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Proceed with Extreme Caution: Preaching the ‘Dark’ Passages of the First Testament

04 March 2019

<strong>Proceed with Extreme Caution: Preaching the ‘Dark’ Passages of the First Testament</strong> Istock

A Personal Preamble

One of my favourite parts of the First Testament, as I now prefer to call it, was the book of Psalms and the Imprecatory Psalms in particular. Teaching would be pastors, I made it a point to underscore the relevance of the First Testament, despite the presence of what Pope Benedict XVI admitted were ‘dark passages of Scripture.’ As the title indicates, preaching the First Testament in general and its ‘dark’ passages in particular is a fraught task. It ought to come with a traffic caution. The hermeneutical principles necessary for a proper preaching on the First Testament are premised on the understanding that divine revelation is not about revelation of facts or truths but about how God’s love and condescension throughout history has been matched by human resistance and intransigence. Even the ‘dark’ passages in this regard can tell us a lot about who we are as unredeemed humanity. I end with three hermeneutical principles culled from Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal exhortation, Verbum Domini.


First Testament Preaching Why Not

This first subtitle is deliberately without punctuation marks to underscore what Susan Niditch has referred to as the ‘oral register’ or ‘traditional style’ of the Scriptures. This means that Scripture, needs to be read keeping in mind that both were communicated orally before they were committed to writing. As Rosalind Thomas has pointed out apropos Greek literature, a situation not too unlike that of the Scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian

Ancient Greece was in many ways an oral society ... Most Greek literature was meant to be heard or sung — thus transmitted orally — and there was a strong current of distaste for the written work even among the highly literate (Thomas 1989: 3).

The above subtitle is either a declarative statement, ‘First Testament Preaching: Why Not’ or an interrogative statement, ‘First Testament Preaching, Why Not?’ In oral delivery, it all depends on pauses and inflections of the voice. The First Testament is the same. It was first delivered orally before it was committed to writing. In the process two things happened. Meaning was fixed through textuality and the process of writing was often a means of hegemonic control. All you need to be convinced of this is the existence of at least two versions of the Pentateuch: For want of better terms, the Jerusalem Pentateuch and the Samaritan Pentateuch. In oral delivery, meaning is always fluid and open to negotiation with the hearer. The second thing that happened with textuality was that there was a slippage of meaning when translating from oral to written word, the lost in translation phenomenon. For the preacher of the First Testament, this is a warning to handle any such text with care. But, back to my sub-title. I meant it in both senses of either a declarative statement or an interrogative statement. Taken in the first sense, many people today would argue that the First Testament is obsolete, and the preacher is best advised to keep away from it. As one who plies his trade teaching both the First and Second Testaments, this is not a view I share. In the second sense, one would argue, and I concur, that for the three Abrahamic religions in particular, the First Testament is part of our collective memory and what it says has relevance for us today. Whether some of what it says does not measure up to our moral sensibilities is not the point but rather what we can learn from the ancient speaker and hearer of the word. As I point out below, often First Testament stories, no matter how bizarre, are often a mirror to who we are in our unredeemed state and every person who draws breath has that in plenty.


Putting the Cat among the Pigeons

Earlier I referred to those who aver that the First Testament is obsolete and ought to be avoided like the plague. The biggest reason cited is the prevalence of violence, both human and divine and as Terence Fretheim right notes, thus putting the proverbial cat among the pigeons

The Old Testament has a reputation: It is a book filled with violence, including the violence of God. The New Testament commonly avoids such a charge; but it too is filled with violent words and deeds, and Jesus and the God of the New Testament are complicit in this violence.

Given the explanation given below about divine revelation being progressive, such acts of violence can be explained as inadequate understanding of divine revelation at that stage of our development as homo sapiens. Acts of violence attributed to God are simply human propensity for violence seeking God’s approval. Even without the testimony of the Second Testament, humanity has discovered better legal ways of dealing with violence. Thanks to the First Testament, we moderns have nowhere to hide when it comes to our progressive understanding of the unacceptability of violence in the name of God.


Preaching the ‘Dark’ Passages of the First Testament

In 2008 a Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops was held on the topic ‘The word of God in the life and mission of the Church’ and as is customary following such synods, the Pope prepared a concluding document offering his perspective on the results of the meeting and how it can benefit the Church. His reflections are contained in the document Verbum Domini. Paragraph 42 of the document deals with the so-called ‘dark’ passages of the Bible. Putting the cat among the pigeons, the Pope stated

In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult.

For a start, the Pope insists on referring to the Old and New Testaments. This nomenclature is not helpful when considering the First Testament and preaching on it in its own right, although putatively based on the dominical farewell words ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22: 20). When preaching on the First Testament, ideologically I convince myself that this is not a poor cousin to the more sanitised Second Testament. It must be taken on its own terms. To be fair, the Vatican II document, Dei Verbum (1965), attempted to do this by providing guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture based on a correct understanding of divine revelation. But first, we need to be clear on what we understand by divine revelation. If, for instance, one’s understanding of revelation is that of divine verbal dictation, then very little can be done with the dark passages of Scripture when preaching. If, on the other hand, revelation is understood as Vatican II did, then revelation is not a verbatim transcription of divine dictates but rather it tells us something about the relationship between God and his people. This is a history of divine condescension and human resistance. Read in that light even the dark passages of Scripture tell us something about this relationship at various stages of human history. Dei Verbum sums up its understanding of divine revelation as follows, worth citing at length.

In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation (Dei Verbum. 2).

Having dealt with the foundational understanding of divine revelation as divine self-communication and condescension to humanity despite its intransigence, I now proceed to cull out three hermeneutical principles which may be useful for the preacher of the First Testament.


