In February of 2004, I wrote an email to Dr. Dewey when I first entered the Pentateuch class (taught by a Presbyterian professor). That email does a good job of expressing my thinking at the time. I've quoted it below.
In another post, I'll share part of the response from Dr. Dewey. His way of interacting with what troubled me in the Bible was startling to me, and the beginning of a new way of reading the Bible.
I'll also share how my approach to Scripture has since shifted. There are methods of reading and interpreting the Bible that don't rely on a literalist mindset. Literalism plagues both believers and ex-believers. It's used both to support the accuracy of the Bible and to discredit it.
For instance, I remember one ex-evangelical saying on a forum that he remembers thinking when he was a Christian, that if he could just sit down for two hours with an unbeliever, and then could patiently walk that person through the Bible, by the end, the person would become a Christian. He could achieve a coherent reading of the meaning of Scripture that would "prove" the truth of the Bible and Christianity.
After he walked away from faith, he discovered that he had a similar feeling: that given two hours with a Christian, he could walk that person through the Scriptures showing the inconsistencies and problems with the text and by the end, the person would leave the faith. In posting these two similar accounts of his perceptions about how to relate to the Bible, he realized he had not changed his approach to Christianity at all, just his conclusions. His story describes well how literalism holds us (Christian and ex-Christian) hostage - we are beholden not so much to conclusions, but methods. Those methods lead us in circles.
I entered graduate school hoping to find a way to transcend the literalist tendency in myself. Unfortunately, my Pentateuch class had plugged me right back into that thinking and all the problems that came with it.
I'm stomping around my kitchen after tonight's class about the Pentateuch and I kept thinking one good conversation over a beer with you might clear things up. So I decided to type my rant out and send it as a kind of cyber prayer to you, my "professor /priest."In rereading the email, it's satisfying to think that I wouldn't write the same one today. On the other hand, I stand by the challenges to literalism that this email raises. So before I post the response from my professor, I'd love to hear what you think.
Anyway, we got into whether there is enough credible evidence for the exodus to verify it as a historical event. Clearly there isn't enough evidence to prove it happened. But there is also an absence of disproving evidence as well (which in the circles I come from is some sort of validation for the historical fact of the exodus event...). But what happened in class tonight really got to me.
Dr. Melcher pointed out that when we try to establish the exodus as a historical event by examining each of its details for historical credibility, we are laying a modern template over an ancient text and asking of it what it wasn't intended to deliver. The ancient writers weren't concerned with the degree of historical accuracy that we are today. They wanted to package and deliver theological truth in a narrative that may or may not have happened quite as they described it. So far, I understand. But then she went further to say that we can glean spiritual truth from the story regardless of its historical veracity. The discussion even went so far as to affirm that God delivers spiritual truth through it whether or not the exodus actually happened.
This is when I started to get muddled. I asked her if the Jews and Christians of history didn't in fact believe that God actually did those miracles and saved the Jews from the Egyptians in that way. She said that they did but that that wasn't the primary point of the story. The theological truth was more important still. Which truth?, I asked. "Well, the fact of God's redemption. God has worked as redeemer in many of our lives which validates that truth in the story."
Dr. Dewey, this is when I feel crazy. I want to stand up in class and say: What on earth are you talking about? If we can't verify whether or not God actually split the Red Sea (or the Reed Sea or the sand bar or whatever) to save the Israelites, if we don't know if the Israelites were ever slaves and then fled Egypt, if we can't verify the story factually, how can we possibly know if "God" is redeeming us "metaphorically" or "spiritually" in our lives today? And what good is that "truth" anyway? Are these "beautiful ideas" sort of like the Greek ideals? Or is redemption (by God?) real? If it's real, how would we know it? Weren't these "miracles of old" God's evidence of his redeeming power for another age? And aren't we now stumped as to how to know or prove anything about God? And what good is redemption metaphorically anyway? What am I being redeemed of? From?
But worse than all of that - whether or not the exodus really happened doesn't matter to me one way or the other. The idea that either in reality or metaphorically God would kill the first borns of all the Egyptians, would wipe them out playing "tribal god" to the Israelites as the means of delivering a message of redemption to believers for all ages, so sickens me I can't make heads or tails of what the powerful spiritual truth ought to be. I can't bear to think of God this way. I'm not moved. I'm not drawn into deeper awareness of God or redemption or spiritual truth.
Instead, I'm left horrified by both the potential reality and/or the metaphor.
So what the hell is wrong with me?
It's times like these that I'm convinced I've lost all faith in God or contact with anything invisible or spiritual. I feel like a material girl in a material world. If I can see the Bible as ancient literature that is both beautiful and horrifying, interesting and revealing (about peoples and times and religion from another era), I'm okay with it. I actually enjoy it. But the moment someone tells me that there is rich spiritual truth in a story for me today that probably doesn't represent historical reality, and the metaphor I'm supposed to appreciate means I'm endorsing partiality on God's side with a capital P, well, I'm lost. The Bible becomes a source of real angst, anger and disappointment.
Is this all because I used to be a literalist? :-(
If the Bible depicts events that we can't be certain happened, of what value is the theological message? Are we dependent on the historical validation of our theological truths? Or is redemption something we experience only on a metaphysical level (the biblical narratives serve as metaphor for that inner salvation/liberation from sin, not as indications of God's real time acts of liberation/redemption in history)? On what basis can we know that that redemption/salvation/liberation is real, if we are depending on metaphorical narratives and not verifiable evidence of God's activity?
If we do side with the historicity of events like the Exodus, what do we do with the summary judgment leveled at all classes of society, not just at the architects of the evil? How does that comport with our ideas of a powerful, loving, saving God? Does this text teach us that God prefers "my group" over other groups? If so, is it moral to side with a God who demonstrates a willingness to kill, exterminate, or do violence against those who oppose God? (These are the kinds of questions many ask who are in the process of deconstruction.)
Or, finally, are there other ways to read this passage (and others like it) that frees it from these burdens while allowing faith to be both realistic and reinforced?