware of the contradictions.
But Beal makes an excellent point that hit home. This polyvocality can become difficult for those of us who emphasize the Bible's message of love and nonviolence.
The Bible has been used to both support and abolish slavery. It has been quoted to both oppress and liberate women. It has served as fodder for both warriors and peacemakers. As a progressive Christian, I get very uncomfortable, especially when I read stories like the one in Numbers 25. Beal notes:
Countering such atrocious uses of biblical literature is not so simple as calling them misrepresentations of the Bible. We must face the fact that stories like that of Phineas are there, generating suspicion of ethnic otherness and motivating violence against others in our midst. (p. 156)
Reading the text honestly, Beal remarks, it's difficult to deny that the text is a source of both oppression and liberation from that oppression. If I'm going to accept the God-is-love message of the Bible, I have to come to terms with all of the Bible, even the parts that I want to push away. I can't pretend that the verses that seemingly support a white supremacy movement aren't there. Beal explains:
When we pretend that, deep down, all the voices are really saying the same thing and ought to be able to get along, we forfeit our responsibility as inheritors of this richly, sometimes disturbingly, contradictive literature.
I am posting my thoughts about this book as I'm reading it, so I don't yet know where Beal will go after this. It's times like these I wish I weren't a layperson, and that I had a biblical studies and/or theology background. However, I don't think it should take a seminary degree to work out one's faith in the face of a Bible that can be disturbing to that faith at times.
I will be sure to share what, if anything, Beal proposes. (Ah, how I so want everything to be all figured out and presented to me in a tidy box. I'm afraid it won't be the case here...)