Hermeneutical Principles for Dealing with the ‘Dark’ Passages of Scripture

Following the publication of Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict, I glean some of its wisdom and apply three of its hermeneutical insights to how the preacher of the First Testament can proceed with extreme caution when preaching on its texts.


1 Revelation is deeply rooted in history

Pope Benedict reminded his readers that ‘first and foremost … biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history.’ For the preacher on the ‘dark’ passages of Scripture, this is the first point to keep in mind. As Philip Esler puts it in the title of his book, Sex, Wives and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with its Ancient Audience it means ‘reading biblical narrative with its ancient audience’ in mind. Divine revelation does not short-circuit or bypass natural human history. What this tells us is that God is like a good pedagogue, he begins where people are before leading them to new knowledge. The preacher should not expect of the ancients the same moral refinement of thinking as they would of the modern reader and preacher. Let’s take one example, the Lex talionis or law of revenge or retaliation. The Literal translation of the Hebrew text of Exodus 21: 24 would read: ‘an eye in place of an eye, a tooth in place of a tooth, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot.’ In the NRSV this becomes eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot’ (Exodus 21: 24 NRSV).

My literal translation is somewhat cumbersome, but it does get the idea that if someone pocks your eye out, the revenge is limited to one eye only etc. Although the Lex talionis does not scale the heights of ethical comportment, read in the light of Pope Benedict’s principle that ‘biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history’ the modern reader should be slow to condemn the locution. At the time it was written, no proper legal system was in place and one could exact as much revenge as deemed fit. What the Lex talionis did was to limit the scale of revenge from indeterminate to a one-to-one scale. Whether preaching on the Lex talionis in its own right or in view of the beatitudinal locutions of Jesus in Mt 5-7, the preacher needs to situate the passage historically. After that, one can then go on to say that in the light of historical development the Lex talionis cannot be taken to be ethically prescriptive for us today. If anything, it is a witness to our unredeemed self.

The next hermeneutical principle is a corollary of the first and that when interpreting the ‘dark’ passages of the First Testament, patience is a virtue both with ourselves and with our ancestors.


2 God’s Revelation is a Marathon and not a Sprint

Following Pope Benedict’s advice to historically contextualise the ‘dark’ passages of Scripture, he went on to remind us that ‘God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.’ This warning is a timely reminder to the contemporary reader and preacher, not to expect the people of the First Testament to have the same clarity that we putatively enjoy, if that at all. To illustrate this principle, I am going to take Genesis 6:1-8, a little-known passage which the preacher today is often best advised to leave out. In it, the sons of God chose human wives. God determines that men shall not live more than a hundred and twenty years. The Nephilim were on the earth and God determined to wipe out the human race on account of their wickedness. This passage makes no sense if understood literally. It is best understood as a metaphor or even a parable. It is no wonder Pope Benedict warned the reader and preacher of the First Testament.

So, it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context (Verbum Domini: par 42).

The passage from Genesis must be read in the wider context of Gen 6–9 and the story of the deluge. The ancient author is grappling with the proliferation of evil in a world declared as good by God. His explanation, and it was most definitely a He, is that something went wrong with the original or pristine order. He goes on to say that things will get worse before they get better and that the root cause of the problem is the disjunction between the spiritual and earthly realms. Surely, this is still a relevant message even for the modern preacher on the First Testament.


3 Homiletic Zeal is no Substitute for Hermeneutical Expertise

Pope Benedict ends the section on the ‘dark’ passages by reminding his readers, especially the preacher on the First Testament, that

we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective, which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key ‘the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery’ (Verbum Domini: par 42).

As early as 1965, Pope Paul VI, in a much-neglected hermeneutical document, Dei Verbum, reminded us of the need to discern the intention of the sacred writer by paying extra attention to the genre, language, literary form and yes even of the politics and ideology of the text as I have indicated in the passage from Gen 6. For ‘interpreter’ the preacher on the First Testament should insert ‘preacher.’

To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms.’ For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another (Dei Verbum: par 12).



This article had a modest aim: to provide some guidelines for the preacher of the First Testament, especially its ‘dark’ passages. After reminding the reader of the insights of Dei Verbum on divine revelation as self-communication despite human intransigence, I explored three hermeneutical principles culled from Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal address Verbum Domini. Therein, the Pope reminds the preacher of the historical nature of the texts we preach on. The first principle regards need for the preacher to understand this historical context and thereafter explain the intention of the author. Given that in the light of further knowledge, the preacher may discover how misdirected his locutions were, the preacher must not be afraid to point out how inadequate the ancient author’s grasp of divine revelation was at that time and how either in the light of the universal declaration of human rights or the principles of the Second Testament, that lacuna can be filled. The second principle was a corollary of the first; that divine revelation is part of the long history (or marathon) of salvation. The preacher needs to understand his ancestor as being ill-equipped to run the marathon and to vary the sports discipline we are indebted to him or her for passing on the baton. Thirdly, more like an encouragement rather than a hermeneutical principle, the Pope enjoined his reader or preacher to prepare adequately and read up on how others have interpreted the First Testament text in question. We will be surprised for instance, how much insight can be gained from reading the Church Fathers, even on the so-called ‘dark’ passages of Scripture.


Tarcisius Mukuka, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University, Zambia



Dei Verbum


Fretheim, Terence F

2004 “God and Violence in the Old Testament,” Word & World 24(1): 18–28

Esler, Philip F

2011 Sex, Wives and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with its Ancient Audience, Eugene OR: Cascade Books

Niditch, Susan

1993 Folklore and the Hebrew Bible, Minneapolis IN: Fortress Press

1996 Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature, Louisville KT: Westminster John Knox Press

2003 ‘Oral Tradition and Biblical Scholarship,’ Oral Tradition 18(1): 43–44

Thomas, Rosalind

1989 Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Verbum Domini


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